The real miracle at issue in the 2012 film, A Big Miracle, is not whether three whales can get to open water. Rather, the miracle that would seem to require divine intervention is whether the Alaska National Guard, the White House (Ronald Reagan), Green Peace, the media, a major oil company, and even the Soviet government can work together to accomplish the ostensible miracle centered on the whales. Watching the American “stakeholders” decide on whether to ask the Soviets for help, it occurred to me that businesses (and business academics) regularly misapply the term, “stakeholder.” Lest we have been inadvertently lulled into a state of complacency in assuming we do not stray in our use of terms such as stakeholder, leadership, and corporate social responsibility, a film can yank us back upright.
In the film, each of the various parties identified above have a stake in solving the whales’ problem. This is not to say that all of the parties are motivated by the whales’ welfare. The oil company executive, for example, sees his company’s involvement as an investment in favorable public relations that in turn he could use as political leverage in upcoming federal legislation. Green Peace, on the other hand, is perhaps most intentionally invested in the whales themselves, though the increased donations made possible by the increased publicity of the crisis cannot be far behind. Meanwhile, Alaska’s national Guard seems invested in achieving “mission accomplished” almost independent of the specific content. Perhaps we can conclude that self-interest is not missing from any of the participants, but this does not mean they do not have a stake in the outcome. When they meet together to discuss whether to urge Reagan to ask the Soviets for help, the parties really are stakeholders in that their respective stakes are authentic. In other words, it makes sense that each participant would have a stake. I do not believe this is the case for a corporation’s “stakeholders.”
In the case of stakeholder management theory, the stakeholders’ respective claims on the focal corporation in terms of power in the corporate governance do not necessarily make sense. Saying that an environmental group, for instance, has a stake in a corporation that pollutes is not necessarily to give that group a right to some power in the corporation’s governance or management. In other words, the group’s “stake” may simply be an attempted power-grab, which is far from confirmed as justified. For one thing, such “power-sharing” would have to overcome the property-rights trump card of the stockholders, which is the basis of the directors’ and managers’ fiduciary duty.
Therefore, while it makes perfect sense to the participants in the film navigating through the crisis—which is itself a miracle considering the divergent positions they would naturally have—I do not see the “stakeholders” of a corporation when I envision how a corporation solves a problem. It may be that the term “stakeholder” is valid only at the societal level, where “corporatist” (i.e., different functional groups) coalitions of stakeholders naturally are the problem-solvers. At the organizational level, the problem-solvers are rightfully within a given organization. One would hope they would consider the imprint of their decisions on outside entities and society itself, but an organization naturally puts itself first—just as a living organism does. Self-preservation was the principal assumed goal of human beings in the political philosophy of the seventeenth century (e.g. Thomas Hobbes), for example. By adding this point, I demonstrate as an aside how business schools could be better integrated with the Liberal Arts, rather than being mere training institutes (i.e., sycophants for corporations). Just as we ought not necessarily assume that we are using “stakeholder” correctly when we apply it corporate social responsibility rather than to societal responsibility, we would err in assuming that our universities are “on track” from the standpoint of higher education.