March 2012: Unraveling Entitlement: Distinguishing Real Need from Fake NeedFebruary 29, 2012
During the past decade, I have spoken and written often about the moral and maturity perils of entitlement:
- Expecting others to do for me what I am capable of doing for myself;
- Desiring wealth without work;
- Needing to be reminded and held accountable instead of taking responsibility;
- Thinking I am “special,” or that I have “earned” uncommon privileges;
- Ungratefully hallucinating that I alone am responsible for my success.
I have observed these attitudes in financially well-off business leaders and parents in the USA, Japan and Western Europe. But learned helplessness and arrogant indignation are not limited by economic class. Serving meals in soup kitchens, I met many who were grateful beyond words, and some who could never receive enough.
In a similar vein, though many economically advantaged young adults are not slugs, half of the executive parents surveyed at our Annual Leaders Retreat acknowledge that their children have and expect more material goods and money than they need.
The same clients that complain about the “I’m owed” mentality among their children and among the working class play the “I deserve” card to chase higher incomes, often at the expense of health and family.
It’s clear that the “fake need” brand of entitlement shows up everywhere.
The Flip Side of Entitlement
There’s a flip side to “fake need” that bears equally harsh scrutiny: Throughout the world, individuals and communities facing “real need” can be observed (by those with open eyes) on a daily basis.
The “genuinely entitled” includes civilians who live in the paths of bullets and land mines, people who cannot escape floods, famine or suffocating pollution, babies robbed of a life by diarrhea, HIV Aids or malaria. Most of us feel bad about those far-off problems, yet remain straight-jacketed about what to do.
Not all societal problems are remote. Our locally-discarded plastic bottles take ten centuries to decompose. Does your company use plastic bottles?
Almost half of Black and Hispanic students in the US don’t graduate from high school. Halving that number would pump billions into our economy.
So would a good-size cut in diabetes and heart disease, driven substantially by unhealthy eating.
Creating shared value
Do business leaders have a part to play in addressing these close-to-home problems?
My Minnesota colleague, Dr. Frank Schweigert, the only person I have ever invited to “guest teach” in our annual Advanced Leadership Course, says that government solutions to real needs are too late and too inefficient to offer meaningful help.
Frank introduced course participants to the concept of Creating Shared Value, recently featured in Harvard Business Review, Creating Shared Value.
“Shared value” refers to policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.
As part of his presentation, Frank credited Dr. Martha Nussbaum, an internationally-known field researcher and professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, for developing a list of basic human rights.
I share Dr. Nussbaum’s list as an invitation to readers to reflect on the difference between “fake need” and “real need” and on how businesses can be a more efficient force for societal improvement:
Nussbaum’s List of Basic Human Rights
- Being able to live to the end of a complete human life, as far as is possible; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
- Being able to have good health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction; being able to move from place to place.
- Being able to avoid unnecessary and non-beneficial pain and to have pleasurable experiences.
- Being able to use the five senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason.
- Being able to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence, to feel longing and gratitude.
- Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life.
- Being able to recognize and show concern for other human beings.
- Being able to live with concern for animals, plants, and the world of nature.
- Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
- Being able to live one’s own life and nobody else’s; and to live one’s own life in one’s own surroundings and context.
Where, within a short distance from your office, are one or more of these rights being compromised? What would it look like if your firm or company became a force for societal improvement in ways that would be “good for business?”
In my view, business leaders can gain tangible and intangible benefits from broadening their understanding of the purpose of business.
Higher functioning leaders are better able to distinguish “real need” from “fake need,” and to find imaginative ways to respond to both.