Cities are metaphors of con­scious­ness. In and through them we see visions and dream dreams. In New York, Chica­go, and Lon­don, mas­sive eco­nom­ic pow­er is felt in the roar of traf­fic, the howl of machin­ery, the tun­ing-fork vibra­tions of bridges, and the moan of tugs and barges. In search of ful­fill­ment we rush down into sub­ways, jounce to and from appoint­ments on jar­ring, crowd­ed bus­es, run to hail cabs, hur­tle to air­ports, check in, rush to board, and wait on run­ways while frus­tra­tions mount. Dis­en­chant­ment seizes us. Dis­cour­age­ment sets in. What, we won­der, are we liv­ing for? What path are we fol­low­ing? Some­times, because of our dis­en­chant­ment, we become more open to reminders of a sim­pler way. Whirrings of clock tow­ers and sounds of church bells — even in the heart of the metrop­o­lis — call us to reflec­tion and inwardness.

From my first office in New York City, on the thir­ty-sev­enth floor of a Fifth Avenue tow­er, I could look down on St. Patrick’s Cathe­dral. It looked like a child’s play­thing, a toy cathe­dral that I could lift and car­ry some­where. Some­thing about this trou­bled me. Cathe­drals, I felt, should be looked up to. Lat­er, when I vis­it­ed Eng­land, I saw how cathe­drals can dom­i­nate land­scapes. Then I under­stood the new pow­er bal­ance of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry life. Lever House and the Seagram’s Build­ing, I con­clud­ed, are our new cathe­drals. The Chrysler Build­ing and the Empire State our state­ments of val­ue. Dwarf­ing the lit­tle church­es on Park Avenue and Wall Street, they have cre­at­ed a new ethos. These build­ings are procla­ma­tions of pow­er. Do we as exec­u­tives need to leave these build­ings in order to expe­ri­ence faith? Or is God with us in the Marketplace?

What is revealed in the mar­ket­place is a mys­ti­cal vision: that of the New Jerusalem. Look­ing with sec­u­lar eyes, one sees noth­ing more than steel and con­crete, trash-filled streets, esca­lat­ing pover­ty and home­less­ness, soci­ety out of con­trol. But with eyes trans­formed by a bib­li­cal vision, one can see the face of God through the pow­er of Man­hat­tan, the splen­dor of the East Riv­er, Hud­son, Harlem, in the singing bridges, the haze over Brook­lyn and Queens. The metaphor of the metrop­o­lis, be it Lon­don or Chica­go or Detroit, whether the vast­ness of Los Ange­les or Mia­mi, shows God present in ways seen only with the eyes of faith. Sil­ver cities rise. Your sons and daugh­ters sing the great­est song.

God is here! He is actu­al­ly present! It is not beneath him to dwell on the Stat­en Island fer­ry, head­ing for Low­er Man­hat­tan. He is will­ing to descend with us into the under­ground cham­bers of the sub­way, to be with us in dis­com­fort, bore­dom, alien­ation. He accom­pa­nies us to the board­room. He attends the year-end meet­ing. In the com­mu­ni­ty formed by us, by col­leagues, by pur­chasers, buy­ers and sell­ers, cus­tomers sat­is­fied and unsat­is­fied, he is present, bear­ing our sor­rows, acquaint­ed with grief.

What a con­trast to our com­mon way of think­ing: that busi­ness, which is by its very nature mate­ri­al­is­tic, some­how has to be spir­i­tu­al­ized. The real­i­ty is oth­er­wise. It is our mis­take to think that we will some­how take busi­ness, which is unholy, and by some sac­ri­fice or offer­ing, make it holy. That trag­ic mis­take is the cru­cial error we must expose. To cor­rect this false notion we need not only action but contemplation.

From my view from the thir­ty-sev­enth floor, I first guessed at the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a kind of entre­pre­neur­ial, even a cor­po­rate, poet­ics. In my first years in busi­ness I found out how to grasp — in a sin­gle insight, I thought — inner mean­ings, the inward life or soul of some­thing gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered to be only” mate­r­i­al. In writ­ing about alu­minum and its God-giv­en qual­i­ties I unknow­ing­ly set out on a spir­i­tu­al adven­ture. I ran with a rag­gle-tag­gle world­ly com­pa­ny of tele­vi­sion writ­ers and film direc­tors, not all of whom believed in God. By study­ing, explor­ing, and con­tem­plat­ing the famil­iar mate­r­i­al, we hunt­ed for some inner beau­ty, want­i­ng to lay mean­ings bare. We were explor­ers, dis­cov­er­ers. Focus­ing intent­ly on alu­minum, we want­ed to push back the bound­aries of film, to stand tele­vi­sion on its head. By reflec­tion, by exper­i­ment, by thought, by hope, we sup­posed that, by some break­through we would say some­thing that would move everyone.

