“We love these values. They really work.” When vice presidents at AES, an energy company, praised the firm’s values, founders Dennis Bakke and Roger Sant turned pale. Bakke and Sant know what works might not be practical. In fact, practicality was historically a two-sided coin. Americans assume practicality is one-sided – what works. This however makes practicality, practically speaking, practically useless.
AES is a global power company with generation and distribution businesses across five continents today. Bakke and Sant founded it in 1981. In launching the company, they worked hard at creating a unique culture. Colleagues loved it and in no time were praising the values. “They really work.” Uh-oh, Bakke thought. “Both Roger and I turned somewhat white and thought to ourselves, we have, in fact, done something very wrong.” The mistake was in minting one-sided coins.
In ancient times, practicality was a two-sided coin. In Ezra 7:10, we read of Ezra: “the gracious hand of his God was on him for Ezra had devoted himself to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it.” In Hebrew, study and practice are the same word. Study and practice are two sides of the same coin. Ezra studied the Law of the Lord – the definition of reality – to gain wisdom. Ezra practiced the Law of the Lord to grasp how it worked. Practice is the root word for practicality. Practicality is studying to discern what is wise. Practicality is practicing to determine what works. But you can only determine what works after discerning what’s wise. When executives praised AES’s values because “they work,” Bakke heard the clink of a one-sided coin. That’s American practicality.
“Most ordinary Americans don’t think about the power of ideas. We’re practical,” writes James Billington, Librarian of Congress. But with their practicality comes an inability to understand how ideas get legs and shape assumptions that shape institutions that shape cultures that shape people. Americans, in other words, are not especially wise. They’re pragmatic. They assume ideas are not all that practical. They assume practicality is only what works. It’s often heard in business, where executives have little interest in studying ideas. Their impatience quickly boils over: “OK, we’ve talked long enough about theories – now let’s get practical. How does this work?”
Bakke is one of the few executives recognizing how American practicality creates companies treating “culture” as functionality, efficiency, and profitability – what works. Of course, it is wise to remember that torture works. So do assembly lines. Or do they? In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford recounts how Ford workers simply walked out when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913. It worked; but it wasn’t wise. “The new system provoked natural revulsion,” Crawford writes. At the close of 1913, Ford estimated they’d have to replenish the factory ranks with 100 workers. In fact, it was necessary to hire 963. The assembly line in Ford’s day didn’t align with the Law of the Lord. It wasn’t an accurate definition of reality or assessment of human nature. It wasn’t wise; but it worked.
Assembly lines exist to this day because Ford understood culture-making. He kept rehiring and slowly but surely, workers became habituated to this dehumanizing process. That’s the power of culture. Today, most assembly line workers think little about the drone-like drabness of their daily work. Some feel it – and trudge through their toils in the hope of “thirty and out.” It’s why economics was referred to in the nineteenth century as the “dismal science,” because of the dreary nature of factory work. But it’s not the way it ought to be. This kind of work is not wise.
Americans rarely appreciate how ideas and images and institutions constitute cultures that shape people. They lack a wise definition of reality. Practical leaders weigh culture on the cheapest of scales. Their bottom line is: “Does this work?” They unwisely parrot Milton Friedman’s practicality. The bottom line is increasing shareholder return, period. American practicality creates an overarching concern for increased profitability, robbing workers of a sense of transcendence and reducing tasks to toil. It’s the result of pragmatic leaders unwittingly shaped by a culture of American practicality.
A handful of companies do recognize practicality is a two-sided coin. They help colleagues unlearn the myth that an effective culture is simply what works. People who have seen culture used in companies merely for it’s utilitarian value are rightly skeptical of American practicality. One CEO recently recounted how many new hires are cynical of all this “culture stuff” because it’s been reduced to “it’s gotta be practical.” Ancient practicality recognizes that doing the right thing does not always translate into higher profits and happier people. It all depends on how a company defines practicality.
American practicality also presents problems for faith communities who measure success on the cheapest of scales – how many individuals attend church. According to Randall Collins, the most significant culture-making movements didn’t require large numbers. In his book, The Sociology of Philosophies, Collins notes that every culture-shaping movement is theorized before it comes into being. This work is not done by isolated geniuses but by networks of intellectual elites. These networks overlap with translators and practitioners, those who study to see what works. These networks define reality, what Ezra did in studying the Law of the Lord and practicing it. But here’s the kicker: Collins says the total number of theorists who are significant in world history is very small – no more than 2,700 individuals. Size doesn’t matter. Networks do.
The gospel is the Law of the Lord, once understood as a definition of reality. When we study it, we read of Jesus thinning the crowd. We read of God reducing Gideon’s troops from 22,000 to 300. In both cases, ancient practicality worked because it was wise.
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” T. S. Eliot asked, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” American institutions “neglect the social, moral, and political infrastructure on which our well-being depends,” Matthew Stewart writes. Infrastructure is a twenty-dollar word for a company’s culture. Shalom is a twenty-dollar word for well-being. American business and faith communities rarely enact shalom because they embody “the subtle madness of a new and profoundly unbalanced religion of practicality.”1 It’s what makes them, practically speaking, practically useless.
1 Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), p. 76.