In Pursuit of Moral Identity


In Pursuit of Moral Identity

No one begins—or ends—a business career as a pure saint or sinner. There is a great deal of continuity between those who commit the most egregious acts of corruption and those who shine as models of integrity. But there is one crucial difference: at some point in their careers, probably sooner rather than later, those who were destined to become examples of integrity stopped the corruption train dead in its tracks. They come to terms with their own baser desires. They honestly admit their mistakes when they make them and take responsibility for these mistakes. These business leaders decide that they will aim for a higher purpose, that they will take a higher road in getting there. They think hard about the kind of person they want to be, the face they want to look at in the mirror each day, the legacy that they wish to leave behind when they have finished their life’s work. In short, these people forge for themselves a moral identity that defines their character in honorable ways and points the direction to careers that are rewarding in multiple ways—personally, financially, socially, spiritually.



How to Forge a Moral Identity in Business: A Ten-Point Approach

Anyone can forge a moral identity in business, but how? In this book, I have drawn key lessons from men and women who have successfully forged such identities. I end this book with ten principles that I have gleaned from their stellar business careers:

  1. Find a larger purpose that inspires your work. People who are truly successful in business strive to “make a difference,” to leave the world a better place by virtue of their career accomplishments. This does not mean that they neglect the moneymaking side of their business pursuits—far from it—but rather that they are always mindful of what these pursuits contribute to the world.

  2. It is never too early to find a noble purpose in your business career— and it is never too late. Successful businesspeople find noble purposes at many phases of their careers, and in many ways. Some discover it by learning lessons of “negative morality” from their early mistakes, There is no single right road to a business career of purpose. There are many roads. The way that works for you is the right way.

  3. The path to success in business begins with an act of self-discovery. Getting in touch with all your motives and desires, from the mundane to the spiritual, will help you figure out how to pursue them all without compromise during those high-pressure times when it may become tempting to let your most noble aspirations go. Once you discover the core goals that define the kind of life you most want to live and the kind of person you most want to be, you will have found a moral compass that can keep you steadily on target as you move forward in your career.

  4. Find mentors who represent models of success and integrity. By observing a successful businessperson, you can learn about how to pursue the kind of career that will give you the most personal satisfaction. One excellent way to do this is to develop an apprentice-like relationship with someone whom you admire, who can show you what a moral identity in business looks like in the flesh and blood. The best leaders in the business world see such mentoring as part of the service for which they should use their positions of authority. Seek out such leaders—they will welcome the chance to advance your career with this kind of moral mentoring.

  5. Use your moral imagination to generate creative business solutions. Many of the best ideas for new products and services come out of a quest to fulfill a moral purpose. Similarly, the best managerial solutions to tough personnel problems can be found through applications of your moral sense. A sensitivity to what consumers need, and a determination to respond effectively to that need, inspires winning entrepreneurial concepts. A commitment to a caring and ethical manner of doing business inspires inventive approaches to organizing employees. Among all of our creative mental tools, the moral imagination has the greatest reach and staying power, because we will go to the mat for the things in which we deeply believe. Successful new business concepts often require this kind of staying power, because without a sustaining sense of purpose, the early results from any new idea often can be discouraging.

  6. Use your moral imagination to transport yourself into the thoughts and feelings of everyone in your business world. These include partners, employers and employees, customers, investors, and other community members. The empathy that results from this act of imaginative role-taking grants you the capacity to deal with these people in a productive and problem-free manner. It enables you to conduct your business relations according to the principle of the Golden Rule, treating others as you would like to be treated. This is a proven formula for enduring career success.

  7. 7. Stay humble, especially after gaining financial power and influence over others. When success turns into arrogance, we often lose our capacity to learn from our mistakes—or even to notice when we are making mistakes. Pridefulness harms everyone, and ultimately it can destroy the very purpose that has fueled our accomplishments. The only way to avoid this constant danger is to keep a healthy and balanced perspective on ourselves. Ironically, this can be hardest to do when performing the purest of charitable acts, giving money away through philanthropy. Many businessmen and -women who have turned to philanthropy fail the most basic test of doing more good than harm with their charitable gifts. The rules for succeeding in philanthropy are the same as those for succeeding in any business: keep a clear focus on your overall purpose, conduct all your relationships in an honorable manner, and retain your humility even as everyone is hanging on your every word.

  8. Find and sustain your ethical bearings by paying attention to both the ends that you seek and the means by which you seek them. There are three questions that you should ask in your pursuit of any business goal: what am I trying to achieve, why am I trying to achieve it, and how am I going about it? Ethics will flow naturally, without special efforts, when you find clear and honorable answers to all three questions. These answers will be the best protection against the hazards to reputation and career that often come from the temptations to compromise that are ever-present in the business world. The integrity of character resulting from a wholehearted ethical commitment of this kind is an invaluable reward in itself, one that leads to great personal satisfaction.

  9. Resist the cynicism and discouragement that may arise with the realization of how far from perfect you really are. We all operate with a mix of motives, and a moral life is found in the constant effort to do your best, and rarely in a pursuit of absolute altruistic purity. Anyone who expects perfection in this life is bound to become disappointed—including perfection from ourselves. We are obligated to do our best—indeed, it is in our own long- term interests to do so—but keep in mind that we are only human. We must set our expectations accordingly, so that we can avert the disillusionment that comes from an inflated sense of who we are and what we will be able to accomplish.

  10. When you attain a leadership position, consider it a service rather than a privilege, and use it to pass your purpose on to others. In particular, find positive ways to influence the younger employees. Set up apprenticeships. Get young people engaged in the noble causes that inspire you. Mentor them in the same way that you have been mentored by the exemplars whom you have admired (see number 4 above). Young people need role models who can show them how to find their “callings” in their work. When you pass a noble purpose on to a younger generation, you place the purpose in the hands of people who can pursue it with new talents, fresh energies, and their own innovative visions. This is bound to bring the purpose closer to realization than anything you could have done on your own. It is your gift to the young, a way of helping the next generation find the meaning that you have sought, cultivated, and treasured in your own life.