I remem­ber, as though it were yes­ter­day, going uptown to the Her­man Miller show­room to look at the Charles Eames chair. It was a quest! I was in pur­suit not of alu­minum, but of beau­ty, the inner truth the design­er sees. Then in my mind’s ear came the words to voice it all: What is beau­ty? A frill? A trim? Or an aspect of tex­ture and form?” There was vision, too, in the director’s inner eye. With a burst of excite­ment he saw a way to shoot the scene: one con­tin­u­ous two-minute pull­back, a visu­al explo­ration of one sur­pris­ing alu­minum arti­fact after anoth­er. This brief mes­sage, like the four or five oth­ers we craft­ed, was essen­tial­ly con­tem­pla­tive. Reflec­tiv­i­ty? Yes, there would be sun caught in the skin of a sky­scraper; yes, there would be the sun’s coro­na caught in the alu­minum sur­face of a tele­scope. Words were used, but only as after­words. First, we saw the mean­ing, as sure­ly as if we had been find­ing the dou­ble helix or the for­mu­la for rel­a­tiv­i­ty. Mind to mind, heart to heart, we thought we had found some­thing inef­fa­ble and holy.

To say that the aim of busi­ness is to serve is to speak not ide­al­is­ti­cal­ly, but prac­ti­cal­ly. Ser­vice is fun­da­men­tal to the mar­ket­place. Cus­tomers have the pow­er to choose; mar­keters must please, cajole, offer, and per­suade. Although no human choic­es are ever ful­ly free, in a soci­ety of abun­dance mar­keters find them­selves less pow­er­ful than they sup­posed. In spite of all the wit and will in the world, prod­ucts may be launched, only to run aground. Ideas that seemed bril­liant on the draw­ing board may be reject­ed by the pub­lic out­right. Grit­ti­ness may be val­ued by some, yet appear false and fool­ish to oth­ers. Inflat­ed mar­ket projects col­lapse; false ambi­tions fiz­zle; short-term mar­ket­ing plans and long-term strate­gies fail.

This flawed sys­tem, the free mar­ket sys­tem, with all its vagaries and fail­ings, is what ide­al­ists such as Thomas John­son would push to new lim­its. We who are peo­ple of the promise are feel­ing a twitch upon the thread, a tug on the rope, the relent­less pull of aspi­ra­tion and grace. Our val­ues are being chal­lenged. Our weary, much-exer­cised com­pet­i­tive mar­ket econ­o­my is being called up high­er. John­son would have us, flawed peo­ple that we are, do more with and get more from this unwieldy sys­tem: pro­duce more, cher­ish the earth, raise liv­ing stan­dards, save lives. Is it pos­si­ble? Is it with­in our grasp? Don’t struc­tures and sys­tems have their lim­its? How can we sat­is­fy a whole world’s needs? For such an eco­nom­ic chal­lenge, what pow­er can we deploy? Yet we know, with Yahweh’s help and our own God-giv­en pow­ers of cre­ativ­i­ty that we can stretch elas­tic struc­tures of belief into new con­fig­u­ra­tions. Esti­ma­tors we are, but we can­not ful­ly esti­mate the pow­er of our­selves togeth­er with God.

The reflec­tive exec­u­tive is one who walks by faith and thinks by metaphor; who sees in the ter­ror and anx­i­ety of mod­ern times a call to holi­ness, who under­stands dai­ly expe­ri­ence as a call to con­ver­sion, who lives in dia­logue with God, mak­ing inter­ces­sion for oth­ers; who throws her own life into the breach when nec­es­sary; who man­i­fests a con­cern for oth­ers; who takes into account, in busi­ness deci­sions, the intol­er­a­ble sound of the word trade-off” and at the same time the relent­less neces­si­ty of com­pro­mise; who oper­ates with­in the realm of the prac­ti­cal know­ing that with God, all things are pos­si­ble; who looks long, looks hard, looks prophet­i­cal­ly and with vision at the improb­a­ble realign­ments that take place in soci­ety dai­ly; who sets aside, to the extent pos­si­ble, the bias­es, the sco­to­sis, the dis­tor­tions of ancient enmi­ties and strife; and who longs for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, sol­i­dar­i­ty, sis­ter­hood, broth­er­hood — per­haps for civil­i­ty most of all.

The reflec­tive exec­u­tive is in short a hero and a saint, dressed in the ordi­nary garb of the mar­ket­place. This exec­u­tive is one who lives not only by get­ting things done but by get­ting the right things done because she lives in the sight of the Lord all days of her life. Her courage and her vision are uncon­quer­able. She lives for her Master’s coun­sel, and in his pres­ence her heart is lift­ed up and con­soled. She is anoint­ed with the oil of glad­ness because she under­stands the gen­eros­i­ty of the Lord’s favor to her; and she is will­ing to walk through the canyons of cities built by com­merce and weak­ened by dou­ble-deal­ing, to mend the bro­ken stat­ues, and to repair the shat­tered dreams.

Lord of the mar­ket­place, I thank you for cre­at­ing in me a heart sen­si­tive to the needs of the whole human fam­i­ly; for giv­ing me the cre­ative appa­ra­tus to exer­cise exec­u­tive lead­er­ship in your world of goods and ser­vices, of get­ting and spend­ing, with­out, in the end, becom­ing estranged from you.

(These excerpts are from The Reflec­tive Exec­u­tive. Emi­lie worked as an adver­tis­ing exec­u­tive in New York City for twen­ty years dur­ing which she helped devel­op tele­vi­sion cam­paigns for ALCOA Alu­minum and oth­er major U. S. cor­po­ra­tions and received over fifty awards for creativity.)

Pho­to by Luis Vil­las­mil on Unsplash

Originally published December 1992

Starting Soon: The 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion not just infor­ma­tion. Runs Sep­tem­ber 2020 through May 2021.

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