Boardroom debates often get degraded when one vocal director pronounces a distorted cliché to supposedly capture an entire debate in a nutshell—which just derails the discussion. For five decades, a marketing professor famous for his Napoleonic class in leadership at Harvard Business School regularly admonished students who demonstrated compassion for broader constituents in business case discussions by pronouncing, “It is better to be respected than loved.” Sadly, that professor was regularly miscasting the wisdom of political writer Niccolò Machiavelli to some 20,000 students, helping to fan the flames of dangerous misinformation.
The line appears in The Prince, a harsh and brilliant treatise authored by fallen political leader Machiavelli after imprisonment and torture by Medici rulers for suspicion of conspiracy led him to retreat in bitterness to the countryside in 1513. However, what Machiavelli actually advised in Chapter XVII was that it is best to be both loved and feared. Only when that ideal is not possible, such as when gratitude dissolves during threats to survival, did Machiavelli suggest fear is a more reliable way to inspire discipline than bonds of love. Alas, those misguided executives and MBA students left campus having been taught that some measure of cruelty is always necessary to maintain order.
Similarly, the business media and many political leaders have lately been wrongly quoting a Chicago professor, economist Milton Friedman, in admonishing CEOs that “the only responsibility of business is the bottom line.” This presumed supremacy of shareholders to the detriment of other constituents is, in fact, not the true message of Friedman’s inaccurately cited 1970 New York Times Magazine article. In that piece, Friedman allows for business-leader consideration of social impact. “It may well be in the long-run interest of a corporation… to devote sources to provide amenities to the community” and hence be seen as a more attractive employer and responsible economic force, he wrote.
Other distortions of wisdom abound, such as English poet Rudyard Kipling’s supposed support of a permanent divide between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. It is true that in 1889, Kipling intoned: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, ’Till Earth and Sky stand present at God’s great Judgment Seat.” But the very next line of his famous poem reverses that warning, stating, “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”
Thus, the message of India-born Kipling was actually that when people meet as equals, the accidents of birth such as nationality, race and ethnicity dissolve as barriers.
In fact, the poet Robert Frost’s quote “Good fences make good neighbors” is often cited in support of boundaries. While the line does appear in “The Mending Wall,” the poem goes on to caution:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a
That wants it down.”
Scores of businesses, including Target, Walmart, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Honeywell, Raytheon, Delta, American Airlines, Levi Strauss, Patagonia, Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Regeneron and many more, have demonstrated that doing good is not antithetical to doing well. They manage to produce both strong investor returns and inspiring societal engagement. Board members must be wary of fellow directors who try to steer complex deliberations with an overly simplistic and out-of-context maxim.