One of my entrepreneurial friends recently sent his son, a recent 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 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. Be ready for it. And, two, know who you are: What are your fundamental values? What makes you happy? What do you want your 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.
David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the NY Times, recently described an online discussion he participated in at Stanford (NY Times, May 24, 2012) 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 nonprofit 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 didn't know how to look for soulfulness in business.
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 faux humility. 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 much of what goes under the rubric of eleemosynary acts is closer to cause marketing or personal PR presentation than than soulful 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 have a unique opportunity to explore, develop and exemplify their character and morality in the quotidian. And the best evincement of this is simply to be good and caring and honest in your daily business life, with yourself, your clients, and your employees.
Brooks concludes his op-ed with the following:
"I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into 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.