Are Business Ethics an Oxymoron?
Our daily business ethics speak far louder than the words we utter in synagogue.
Looking at the headlines of the past few years – Bernie Madoff, Enron, the subprime mortgage scandal and a host of other examples – we get the feeling that ethical practices play no role in that world dedicated solely to the goal of maximizing profits.
How remarkable then to discover that this past spring the Harvard Business School sponsored a group of Deans and Professors from around the globe at a symposium that HBS has run for several years, at which the focus of this year's event was "values." What they wanted to tackle was the sticky issue of ethics, of the responsibility business leaders have to "do the right thing."
And this was not an isolated event.
Two years ago I received an amazing invitation. A group known as the Gathering of Titans, comprised of 100 CEOs of major corporations in America, annually get together at a retreat – in this case at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – to discuss issues relevant to their business practices and to hear from prominent experts in various aspects of corporate management. As part of their program, they asked if I could come and lecture as well.
Stunned, I asked what role I could possibly play. I have no business expertise. My rabbinic background hardly qualifies me to teach these titans of industry how to improve their corporate bottom line.
"Somehow along the way we've come to confuse our self-worth with our net worth."
"We understand that," they countered. "That's not why we want you to address us. We all know how to make money. But somehow along the way we've come to confuse our self-worth with our net worth. More and more of us have come to recognize that in the process of making ourselves very wealthy we've impoverished ourselves spiritually. We've cut corners, we compromised our values and we realize we're in great danger of losing our souls.
“We don't want you to preach to us – we just want you to remind us of the proper relationship between business and ethics. We want to know what a religious leader such as yourself believes is the necessary balance between our obligations to our families and to society, between the capitalistic striving for more and the moral requirement for honesty and integrity."
The very first thing I did was to check if the Messiah had already arrived. It was very hard for me to believe that with all of the bad press business leaders were getting there was in fact a consciousness of conscience, an awareness by many that capitalism and moral principles not only could but must coexist.
I attended that retreat, met with famous captains of industry and learned that "man does not live by bread alone" is not a biblical cliché but a profound insight into human nature.
Bread alone is unsatisfying. We need to feel a sense of purpose. We have to know that our lives have meaning. And so I shared with the Gathering of Titans a concept they were very familiar with in their corporate world and asked them to integrate it into their personal lives as well.
Every major company prepares a mission statement. It is a short and succinct summary of what they hope to accomplish as well as the ideals that motivate them. One of the most successful businesses of all time, Google, summarized their objectives as:
"We have a mantra: don't be evil, which is to do the best things we know how for our users, for our customers, for everyone. So I think if we were known for that, it would be a wonderful thing." – Larry Page
"Obviously everyone wants to be successful, but I want to be looked back on as being very innovative, very trusted and ethical and ultimately making a big difference in the world." – Sergey Brin
Imagine if we had similar clarity about personal goals and how we plan to achieve them. Imagine if we took our personal mission statement as seriously as a business manifesto. Imagine if we took the time to decide why God put us here on earth and then went ahead and fulfilled our life's purpose. Imagine if we made our life's mantra not only "don't be evil" but, in more positive fashion, "strive to be good."
Imagine if we took our personal mission statement as seriously as a business manifesto.
What I impressed upon the corporate titans was that surely making a success of our lives is as important as making a success of our businesses. And the two of them are inextricably intertwined. We can't be guided by ethics at home and the law of the jungle at work. One of the two must dominate and come to define our character.
The CEOs were intrigued when I told them that in Hebrew the word avodah means both work and prayer. The connection between them is profound. It is our work and the way we go about it that represents our most powerful relationship to God. Our daily business ethics are the deeds that speak far louder than the words we utter in synagogue.
Almost all of these corporate leaders wanted to see their names immortalized. They were prepared to donate large sums of money to have buildings named after them. Yet they seemed not to realize that what should matter far more than preserving the memory of their names was insuring the value of their reputations.
As a mini project, I asked them to make a list of the five people they most admired, heroic figures from history or present day. We then spent some time analyzing what it was about these men and women that defined their greatness. It quickly became clear that character rather than wealth was the key to the kind of successful life that warrants emulation. When the Titans took the time to consider what really impressed them about others they suddenly realized they lost sight of those goals in their own lives as they went about pursuing more and more material acquisitions.
The insight I shared with them from Ethics of the Fathers, to "Know before whom you are standing and before whom you are destined to give a final accounting," seemed to make a profound impression.
That's why I am very much in favor of a new innovation begun just last year for Harvard Business School graduates in their MBA program. One of the students, Maxwell F. Anderson, had an idea. There should be an MBA oath, in some respects analogous to the Hippocratic Oath that's so famous in medicine. And it should focus on ethics. Perhaps it could help rehabilitate our current notion of business management and elevate it into more of a true profession, in the classic sense, like law and medicine.
With the encouragement of two of his professors and some fellow students, he began to formulate a pledge and to promulgate the idea. He reported that he would have been delighted if a hundred of his classmates signed the pledge before graduation. In fact, more than four times that many did.
And if Harvard MBAs get it, and corporate titans understand it, we certainly ought to focus our attention on the issue of business ethics as one of the most relevant concerns of anyone interested in tikkun olam – perfecting the world.
When we talk about the importance of business ethics as a barometer of spirituality, we need to remind ourselves of the remarkable passage in the Talmud that tells us that after we leave this earth to face our divine judgment, there are many things we will be queried about as the heavenly court reviews our lives. Yet the very first question posed will be: "Were your business dealings conducted honestly?"
And no one will be able to justify his misdeeds by claiming "It was only business!"