Some time ago, I gave a lecture to a group of students who had just entered a teacher-training program. In the group, there was the usual smattering of recent college graduates eager to get started on a teaching career. But there were a number of more wizened faces as well, slightly older people in their thirties and forties who were preparing for their first job in a classroom. Where, I wondered, had they come from? What had brought them to this place, after what must have been some serious attempts at first trying something else?
After the lecture, I hung around to chat. Soon I found out that some of the older students had dropped out of law or medicine, a couple had been in the military, but by far the greatest number had just left careers in business. Had they failed? In many cases, no, at least not in the material sense. Some had been in secure jobs, others said they had been on fast tracks in the corporate world, and still others had run franchises or even started their own profitable enterprises.
What none of these folks professed to have was a sense that they had been accomplishing things that really mattered to them, or even that something of consequence happened when they went to work each day. They were neither especially proud of the work that they were doing nor of the kinds of workers that they had become. For some of these people, this meant a nagging discomfort about the cutthroat acts and semi-shady dealings that they had felt called on to carry out. For others, it was more a depressing sense that they were wasting their time on goals that reflected neither their own deepest concerns nor those of anyone else. These men and women had come to the teaching profession with the expectation that here, at least, they could make a difference in the futures of young people.
I am sure that there are dozens of other fields that attract refugees from the business world. Some people will find the sense of meaningful calling that they had failed to find in business, and others no doubt will continue to drift. Business is by no means the only field in which workers have a hard time finding personal meaning these days.
We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us. While focusing on “how” questions—how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves—often we forget the “why” questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this kind of person?
These “why” questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests. To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to be. Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the “why” questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship—no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea.
In a vague and uncertain way, many people in business realize this. But they do not always know how to act on it. In fact, many have the mistaken belief that too much attention to their deepest purposes and convictions may get in the way of their career goals. They consider their higher aspirations to be often in opposition to the real path to business success. To survive in business, they feel that they need to put their moral values on hold. They may feel forced to trade off their sense of right and wrong, their sense of moral purpose, against their material ambitions. This is not a trade- off that leaves anyone comfortable. Rather, it leaves people feeling co-opted, hijacked away from the places where they were when they started out, a place where they had expected to stay.
Adding to this feeling is the instability of the times, an age of blinding change, with everything from fierce international forces to revolutionary new technologies altering the economic conditions of business daily. Periods of rapid change always escalate the pressure on individuals to abandon their personal moorings. Adapting to a new, often bewildering set of conditions requires so much attention that people may be hard-pressed to keep in mind their most basic orienting principles. Change demands flexibility, a giving up of old ways. It is never easy to decide which of the “old ways” are essential to the very core of one’s identity and sense of purpose, so essential that they can never be given up, whatever the risk. Caught in the midst of this fog, workers struggle to find the right direction, and too often, in a state of quiet panic, they throw overboard the very instruments they need to give them their bearings.
Many people in business today feel lost or “misplaced.” In the normal course of events, however, they rarely articulate this feeling, even to themselves. It is not a happy condition, yet determined workers can manage the discomfort and stay in this state of being indefinitely. Sometimes, though, a crisis yanks them out of this state involuntarily. “Improprieties” are discovered, a company implodes, a reputation is shattered. No matter that the “improprieties” had once been considered routine ways of doing business—someone else is now asking the “why” questions that had been too long ignored. Or, in a less dramatic but still distressing turn of events, a company or a worker runs out of steam and becomes devoid of the strategies, effective ideas, and the focus needed to come back.
It does not need to be this way. There are many chances to do good work in business without compromising your deepest convictions. There are many examples of successful men and women in business who have done so. They draw on all their best values and aspirations as they pursue their career goals. This unity of purpose—a combination of the desires to excel, to accomplish something important, and to act in a decent and responsible way—is characteristic of many successful business leaders, the men and women who have risen to the top and stayed there, year after year.
How to develop this unity of purpose and enduring focus— what I call “the moral advantage”—is the subject of this book. To provide living examples of how this is done, I draw on cases of forty-eight business leaders whom my colleagues and I interviewed for our study of “good work.” As a way of setting an illuminating contrast, I also note a case or two in which the moral advantage was sorely lacking, an experience I know firsthand from a youthful misadventure in my own high-school years.
