Lacking integrity in business can be a death sentence. We’ve seen it happen countless times, even in organizations that were considered “too big to fail” like Enron, the Lehman Brothers, and most recently, The Weinstein Company. Business leaders who do not conduct themselves with integrity may very well climb to the top of the corporate ladder but they also create turmoil while getting there, and threaten the longevity of an organization.
Personal or professional success in business does not necessitate the kind of behavior exhibited by the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff. More than that, it mustn’t. Business in a democracy does not function in a vacuum of ethics. It acts as a vital weave in the fabric of society, shaping the mutual exchange of benefits.
It is not naive to suggest the goal of business should not be exclusively about making enormous profit. It is simply realistic. Profit matters, of course. But it is foolish and self-limiting to assume that business can generate maximum profitability only by dispensing with respect for large numbers of the people it affects. Businesses function within communities. And in many ways, individual businesses shape themselves as unique communities whose members include employees, partners, suppliers, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders.
Proposing that a business operation has an obligation to make a positive influence on its surroundings by assuming a positive role in the economic and social welfare of the community is not socialist. It is simply good business. It pays dividends many times over in satisfied employees and customers, growth and sustainable profits—and in improved performance overall.
Some may remain convinced that the only purpose in launching a business or throwing yourself into a corporate sprint is to garner obscene amounts of money, and do whatever it takes to accumulate it. Setting and maintaining a strict code of ethics, they may suggest, is a bunch of idealistic malarkey. So I would introduce them to Maxwell F. Anderson or read them the story of his poll at Harvard Business School (HBS). Anderson, an HBS student, had this wacky idea that Harvard MBA students should take an oath swearing they would act ethically as businesspeople after earning their degree and immersing themselves in business.
Harvard MBA students represent a highly competent and highly committed group of present or future business professionals whose career goals are at least as elevated as anyone with CEO ambitions. With all that motivation and training, how many would be concerned about something as trivial as vowing to act according to high ethical standards? One HBS professor told Anderson that fewer than one hundred students were likely to make the promise. Within a week he had gathered almost 350 pledges, and many more followed.
Anderson’s simple poll does not ensure that every Harvard MBA graduate left the school with an undying conviction to set flawless standards for ethical behavior. But vowing to back words with deeds represents something of substance. There aren’t degrees of integrity, occasional honesty, or part-time Christians. You’re either in or you’re out.
Donald Lee Sheppard is author of the book “The Dividends of Decency: How Values-Based Leadership Will Help Business Flourish In Trump’s America,” published in April 2018. Sheppard founded a communications consulting firm, Sheppard Associates, and he is currently the CEO of Sheppard Properties, LLC. Learn more about Sheppard at www.donsheppard.com.
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