Per Axel Nordfeldt: “Business for a Better World”

It is getting late in the world. Natural catastrophes follow one after the other, the hot-house effect is melting the icebergs of the polar regions, the ozone layer is thinning out and the formerly life-supporting sun is causing cancer and death. Instead of greater understanding between ethnic and religious groups, conflicts are mounting with war, terrorism and starvation as a consequence. The gap between rich and poor are increasing. Concern for fellow human beings withers in the shadow of the hunt by businesses for maximal profits. Directors are provided with ‘golden parachutes’ which for ordinary people look more like air balloons, while the class society is on the way back.

Is this so bad? Both yes and no. The above description is in its way true, but there are also positive tendencies. Among them there is an increased interest for good business leadership, that is to say a business enterprise that does not entail a ruthless exploitation of nature and human capital.

One of those who have devoted much thought to these questions is the author Karl-Erik Edris. The title of his latest book fires the imagination – The Enlightened Executive. The media are fond of describing him as a railway ticket collector who teaches managing directors how they shall behave, but Karl-Erik is not particularly pleased by this.

– Partly I’ve been on leave from Swedish Rail for some time, and partly it is not for me to tell any managing director what he should do. He must hit on this himself, says Edris in his soft Dalsland accent.

He looks quizzically at me from the far side of the sitting-room table in his home at Trångsund.

– I’m an intellectual rustic clown.

In part this is an expression of a typical Edris delight in formulation, partly an accurate description.

The first time that Karl-Erik Edris caught sight of the world was in the maternity ward in Vänersborg, and the year was 1946. His parents lived in Dalsland and he grew up on a farm there, but studied in Åmål, “the world’s birthplace of freedom”, since he could then leave home. His studies continued at the University of Lund, in mathematical statistics and mathematics and psychology. Edris thought from an early stage that the world was a strange place and devoted a period to meditation (he was for a while in charge of a Swedish branch of Transcendental Meditation), but left it on account its authoritarian style.

Karl-Erik Edris returned to university and began studying sociological subjects. In addition he began doing research, but his 600-page doctoral dissertation was never accepted. It nevertheless provided the basis for his first book – Vision eller vanmakt, 1987. By then Edris had for long been employed as a ticket collector with Swedish Rail, which was the perfect job for someone who wished to think freely. He therefore categorically refused every offer of promotion for this would have entailed greater responsibility and more complicated (time-consuming) questions than “when is the next train to the Central Station?”.

His next book, I elfte timmen, was published, in 1995, and attracted attention for its unconventional ideas.

– An enthusiastic Anders Wijkman rang me up after practically every chapter and shared his viewpoints with me, the author remembers.

With the appearance of The Enlightened Executive in Swedish last year, Karl-Erik Edris is beginning to be a big name. A launching of the book in the USA took place in Spring under the title The Enlightened Executive: Conversations on Corporate Citizenship (the launching has been delayed and will begin in the Spring of 2000), and Japan is next in line. But what is it that makes his ideas so interesting?

– The main message in Edris’s books is that business leaders must take greater responsibility for the totality, says Mats Lederhausen, former Managing Director for Swedish McDonalds, now Chicago based head of the company’s global strategy with an emphasis on questions of the future, and active within World Business Academy.

In his private capacity he has been engaged in spreading The Enlightened Executive and has supported publication in the USA by buying a large number of books in advance.

– Fifty-one of the world’s largest economies are companies, Lederhausen continues. During the last ten-to-fifteen years an exceptional technological revolution has taken place in the world. With “global free trade” as a mantra, electronics has caused a dramatic shrinking of distance. It is obvious that this has also brought with it a mass of problems. Politics, for example, does not seem to have kept up with this development; it is still too national.

– It is self-evident that it is no longer possible to run a business with the maximizing of profits as the only motive. A genuine interest in the environment, cultural values and humanism must also have a place in the picture, otherwise it won’t work. McDonald’s is a good enterprise with, for example, its Ronald McDonald’s children’s hospitals round the world, but we are still only at the beginning.

