Sharks to Dolphins:
In Search of the Corporate Soul

Copyright 1999,2003 Steven L. Van Dyke, all rights reserved

There's something wrong with the world today, and it's not that hard to see what it is. Corporations have gotten big and they keep getting bigger. It's not their fault, really. We came up with the idea of the corporation long ago and ever since they've been evolving, becoming sleeker and more efficient creatures. Today they cruise the socio-political world like sharks. Just like a shark, a corporation must keep moving or die. And just like sharks, corporations have no soul. The challenge we face if we want to move to a better world, is to find a way to give them a soul -- to take the corporation from the deadly efficiency of the shark to the playful purpose of the porpoise.

We can't do it just by saying it should be done, anymore than we can get people to stop throwing away their empty soda bottles by asking them not to. We have to provide economic and social incentives if we want to have an effect. Just as deposits and recycling programs have greatly reduced the number of empty bottles by the side of the road, so to will the right programs enrich the corporate lifeform.

The way we play the game now, a corporation that shuts down a plant full of good paying jobs in a developed area and starts up production in a third-world hellhole where they can pay the workers pennies a day while ignoring safety and environmental concerns is doing the right thing. They're increasing profits and stock prices - direct benefits to the shareholders and the Board of Directors and the very definition of success in today's world. The way we want things to be, the corporation would either bring the jobs from overseas home to keep that plant busy, and/or do its best to raise conditions at its overseas facilities to match the ones at home. Since this would definitely cost them money, no successful corporation can do this. We must find a way to make it so that this is part of what a corporation must do to be considered successful.

Sharks don't play games. An injured shark is liable to be first on the menu of any other sharks that come near it. Dolphins play almost constantly, and are well known for caring not only for their own sick and injured, but even for humans they encounter. A corporation with a soul would help a struggling fellow get over the rough spot rather than using the opportunity to drive them into the ground and absorb any desirable resources.

So, just what is a corporate soul? If we don't know what one is, it's going to be very hard to get corporations to have them. Unfortunately, at this point I haven't figured out a satisfactory answer. I know there are corporations out there that have souls. They're usually smaller and more intimately connected to their communities, but I don't think that size alone is the key. There are one person corporations that are as ruthless and uncaring as anything in the oceans, and even the biggest of the multi-national behemoths manages at least an occasional flash of grace.

I'm pretty sure what we want involves empathy. If you cannot feel the pain of others, then you have no incentive to reduce it. Perhaps it's a sense of community, something sadly lacking in most of the world today.

One thing that is clear is that it is not something that can be built through fear and laws. People who only obey the speed limit for fear of getting a ticket are likely to speed whenever they think they can get away with it. People who obey the speed limit because they think it's the right thing to do will continue to keep their speed down even in the middle of nowhere at 3:00am.

In many ways it's going to take a change in us. People who bemoan the destruction of wildlife habitat while sitting on the deck of their new home in a newly developed suburb are more than just missing the point.

Perhaps that's the key: corporations, being essentially communities of human beings, will have souls when we learn to care for our communities again. By making a conscious effort to show a greater empathy and sense of community we can forge the links that bind us together. When our circle of cares and concerns includes not just our immediate family, but even the jerk on the other side of town who likes to park too close to us at the mall, our intellectual children, the corporations, will reflect those changes. Then we can go from swimming with the sharks to being buoyed up by the dolphins.


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