01 Jun 2002

Profile: The Invisible Hand - Robert Massie and God's Green Earth

by Garry Emmons


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.”

Web Exclusive: Bob Massie - Finding His Place at HBS

“I owe a great deal to the late Professor John Matthews,” Bob Massie says, as he retraces his personal journey from undergraduate involvement in the South Africa divestment movement to graduate studies at Harvard Business School. “When I first visited the School, I was trying to figure out if there was a place for me. I was particularly interested in the DBA Program because I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn't sure I'd fit in. So Professor Bob Stobaugh of the Doctoral Program sent me over to see Matthews.”

Matthews, who taught at HBS for 42 years, was widely considered a pioneer in the field of business ethics and corporate responsibility. “He spoke with me for a long time and then very generously said he would work with me,” says Massie. “In describing me to Stobaugh afterwards, Matthews used words to the effect that I was a strange guy, but one who might add something to the School.”

The “strange guy” came to be considered the conscience of his first-year MBA classroom. It was a compliment Massie accepted with some reluctance — he wished that his fellow students would give voice in class to the ethical concerns they preferred to convey to him in private. As he would later write of his MBA experience, “I stuck to the role I had been granted as a liberal bellwether, a miner's canary that, as long as he didn't pipe up or keel over, certified that ethical boundaries were being respected.”

Massie was learning a lot, too — not only a greater comprehension of the business process and ethos, but also the managerial skills that have served him well as executive director of CERES (www.ceres.org). “I came to understand that I had a monolithic view of business and didn't understand the functions of marketing, say, or finance,” he says. “I became fascinated by it all and found that many of my prejudices were wrong. I also found that businesspeople and students were gung-ho, can-do folks whose attitude was, ‘Tell me the problem and we'll work together to fix it.' They weren't encumbered by a lot of the exhaustive self-doubt that you often find in other disciplines. That was surprising and appealing to me. HBS gave me much greater precision about motives, behavior, and issues with regard to business — what can be trusted and what should be looked at with skepticism.”

Massie recalls one of his HBS professors once joking that entrepreneurship is finding ways to do things that you want using other people's resources. “I identify in many ways with being an entrepreneur,” he says. “As an activist, that's sort of what you are.” He counts himself lucky to have been involved in some trends before they achieved critical mass, issues such as business ethics and the push for greater corporate transparency, for example. These are among the matters addressed by the recently launched Global Reporting Initiative (www.globalreporting.org), which Massie and CERES have been working on for years. “Everybody was talking about reporting, but something concrete needed to happen,” Massie says. “And with GRI, we're about to unveil some well-researched work on corporate governance issues, just as Enron has emerged. I feel like I've been a couple of steps ahead — as an entrepreneur, that's the best you can hope for.”

Indeed, Massie believes that today's headlines about lax corporate controls, conflicts of interest, and ethical shortcomings are really nothing new. “In the long view,” he says, “I see that American democracy, since its inception, has had to figure out how it relates to economic power and rethink that question repeatedly during the life of the republic, just as we are now doing. That's what the campaign finance bill is about, and that's what's sparking the confrontation over who was involved in the administration's energy-policy formulation. Those issues are fundamental because they relate to the question of what is the proper role for private economic power in the conduct of public work. I think the boundary's a little off right now, and that the world's changing rapidly. We need to change with it.”

And what precisely should be the larger goal of society? “I have come to believe,” Massie has written, “that the true test of greatness for any group of people — be they a family, a community, or a nation — is the manner in which they care for those suffering in their midst. Just as we judge parents on the way they educate and care for their children, and friends on their constancy and sensitivity, so should we judge society by the way it assists those who bear life's greatest burdens: the chronically ill, the poor, and the elderly. Our goal should be a society made up of people who are both individually and collectively compassionate.”

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Class of DBA 1989
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