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

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Morality creates a valuable business advantage for those who employ it consistently and imaginatively. That’s a primary finding of a study I directed recently at Stanford University that involved lengthy interviews with 48 men and women who have achieved success in business.

But there are two hazards in writing about morality. The first is that readers will dismiss it as marginal to their real-world concerns, an idealistic luxury that has little to do with our daily struggles for survival or fights for fame and glory. The second is less direct and harder to combat: People who speak or write about morality have a way of sounding moralistic, preachy, and, worst of all, holier-than-thou.

I do not wish to sound preachy, and being moralistic is not at all the same as being moral. In business as well as in life in general, people who are moralistic tend to be arrogant rather than humble, and their sense of superiority can lead their judgments and their choices astray as well as prevent them from learning from their mistakes–and everyone makes mistakes. Morality is always a work in progress undertaken with humility. People who remain aware of their own imperfections and determined to improve throughout their entire careers are the ones most likely to do the right thing for themselves and their companies.

Combating Inner Corruption

Much has been made in recent years of corporate fraud, corruption in the executive suite, and other abuses of trust by those in managerial roles. Although the revelation of scandals is always a healthy act, necessary for cleansing the system and discouraging further abuses, there is often a cartoonlike quality to the revelations that reduces them to stories of good versus evil and implies that the cure must be to expel the villains and let the good guys take over. Such simplistic accounts diminish people’s understanding of what goes wrong and hamper the efforts to avoid similar problems in the future.

Even the most profound corruption begins in small steps–a compromise made here, a corner cut there. Without noticing it, we can be well on our way to moral degradation before anything has gone wrong; in fact, the first few steps down (degradation literally means “stepping down”) may feel comfortable, even exhilarating. But it is always possible to stop and step back up. The prerequisite, of course, is recognizing the moral mistake.

In other words, anyone can forge a moral identity in business at any point. How? I offer you the 10 key lessons I learned from men and women who have done it and succeeded personally, financially, socially, and spiritually.

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. As William Pollard, chairman and CEO of ServiceMaster, has noted, a company’s sole purpose can’t and should not be maximizing profits. In his words, “That is ultimately self-destructive, because I do not think you can generate profits without people; if people do not have a purpose and meaning beyond generating profits, you will come up against the law of diminishing returns. In the long run, you are not going to have consistent production of quality products and services unless people see a mission beyond profit.”

2. Understand that 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.

3. Realize that the path to success in business begins with an act of self-discovery. Robert Greenleaf, the executive who developed the influential “servant leadership” approach to business management, told me that we need to get in touch with all our motives and desires, from the mundane to the spiritual, in order to know how to pursue them all without giving up–or, as Greenleaf put it, without “losing focus” during those inevitable high-pressure times when things seem so complicated that we are tempted to let our most noble aspirations go. The focus that Greenleaf always kept, that he urged people never to lose, was on a why question and a what question: Why are you doing this? What do you really want to accomplish, or what is your true purpose here? 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 and develop an apprentice-like relationship with someone you admire, who can show you what a moral identity in business looks like in 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 them out–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 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 can often be discouraging.

6. Use your moral imagination to transport yourself into the thoughts and feelings of everyone in your business world–including customers, partners, employers and employees, investors, and others. When Lars Kolind was the CEO of a company that manufactured hearing aids, he decided that “the ear is not our customer”; the whole person is. After spending time with customers, he had his company develop a more comfortable and attractive device that soon dominated the market. The empathy that results from this kind of imaginative role-taking grants you the capacity to deal with people in a productive and problem-free manner. This is a proven formula for enduring career success.

7. Stay humble, especially after gaining financial power over others. When preparing a showroom for an important demo, Gloria Falla, vice president for design at Sara Lee Branded Apparel, told me, “The first one that got the sponge out was Gloria! And I was doing it because I always want to let [the employees] know that we’re all the same….We all pitch in and do it the same way. I don’t want them to ever feel that, just because I sit here, I’m better than they are. Because, at the end of the day, I’m not.” When success turns into arrogance, we often lose our capacity to learn from others. Pridefulness harms everyone.

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. Ask yourself three questions about your pursuit of any business goal: What am I trying to achieve? Why am I trying to achieve it? How am I going about it? Ethics will flow naturally when you find clear and honorable answers to all three questions. Max DePree, who became one of the first CEOs to put an employee stock ownership program in place, while he was head of Herman Miller, built a stellar business career by always returning to these questions, which got him right to the heart of many issues, including truth-telling. Recalling that he often heard people say, “I’ve been trying to communicate the best I can but people don’t seem to understand,” he reports: “I say, ‘Well, are you telling them the truth?’ They say, ‘Well, you know, you can’t always tell them everything.’ I say, ‘That isn’t what my question is. My question is, are you telling them the truth?’ Well, then they start to deal with that problem and they often confess, ‘Well, I haven’t told them the whole truth.’ And then I say, ‘Well, why not? I mean, these are people you trust and they trust you. Why aren’t you telling them the whole truth? How can the truth hurt you? And if the truth can hurt you, then you have another problem.’”

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 oneself. 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, in the mode of Robert Greenleaf, and use the position to pass your purpose on to others. In particular, find positive ways to influence 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 you have admired. When you pass a noble purpose on to a younger generation, you place it 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. And 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.

William Damon is professor of education at Stanford University, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, and the author of several books on moral commitment. This article is adapted from his latest book, The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing, published by Berrett-Koehler. For more information, visit bkconnection.com.

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