Profile: The Invisible Hand - Robert Massie and God's Green Earth
Will the real Robert Kinloch Massie (DBA '89) please stand up? Priest. Politician. University lecturer. Medical marvel. Social activist. Prize-winning historian. Environmentalist. Executive. While Bob Massie is justified in rising to acknowledge any of these appellations, the ability to get to his feet at all may rank among his greatest achievements. The simple acts of standing and walking represent triumph for Massie, as does the fact that he is even alive today. Fittingly, his life's work is all about standing up, as he forcefully advocates for higher standards of corporate responsibility and social justice in the conduct of capitalism.
When Massie was an infant, his youthful parents received a stunning diagnosis: Their lively firstborn was a hemophiliac. The family's life in New York's Westchester County became dominated by his condition. Blood and plasma transfusions — hundreds of them — were needed to stem internal bleeding caused by even mild stress on his joints. His blood-filled knees and ankles left Massie unable to walk and brought on interminable nights when pain banished sleep, he later wrote. His parents battled an unresponsive health-care system as the family finances dwindled. Finally, at age 12, after years of physical therapy combined with advances in medication, Massie walked away from his wheelchair and cumbersome leg braces. To this day, however, he must cope with pain and self-inject medication almost daily to control his condition.
Looking back on his childhood, the friendly, unassuming Massie, who is executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), offers a cheerier perspective. Seated in his office near Boston's Public Garden, he recollects sunlit summers in Maine (where his love for the natural world flourished) and his family's four-year sojourn in Paris (where, as a teenager, he received state-of-the-art medication, at no cost, from the national health system and learned French so well he graduated first in his lycée class). His parents, Suzanne and Robert, were talented chroniclers of Russian culture and history (Robert's Peter the Great won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Biography), and an exciting group of writers, artists, and musicians was always around.
As a hemophiliac, I knew I was different, but that was just normal life for me, Massie recalls. My family led a very romantic existence; we had a great time. Yet as a child with a chronic illness (the constant shadow, he once wrote) that set him apart physically and socially, Massie did feel a duality of experience. Although I was often part of privileged communities, from very early on, I frequently identified with those who were excluded.
Enrolling at Princeton, Massie became an activist, particularly regarding South Africa and divestment. More importantly, he also had a religious awakening. In my senior year, Massie explains, I questioned many things, including the existence of God. I issued a challenge, saying, God, if you are out there, I'd like to feel you more in my life.' And God responded with grace and forgiveness. It was like putting out your hand in the dark without expecting anyone to take hold of it, and then someone does, in a warm, accepting way. The experience solidified Massie's beliefs in compassion, social justice, and the importance of serving others.
In 1978, Massie enrolled at Yale Divinity School, taking a year off to work for Ralph Nader's Congress Watch. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1983, he worked with the homeless at Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan before entering HBS the following year. That decision was driven by several factors. Explains Massie, As an activist, when I challenged the way business was conducted, people said I didn't know what I was talking about — I wanted to change that. I also wanted to understand business, one of the most powerful institutions in society, and learn about leadership and how to galvanize resources, human and otherwise.
As is the norm for HBS doctoral students, Massie completed the first year of the MBA Program before focusing his research on how large institutional investors make decisions about social issues. (He also worked simultaneously at a small church in Somerville, Massachusetts.) With DBA in hand, from 1989 to 1996, he taught ethics and public policy at Harvard Divinity School and brought together faculty and students at HDS and HBS through regular luncheons and joint field studies. In 1993, as a senior Fulbright scholar, Massie served on the faculty of the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business and gathered material for his book, Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years, which won the prestigious Lionel Gelber Prize for Best Book on International Relations in 1998. Inspired by South Africa's unfolding democracy and dismayed by America's sclerotic and cynical political system, Massie, a quixotic unknown, entered and won the 1994 Massachusetts Democratic primary for lieutenant governor before losing in the general election.
Since 1996, Massie has guided CERES, a national coalition of some 85 groups that includes environmental organizations and environmentally concerned investors, managers, and analysts representing $300 billion in assets. In April, in cooperation with the UN and other organizations, CERES launched the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), an independent standards-setting board based in Europe. The GRI sets guidelines for sustainability reporting, a voluntary process that enables firms to report their economic, environmental, and social conduct.
Notes Massie, GRI's founding chair, In addition to governmental mechanisms, we need the GRI framework to keep globalization on a positive track. More than 110 global companies, from Nike to General Motors, understand that the GRI reporting structure will help them manage their businesses more efficiently and responsibly. The GRI is emerging even as institutional investors, NGOs, and governments intensify their scrutiny of firms in areas such as environmental impact, human rights, and labor conditions. Its framework, Massie says, helps businesses provide this increasingly important information in a more rationalized way.
Massie's energy and output is even more remarkable given the fact that some twenty years ago, he acquired HIV in the course of his many transfusions. Naturally, and without drugs, his system has resisted developing AIDS, which has made him a subject of great medical interest. With his wife, Anne, Massie feels enormously grateful to be able to look to the future of his three children, as well as to his own (a return to the ministry or to politics are both possibilities). When you have time in this world taken away and then given back, he says, you want to use it in the very best way you can.