In his dissertation, Pär Vasko twists and turns the fundamental assumptions about man in two key theoretical positions within corporate governance. What drives managers and business leaders? Do the driving forces have to be limited to the framework for one theory or the other? Can it not be both? Vasko studies whether it is possible to hold a more philosophical, existential discussion when theorising about man. Perhaps everything is not that black and white, not either or. It could also be both. In his dissertation, Vasko claims that we are constantly striving for something, and that is the very meaning. That is how we shape the future – together.
Pär Vasko originally comes from the city of Piteå in the far north of Sweden but moved to Småland in autumn 2015 when he started studying on the programme Enterprising and Business Development at Linnaeus University. After completing his studies, he worked at a bank for a few years, as financial adviser to both private individuals and smaller companies. However, he longed for scientific work and the exciting environment at the School of Business and Economics and returned to Linnaeus University in 2012, as project assistant at first and then as teacher. In parallel with his work, he completed a 1-year master’s in marketing, 2013–2014. He took part in a research project 2013–2014 and commenced his doctoral studies in the summer of 2017.
Vasko’s dissertation is positioned within business administration and research on corporate governance; that is to say, how companies are governed. A corporate governance aim is to create predictability and openness to help, for instance, investors understand what type of company they are investing in, what processes are in place, and how the company works. It is about working in line with legislation, regulations, and doing the right thing. If something goes wrong – what measures are introduced?
“All big companies have what is called a corporate governance report. If, for instance, you study H&M’s corporate governance report, you will see when meetings take place, the outline for the annual general meeting, how the election committee should be appointed, and what ethical principles should be adhered to. This is a very important part in the understanding of corporate governance in a broad sense, and the concept of responsibility is key here”, explains Vasko.
Part of a board’s responsibility is to be responsible for the future direction and the future strategic direction. This plays a major role in Vasko’s dissertation where he describes how leaders and managers, with vastly different conditions, constantly work to shape this future direction. This shaping process must take many different interests into account at the same time. There are economic and empathetic interests, a search for meaning.
“I have used a slightly different, alternative approach. My dissertation is philosophical, but it explores two theoretical discussions within corporate governance. I have an interest in the research discussion that is conducted between two central theoretical positions – stewardship theory and agency theory. This research discussion is exciting as it is polemical, emotional, and sharp”, says Vasko.
“If, on the one hand, we assume that man acts based on the theoretical ideal homo economicus, the economic man, then the ideal is connected to assumptions about man as rational, profit-maximising, and ruled by self-interest. If we take the link to governance into account, we need a control system as we think that if a person is ruled by self-interest then the person is inclined to do everything in their power to enrich themselves. Thus, conflict is unavoidable. Conflict in this case is a conflict between a CEO and a board. If our starting point is homo economicus and both parties are ruled by self-interest, then we must have control structures. This is one of the two theoretical positions and it is called agency theory”, Vasko continues.
What unites us is that we are constantly committed to the idea that we can shape our future.
“The other position that I have examined is called stewardship theory and it makes fundamentally different assumptions; that is to say, man is not at all an economic being in the sense that man is always ruled by rationality and self-interest, but instead man is empathetic and strives for what is best for the group. Also in situations where there may be conflicting interests, a steward will choose what is best for the group, the organisation, and the surrounding community”, Vasko explains.
A consequence of these diametrically opposing ways of viewing man is that the discourse becomes very polarised. That is to say, theorists who represent the two positions claim that they are correct, which means that those who support the other position must be wrong.
