Deny Yourself – A New Way To Think About Business

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24

Today is MLK day, which means many of us will be performing some kind of a service event in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Over 150 students, staff, and faculty from the school I teach at are going out into the community to do service activities. I think this is pretty neat. But it has got me thinking about what leadership is, and what successful living is. As I wrote two days ago, President Obama has a responsibility to serve all Americans; he has an opportunity to either push us farther apart or bring us together. If what I read this morning in the paper is true, he may be going in the opposite direction of where I think he needs to go.

What really got me thinking about denying yourself and service, was yesterday when I was listening to the car radio while driving to my club to work out. Charles Swindall, one of my favorite Bible teachers, was discussing this very topic. He mentioned that as a grand father he needed to be teaching his grand children how important it is to deny themselves and serve. His argument proposed that our culture is in trouble because of our self-indulgence and sensual gluttony.  Instead of service, we take. I really think this is true.

One area of our society that we see this is in the area of business. Entrepreneurs are individuals who see a process, and recognize they can do it better. This is not a greedy expression of someone who wants to get hugely rich, it is the expression of someone who wants to achieve and serve a customer. This process becomes tainted when profit maximization becomes the goal instead of customer service. John Mackey in his book, “Conscious Capitalism,” poignantly discusses this phenomenon.

Chapter one of this wonderful book discusses how capitalism is marvelous, misunderstood and maligned. He catches our attention with the words, “no human creation has had a greater positive impact on more people more rapidly than free-enterprise capitalism. . . In a mere two hundred years, business and capitalism have transformed the face of the planet and the complexion of daily life for the vast majority of people.” Recently it has been reported that poverty throughout the world has been reduced by 50%. Obviously we here in the United States have seen our level of poverty increase, but India and China, due to the processes of free-enterprise (relatively speaking) have created higher standards of living for their people.

Deirdre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Illinois, has written a book entitled “Bourgeoisie Dignity.” She proposes that, “free-enterprise capitalism’s success have been entrepreneurship and innovation, combined with freedom and dignity for businesspeople.” She notes that automobiles, telephones, gasoline, etc happened because of innovation and entrepreneurs. Mackey argues that this simple philosophy of innovation and service has been hijacked, reframed as corporatism and greed, and made to be something it isn’t. I tend to agree with him.

According to Mackey, there are four reasons for this attack:

  1. Business people have allowed the ethical basis of free-enterprise capitalism to be hijacked intellectually by economists and critics who have foisted on it a narrow, self-serving, ad inaccurate identity devoid of its ethical justification.
  2. Too many businesses have operated with a low level of consciousness about their true purpose and overall impact on the world. Their tendency to think in terms of trade-offs has led to many unintended, harmful consequences for people, society, and the planet, resulting in an understandable backlash.
  3. In recent years, the myth that business is and must be about maximization of profits has taken root in academia as well as among business leaders. This has robbed most businesses of the ability to engage and connect with people at their deepest levels.
  4. Regulations and the size and scope of government have greatly expanded, creating the conditions for the spread of crony capitalism, restricting competition in favor of politically well-connected businesses.

I believe in the principle of service. I believe that the best leaders are servant leaders. I believe the best business strategy is a stakeholder strategy. As much as I’d like to end this discussion with some witty saying created by me, I would rather give you a poignant comment that will stimulate your thinking about free-enterprise and service.

Mackey states, “But with few exceptions, entrepreneurs who start successful businesses don’t do so to maximize profits. Of course, they want to make money, but that is not what drives them. They are inspired to do something that they believe needs doing. The heroic story of free-enterprise capitalism is one of entrepreneurs using their dreams and passion as fuel to create extraordinary value for customers, team members, suppliers, society, and investors.”

All of us want to have a meaningful life, but making millions will not necessarily get us there. It is through service this will happen.  This can be expressed in many different ways, even in business.

And that is my thought for the day!

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