Big Questions for Business Leaders
Big Questions for Business Leaders

Big Questions for Business Leaders

You are a CEO, responsible in part for your company and its social impact. How do you keep yourself accountable?

Appears in Fall 2011

A former pharmaceutical executive, Boyd Clarke, recently challenged my thinking about how businesspeople use the Bible. Boyd argued that there were not a great many solutions to everyday business problems to be found in the Bible, partly because the Bible was written in the context of economic systems so very different from the modern market economy. But, suggested Boyd, the story that the Bible tells of God's great acts of creation, judgment, and redemption, and the human responses to God of wonder, heartbreak, and hope, may well help us to identify some of the deeper questions that businesspeople should be asking.

What follows is my first attempt at articulating a few such questions—three informed by wonder, three by heartbreak, and three by hope—that we may ask of a particular business or market, or a national economy, or perhaps even, of the global economic order.

Perhaps I should first put a few of my cards on the table. I believe that: The whole world of making products, providing services, buying and selling, building companies, establishing relationships of trade—marketplaces filled with businesses and their customers—can be a vibrant expression of what it means to be human in God's wonderful creation.

At the same time, given the fractured state of this world, our economic lives are often a source of heartbreak: when poverty overwhelms us; when we cannot find work, or make payroll; when our businesses fail, or governments make it hard to do business; or, when we slavishly devote ourselves to the hunt of money and discover at the end of our pursuit that all we have does not matter.

And yet, part of the good news that crested over the horizon at Easter is that also this vital but broken part of our lives is a theatre of hope: despite the evil and suffering that can make human life a misery, the original promise of business activity and market relationships is being redeemed, and we can work with courage, lead with love, and expect our efforts to bear fruit of very long-lasting value.

These are the broadest contours of what I believe we can affirm about business and markets, given the story that the Bible tells us about the world.

If I were the CEO of a large global corporation, responsible in part for the company I manage, but also responsible for the broader social repercussions of what our company did, and sharing responsibility with other leaders for the shape of both national and global markets as well as the economic order at large, these were some of the questions I would ask myself.

Questions inspired by wonder

Is it possible to be a human person fully alive, in the businesses and markets I am helping to shape?

For years, my brother Almero worked as a business consultant—sometimes on the staff of large global consulting firms, sometimes as a principal in smaller, more local partnerships in South Africa. Throughout those years I recall him telling me that, while he enjoyed the challenges of the work he was doing and appreciated the resources that it afforded his family, he wanted very badly to be more hands-on. Almero wanted to run a business, or be involved with a business for the long haul, preferably being involved in producing some direct benefit to customers to which he could point: creating some particular product, or offering a particular service.

In recent years, serving on the staff of the Mertech Group in South Africa, Almero has been able to come close to realizing that dream. He may not be the CEO of a particular company, but he gets to work very closely with the CEOs of the companies on which Mertech ventures its capital, coaching them and advising them and contributing to decisions about their products and services in a way that brings him close to making a real difference in the lives of multitudes of customers in numerous industries, primarily in and around the continent of Africa.

It is a delight to hear how Almero gives expression to some of his lifelong aspirations in his daily work. As he helps make decisions about investments, products, services, markets, as he focuses himself on the frugal use of resources to generously make a difference in the world, he is giving expression to the fullness of who he is as a human being. Almero is an example of the ways in which the entrepreneurial life can be a wonderful expression of the human person, fully alive. And as the second-century bishop Irenaeus, wrote, the glory of God is a human person fully alive.

Are we shaping our businesses, markets, and broader economic systems in such a way that the people in them can truly flourish, as workers, managers, producers, consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs, as bearers of the image of God?

Is it possible to weave rich human relationships within the business interactions I am helping to make possible?

Reading the cookbook Harvest to Heat recently, I was reminded of the ways in which markets allow for the cultivation of relationships among people. Each recipe in the book celebrates the relationship between a particular chef in a particular restaurant (for example, Michael Psilakis of the New York City restaurant Anthos) and a particular farmer of food artisan (in this case, Peter Skotidakis of Skotidakis Goat Farm in St. Eugene, Ontario, Canada). It tells about their business relationship, how it developed, and what things they care about in common, and then gives a recipe that the chef has developed from the products of this particular supplier.

