Saturday, September 22, 2012

What's Right About Business?

"The ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money.  Nor is it merely a system of making and selling things.  The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy." -- Paul Hawken

 Paul Hawken is a charter member in the Calltrepreneurship Hall of Fame.  Amazon describes him as "an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist and best-selling author of six previous books."  I first noticed his work in the early 80's. His Growing A Business was one of my first companions in learning and teaching about the possibilities and practicalities of starting small businesses.  He has inspired me over the years reminding me that businesses can do amazingly good things in the world.

I begin with Paul Hawken today because he is a "cool" guy in both the business and religion worlds.  He has built successful businesses, he's a tireless advocate for saving the planet and he's written about the shadow side of business ("There is no polite way to say business is destroying the earth.") and the hopeful side of business (see the quote above).  Hawken is someone who most of my "bottom line" business friends and "let's save the world" religious friends  - some people are both - can't argue much with.

But giving props to someone from the business world is a hard thing to do for many these days.  Business, like religion, is an easy target to bash.  Where do we start?  Enron, the greed and illegal acts of banks,  the outrageous salary gap between CEOs and average workers, the takeover of the American political system by millionaires and billionaires, the ridiculous ruling that business have the same rights as individuals, Apple's use of low-paid Chinese labor in questionable working conditions; the list is long.  If someone cares about the world and the people in it, especially those whose jobs include "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" - i.e. ministers - calling business out for what it sometimes does wrong is the right thing to do.

And yet.  Religious communities and ministers are fueled and paid by the money that is generated by businesses.  (How often I have had to remind congregations that money isn't the root of all evil, per the Bible, but the love of it is.)  Men and women in business, whether for profit or not, are changing the lives of millions of people for the good.  And they are doing it with integrity, compassion and even love. 

Think of all the products, creations and innovations that we use today which keep us healthier, more connected to those we love, more entertained, better educated than ever before.  Think about the work people are doing in science, in social entrepreneurship, in technology, sometimes even in finance, to take on the biggest challenges in our world - global warming, poverty, water inequities - and doing something to make the world better.  Check out what MBA students are being taught about ethics, spiritual principles and practices such as meditation and discernment.  Visit the companies that are bringing in speakers like Martin Luther King III and the Dalai Lama while creating work environments that nurture the body, mind and spirit.  And look around at the universities, museums, hospitals, and community centers that have been paid for by business people who wanted to make a positive difference in the world.

Business has its flaws.  So does religion.  Lots of them. (That's because they are created and led by human beings!)  They are also filled with creative, loving people who are doing their best to make the world a better place.  As someone who has lived my professional life in both worlds I know their strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone.  And I know that the distinctions and judgements we make about both limits our ability to learn and be inspired by the other.

In the last few months I have been interviewing people from business, academia and religion.  We've been talking about the intersection between business/entrepreneurship and spirituality/religion and the possibilities and obstacles.  The conversations have been inspiring, in part, because there seems to be a new appreciation of what the "other" has to teach.  How about you?  Are you someone who bemoans the real problems and shortfalls of business and/or religion, or are you someone who looks for what the other has to teach?  The issues of business and religion are complex.  But here is something easy.  If you are someone who thinks business is evil or more bad than good (maybe you are a minister), take an entrepreneur or businessperson out to lunch to learn how they look at the world and how your work/life might be better using some of their wisdom.  If you are someone who is in business and aren't involved in a religious community and/or consider yourself "a-spiritual", take someone out to lunch who looks at the world a bit differently.

There are a lot of challenges and uncertainties in the world around us.  People like Paul Hawken are utilizing every thing possible to find answers to those challenges while working with others "to increase through the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy."  It's hard to imagine a much better goal/motto for calltrepreneurs... or anyone!

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