At Skoll, Biz Dean Roger Martin Inspires Social Entrepreneurs to Find a Better Way

Roger Martin has come clean: Barack Obama made him cry. In his remarks during the plenary opening of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University, the dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management confessed that he cried "several times" during Obama's inaugural address. One line in particular struck him: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

What in the world does a comment about national security and civil liberties have to do with business or social enterprise? "In my study of highly successful leaders, I feel the most common theme, the most universal characteristic, is a form of thinking characterized by President Obama's sentence," Martin said. "Given a choice between two unsatisfactory outcomes," a stellar leader finds a third way. He doesn't choose. Instead, he "has the capacity to find a solution superior to either of the available options."

Martin contrasted Obama's line with a post-9/11 one from George W. Bush: "Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists." "On the one hand, choice is the only possibility," he said. "On the other, we reject the choice."

To hammer home his point, Martin offered an example that will be familiar to Fast Company readers: Victoria Hale and the Institute for OneWorld Health, which was honored as one of FC's 2009 Social Enterprises of the Year. OneWorld Health is America's only not-for-profit pharmaceutical company, a strange and wonderful hybrid bred by Hale that blends the research prowess of big pharma with the on-the-ground sensitivity of a public-health NGO. The world—as well as precedent and the establishment—told her she couldn't create both a world-class pharma-research company and an on-the-ground not-for-profit in one organization. Big pharma and public health "were the available models," Martin said. Logic said she should have picked one. "In the face of those two models, she said no, there's a better model." Turns out it just hadn't been created yet.

History is full of stories like these—of pioneers, trailblazers, and true believers. The search for the new can be a lonely pursuit, so it makes sense that Martin would kick off this gathering of social entrepreneurs with this time-honored message. It's a good reminder for anyone with the slightest interest in creativity, in making something new: "You must reject the notion that existing models equal reality." In other words, you must innovate.

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2 Comments

  • George Roter

    Another quote from Roger Martin's talk at the Forum last night on the same topic: "seize the power of the paradox". He was talking about the power of finding new model and new solutions in the very tensions that traditionally call for tough choices.

  • Dan Erwin

    I've been working through Matt Miller's Tyranny of Dead Ideas, a fine example of new thinking. For example, caught between open markets and protectionism, he opts for better "protections" in areas like health care, pensions, etc.
    www.danerwin.com