Etched in stone in the chapel of Christ Church College at Oxford University are the words of John Locke spoken over 300 years ago:
“I know there is truth opposite falsehood, that it may be found if people will search for it, and is worth the seeking.”
As we conduct business in a pluralistic society, can we agree on our source of truth? Can the business firm make money, create wealth, serve customers, and also become a moral community for the development of the human character of the people producing the results of the firm? Can leadership make a difference?
These are just some of the questions that should be raised in the seeking of truth in the doing of business.
Our recent history reflects far too many examples of moral failures by leaders in business and in other sectors. As a result, we often seek corrective solutions with more legislative initiatives and rules of compliance.
While these may bring a higher standard of accountability and add penalties for violations, they cannot assure the honesty, integrity, or character of the people involved. How can these and other virtues become an integral part of the leadership of the firm and the action of the people producing the results of the firm?
Effective and responsible leadership starts with the ability of a leader to define reality and in so doing to understand the essence of their own human nature and the human nature of the people they are leading. Leaders should be concerned not just about what people do and how they do it, but also about the person they are becoming in the process.
As Peter Drucker has noted, management of people is a liberal art requiring an understanding of the human condition and the recognition that our humanity has a spiritual dimension. It is this spiritual side that influences our character, our ability to determine right and wrong, to recognize good and evil, to make moral judgments, and to love or to hate. It is a driver for developing a philosophy of life that can provide a moral and ethical framework and standard that functions even when there are no prescribed rules.
In the business world, we sometimes talk about people in terms of a cost of production. But people do not come to the workplace as a line on a profit and loss statement. They come as whole person, and they must be understood and treated as such. This issue is at the heart of character development in the work environment and it is both a challenge and a responsibility of the leader.
In his book The Fourth Great Awakening, economist and Nobel prize winner Robert Fogel traces the history of religious faith in America and its effect on our society and economy. He concludes that a major issue in our culture was the lack of “spiritual assets,” the development of the character of people and a provision for their spiritual needs. He also went on to say that in order for the business firm of the future to resolve the growing complexities of ethical issues, it will have to acquire more “spiritual capital.”
To craft a culture of character requires executives to be intentional, to know their source of moral authority, and to help develop people to think and know what is right and wrong when there are no rules of compliance. This, I suggest, is all part of the process of developing the workplace as a moral community. A community that is focused on the dignity and worth of every person. A community that expects of its leaders truth and transparency in their conduct and dealings with others.
As I reflect on these issues, I do so not as a philosopher, educator, or religious leader, but simply as a business person – someone who over a 25 year period participated in the leadership of ServiceMaster during a time of rapid growth that resulted in revenues growing from a little over 200 million in 1977 to over 7 billion in 2001, employing and/or managing over 200,000 people, and serving over 12 million customers in the United States and 45 foreign countries.
As I retired from my leadership responsibilities and looked back, I could add up the numbers that showed growth in profits, customers served, and a premium return for our shareholders. While these figures are part of a normal business assessment of performance, the conclusion for me cannot be limited to these monetary measurements. In searching for truth, the lasting measurement is whether the results of my leadership contributed to a positive change in the lives of the people of the firm.
As a business firm, we wanted to excel at creating value for our shareholders. If we didn’t want to play by these rules, we didn’t belong in the ball game. But we also tried to encourage an environment where the workplace could be a community to help shape human character. We considered the people of the firm as the soul of the firm. As leaders, we were about the process of soulcraft.
During my years of leadership at ServiceMaster, Peter Drucker was both a counselor and friend. My experience confirmed Drucker’s conclusion that people work for a cause, not just a living. Mission and purpose were important organizing and sustaining principles of our firm.
Our corporate objectives at ServiceMaster were simply stated: to honor God in all we do; to help people develop; to pursue excellence; and to grow profitably. Those first two objectives were end goals, the second two were means goals.
We did not use that first objective as a basis for exclusion. It was, in fact, the reason for our promotion of diversity as we recognized that different people with different beliefs were all part of this world that God so loves. The fact that we had these objectives did not mean that everything was done right. We sometimes failed and did things wrong. But because of a stated standard and a reason for that standard, we could not hide our mistakes. Mistakes were regularly flushed out in the open for correction and, in some cases, for forgiveness. Leaders could not protect themselves at the expense of those they were leading.
The ultimate litmus test for any of a firm’s moral standards or actions should be the resulting effect upon people. Do such standards and practices reflect the dignity and worth of every individual? Do they encourage the development of the whole person and not just a pair of hands? Do they provide an environment where there is freedom to explore truth, including the question of God and His role in transforming the beliefs and actions of people?
It was C. S. Lewis who reminded us:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – they are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat, but it is immortals that we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”
And it was Drucker who said,
“A leader of people has only one choice to make – to lead or mislead.”
It is incumbent upon those who hold executive responsibilities to seek truth, to provide an example of right behavior, and to be about the process of seeking to develop the “whole person.” The leader of the firm should consider the full scope of what is involved in seeking to know and understand the human condition of the people of the firm as he or she assumes the responsibility for the results and financial performance of the firm.
For me, the world of business was a channel for fulfilling and living my Christian faith – a channel that reached from a janitor’s closet in Saudi Arabia to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and encompassed sweeping streets in Japan to ringing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange. That channel continues to test my source of truth and challenges me to integrate that truth in the conduct of business and the cultivation of character – developing our people in not only what they were doing but also in the person they were becoming.
C. William Pollard is Chairman of Fairwyn Investment Company, and for over a twenty-five years participated in the leadership of The ServiceMaster Company, including as CEO. He is the author of several books including the best-sellers The Soul of the Firm and The Tides of Life.
Published by permission from the author.