Difficile est Bonum Esse

November 8, 2019  • Jay Marshall

A review of The Enlightened Capitalists: Cautionary Tales of Business Pioneers Who Tried to Do Well by Doing Good, by James O’ Toole

Review by Jay Marshall, Chief Learning Officer at AlixPartners, LLP and Senior Moderator at The Aspen Institute

Twenty-five years ago, my consulting firm asked The Aspen Institute to develop leadership programs for our partners.  My engineering/business education didn’t prepare me for a week of Aristotle and Plato, but I was lucky to have Jim O’Toole moderating.  “Values-Based Leadership,” as he described it, was a revelation then and a challenge now.  His seminar summary, The Executive’s Compass, continues to guide thousands of leaders.

With The Enlightened Capitalists, O’Toole returns to the topic of values-based leadership.  But instead of philosophers and theory, he gives us history – the fascinating stories of “leaders who attempted to do good while at the same time doing well.”  There’s an important distinction that O’Toole draws; these aren’t the entrepreneurs who built fortunes, often in morally questionable ways, and then used philanthropy to try to improve the world and do penance at the same time (think Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller).  Instead, he profiles fifty leaders who tried to build organizations that would not only solve broad societal problems but would also meet the needs of their customers and employees while making enough profit to keep shareholders happy.

Many of these stories aren’t in the current business canon.  O’Toole starts with Robert Owen’s early 19th century attempt to create a cotton mill that would not just be humane to its workers but would also take on formation of character.  He ends with recent history – Seattle’s Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, who set $70,000 as the salary for every employee as a way of attacking income inequality.  Along the way, we meet many men (and a few women) who differ in personality and motivation but share a stubborn persistence that the corporation can be a vehicle for positive social change.

Except … maybe it can’t.  Even before O’Toole’s insightful conclusions, it’s clear that none of his examples have been sustainable.  They fall apart in different ways: visionaries are replaced by managers who don’t continue the mission, or shareholders revolt at resources being spent on efforts that don’t benefit the bottom line, or economic trends move in directions that damage the business model, or, most poignantly, sometimes the leaders in question just find it too hard.

And so, O’Toole turns to Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, 15th century scholar and papal advisor, and his simple truth, “Difficile est bonum esse” (It is difficult to do good).  But rather than leaving us with the depressing conclusion that corporations exist only to maximize shareholder economic value, O’Toole points to six trends that give his idealist side hope of prevailing over his realist side.  I would trust his crystal ball more than those of most observers, but he reminds us at the end why it’s important to study these remarkable historical examples, even if they have failed to endure.  Jim O’Toole remains hopeful that current and future leaders will study these enlightened capitalists, avoid their mistakes, and continue the hard work of making values-based leadership the rule instead of the exception.  It’s a good challenge for us all.


The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars Department.

Jay has been an Aspen Moderator for 11 years. 

Jay Marshall is a Managing Director and Chief Learning Officer at AlixPartners.LLP. He is a Senior Moderator at the Aspen Institute and a 1997 Henry Crown Fellow of The Aspen Institute, where he served on the Henry Crown Fellowship Program’s Board of Overseers, as well as a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.