Why do people go into business to begin with? Although we each may have our own particular reasons, the most general answer is “to make a lot of money”—an answer that is true enough as far as it goes. Moneymaking is an essential aim, a necessary condition, an index of success, a desired prize, the most sought-after “coin of the realm” for anyone in business. Without monetary gain, or at least the anticipation of it, a life in business is not much of a life.
But this obvious answer, when taken out of context, can be misleading. Indeed it has been misleading for too many people, especially those struggling to get their bearings in a field rife with obsessions about the fiscal bottom line. There is nothing more futile than a narrow, tunnel-vision devotion to financial gain as a lone goal. Although everyone who goes into business naturally wants to make plenty of money, those who are destined to succeed in the most satisfying ways go into business with dreams of accomplishment that are far more interesting—and rewarding—than monetary gain for its own sake.
As a business career plays out, for better or for worse, in most cases money ends up being just one part of the story—and usually not the most memorable part. Some people who single-mindedly attempt to achieve financial success without keeping in touch with their other goals and values burn out, fail, or eke out mediocre careers in insignificant corners of the business world. Those who do manage to achieve financial success without satisfying their other aspirations often end up feeling barren and dispirited. Those who truly thrive year in and year out, building enduring careers that provide them with recognition in their work and meaning in their personal lives, keep a bottom line of a different sort in mind while they pursue their financial goals.
As a life-span developmental psychologist, I have met hundreds of people who have left, or are longing to leave, their business careers to enter other vocational paths. Some leave after records of success and financial reward, some leave broke and feeling beaten up. Others leave their professions because they couldn’t stand the pressure, still others because they didn’t like their positions on the corporate ladder, or because they found the work boring or meaningless, or because they hoped to find a more fulfilling or personally rewarding vocation. Each story of longing and departure looks different from all the others, and each has its own unique pattern of reasons and regrets.
Underlying all the variety, I have noticed one thing that many of these stories have in common: People leaving business careers often complain that they were forced to give up the values and purposes that led them to choose business in the first place. In other words, they felt that they had drifted away from their initial, fundamental moorings and they did not like where they were ending up.
More than a dozen years ago, my wife and coauthor Anne Colby and I examined the lives of another twenty-three Americans—not, for the most part, businesspeople, although there were three or four in the group who fitted that bill. What the twenty-three had in common was that they all had dedicated their lives to charitable service and other altruistic causes. The work that they were doing was hard and risky, often without apparent reward. I knew that we would find these people admirable in many ways, but before our study I had little sense of how appreciative they themselves were of their own chosen paths. In fact, I rather expected to find this group conducting their lives with a kind of grim fortitude, constantly fending off despair and gearing up their courage.
It turned out that nothing could be further from the truth. The joy and positivity that these extraordinary men and women expressed about their opportunities to serve was astonishing. They each denied that they ever had demonstrated self-sacrifice, fortitude, or courage. Rather, they said their actions felt so automatic and involuntary that they never questioned or doubted their work, and that they rarely worried about dangers or other adverse personal consequences. For example, Suzie Valadez, a lifelong missionary, said her work felt as natural as moving out of the way of a speeding bus. She had relocated from California to Ciudad Juarez for forty years in order to bring schooling and medical care to Mexican families who had been scraping out an existence on the edge of a garbage dump. In other words, there was no sense of trade-off in the choices that our twenty-three exemplars made. They did not feel that they were sacrificing something by committing themselves to good work. They were doing what they wanted to do, and they felt as fulfilled as any people we have known in our own personal or professional lives.
That study stayed with me intellectually and emotionally long after its completion, in part because of its message that some people find ways to do enormous good in the world without becoming martyrs, silent sufferers, or good-natured victims. Admittedly, these people were unusual. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that such people travel in many circles, not only among the ranks of those whose life work is dedicated to wholly altruistic causes such as charitable service. In industry, in the arts, in the professions, I could think of many renowned people who approach their work in such a manner: accepting no trade-offs between ambition and integrity, between success and purpose.
