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.

We think of business about being bloodless, devoted to numbers. But, and now I'm referring to my book, you talk to some people like Herb Kelleher who runs Southwest Airlines or Jeff Schwartz who runs Timberland or Tom Chappell who runs Tom's of Maine, these are all people with tremendous passion for what they do. And Hughes, whatever you say about him, had tremendous passion for both movies and aviation. And I thought the movie captured that very well. Sort of "Don't bother me with the facts, I'm going to make this happen, even if it kills me." And it almost did kill him.

I thought that scene where he crashed into the houses in Beverly Hills was just ludicrous--how do you crash a plane into a residential neighborhood and survive? And then I read a little bit about him and found out that did actually happen.

He really lived the American dream of wealth, power, celebrity, and success, didn't he?

But he did die alone, not having appeared in public for 20 years. It is an amazing American story.

Were there any other moral issues that jumped out at you?

One of the points I raise in the book, and when I speak at churches and synagogues, is that business can be a noble occupation. I think many of us don't see that. We honor doctors and social workers, but I do think that one can do a lot of good in the messiness of the marketplace. And there were moments where you felt like Hughes was engaged in a noble pursuit, whether it was trying to get that plane built for the military in World War II, trying to advance the art and science of aviation, or even trying to make a great entertaining movie. He wasn't thinking about "Hell's Angels" as a profit-and-loss proposition, he was trying to do something that was going to be remembered and was going to touch people's lives. So that goes with this idea of creativity and passion-you can do a lot of good in the business world, and there were times you saw Hughes striving to do that.

I think it's really unhealthy for us as a society to be cynical about business, because then we're going to leave it to all the cynics to run. And we need to have more people who are idealistic to get involved in business.

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