Management as a Calling is aimed primarily at business students but it has far wider relevance. Andrew Hoffman says that he wants “to personally challenge every business student, every business executive, and every business school professor to think about the system in which students are beginning their careers and to push back when it is steering them away from their calling” (page 18).
Hoffman is the Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. His basic thesis is simple: there is a crisis in capitalism of which the symptoms are income inequality and climate change; governments have a role to play in providing solutions to the relevant issues but the leading role has to be played by business since “if there are no solutions coming from business, there will be no solutions” (page 4); treating the sustainability challenges as mainstream business issues and fitting them into the market as it exists will not provide solutions; what is needed is not incremental change but a radical change of values and culture involving future business leaders being taught “to consider management as a calling – one that moves away from the simple pursuit of a career for private personal gain and toward a vocation that is based on a higher and more internally derived set of values about leading commerce and serving society” (page 5); and this requires that we should be turning “to religion and philosophy as a way to augment the market in making this shift” (page 116).
At times, the book loses its business focus and cannot seem to decide whether it is about business management or about the best way to build a political and societal consensus that permits the tackling of climate change. Nonetheless, Hoffman pursues his theme with evangelistic fervour, concluding with an alter call: “You, the next generation of business leaders, have been born into this reality, and you have no choice but to respond. You did not choose this reality but you must embrace it. The nobility of your lives will be determined by how you respond to the challenges you face” (page 138). This is an inspiring message but as a rule evangelists have weaknesses as well as strengths and Hoffman is no exception to the rule.
On the negative side, some of his attacks target Aunt Sallies. For example, he points to the growth in the Stock Market in recent years as evidence that share values are divorced from underlying economic reality and he dismisses Gross Domestic Product growth as a measure of wellbeing or even a reliable measure of economic success, but few would dispute these things and they do not assist in proving his case. On occasions he is also guilty of overstatement or misrepresentation. For example, his linking of the Wells Fargo, Volkswagen and Sackler scandals with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” does grave injustice to the sophistication of Smith’s economics, let alone his moral philosophy. Conversely, when advocating change, Hoffman is on occasions guilty of dubious logic (the most egregious example of which is his twice stated assertion that “Our problems are manmade – therefore, they can be solved by man”, page 118). Furthermore, his discussion of issues relating to inequality is very brief and superficial. Indeed, no issue is covered in great detail, the book being only 138 pages long.
Hoffman’s vision of the future is both vague and, by his own admission, Utopian. He asserts that “perpetual growth is not possible and its continued pursuit is self destructive”, quoting with approval Naomi Klein’s statement that we have to “come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism [are] steadily eroding the habitability of the planet” (page 33): he calls on us to be radical and attacks those who believe that the solution lies in technology, such as electric cars. However, his positive suggestions sound surprising incremental rather than revolutionary. They even include the use of electric cars and, despite quoting Naomi Klein’s challenge, he never discusses in detail what we have to give to up to deal with the problem that he perceives and how our living standards will change in consequence of this.
Having said that, there is much that is commendable and thought provoking in the book. Hoffman does not pretend that he has all the answers, recognises the fact that we do not currently have the infrastructure to be ecologically neutral and criticizes over simplistic debate; he notes that “social media outrage” increasingly drives social discourse and laments that the resulting behaviours and emotional perspectives “are not conducive to the kind of tempered, thorough, and compromise seeking discourse that democratic government needs in order to function well” (page 61); he recognises that part of the reason why the public ignores scientists is because there are some within the scientific community who hold the public in low regard and others “who subscribe to a view of scientism that elevates the natural scientists in relation to all other ways of knowing the world around us” (page 75); he is also cautious about the role of so-called “activist CEOs” and recognises the danger that theoretical accountability to everyone in practice means accountability no-one (i.e. the danger that the effect of weakening accountability to shareholders will be precisely the reverse of the effect that its proponents desire); and, most importantly, he calls for business thinking to encompass more than growing the bottom line without regard to the means or consequences of doing so.
Hoffman’s aim is not to set out a road map to Utopia or to some less desirable but at least sustainable future. Instead, he wants to add new dimensions to the business debate, change mindsets and provoke productive discussion, starting in the business schools. He aims, in this way, to generate new business models that “begin to coalesce around a composite model that brings the full scope of market transformation into greater clarity” (page 39).
Readers of Management as a Calling may well disagree with a number of Hoffman’s assertions, particularly one or two of the more left-leaning of these but few will doubt the need for business discourse to encompass fundamental values as well as ethics in a narrower sense. Unlike Socialism, Capitalism does not, or at least should not, claim to be an all embracing philosophical, social and economic system. It needs to be supplemented by well thought through values. Despite its failings, Managing as a Calling is a valuable reassertion of this point and an important call to both existing and future business leaders to think more broadly about what they are seeking to achieve. It is well worth reading.
“Managing as a Calling – Leading Business Serving Society” by Andrew J. Hoffman, was published in 2021 by Stanford University Press (ISBN – 13:9781503614802). 138pp.
Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world.
Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.