Every American is now painfully aware of significant misconduct at Enron, Anderson, WorldCom, Tyco, ImClone... et al. Every American knows that a fundamental failure of business integrity at a handful of enterprises has unfairly harmed employees, stockholders, customers and communities as entire companies have come tumbling down. Virtually all of the news coverage of these commercial crimes has focused on their impact on "cash and careers." One can readily see why.
Cash: The personal wealth of millions of our fellow citizens has been substantially undermined — not because of market forces, but because of misdeeds and misinformation. Investors cannot make wise investments based upon faulty numbers and reprehensible conduct. One hears stories of couples and individuals who meticulously saved for their children's education or their own retirement, only to learn that fraud has dashed those plans. As confidence in business leaders has fallen, so has the value of the entire equities market. Investors no longer know who or what to believe.
Careers: Tens of thousands of careers at Enron, Anderson, WorldCom and others have been shattered because of moral failures. Thousands of able, ethical Anderson employees come to mind, suddenly out of work because a few of their colleagues on the Enron account abandoned the fundamental standards upon which public accounting and the trust it engenders is built.
However, most commentators have forgotten to include perhaps the most important factor in all of this: country. Let us as citizens assess the damage these blows have done to our republic, our commercial republic.
Across history, the only free societies have been commercial societies. Indeed, there are important things that private enterprises large and small do each day that build and sustain free societies. Such practices don't guarantee freedom, but they create the environment for its establishment and sustenance. While you may rarely hear it from academia, Hollywood, the news media or government, the virtues inherent in commercial life are central to any successful democratic republic.
Why is that so? We all learn best by doing. As it happens, business is all about doing, about putting ideas into action in the service of others. Every business seeks to succeed. And successful enterprises require the very virtues every republic needs instilled in her citizens. Good citizens, like good businessmen, are not born; they are fashioned by noble habits. Consider the virtues companies must practice daily to be successful:
- Sacrifice & Investment: Businessmen invest to serve the needs of others before themselves.
- Service: The words "May I help you?" ennoble everyone who sincerely says them.
- Teamwork: Every employee's job security depends on working well with others.
- Discipline: Teams succeed when they adhere to schedules and standards.
- Persistence: If at first you don't succeed... the customer still depends on you to deliver.
- Creativity: Expand man's frontiers and markets will expand in your wake.
- Pragmatism & Practical Wisdom: It's good if it works! Theories are for theorists.
- Meritocracy: Regardless of background or station, you advance when you perform.
- Win-Win Relationships: In commerce-unlike the courtroom or battlefield-both parties must see each transaction as fair and beneficial or business comes to a halt.
- Expansion of Markets: Smart businessmen build bridges, not walls. Just imagine if we all did the same.
- Honesty: No society mired in suspicion and deceit can prosper. Trust makes society's wheels spin and allows dreams to be realized.
American businesses practice these virtues every day — or they fail. We have ample evidence before us. While imperfect, the classroom of commerce encourages citizens to practice ethical standards and civic behavior every day. This little bit of magic happens quietly, while people are serving others. The importance of these "habits of the heart" is not to be underestimated, especially in an immigrant society that is continental in size. It is said, because it's true, "commerce breeds civility."
As Americans and their leaders debate the implications of current business misconduct, let's keep in mind the implications for our country, as well as our cash and careers. A failure of commercial integrity not only costs money and damages careers; it is a disservice to a nation that depends on businesses to do better for the commonweal.
On September 11th America was attacked. As if we were one family, this immigrant land with its astoundingly heterogeneous population united in its resolve to defend the nation and what it stands for. Many lit candles and pinned flags on their lapels. Brave souls in uniform went to the front lines in Afghanistan. Others changed careers, gave blood, donated to charities, got married, adopted children... and helped neighbors in need.
What might businessmen and women do at a time of business crisis and in the spirit of 9/11? They can strengthen their daily practice of sacrifice, discipline and honesty: the qualities vital not only to free enterprise, but to the nation. Indeed, if business leaders accused of wrongdoing had thought in such patriotic terms, their choices might have been wiser, if more difficult.
To win the war against terrorism we must believe we are fighting for a country whose way of life is worth defending. A large portion of what is worth defending in this republic is reflected in those commercial virtues. When the leaders of an enterprise create a culture of integrity and service to others, they build more than a business. They build a nation. Let's see if we can keep it.