I must say I find myself most distrustful on the whole subject of business ethics, though nothing is more important to me and I write about it a lot. I can understand why the very subject causes some of my friends to go into conniptions of eye-rolling cynicism.
I deeply believe that the truly engaged entrepreneur is embarked only secondarily on a road to riches. Of course, we must make money. But the really successful entrepreneur is the one engaged in creating meaning and context in a free and vital life–one who believes money is a natural byproduct of creating something good. Entrepreneurship offers a unique vehicle to create just that–an Argosy for pursuing the Golden Fleece of a useful, generous, true, and centered life. (As Peter Drucker puts it, “Let your life be your endgame.”)
Meaning is an alternate coinage and a storehouse of value for entrepreneurial success. It is like a karmic Bitcoin for capitalists–a Bitcoin redeemable in human dignity, personal significance, earned community, and constantly growing richness of being. And meaning is the key to business ethics.
There is substantial academic attention given to the subject of ethics these days. There are two academic journals solely devoted to the subject, The Journal of Business Ethics and Ethics Quarterly, as well as countless seminars and speeches on the subject at our most learned institutions. Certainly bad actors like Bernie Madoff, The London Whale, and Enron, and movies like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street have often brought the subject front and center in the last two decades. Yet business schools address ethics with courses that seem to me to be kind of bolted onto their curriculum as inorganic afterthoughts to their case studies, analytic techniques, methods of financial engineering, and commitment to “maximizing shareholder value.”
(Several years ago I was amused to read that Michael Lewis, who wrote scathingly of the Wall Street culture of fraud and self-serving in Liar’s Poker, reported business students who read his book frequently viewed it as an instruction manual on how to do business. They actually wrote him to ask for tips on how to succeed by applying the techniques of the cesspool he documented.)
Lazlo Zsolnai, professor of ethics and director of the Business Ethics Center at Corvinus University in Budapest, said the following in a blog post last year:
“The recent economic and financial crisis shows that business ethics lost its credibility and relevance. It became evident that business ethics teaching did not change the general attitude of managers in mainstream business. Ethics and compliance programs were not able to prevent major banks and big corporations to enter into questionable practices and make dirty businesses all over the world. One explanation of the betrayal of business ethics is that our discipline did not question the underlying models of mainstream business, namely profit maximization and agency theory. Also, business ethics did not have the courage to challenge institutional structure.”
Independent entrepreneurs are pioneering autodidacts. Each has a different path. They are experientially taught and open to the new. They have the opportunity to define their own center free of the shortsighted, shallow philosophical underpinning of much of contemporary institutional business pedagogy.
So, in a large sense, I would say the greatest gift offered to the free-spirited creative businessperson is the opportunity to make meaning as well as money for himself, his employees, his customers, his society, his universe. We are not chained to the flawed institutional learnings from normative business training.
Ethics is bone-deep, intuitive goodness. It is doing the right thing in our smallest actions when no one is looking. There are many paths to come to it. We entrepreneurs are uniquely given an institution that allows us to create customized moral paths to both meaning and money.