The Morning Call learns about the "virtues" of Nike's CEO

We won’t dwell long on this today – mainly because we’re working on something else discussing it in greater detail – but one of the greatest tragedies of the Enlightenment was the abandonment of virtue ethics.  Prior to the Enlightenment, the entire history of Western Civilization – from (at least) the ancient Greeks right up to the American Founding Fathers – virtue ethics dominated moral philosophy and the expectations of moral people.

In brief, virtue ethics posits that the most effective and functional means by which to create a civil society, foster good citizenship, and encourage the pursuit of a “good life,” is the identification, propagation, and encouraged PRACTICE of virtues deemed universally important and universally affirmative.  This is the ethical framework of Plato (mostly), Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, William of Ockham, St. Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, George Washington, John Adams, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, and countless others we’ve not mentioned but probably should have.

The Enlightenment brought both the ripening of deontological and consequentialist ethics as well as the intensification of the West’s obsession with “reason.”  In combination, all of this made agreement upon, much less practice of “universal” virtues practically impossible.

Some philosophers – MacIntyre, in particular – have advocated a return to virtue ethics in a narrower, community environment, thereby making agreement upon virtues more practicable.  To date, however, a return to the identification and practice of communally accepted virtues remains mostly wishful thinking, meaning that we, as a society, continue to raise children – as we have for several generations – who neither know what behaviors can be expected to enable them to achieve happiness and contentment nor have ever been encouraged to practice those behaviors and to incorporate them into their daily lives.

Given all of this, we were intrigued the other day, when we saw a Wall Street Journal profile on John Donahoe, the CEO of Nike.  Now, as you may know, Nike is among the wokest, most hypocritical, American-values-despising companies in the world.  Yet the subhead on the article caught out attention: “The Monday-morning routine of Nike’s president and CEO: 33 ounces of water, a workout and a burgeoning gratitude practice.”

Aha, we thought, “gratitude practice.”  Maybe all is not lost at Nike.  Maybe – just maybe – the CEO’s routine offers a glimmer of hope.

Gratitude is not one of Aristotle’s moral virtues, but it is related or adjacent to several of them: liberality, magnificence, magnanimity.  And in any case, it’s a start.

So away we read:

Early in his career, Nike President and CEO John Donahoe heard a speaker at a Bain & Company training program make an observation that immediately clicked with him: Elite athletes tend to view getting help as a sign of strength. “He was talking about [how] Michael Jordan didn’t only have Phil Jackson as his bench coach, but he had a personal chef; he had a psychological coach,” says Donahoe, 61. “And he said, ‘You people in business, you act like getting help is a sign of weakness. You act like you have all the answers. If you want to perform at a world-class level, you’ve got to feel comfortable consuming help.’”


We’re one paragraph in, and already we know this isn’t going to turn out the way we’d hoped.  Here’s the thing: having a personal chef or a psychological coach is not “asking for help.”  It’s “hiring servants.”  Sure, having servants can be helpful, which, we’d guess, is why they call them “the help.”  But come on.  This is beyond patronizing.  We suppose we understand why elite athletes view this as “a sign of strength.”  It means they have enough money to live like kings.  Literally.  But Donahoe is either deluding himself or trying to delude us.

Anyway, we continued reading:

Since taking Nike’s top job, Donahoe has had his work cut out for him. Before he became CEO, there had been negative reports in the media on Nike’s treatment of female employees and female athlete partners.

Excellent!  An opportunity for redemption.  This isn’t exactly what we tuned in for, but it is, nevertheless, an opportunity to identify, encourage, and practice virtues – such as temperance and modesty – to surmount a history of dissolute behavior.  So, what does Donahoe do?

Donahoe has set a target of filling 45 percent of roles at the vice president level and higher with women by 2025. He also aims to have 30 percent representation of racial and ethnic minorities at the director level and above in Nike’s U.S. workforce. He had planned to go on a 100-day global “listening tour” that, due to the pandemic, he had to complete virtually.


We don’t want to be the guys who have to tell him, but this is stupid.  Really, really stupid.

Adding more women to your workforce isn’t going to make the men in that workforce behave better.  It will simply give them more targets to treat poorly.  To solve the problem, one must either replace the men of low character with people (men or women) of higher character or find ways to instill and reinforce higher character in those same men.  Solving the problem of men’s poor character and behavior by adding more women to the workforce is a non-sequitur at best.


