What is the measure of a good life?

Michael Porter is generally recognized as the father of the modern strategy field and has been identified in a variety of rankings and surveys as the world’s most influential thinker on management and competitiveness. He is also a leading authority on the application of competitive principles to social problems such as health care, the environment, and corporate responsibility. Porter is the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at the Harvard Business and the author of 18 books and over 125 articles. He received a B.S.E. with high honors in aerospace and mechanical engineering from Princeton University in 1969; an M.B.A. with high distinction in 1971 from the Harvard Business School, where he was a George F. Baker Scholar; and a Ph.D. in Business Economics from Harvard University in 1973. In 2001, Harvard Business School and Harvard University jointly created the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, dedicated to furthering Porter’s work.

  • Transcript


Michael Porter: Well in terms of goals, I guess I’m again drawn to the notion that there’s certain principles of justice, or fairness, or societies where people can treat each other well, and be constructive, and be part of a community. And the highest calling that anybody can have is actually to do something that improves the lives of the community and of others.

And so again, I’m sort of repeating a theme that I’ve raised already; but it seems to me that what we’re trying to do, ultimately, is make people have better lives, to give them more opportunities to do whatever they want to do, to meet the needs that they have for housing, and healthcare and opportunity.

How do we get the rules right? And how do we get the ways of thinking right to enable that better quality of life and standard of living? I guess that’s how I kind of measure, in some sense, the underlying values.

There’s some people that would make a kind of a crisper formulation of that, they would say that the way to measure your success or to measure society’s success is what happens to the least fortunate – the people that have the least money, or the least power, or the least of anything. And can you create a society that works for the least fortunate, not others? And again I subscribe to that as well.

I’ve been very, very interested in the question of really creating opportunity. And I’ve been struck with how that often happens at a very grassroots level. And some of the stuff that I’m working on and thinking about now is complimentary to all the other work. 

But it’s really some of the most exciting, and memorable, and powerful examples one sees in economic development are not grand government policies; but stuff that’s at the very grassroots level where some people in a community can find a way to work together to create something of value against all odds. And I think we need to think and understand more about how communities can work together constructively along these lines.

The thing I’m panicked about, in terms of the times we live in now, are sort of the inability of people in different groups and segments of society to work constructively together on any legitimate social aim. Instead, everybody seems to be out for their own values, or their own ideology, or their economic rewards, or their job security or whatever. We have this kind of adversarial view of how society works now where “it’s us or it’s them.”

One of the central themes in my work is that there are these gigantic win-win opportunities where you can benefit the environment, but you can benefit the company. You can make the patient be better off, but also the health plan will benefit. There’s these win-win opportunities. But for some reason now we’re in a zero sum world where everybody’s kind of fighting with a perspective that, “My win is your loss.” And again that troubles me a lot.


Recorded on: June 11, 2007