– The frustration which Victor, the main character in The Enlightened Executive, feels in the face of modern developments is a real problem for many leaders of companies. It is a heavy responsibility that rests on the shoulders of a Managing Director: the good of the enterprise, the good of the employees, the environment. So far it has been a silent frustration, but hopefully books like The Enlightened Executive can help to start a process where we begin to speak openly about the problem.

Mats Lederhausen is cautiously optimistic:

– That a politician like Tony Blair has emerged is positive. He is the first left politician to have arrived at the insight that it is also necessary to take good care of businesses. And in Sweden we have a strong tradition where social ambition is concerned. I don’t agree with everything that Tony Blair or Karl-Erik Edris say, but it is good that the problems are beginning to be formulated.

Karl-Erik Edris has written his two most recent books in the form of novels, stories with a main character who aided by a teacher or mentor develop insight.

– The idea came during a congress in France, he recalls. I had made an ordinary contribution to an anthology, and one of the other contributors was irritated by it. I then rewrote the text as a fantasy-story about a local politician who had a dream. Since then I have kept to this literary storytelling technique. It gives me the opportunity to maintain a more vital discussion in the books. It recalls the method used by Socrates as described by Plato in his Dialogues.

A number of ideas often recur in Edris’s books: that a business is a learning organization, the importance of skilled handling of conflicts as well as change of vision.

– In an increasingly global economy there will be a pressure on all companies to learn by experience and benefit from the different situations that arise, says Karl-Erik Edris. And this imposes a need to run a truly learning organization. The time-honoured form of authoritarian leadership will not serve, but must be replaced by a more open and more visionary leadership. Authoritarian leaders are very preoccupied with their power and their prestige, and therefore find it difficult to manage learning and reassessment.

– Creativity and conflict are closely linked. Good conflict-solving means letting the viewpoints struggle against each other until a new perspective opens up. I have had a somewhat unusual experience of this, says Edris, with a sigh and reveals that he is married for the second time – with the same woman.

– Where visions are concerned, we live in a time which in many ways recalls the fall of the Roman Empire and the time of the cult of the Caesars, to the extent that today there prevails a frenetic outer activity and expansion. A part of this belongs to the “modern project”, and this has markedly raised our standard of living, but the sustaining vision, ‘Church Christianity’ no longer works and has not yet been replaced by anything else. We have lived for long in the dream of the rational paradise, which is such an enormously powerful secularising power that it is demolishing practically everything.

– We need a new vision, another way of thinking. At best we can perhaps distil this out of all the world religions and find a common core. We human beings are more or less the same and really have nothing to quarrel about. But I do not know what the new vision will contain, says Karl-Erik Edris, and stresses that he is not a ‘benevolent fascist’, that is to say, a person who will impose his supposedly good ideas on others.

– But in fact I believe that the majority of people – leaders of businesses as well as other people – are goodhearted and wish well. But it calls for heightened self-scrutiny; we are too prone to find evidence that what we do holds water and to shut out signs that show that all is not well.

– The world is shaped by the motives we have. We must become aware of our great responsibility and each business leader should strive to make a contribution to a better world – irrespective of the branch he is working in. This is where concern for the environment, ethics and much else comes in.

– A positive sign of the times is Baltic 2008 initiated by Swedish industrialist Curt Nicolin. The goal is that the Baltic by the year 2008 will have the standard of water as in the 1940s. Concern for the environment was regarded with scorn a few decades ago, but today it is an important economic consideration for all companies whatever.

So even if the main trend is for most things to become worse, there are also counter-tendencies. Karl-Erik Edris is far too stubborn to give up simply because catastrophes are coming one after the other. He is silent for a moment and then says thoughtfully:

– If we have taken a stranglehold on ourselves, we have to see to it that we get out of it. And in fact it should be an easy matter. The response to The Enlightened Executive shows that the times are ripe for Karl-Erik Edris’s ideas, so any return to the job as a ticket collector at Trångsund’s local station is hardly to be expected. The message for the future is hope.

Text: Per Axel Nordfeldt

The article was published in Enjoy – the in-room magazine of Radisson SAS in Sweden – in the Summer 1999 issue.