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Ethics and the Business Elite : The Heart of Business Ethics, Power and Philosophy by Peter Koestenbaum : (Saybrook Publishing: $19.95; 366 pp.)

January 03, 1988|James Flanigan | Flanigan is a business columnist for The Times

Peter Koestenbaum says at the outset of "The Heart of Business" that he aims to bring the benefits of "philosophy--and its related fields in the study of human existence" to the mind of the business leader.

And why? Because "the most alive force in the world today is business," writes Koestenbaum, a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who has held seminars in classical thought and ethics for executives of Ford, IBM, Xerox and other corporations. "The way business goes, the world goes," writes Koestenbaum, and thus his book's purpose is to enlarge the intelligence and enrich the thinking of "leaders of that new world."

In other times, leader might have been too exalted a term for business people, whose concerns were people's pocketbooks rather than their politics or their immortal souls. But as Peter F. Drucker--a longtime authority and writer on management--has pointed out, the managers of corporations, or of hospitals, schools or government agencies, make society's decisions these days. More than politicians or clergy, they are the elite who set the agenda and the tone, as the relatively small number of gentlemen set the tone for Victorian England and even lesser numbers of local rulers and court attendants did in earlier times and places.

So Koestenbaum's goal of bringing a philosophy deeper than "buy cheap, sell dear" to such an elite is not misplaced. His "Heart of Business" does more than join a great number of recent books that have exhorted business people to search for excellence in their companies and themselves. Its lofty goals place it in a grander tradition. As Machiavelli advised and flattered the rulers of 15th-Century Italian city states with "The Prince" and Castiglione guided the bureaucrats of the following century with his "Book of the Courtier," so Koestenbaum aims to enlighten today's corporate Medici.

His execution, however, is another matter. The heart of "Heart of Business" is the identification and elaboration of eight forms of intelligence that successful executives must work to perfection. Koestenbaum names the eight as Logical, Somatic, Aesthetic, Marketing, Transcendental, Motivational, Wisdom and Team. And discussion of those aspects of thinking form the basis of eight chapters, a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress" of the managerial mind.

Unfortunately, it is all done in the abstract. "The intelligences and the deep structures infuse life into our souls and bring about a transformation in our way of perceiving the world," writes Koestenbaum. "We combine an expanded, and thus more creative, mind with the deepest structures of our being, bringing about a free commitment to authenticity. And authenticity means to raise ourselves to new and higher levels of performance to the power level of ethical action. This kind of embodied devotion and loyalty to our activities is the level of genius and power. By fusing breadth of vision with depth of commitment we elevate our specific job, career, and obligations to the joy of authentic fulfillment."

There are 260 pages of such writing, but almost no specific references. No anecdotes of individuals or companies illustrate the benefits of, say, motivational intelligence in a business situation. Instead there is much sermonizing ("Keep your word; remember your promises") with only occasional insight ( "Be aware that people take you much more seriously than you think").

Surprisingly, for a work avowedly centered on philosophy, there are few references to philosophers and philosophical systems. Instead, Koestenbaum's book speaks to the executive's feelings and how he or she should resolve them with corporate decision making.

Which is a shame, really. Because Koestenbaum had the right idea: American business managers clearly could use a solid grounding in philosophy and tradition. Their business educations, while technically acute, appear to have left them adrift in the face of challenges. Witness their confused reactions to foreign competition, or the way American companies have been whipsawed by every changing fad in corporate finance.

Today's executives need reminders of the shared assumptions and confident beliefs that allowed earlier generations of American tinkerers and visionaries to build U.S. business to world leadership. Unfortunately, what "Heart of Business" too often gives them is the psychobabble of transactional analysis--a corporate rerun of "I'm OK, You're OK"--with sprinklings from Nietzsche and the Bible.

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