“That’s where existentialism comes in. It’s a subjective philosophy that is based on the premise of individual people who see the world in their own way. What unites us is that we are constantly committed to the idea that we can shape our future. On Wednesday, this will happen, in three years, this… We are constantly striving towards something and, thereby, creating a meaningful present. Just imagine what will be possible – in the future! I would say, with support in existentialism, that this strive is the meaning of it all. There is no predetermined path forward, instead we create it all the time. And we do this because we need to see some type of meaningful future for our company or organisation. The alternative would be odd: to strive towards a meaningless future. I think it would be difficult to sell this to employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders. My dissertation twists and turns what is taken for granted and seeks to set theoretical assumptions in motion to establish a position, an opportunity to understand and theorise about people – leaders and managers – beyond the idea that it must be either or. This is what I mean when I explore existential philosophy as a possible point of departure. In light of the prevailing discourse, which is based on a thinking of either/or, an alternative presents itself here, to think existentially, in terms of both/and”, Vasko continues.
“In order to theorise from an existential position while remaining within the framework of existential tradition, essays can be a way to write and theorise. The term essay comes from French and means roughly ‘attempt’ to discuss a scientific subject in a personal way. I’ve done this in my analysis, which consists of three essays in which I discuss three empirical/practical situations in the light of some existential concepts. An essay, I would say, is a way of writing a text that bridges the theoretical abstract and the practical concrete. It's also a way to theorise about man (here: leaders and managers) that they, hopefully, will be familiar with”, explains Vasko.
“Basically, I’m trying to establish an alternative way of approaching the existence that we are all part of, regardless of whether we are leaders, managers, employees – or humans for that matter. To me, existentialism is a way to seek understanding of both oneself and others. It challenges, it requires an open mind, and it twists and turns what I think I know. My ambition is that we can challenge ourselves and others by not getting stuck in how things are, and by breaking loose from perceptions of how we are. What happens if we were to wonder what could be? What happens if we think in terms of both/and – and not only in terms of either/or?”, says Vasko.
“Existential understanding can be seen as a way to take small details in our existence into account and letting ourselves contemplate on these. One example could be: Why do we postpone meetings time after time even though we could make a decision right here and now? Existentially, it can be understood as the vertigo of freedom, that it’s exhausting to constantly ‘create future’ together with others. We cannot understand the consequences of our decisions until afterwards, and it can be dizzying to make a decision now, is roughly what Simone de Beauvoir would have said”, Vasko concludes.
Pär Vasko, phone +4670-200 13 00, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Four questions about research
How come you became interested in conducting research?
“I’ve always been interested in the big questions and in getting the opportunity to take part in the discussions that are held at, for instance, a university. The academic world is very special to me, a place where I get the opportunity to seek understanding, big and small, regarding the theoretically abstract as well as for each other. To create knowledge is by no means easy, on the contrary, it is often challenging and difficult, but it is also meaningful once you have gotten so far that you can share it with others. At that point, it has been worth all the moments of doubt and hesitation. That’s exactly what I hope to contribute with to my students, to make them curious about seeking understanding together with others”.
What is the most exciting thing about conducting research?
“It’s the very strive for understanding that is most exciting. Meeting students, other researchers, and practices, all of them shedding light on so many different aspects of our existence in their own way”.
Did you reach any “critical point” and/or had an eye-opening experience during your doctoral studies? When, how, what?
“There were times when I felt completely enclosed by new impressions and insights, and it has been a transforming journey in general. There have been days and weeks when nothing moved forward and everything just stood still. When my writing came to a standstill and I couldn’t figure out how to move forward. Then, all of a sudden, something happened, a small step in an unpredicted direction led me forward. In these moments, I thought a lot about a Tranströmer poem that goes something like this, ‘in the middle of the forest there is a forgotten clearing that can only be found by someone who is lost’. I’ve found this clearing a couple of times, and it has given me a sense of security, that it is ok to be where I am at. Sometimes, these moments have come when I’ve been listening to a radio show, like when I listened to a programme about Miles Davis in which he thought that music really consists of silence, and the tones provide the framework for this silence. When I heard this, I could suddenly write the chapter that deals with being and nothingness”.
Will you continue to conduct research?
“Yes, my next step is a larger project together with professor Daniel Ericsson, within music and entrepreneurship. It’s a five-year project that is funded by The Kamprad Family Foundation. We have already gotten started on the project and I’m really looking forward to this new challenge”.