Sales guru Brian Tracy once said, "If you wish to achieve worthwhile things in your personal and career life, you must become a worthwhile person in your own self-development."
One of my entrepreneurial friends recently sent his son, a graduate of Columbia Business School, to me for advice about beginning his life in business. It got me thinking about the real reason to be a businessman. Again.
This particular business parvenu will have no trouble garnering multiple offers. He is obviously very bright, confident, and of an elite educational lineage. He certainly will not need my my advice or help to set foot onto a successful life path. I told him two things about my experience. One, your life will be hugely affected by luck. Look for it and be ready for it. And two, know who you are in your core. What are your fundamental values? What makes you happy? What do you want your life to mean? What do you want your business life to mean?
Increasingly I find these questions are not the questions being asked by a new generation of business leadership. There is a lack of moral vocabulary or even the interest in it.
David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the NY Times, has frequently written about this societal conundrum. He once described an online discussion he participated in at Stanford University about why so many elite students go into finance and business consulting. Brooks was somewhat dismayed that these students had a "blinkered" view of their options. "There's crass but affluent investment banking. There's the poor but noble non-profit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously." But Brooks notes that these elite people are uncomfortable with moral evaluation of business process or service. And this elite cadre of young leaders looked askance, if at all, on things like social work, nursing, ministry, etc. They simply no longer know how to look for soulfulness in business or the numinous in everyday life.
One thing that often bothers me about the "good works" of businessmen is that it can be infused with ego, either in the form of self-aggrandizement or sometimes a public faux humility (a form of "humble bragging"). Likewise, with ethics. It seems to me that ethics, much like entrepreneurship itself, is not something that can be picked up with classes in business school. I find that much of what goes under the rubric of eleemosynary acts is closer to cause-related marketing or personal glorification than soul generosity. As Brooks puts it, "...community service has become a patch for morality."
What is lacking is a sense of business vocation itself as a spiritual journey. (I am reminded of Peter Drucker's exhortation to make your life your endgame.)
Entrepreneurs, particularly, have a unique opportunity to explore, develop, and exemplify their character and morality in the quotidian.
The best evincement of this for the creative businessman is simply to be good and caring and honest in daily business life---with self, with clients, and with employees. To create a "culture of goodness." The entrepreneurial company is a uniquely free institution in American society from which to craft a value system as well as a capitalist enterprise. In a society lost in anomie, an entrepreneur has the true opportunity to craft and mold a mini-kingdom of decency as well as profit. A through-branded culture of righteousness, if you will.
Furthermore, creating a culture of goodness is ultimately a selfish business act. It simply pays off in good will, business trust, and client collegiality.
Brooks sums up this case rather nicely with the following. "I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about what to do. It's worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job."
Thank you, David Brooks.