The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, but it Bends Toward Justice

The quote used as the title of this post – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – is such a great MLK quote. While it would be true to say it’s my favorite MLK quote, I’m not well read enough on his work to really have that opinion. That said, you may recognize it as President Obama re-popularized this phrase during both his campaign and presidency. It supposedly meant so much to him, he had the quote inscribed into a rug in the Oval Office. So what, you may be asking, does this quote have to do with a blog post from an investor? Well if you’ll allow me some latitude, I’ll weave my own arc of how I got there.

I was fortunate on a recent vacation to actually be able to take some time and unplug. To read. To think. And to think about I / we do, and what we want to do. Looking back at what we have done, and what I have done now for 20+ years of my career, those activities has been heavily focused on working with people and teams in an effort to help organizations grow and to (hopefully) create increasing enterprise values over time. It hasn’t always gone perfectly, in fact in some cases it hasn’t even gone well (well that’s not entirely true, it almost always goes well for some of the time, but over the duration there have been a few stinkers in the end…). And a big part of our fundamental first principal beliefs is that in order for a company or organization to grow – it has to be focused on growth oriented activities (e.g. strategic planning, hiring and retaining top talent, developing that talent, developing a strong culture, investing in change, innovation and growth, etc.). Most organizations are not focused on these activities.

So when I intersected this quote again recently, as excellent as it is, I noticed that people are quick to point out that on it’s own, it can be misleading. And I would agree with that. On it’s own, it seems to imply that the arc is bending whether people are leaning into making change or not. And to me it’s obvious, the arc is indeed always bending, but it doesn’t always bend towards justice, and it damn sure doesn’t bend towards justice all on its own over the long-term. In this way, a company’s growth is similar.

A company’s growth is not pre-determined just because it always used to grow, or because leadership thinks it should or will continue to grow. Growth requires work. Bending in the right direction requires work. In fact, in later speeches, Obama actually said: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.” Amen – and it’s the same for the arc of a company or any other organization. If you aren’t focusing on growth and improvement, you’re likely evolving and bending in the wrong direction: toward decay, toward atrophy. You are not sitting still. Ever.

For some additional interesting (to me anyway) historical perspective, it turns out MLK cribbed the whole concept from a gent named Theodore Parker. Parker was around in the first half of the 19th century and was a Transcendentalist and Unitarian church minister. There’s another entire rat hole of Internet pages to click through to explore those concepts. Interesting stuff. Anyway, Parker, in speaking of his belief for the long-term success of the abolitionist movement, said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” So it turns out that he, Obama, and MLK all indeed understood that you have to lean in to try and bend it the right way. What are you leaning into it with your company or organization and which direction is it bending?