Leon H. Sullivan, the Baptist preacher from Philadelphia who developed widely recognized standards for American corporate behavior in South Africa, would like to see a similar code of business conduct at home.
''If the Sullivan principles were applied right here in Philadelphia," he said recently, "the results would be astounding."Rev. Sullivan, a director of General Motors Corp., drew up the code that bears his name in 1977 to spur racial equality in pay, hiring and promotions among U.S. firms doing business in South Africa. The program was later broadened, and Rev. Sullivan now recommends that U.S. companies engage in corporate civil disobedience by ignoring South Africa's apartheid laws.
What he wants duplicated at home, however, is the requirement that corporate signatories to his principles work for social, educational and economic improvements in their own communities.
In South Africa, some of the 160 U.S. businesses that follow the Sullivan principles have given millions of dollars for black schools, university scholarships, construction of clinics, urban housing projects, development of black-owned companies and rural relief programs, Rev. Sullivan said.
"If this commitment could be transferred to the United States," he said, "It would have a fantastic effect. There are three million significant (U.S.) corporations. If one-fourth of them in our cities had to conform to those principles by assisting in the rehabilitation of the cities, helping to build schools, hospitals, housing, you'd have a renaissance.
"Imagine in Newark if 100 companies came together and said, 'Let us apply the Sullivan principles.' "
If the principles were applied in Philadelphia, he said, corporations would "adopt" city blocks, and groups of companies might "adopt" entire neighborhoods. They would assist in education, job training and housing renovation."You'd have people getting off the relief rolls by the thousands," he said.
Rev. Sullivan's call for a domestic code of business conduct patterned on the one in an African nation where blacks and other minorities are systematically deprived of civil rights might seem surprising.
So critical are conditions in South Africa that GM and International Business Machines Corp. announced plans to dispose of their operations there. In advance of disclosures by IBM and GM, Rev. Sullivan, who became GM's first black director in 1971, spoke to their chief executives and approved their actions, he said. He has recommended a total pullout by all U.S. businesses if South Africa has not begun dismantling its system of racial separation by next May 31.
Meantime, he continues to push for adherence to the Sullivan principles. And he finds important lessons in the corporate social responsibility of some U.S. companies in the land of apartheid.
"A lot of companies in South Africa are doing much more than most of the companies in America," he said. "And most are doing more in South Africa than what they do at home."
He noted that the performance of companies following the Sullivan principles is graded by the Arthur D. Little Co., a Boston management- consulting firm. At the last count, Little reported that 36 U.S. firms with
investments in South Africa were "making good progress" in meeting all of the program goals, 89 were "making progress" and 31 were in the bottom He said the U.S. business sector must launch programs to help the nation's poor and unskilled because the federal government is doing nothing.
"Programs to help poor black people and other minorities are not popular now," he said. "The pressure is off in Washington for this kind of effort. There is no Great Society. There is not even a hint of a war on poverty. There is nothing on the drawing board or even being dis cussed in the higher levels of government."
There has been no massive corporate effort on the scale projected by Rev. Sullivan for community out-reach, in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
While heading Zion Baptist Church for 36 years, Rev. Sullivan, 64, a native of Charleston, W. Va., launched the nation's first black-owned shopping center, Progress Plaza in North Philadelphia, and started a job-training program, Opportunities Industrialization Centers, which operates in nearly 100 U.S. cities and a half-dozen countries of Africa.