March 6, 2000
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Wisdom is one of the most elusive but compelling of phenomena. Although difficult to define, it appears that throughout history all cultures and religions have had a deep respect for wise people and wise sayings. From the Sumerian tablets to the Biblical proverbs to Ben Franklin, humanity has sought to conserve these "pearls of wisdom" because these sayings encapsulate a fundamental principle or universal truth that transcends the conventions of a particular society. For example, the popularization of the Golden Rule is Confucian China emerged quite independently of the Judaic-Christian tradition.
While wisdom as a subject is rarely studied in business schools, the business world has always placed great value on wisdom. Since its first issue in 1917, Forbes Magazine, has reserved its last page for "Thoughts on the Business of Life," a compilation of wise sayings and reflections by ancient and modern sages that B.C. Forbes hoped would "inspire a philosophic mode of life, broad sympathies, charity to all." Today an entire cottage industry provides business executives with office wall hangings, calendars, and appointment books that feature inspirational and motivational maxims. Interestingly, a burgeoning number of scholars and university centers have begun to incorporate these wise sayings into their values-based business leadership courses and programs.
Although such maxims and proverbs animate some of the most fundamental principles of free enterprise (e.g., "The customer is always right"), we still know very little about why and how executives actually incorporate these principles and beliefs into their daily business practices, and even less about how such beliefs are transmitted and learned. Moreover, there is scant scholarship on how a person's family, religion, and mentors shape and inform his or her ethical framework, business goals, and principles of success. This symposium aims to initiate a dialogue intended to address this lacuna with a view toward stimulating more systematic research on the relationship between the sources of wisdom and values-based business leadership.
Perhaps the claim of the moral philosopher Charles Taylor that "strong convictions require strong sources" captures the conceptual framework of this symposium best. Although we are not suggesting that the virtues of honesty and hard-work can only be learned and highly-valued if taught and modeled by a parent or mentor, we are positing that core values and beliefs are often developed within the crucible of family relationships, religious beliefs, and lifelong lessons learned from a mentor. Unfortunately, these sources of practical wisdom are frequently neglected or overlooked in business school curricula and applied ethics courses. yet Adam Smith had it just about right when he wrote:
"The general maxims of morality are formed, like all other general maxims, from experience and induction. We observe, in a great variety of cases, what pleases or displeases our moral faculties, and by induction from this experience we establish those general rules."
In a spirit of humility, this symposium seeks to examine and explore how family, religion, and mentors often shape the "moral faculties" of business leaders -- and how our induction or socialization into the "business of life" powerfully informs and guides our "life in business.