The 'Crazy Visionary' in the Boardroom

'The Aviator's' Howard Hughes may not be a model, but business can be a noble and moral occupation, says a Fortune writer.

What can a self-involved entrepreneur like Howard Hughes teach us about business ethics? The hero of "The Aviator" was hardly a model for social responsibility, says Marc Gunther, a Fortune magazine writer and the author of Faith and Fortune: The Quiet Revolution to Reform American Business. But Hughes did typify the kind of "crazy visionary" that often pioneers ideas in the business world. Gunther spoke to Beliefnet recently about the Oscar-nominated film and its message for corporate America.

Did you see anything spiritually redeeming about Howard Hughes? Did he have anything in common with the spiritually attuned people that you profiled in your book?

I didn't see a lot of moral or spiritual lessons in "The Aviator" or for that matter in the life of Howard Hughes. I think it would be a real stretch to characterize Hughes as a socially responsible capitalist, or a businessman guided by spiritual principles. He was such an odd duck-he didn't seem to be able to relate well to other people at all, with the possible exception of a few of his business associates. To me the mark of a good leader does have to do with the idea of service. You see your work as serving others, whether it be your employees or your customers or community. I don't think there was much of that in Hughes. Such a bizarre psychological character. You can't look to him as a business model.


Did the movie have anything to impart in spiritual terms?

I do think the movie did have a couple of useful things to say. I think it captured the creativity of business. Often in our culture business is generally not held in high regard, and we forget that it can be a very creative enterprise. There is room for the slightly crazy visionary.

Right, he started with a vision of flight and became a director to try to put that particular vision on film-and became obsessed with it.

But you know great entrepreneurs are a little obsessive. I would say the closest modern-day equivalent we have to Howard Hughes is Ted Turner, whom I do admire. He had a vision about CNN that he put into practice, and he had a vision about cable television, about using the power of television to do good, with programming about the environment, disarmamaent, and the danger of nuclear weapons. A lot of people say he is and was a little crazy. You know he's admitted-and there's no shame about it-that he's had to take various medications to control his moods. Someone will make a good movie about him someday. He even had a movie star wife.

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