“Hi, I’m Richard Gere, and I’m speaking for the entire world”. (Richard Gere, actor)
This is the type of over-the-top turn of phrase and dramatic word choice that thespians are known to use to incite emotional reactions in an audience, and it was an equally dramatic cause that Gere was addressing by encouraging Palestinians to vote in the 2005 election, and stating the world was with them. This may seem appropriate to us today, and we’d probably applaud Gere for his efforts – and indeed this may not be all that surprising or troubling a thought if it weren’t becoming more and more ingrained of the minds of both the public and the actors themselves, that they actually do speak for the entire world. Should they?
Recently, in his first Oscar acceptance speech, Leonardo DiCaprio addressed the issue of climate change, an obvious score for the sustainability and environmental community, as it raises awareness on the issue in a way that no politician or environmentalist could, and so we are simply grateful and nod approvingly as such speeches are given on different topics by different celebrities around the world. Shouldn’t we be questioning why it is, though, that sometimes the least qualified, informed, and accurate representatives to a cause are able to bend the ears of the masses, while people dealing with said issue and those in positions to affect change (i.e. a state senator, a predominant industry leader, a genius in environmental science) do not hole the same sway?
In 2010, the Journal of Business Ethics published an article by Chong Ju Choi and Ron Berger entitled “Ethics of Celebrities and Their Increasing Influence in 21st Century Society.” The article applies the managerial concept of “mission creep,” or expansion beyond original goals, to celebrities, into foreign policy, economics, climate change, etc. The authors believe that the wide use of the internet has contributed to this shift, and put it like this:
The 21st century’s internet society seems to thrive on a harmonious three-way relationship among celebrities, audiences and fame addiction. The global internet in turns moulds this three-way relationship and accelerates its dissemination and communication. This in turn allows celebrities in the 21st century to ‘‘mission creep’’, or expand and accelerate their influence into various new areas of society.
Fame has always been coveted, but with the help of the internet celebrities have more visibility, and more opportunity for fame, and Choi and Berger give an interesting commentary on how this will affect future generations, stating that, “In surveys of teenagers’ shows in terms of a wish list, American teenagers in the 21st century overwhelming chose ‘‘fame’’ over all other attributes, including intelligence or wealth.” So fame is going to hold even more sway, hypothetically, in the future and it follows that the state of being famous is going to keep being coveted.
So then, what implications does this have for the world of organizations, managers, and corporations? What ethical implications? The decrease in attention to, and public influence of, people who are known experts on sustainability, shareholder theory, corporate social responsibility, etc., coupled with the rinsing influence of celebrities, may cause more and more managers, CEOs, founders, entrepreneurs, and business-people will be fame-focused. On one hand we could have younger generations who want to be famous when they grow up and so use organizations as a vehicle to that fame, and on the other we could see managers adopting celebrity tactics and seeing celebrity status for the benefits of influence and sway that it provides. A desire for fame is by no means new to the world of business, and one could make the argument that it is part of what has driven capitalism all along. However, I think that with our focus on business ethics we could miss such things as the tension and conflict that I perceive between fame-orientation and ethical behavior. One could argue that Immanuel Kant would see such a view of organizational employees, consumers and stakeholders in general as treating them as a means to the end of fame for some leaders and executives, violating the second formulation of the categorical imperative. Virtue ethics, as well, could be used to inquire about the character of such a person and the intent behind their reasons, even for doing “good” things. Take Elon Musk for example. As a frequent focus of our blogs, and as someone ranked #13 in the list of Gallup’s “Most Admired Men” list as of today, he is a figure that seems to be held in high regard for his actions and values, and perhaps rightly so (I haven’t done very much digging on him, but it seems that he is very ambitious, intelligent, and forward thinking). However, if we examine intent and character of such a person, and (hypothetically) found that all of his work with Tesla, the open-sourcing, the goal of functional electric cars and freedom from fossil fuels, if we found that much or most of those decisions and behaviors were based on garnering personal fame, then the question of “Are these the actions of a virtuous man?” has a less rosy answer. In short, Elon Musk and many other leaders may be doing the right things for the right reasons, but my point is that fame-addiction is becoming more and more ingrained in our society. The private and non-profits sectors are not impervious, and serious consideration should be given to how we evaluate fame and fame-orientation in business ethics, how it affects decision-making.