Have We Crossed the Corporate Virtues Chasm?

Have We Crossed the Corporate Virtues Chasm?

This is the first in a series of blogs about virtuous organizations — businesses where employees model the highest aspirations of human kind. In this series, authors Graham Williams and Gerald Wagner draw on examples and insights from around the world — Brazil, USA, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey. Readers may be pleasantly surprised by how many virtuous companies already exist! The series addresses what makes these virtuous organizations tick and what practices they have in common, telling compelling stories about the power of positivity. While everyone is likely to enjoy these case studies, organizational leaders in a position to affect culture change are likely to benefit most.

Where in the World Are We?

The world is in crisis on many levels – environmentally, spiritually, politically, socially, and economically.  The negative impact of human activity on the globe has been well documented:


It is time to act, and the business world is well positioned to make a positive difference. By adopting a triple-bottom-line (people/planet/profit) approach, we can impact the environment, society, and our respective communities.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and SVP of sustainability Kathleen McLaughlin, speak of converging paths and interlinked destinies in a recent McKinsey blog article: “Increasingly, a basic expectation among customers, governments, and communities will be that the companies they do business with provide a significant net positive return for society at large, not just for investors. This will be a part of the implicit contract or license to operate”.

How is business responding?

We observe three levels of response to the concept of positive action:

LEVEL 1 – Self-interested business as usual (other than reluctant, forced compliance with legislation and social pressure).  After taking steps to comply, many of these organizations then embrace “cause marketing,” largely in order to promote themselves. In South Africa Kaelo Stories of Hope is a platform for organizations to showcase their Corporate Social Investment interventions. It’s certainly good to spread inspiring stories, but the Kaelo website also becomes a forum for “cause marketing.”2 In India, a recently new business tax mandates that for businesses of a certain size, 2% of net profit must go to Corporate Social Responsibility. (One-stop CSR solution providers enable businesses to outsource their CSR as a non-core activity, which somewhat defeats the objective).3

LEVEL 2 – Organizations that embrace ‘do good and do well’ thinking and sustainability strategies beyond compliance — provided that their profitability benefits. Motive then becomes questionable, and customer/ citizens will see through this in the longer run.

LEVEL 3 – Virtuous Organizations. These companies operate authentically from the basis of purpose, supported by character virtues entrenched in their culture. “In virtuous organizations, employees collectively behave in ways that are consistent with the best of the human condition and the highest aspirations of human kind”. 4

The emergence of virtuous organizations around the world has fueled our belief that we are close to having crossed the chasm as described in the landmark book by Geoffrey A. Moore in 1991.  Moore’s graphic shows that new ideas are appealing to innovators and early adopters – those who will try most anything that is or seems to be new.  But then a chasm appears that can be hard to cross in order to reach a larger audience.  We believe that the growth in number of virtuous organizations has moved into the early majority territory.


A lotus flower emerges out of the pond’s murky depths, blooms, and seeds new beginnings. We feel the same way about these organizations as they emerge out of a flawed, corrupt system. They have transcended the desires said by Bertrand Russell to prompt all human activity: acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity and love of power.5 They may not be perfect, and their virtues might lapse from time to time – we are all subject to human fallibility and frailty – but they do point to new possibilities.

BEREKET in Turkey6 is one such company.


An Anatolian Tiger textiles company with 120 employees, Bereket has demonstrated financial success for many years. Their operating model of benevolent leadership brings together four interlinked streams that are designed to serve the common good.

  • Spiritual depth: meaning and purpose, love, peace and compassion; a non-compartmentalization of work life and family and social life; and ongoing inner work.
  • Ethical sensitivity: recapturing the ethical sensitivity of the 13th century ahilik system rooted in Sufism (Rumi), including decision-making based on morals.

    Keep your hand open (generosity, benevolence, and charity)
    Keep your dining-table open (sharing, hospitality, and generosity)
    Keep your door open (helping, altruism, and benevolence)
    Keep your eyes tied (focus on spirituality and the hereafter instead of materialism)
    Control your waist (decency, morality, and self – restraint)
    Hold your tongue (dignity, silence, and wisdom)

  • Positive engagement: inspiring hope, caring and fostering courage for positive engagement and action; appreciative inquiry practice; and using a strengths-based, affirming, positive approach.
  • Community responsiveness: leaving a positive, wholehearted, vulnerable, compassionate and giving impact on the larger community; tackling social problems related to education, employment, ecology, civil rights, arts: and ensuring sustainability.
  • Balancing: seeking balance in all things. Using spiritual depth as an example, if it’s too low, then there will be barren-ness, apathy. However, if too high, the importance of business results are ignored and the organization underperforms.

In addition to free dinners throughout the month of Ramadan, Bereket provides its employees (who come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds) with “complimentary breakfasts and lunches, free tickets for cultural events and concerts, a library, and a café where employees can meet, relax, have fun, and spend time together. More importantly, Bereket supports all educational and developmental needs of its employees so that they can pursue learning based on their passions. Such spaces and opportunities foster positive attitudes in employees, enhance their well-being and belonging, and stimulate their creativity.

Employees take pride in working at Bereket; as expressed in the words of Hasan (aged 35): ‘This company is my family, my community. I intend to continue contributing to this community until I die. And I want to die among these friends. I would decline a promotion elsewhere. I just want to stay here and contribute’”.

In our series of blogs we will look at characteristics of several virtuous organizations. In the meantime, we leave you with two thoughts:

The miser visits a rabbi to complain how miserable he is. The rabbi takes him by the shoulders and places him in front of a mirror.

“I see myself,” mutters the miser.

The rabbi steers him to the window and asks, “What do you see now?”

The miser responds, “I see people and trees, beauty all around, life”.

“The difference,” says the rabbi, “is the silver on the mirror”. 

Remember that: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

What are your thoughts about virtuous organizations? Have you considered virtuous elements to include in your organization or community? Please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and comments on social media. Thank you. 


1. McMillon, Doug & McLaughlin, Kathleen Business and Society in the Coming Decades McKinsey & Company, Insights and Publications April 2015

2. Kaelo Stories of Hope

3. India Redefined

4. Horn, Amanda Virtuous Organizations August 2012

5. Russell, Bertrand Acceptance Speech, Nobel Prize for Literature 1950 What Desires Are Politically Important?

6. Karakas, Fahri & Sarigollu, Emine The Role of Leadership in Creating Virtuous and Compassionate Organizations: Narratives of Benevolent Leadership in an Anatolian Tiger Journal of Business Ethics 113:663–678 2013

About the Author

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Gerald R. Wagner

Jerry began his focused interest on organizational culture for wellbeing and happiness started after he had been a Senior Scientist with The Gallup Organization and they published their landmark book — Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Although having a career as a statistician, Professor of Operations Research, and software entrepreneur, the book triggered his long time focus on positive organizations. That resulted in his starting the Institute for Employee Wellbeing at Bellevue University and then to start up the non-profit Institute for Inspired Organizational Cultures which publishes Culture ROLE MODELS that features people and organizations that practice virtuous cultures.