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.

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(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 January 1993.