The Growth Imperative
Dennis Muilenburg wasn’t a corporate nomad, cruising the market in search of higher stakes and rewards. He was lifer at Boeing and an aeronautical engineer by trade. In theory, he should have known better. But in practice, he’d become a CEO. And he was fired for doing what every CEO operating within the paradigm of mainstream business is required to do: grow their business, build the bottom line and earn their bonus.
In 2018 Dennis Muilenburg took home $20m in bonuses in return for record revenues, record earnings and record margins. The overarching goal he was pursuing is taught on MBAs everywhere and with precious few exceptions, pursued by businesses everywhere: growth. Profit margins, bottom lines, year-end earnings, stock prices, salaries, bonuses. All of it has to grow and keep on growing. And for Boeing, until Lion Air’s Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea it appeared to be working.
It’s unusual that its CEO was held personally responsible when it all went horribly wrong. Corporate law holds companies to account, but not individuals. And because it’s easy to hide inside the tangled wiring of complex organisations, personal accountability is a rare thing. So on the face of it his fate seems fair. But is it?
Telling Right from Wrong
As a species, sifting right and wrong in search of justice is written into our DNA, bred into our genetic code in a different time when we lived in small groups of two hundred at most, almost all of them near or distant relatives. When you tend the same field, share the bounty of the hunt around the same fire and when your actions have visible consequences, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is simply common sense.
The move from agrarian communities to more complex social arrangements triggered a flurry of ethical creativity. We now needed formal codes, so we invented them. The Koran, the Torah and the Bible with their common themes of compassion, respect, mutuality, sharing and love, were created by pastoralists confronting new social realities. The ethical mindsets and legal systems that flowed from them focus on the actions and motivations of individuals. People like Dennis Muilenburg.
Unfortunately these codes do not equip us to deal with the world we subsequently created. The world we live in now. The world of gargantuan, complex systems people like Dennis Muilenburg operate within; systems so gargantuan and so complex that they are in every practical, meaningful way, ungovernable. And yet, collectively, we continue to pretend otherwise.
That Dennis Muilenburg was the man in the hot seat when those planes went down is a matter of unfortunate professional timing. But in a complex system, guilt cannot be apportioned so narrowly or precisely. The real culprit is the industrial model we have created, which now has the entire planet in its grip, and for which we have yet to invent appropriate goals, adequate ways of organising, a code of ethics, or effective approaches to jurisprudence.