TTO NORMAN LEAR, the "Spirit of Enterprise" isn't something that will get you arrested.
On the contrary, Lear sees the spirit of enterprise as the idea of business people doing good while doing well -- helping your fellow man, blowing the whistle on fraud, that sort of thing.
Lear thinks that's something for which people should be recognized and honored, which is why he just founded an organization to present "Spirit of Enterprise" awards to business people who put their own ethics before the bottom line.
It's strange, really, that awards will be given to business people for something the business people should be doing anyway, as a matter of course. Awards for ethical behavior? It's sort of like giving awards to young campers for good personal hygiene.
Then again, this is the age of Boesky, Milken, Levine, Trump, Icahn, Lorenzo, Exxon, Occidental, A.H. Robins, Manville, Bhopal and defense contractors, and I could go on and on. So maybe it's not such a bad idea to honor business people for doing something right.
"It's just like giving awards for outstanding journalism, in the hope that better behavior gets recognized and emulated," says Warren E. Buffett, chairman of The Buffalo News and a director of the Business Enterprise Trust, the group formed by Lear to present the awards.
It's not an original idea, either. The Council on Economic Priorities has been giving out its "America's Corporate Conscience Awards" for four years now. And Robert Chatov, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management who specializes in corporate ethics, says "there are a lot of groups that do this."
But there is something very significant, and very good, about Lear's idea. Most business do-gooder awards are presented by do-gooder groups, not business people. The Spirit of Enterprise Awards will be presented by an organization run by a board that's basically a Who's Who of the clean side of American business.
Besides Lear, the television producer who created "All in the Family," the list includes Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.; Katherine Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co.; John F. Akers, chairman of IBM, and James E. Burke, former chairman of Johnson & Johnson.
These folks aren't saying it -- perhaps they're too polite for that -- but it could be that their action speaks for them. This could be a sign that many of our top business leaders are sick and tired of Boesky, Milken, Levine, et al, and the bad name that corporate criminals are giving to American business.
"The reports of all these various scandals could give some people in business the impression that it's not possible to be both responsible and profitable," says Kirk O. Hanson, president of the Business Enterprise Trust. "That skepticism can affect both businessmen and business students, so they will be our primary targets."
The Business Enterprise Trust also will do research in business ethics, but presenting the awards will be its main -- and most difficult -- task.
This won't be like picking baseball's Most Valuable Player or journalism's Pulitzer Prize winners. Honoring businessmen for their good deeds is much more subjective than that. What seems like a good deed to some might mean nothing at all to others.
"Frankly, we'll have to see how it works out," Buffett says. "It's one thing to work on an idea and another to implement it."
The problem, of course, is obvious. Right and wrong aren't black and white. Questions like this one, posed by Buffett, have no easy answers:
"What is proper conduct for an ethical
manager who controls the resources of absentee owners?" Buffett asks. "Should his behavior differ from that of the owner-manager who is spending his own money? Should he undertake non-required activities that have a pro-social potential but that impose real economic costs on the owners he has been hired to represent?
"That's hard to define, exactly," he adds. "I'm hoping I'll get a little smarter because of this, too."
The trust's task of finding award winners will be made doubly difficult because of the decision to honor individuals instead of corporations. After all, when a company does something good, its public relations department isn't shy about letting people know about it. Good people, meanwhile, tend to keep to themselves.
The Council on Economic Priorities, which also promotes ethical investing and ethical shopping, takes the easier path, giving its awards to corporations. It also takes the very easiest path, handing out a "dishonorable mention" award to various and sundry polluters and safety-law violators.
Alice Tepper Marlin, the group's founder, says: "I'm quite sure we won't have any trouble finding a recipient for our dishonorable mention award next year."
Of course not. Just look north, to Alaska.