Finally, we got to the good stuff, the reason we bought our tickets:

I took a year off, a sabbatical so to speak, in 2015, and I did a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat up at Spirit Rock [a meditation center in Woodacre, California] with [author and Buddhist practitioner] Jack Kornfield.

Of course.  He’s a California-variety Buddhist.  Didn’t see that one coming.

Jack’s been a wonderful spiritual counselor and adviser. What I’ve been doing a lot lately is gratitude practice. What we know from brain sciences and Buddhism teachings is you can, in fact, train your brain. Your brain becomes more negative over time because negative experiences stick in our brains. So you can counteract that by being more conscious of things you’re appreciative of, of the good things in your life. And so I just think, What am I grateful for in the broad sense of my life? What am I grateful for in the previous day? What am I looking forward to that I’m going to enjoy in the coming day? It’s a good exercise.


****!  ****!  ****!

For crying out loud.  That’s not practicing gratitude.  That’s taking stock of the stuff you’ve accumulated and patting yourself on the back for being so awesome that you were able to accumulate it.  “Wow.  It’s really great to have a gym at my house where I can have world-class trainers come in and ‘listen to my body.’  I sure am grateful that I’m me.”

We know that we implied up top that we are believers in the active practice of virtues, but if this is what Donahoe considers practicing the virtue of gratitude, then we’d suggest he stop immediately.  Much more of that kind of practice and he’ll go blind or grow hair on his palms…or…well…something.

Mercifully, we then reached the end:

I’m an advocate of servant leadership. When I understand that everything I’m doing is in service to a purpose, in service to others, I have a wellspring of motivation and inspiration even through periods of adversity. Just staying connected with this notion of, we’re on earth to serve others. My leadership role models have always been head coaches—you think about Phil Jackson, Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski], John Thompson, Tara [VanDerveer], who just won the NCAA [women’s basketball] championship—they’re leaders that lead from almost behind, serving their players, serving their programs, serving a broader cause. The power of service has been a recurring lesson throughout my life, my career.

The sound you just heard was my head.  Splitting open.  From repeated and successively more violent pounding of it against a brick wall.

First, there are generally two types of “servant leadership.”  One is Christian and derived in large part from principles articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo.  The other is New Age pseudo-spiritualism applied to business management practices based on principles formulated by a guy named Greenleaf.  Wanna guess which one is Donahoe’s shtick?

Second, he talks about how everything he is doing is “in service to a purpose.”  That’s neat.  There’s one catch, though.  He never, ever says anything about what that “purpose” is.  He talks about basketball coaches, whose purpose is pretty clear.  He talks about how they serve their players and their programs and so on.  But he never says what his purpose is.  Is it to make the world a better place?  Does that include making it better for the Uighurs?  Is it to make the best damn shoes around?  That’s fine.  But then just say so.  This guy proudly proclaims his servitude but never says to what end he’s “serving” – or whom!

Fittingly. this gets to the heart of the entire sad, directionless, ill-formed post-Enlightenment moral undertaking that replaced virtue ethics.  Rather than just run a business, Donahoe thinks he’s running a moral enterprise.  It is, we are told, something he believes in deeply.  He thinks he’s saving the world and changing it for the better.  But like nearly all such post-Enlightenment schemes, his morality is directionless.  It lacks an endpoint, a goal toward which to strive, a telos, in other words.

This is a guy who thinks that hiring a personal chef is “asking for help;” that superficial identitarianism is the solution to any problem; that recognizing his material wealth is “practicing gratitude;” and that wanting to grow up to be a basketball coach is “servitude” to his fellow man.

John Donahoe is a freaking cliché.  You couldn’t write a character who embodies more of the critique of the Enlightenment, more of the critique of modern society than this guy: the pampered (California) Buddhist New Age woke wannabe who lives in servitude to his employees – some of which are actual slaves.

On the one hand, we should probably cut Donahoe some slack.  Ultimately, none of this is his fault.  As MacIntyre notes, ALL of us are trying to reconstruct morality from mere bits and pieces of the order that once existed.  And NONE of us really has much of a clue how to do so.

On the other hand, if Donahoe were a little more circumspect about how wonderful he and his self-fashioned moral principles are, maybe we’d be inclined to cut him that slack.


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