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What Can We Learn from Occupy Wall Street?

What is your take on the occupy Wall Street movement?  I have been fascinated by it and the ensuing debate regarding the 99% vs. the 1%.  Without clearly stating a goal or taking a political position, this loose confederation of protesters has impacted the conversation in society.  This morning I listened to a politician who said we should not be talking about these issues since it was a challenge to the free enterprise system.   While the politician might not be up for the debate, I have no worries that the free enterprise system can handle the debate.

One of the reasons this debate fascinates me is that it is my job to educate students who might be striving to become part of the 1%.  I haven’t seen a demographic breakdown but I would bet that a fair proportion of the 1% is business owners and business leaders many of whom were educated in business schools.  I wonder what values these leaders learned in business school.

I am currently reading a book titled The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards written by Paul Woodruff, a philosophy professor at University of Texas, Austin.  While the book does discuss philosophy, it is primarily about leadership.  The Ajax dilemma originates from the Trojan War in Greek mythology and is the story of two great warriors, Ajax and Odysseus, and which one of them should receive the coveted armor of the slain warrior Achilles from King Agamemnon.  Odysseus is the brilliant strategist who was the architect behind the Trojan horse.  Ajax is the workhorse soldier whose exploits on the battlefield are unmatched.  After the award goes to Odysseus, Ajax goes on a rampage and kills himself.  Ajax’s suicide creates deep division in the army.  Woodruff uses the story to frame the debate regarding the division of rewards.  Woodruff clearly uses Ajax to be representative of the 99% and Odysseus representative of the 1%.

When Agamemnon awards the armor to Odysseus almost all agree that Odysseus is more deserving than Ajax because without Odysseus the war could not be won.  Ajax on the other hand is replaceable, although it would take four or five soldiers to replace him.  But while Agamemnon’s decision is “fair,” the decision may have lacked “justice.”  Woodruff writes:

Fairness and justice are truly at war with one another.  Fairness is not wise.  Fairness is following principles wherever they may lead, regardless of people’s feelings.  Fairness is a trap in which justice and compassion die, where members of a team are hurt beyond repair.  Yet fairness has often been thought to be the heart of justice.  That cannot be correct.  The heart of justice is wisdom.

Wisdom is a quality of leaders.  It is not so mysterious as you may think, but it cannot be delivered by a formula.  Being wise, a leader pays attention to others and sets an example for the leaders who report to him.  The sort of action that is wise in one situation may be foolish in another.  A wise leader may have a reason in mind that calls for action today and inaction tomorrow (pg. 62-63).

So where does Woodruff take us with this reasoning?  Does he provide us an answer as to how we should divide up the wealth between the 99% and the 1%?  No he does not.  But what he does do is show us very clearly that leadership requires wisdom.  A leader who is not wise and whose decisions lack justice will risk destroying a community.

This is the type of story that I like to discuss with my MBA students.  It is my belief that becoming an integrated and wise leader requires that you are connected to the world around you. Being connected means you need to pay attention to not just what is going on in your field but also what is going in the arts and humanities, in politics, in science and religion, etc.  So I admire the occupy Wall Street protesters not because I think they are right, or because that I think they are wrong, but because they have asked me to pay closer attention to an important issue and to clarify my thinking on it.

James A. Sundali, Ph.D.

James A. Sundali, Ph.D.James Sundali is associate professor of strategic management. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and his MBA and bachelor’s degree in economics from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He has been at the University of Nevada, Reno since 1997 and has taught strategic management, corporate finance, game theory, bargaining and negotiation, individual choice behavior, organizations and the natural environment, the psychology of gaming, and managerial and leadership insights from film and literature.

In 2006 he was awarded the B.J. Fuller Excellence in Teaching Award and in 2008 the Graduate Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. In the last few years he has been involved in teaching abroad with classes in London, New York City, and Bilbao, Spain. His research is focused on experimental economics, behavioral game theory, behavioral finance, and individual choice behavior.

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