At that point I had a strange thought, strange not because of its oddity but because of its violation of our conventional cynicism: Perhaps certain kinds of success—the most significant and enduring kinds—actually depend on a determination to accept no compromises or trade-offs in our moral convictions. That is, perhaps the moral road is the surest path to both success and fulfillment. Perhaps for all of us, it is wisest to aim for alignment between our moral and personal goals rather than calculating how much and how often we should pay tribute to the moral versus the personal.
Of course this is not the usual way of thinking about the relation between business and morality. Observers of business usually assume that people at the top must put their moral values on hold to get ahead. Competitive achievement is often viewed as morally compromised to begin with. Enterprise for profit is seen as fundamentally self-serving. Good work, it is assumed, can only be done at the margins, on the sly, or after one has made one’s bundle. Those who have made the case for capitalism’s moral core—Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, Frederick Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter in the mid-twentieth century, Thomas Sowell and Michael Novak more recently—often have been considered little more than apologists for the powerful and wealthy.
But how do those in the arena actually see it? How do business- people, especially the “captains of industry” considered by many to be morally suspect, orient to their work? Do they approach their moral obligation as an unwelcome nuisance, a public relations chore, a constraint that they wish they could do away with? Or might their sense of moral purpose be at the heart of their achievements and success?
After examining the lives and careers of the business leaders profiled in this book, I can write with confidence that many of them operate out of a sense of purpose, often moral in tone, and a commitment to conduct themselves in an ethical way. Their personal ambitions, their aspirations to contribute something important to the world, and their personal values are thoroughly intertwined, in many cases inseparable. These leaders draw creativity and staying power from their senses of purpose, and they subject themselves to the discipline imposed by their commitment to ethical standards.
The message of this book is that anyone can operate in this way—a way that, sooner or later, will bestow a moral advantage on both one’s career and one’s search for personal fulfillment. This does not always come easily, especially under conditions of financial pressure and rapid change. But many of these leaders have learned how to function in this way, often by looking at the example of those who have found ways to do so in other challenging circumstances.
I will never forget a realization I had when examining the question of how some journalists manage to do good work despite the deterioration of the overall conditions in the media industry. From national news anchors to cub reporters in an obscure country town, some of the country’s best reporters keep the same portrait over their desks: the determined visage of Edward R. Murrow, an icon of journalistic excellence and integrity. Many reporters look to that picture whenever they have a moment of doubt about what to do next. What would Murrow do? This is also the way they keep in touch with their own convictions. By acting in the manner of a revered exemplar, they can pass their own “mirror test”: they like what they see in their own reflections.
All businesspeople can benefit from the instructive and inspiring examples of those who use moral means to achieve enduring success. But in the business community at large there are not many widely revered icons such as Ed Murrow. Nor have all people in business had the benefit of real-life mentors who exemplify admirable qualities. As a consequence, many businessmen and -women often come up empty-handed when they search for guidance on this front. This book intends to fill that need.
The notion that moral purpose can play an important role is not new. What is new here is a detailed account of the various and particular ways in which this works, beginning with the generative role that moral purpose can play. As I show throughout the book, a sense of moral purpose can be a fertile source of innovation in business. It can be a wellspring of creative inspiration, not merely a restraint on illegitimate behavior. This is not the kind of moral awareness that you will read about in many business ethics courses—which, of course, is why so few students pay attention to their business-school ethics requirements. As I formulate it in this book, the moral advantage is a positive way of thinking about morality that transforms both the worker and the work, a powerful force that can propel people toward their own goals while at the same time generating great benefits for society.
We administered a semistructured interview that questioned participants about their goals, values, influences, career and life histories, and views of the business world. The interview usually took about two or three hours, although there were a few that went longer or shorter. We told about half the participants that we were interviewing them because they had demonstrated high achievement and moral excellence in their careers. For the other half, as a research control, we simply said that we were interviewing them because of their high achievement. With just one exception, there were no perceptible differences in the two sets of interviews. (The one exception was that the group with whom we used the word moral made somewhat more mention of their philanthropic contributions.) On the main issues covered in this book, the two sets of interviews were essentially the same, so I have used them together for the sake of my conclusions here.
A. Colby and W. Damon, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment, New York: Free Press, 1992.