Business: A Noble Activity

Lapin Business bashing is in vogue. The media, politicians, and academics too often delight in blaming big business for society's ills.  Sure, business owns some of the responsibility for the bashing, but many business leaders are upright men and women who have made inordinately important contributions to society and to their communities, and many businesses are conducted on high standards of ethics and humanity. When attacked, business leaders should avoid becoming defensive about an activity that is inherently noble and generous. Business: noble and generous? Isn't that an oxymoron?  No it isn't, and here's why. More than in any other activity, business prosperity flows from service. Most of the successful business leaders I have met put the interests of their stakeholders before their own. They seek to understand their customers' needs and satisfy them. They worry about the returns they give to people who entrusted them with capital, their investors. They service their creditors, take care of their employees, and make a difference to the communities in which they operate. All the while they balance the interests of these stakeholders, trying to grow the pie of prosperity sufficiently to satisfy all without compromise to any. The business leader is himself or herself one of these stakeholders: either an investor or an employee or both. Provided his or her interests are aligned with those of the other stakeholders, the model works. All stakeholders benefit from the creation of value for others. The model fails when interests are not aligned. Executives who are heavily rewarded for short-term growth without any downside risk or investment in the enterprise's long-term future are not true stakeholders. Their decisions can often be driven by short-term self-interest at the longer-term expense of true stakeholders. This was the case in the financial services industry prior to 2008, and I am not sure they have made fundamental changes in remuneration misalignment since then.  Wall Street's insatiable hunger for short-term growth is another contributor to unethical business decisions. We would be right to bash models of unaligned interests created by poorly conceived and selfish incentive plans. People are justified in their criticism of Wall Street's value system. These criticisms, however, should not lead us to also undermine the inherently worthy activity of growing value and serving others, which underpins the very essence of business. The fact that a business and its stakeholders benefit from the service it gives to others does not invalidate the innate generosity of what it does. Generosity does not only apply to charity. An individual is generous any time he or she strives to give others more than the minimum to which they are entitled. The fact that an individual or entity's generosity is often rewarded with recognition, loyalty, or even financial prosperity does not negate their generous nature, provided the generosity is a value, not a tool of manipulation. The test of whether generosity is a business value or a tool for gain should be the focus of attention. When a businessperson focuses on how to give away as little as possible to any or all of their stakeholders, they are selfish. Instead, when their focus is on how to give each stakeholder as much as possible without impinging on the rights of other stakeholders, they are generous. I am humbled by the generosity of thought and deed I have experienced in many of the business leaders with whom I work. Granted, because of the nature of the work we do, our clients, to some degree, self-select.  Lapin International's clients are organizations generally led by men and women of high integrity and great character, but the results they achieve and the growth they accomplish demonstrate that generosity and business success is not an oxymoron. Serving others and growing value is a generous activity, and honest business is a noble career.

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