Knowledge Centre

Willis Harman – Business and Responsibility for the Whole

In May 1996 I had the opportunity to spend a few days with Willis Harman at a World Business Academy meeting on Vancouver Island.  What a wonderful experience that was.

This morning, as I am trying to push through a report I am (as I often do when under pressure) finding productive ways to procrastinate (I claim it is making space for creativity to emerge).

Willis was an incredible visionary (see below), the Founder of the World Business Academy and architect of the visionary concept of Business and Responsibility for the Whole.

He argued that throughout history the dominant institutions in society had assumed some level of responsibility for the whole, or the society ended up not lasting long or well.  He noted that through time the dominant institutions had included; clan, tribe, church, nation-state and now we are clearly in a state where business is the most dominant institution in society.

In May 1996 I was just getting ready to enter the Sloan Fellowship program at Stanford Business School.  I was a bit apprehensive as my educational background was, well, unique at the least (I felt like I had earned a few degrees from the school of hard knocks but had never completed high school nor university.  A Masters from Stanford Business School was slated to be my first academic graduation.

Anyway, I had read many of Willis’ writings prior to the meeting and was looking forward to meeting him.  He was even more interesting and insightful than I had imagined and very approachable.  When I confessed some of my apprehension to him he laughed it off and assured me I would enjoy the time at Stanford.

I left the week with him with an invitation to spend time with him when I was at Stanford and even had a half-formed plan that I would find a way to work with him and learn from him after graduation.

Unfortunately, soon after this Willis was diagnosed with cancer and did not last long.

His thinking and his energy helped to provide a lot of intellectual foundation for what is today called Corporate Social Responsibility.

I was very fortunate to have known him and spent some time with him, and my good fortune continues as I get to work and explore in that interesting space where business meets society.

Below is some more information on Willis and links to more on the internet.

Willis Harman (1918-1997)  founder of the World Business Academy (1987)—re-imagined the role of business from being solely focused on profit-making to include taking responsibility for the whole. Here is an excerpt:

Business has become, in this last half century, the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole — as the church did in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. But business has not had such a tradition. This is a new role, not yet well understood or accepted.
Built into the concept of capitalism and free enterprise from the beginning was the assumption that the actions of many units of individual enterprise, responding to market forces and guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, would somehow add up to desirable outcomes.
But in the last decade of the twentieth century, It has become clear that the ‘invisible hand’ is faltering. It depended upon a consensus of overarching meanings and values that is no longer present. So business has to adopt a tradition it has never had throughout the entire history of capitalism: to share responsibility for the whole. Every decision that is made, every action that is taken, must be viewed in the light of that kind of responsibility.

       Willis Harman

Above copied from 

Business and Social Responsibility:
An Interview with Willis Harman

By Scott London

As one of the world’s leading futurists, Willis Harman belonged to a handful of forward-looking thinkers and practitioners exploring a new role for business in creating a more prosperous and sustainable future.
Harman believed that we’re living in a period of accelerating social and cultural change, one marked by economic globalization, spreading democratization, quickening technological advance, and burgeoning global communication. But in the midst of all this change, we’re also faced with a host of unprecedented global challenges, from the population explosion and the depletion of the earth’s natural resources to a deepening divide between the world’s rich and poor.


Willis Harman, PhD was President of IONS from 1975-1996.
Widely recognized as one of the practical visionaries of our time, Willis Harman was deeply committed to working with the global transformation that is evidently part of our immediate future. He exemplified the integration of spiritual and intellectual knowing that is at the heart of the work of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, where he was president until his death in 1997.
For 16 years, Harman was Senior Social Scientist as SRI International, a global -futurist think-tank in Menlo Park, California. He was emeritus professor of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford University, and a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California.
His books include An Incomplete Guide to the Future, Changing Images of Man, Higher Creativity, Paths to Peace, New Metaphysical Foundations of Science,and Biology Revisioned, as well as a number of monographs, including, “A Reexamination of the Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science” and “The Scientific Exploration of Consciousness.”

Prof. Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global sustainability expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and advisory service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.