Mandate Altruism from Executives
Corporations should require their senior leaders to take sabbaticals to give back to the community. Pro or con?
Pro: A Mutually Beneficial Obligation
Only 16% of U.S. companies have formal unpaid sabbatical programs, and 5% offer paid sabbaticals, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
At a time when experiential diversity is as crucial as professional experience, we cannot ignore the impact sabbaticals can make in terms of developing leadership and a culture of values and creativity.
When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in August and September 2005, I was president and CEO of GAF Materials. Like most other Americans, I felt deeply affected by these natural disasters. When presented with an opportunity by Habitat for Humanity International to help Gulf Coast families recover, I took a six-month leave of absence to co-head the group’s Operation Home Delivery.
We implemented “Home in a Box,” panelized wall units used to rebuild on a large scale just days after the disasters. Each panelized home was funded by donations, built by volunteers like me, and then shipped from around the nation to the Gulf Coast.
This experience gave me a greater appreciation of the complementary and intersecting effect that private, nonprofit, and public-sector actions can have on the community and business. It also instilled in me new perspectives on organizational leadership and teamwork, far more than years of formal education and business-as-usual activity in private industry did. The tremendous amount of teamwork and collaborative sharing of skills accounted for Habitat’s progression from building fewer than 50 homes a year in the Gulf Coast to more than 1,000 within two years of the hurricanes.
My time in the Gulf Coast also led to a network of friends and contacts I tap into weekly. Moreover, the Habitat experience made me see the need and opportunity for investment in sustainable community and building systems, where environmental considerations are aided by the use of recycled aluminum, water, and plastics as well as new and innovative products such as mercury-free, energy-saving LED lighting and low-cost solar panels.
My interest in exploring sustainable products further led me to Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity firm committed to investing in and fostering innovative, profitable sustainability-focused companies.
Con: Nothing to Atone For
Contrary to this debate’s basic premise, a corporation’s success does not generate any moral debt to the community. For that reason, it would be improper and immoral to mandate sabbaticals, as if this or that method of penance could suitably expiate a nonexistent sin.
Corporations are profit-making enterprises: Their sole purpose is to make money for their shareholders. For a corporation’s managers to undercut that mission, as this proposal asks them to do, would be wrong and a violation of their responsibility to shareholders.
Profit-making is virtue, not vice. Productive businesses deserve the money they earn. Their wealth is created, not taken from those who didn’t produce it, so there exists nothing to “give back.” Those companies’ leaders are morally entitled to take unapologetic credit for their own efforts and the resulting achievements.
And yet, our culture views profit as distasteful and offensive, a cause for apology and repentance. Productive businesspeople have been told they must wash off the moral stain of profit-seeking through community service, as by manning soup kitchens in the slums or digging latrines in Africa.
We should stop and challenge the morality of all demands that corporations must atone for their wealth and success. Defiant rejection is the proper response to any suggestion that business leaders accept the moral status of criminals who must discharge their debts to society through community service.
Yes, there’s a moral debt involved, but it runs the opposite way. It’s each individual’s obligation to recognize that profit-seeking is a virtue, and to acknowledge it publicly as such. Such moral support costs nothing, but its value for promoting justice is inestimable.
Why should companies dishonor their own executives by treating them as moral deadbeats? Demands that corporations “give back to the community” have nothing to do with charity or goodwill. They are pure guilt-mongering. Businesses should condemn and reject any suggestion that senior leaders be saddled with mandatory sabbaticals for community service.