The relationships between chefs, farmers, and food artisans in Harvest to Heat are not necessarily friendships, but neither are they cold, mercenary relationships. They are normative business relationships, with a spark of bartering charm and the warm camaraderie of people with a common cause. Of course it is pleasant when a business relationship over time allows for the emergence of a friendship. But business relationships don't need to be something other than they are in themselves, or have some element foreign to their commercial character added over the top like a sauce, for the business relationships to be richly meaningful in and of themselves.

Markets, on every scale, can enable the weaving of wonderfully rich relationships among buyers and sellers, and even among competitors. Businesses can allow for similarly rich relationships among colleagues, both as peers and in the hierarchical relationships between workers and managers, and between managers and their boards. The relationships between investors and managers can similarly be deeply rich relationships—as such.

Are we shaping our businesses, markets, and broader economic systems in such a way that the people in them can truly relate to one another, giving commercial expression to the call to love your neighbour as you love yourself?

Is it possible to make something good of the stuff of creation in the workplaces for which I share responsibility?

A dear friend of our family, Katrina VandenBerg, is an apprentice baker. She started out as a server in a bakery-equipped restaurant, the Earth to Table Bread Bar in Hamilton, Ontario, and fell in love with the process of baking bread. Already a fan of the slow food movement, Katrina signed up as an apprentice after a pilgrimage to great California restaurants like Chez Panisse, Tartine, and the Big Sur Bakery, and is in the early stages of learning how to bake wonderful bread.

It has been fascinating to listen to Katrina talk about the wonders of bread, to enjoy her sharing her discoveries about the art of baking bread, and to notice how baking bread to sell is an expression of what Andy Crouch calls culture making. She is an example of the ways in which industrial and artisanal manufacturing can be wonderful avenues for people to make good artifacts out of the raw gifts of God's good earth.

Katrina and the bakers and pastry chefs training her are able to give shape to a part of this wonderful world, because their efforts have value—also economic value—to their employers and customers. The revenue generated through the investment of capital, the management of resources, and the skillful practice of the craft of baking makes of this workplace a context in which something is freshly made of the world every morning. Are we shaping our businesses, markets, and broader economic systems in such a way that the people in them can generate wonderful products and deliver meaningful services, in that way working and tending God's earth?

Questions inspired by heartbreak

Are we diminishing the humanity of the people involved in our business, markets, national, or global economies?

Poverty and economic injustice diminish our humanity. When access to work and resources are limited and the order of society prevents us from overcoming those limitations, or when cultural conditions habituate us to our poverty, or when our own character is marred by willful sloth and indolence, we are not able to give full expression to what it means to be human. At heart, to be human is to be responsible—able to respond, able to act, able to shape our circumstances beyond the ways in which our circumstances shape us.

As a teenager in South Africa, cycling through the black townships generated by apartheid's racial segregation, I saw how a political order brought about economic structures that consigned a majority of people in that country to lives of poverty. Back in my comfortable white suburban home, I read the warning of the prophet Isaiah: taking part in the worship practices of a faith community gives God no delight if, at the same time, we arrange our communities and societies in such a way that some people are systematically excluded, exploited, or oppressed. What astonished me were the neatly coiffed, nicely suited white businessmen standing next to me in the pews of my childhood church, expecting God's grace and singing God's praise on Sundays, while I knew that they would go to their stores and offices and construction sites on Mondays—not only directly exploiting and oppressing their underpaid and powerless black employees, but also, by their votes and political activism, bolstering a nation-wide system designed with the explicit intent of ensuring that a black servant class would labour but not rise.

These are not questions only for our behaviour on the larger scales of national economies or the global economic order. Does the way we arrange production in a particular factory or administration in a particular office diminish the humanity of the people who work alongside us? Or even: in our little store or studio, are we treating one another, colleagues, as human beings, or are we diminishing one another in ways both obvious and sly?

Are we allowing our governments to occupy or vandalize the room markets need to grow?

Stanford professor John McMillan tells the story of the Makola marketplace in the center of Accra, Ghana, where stall-holders sell fish, vegetables, grains, other foods, and simple household items. Every day, each stall-holder makes a few dollars by "making food available to the urban poor and . . . providing income to farmers with which to buy necessities like clothing."

The Makola marketplace has, however, suffered from sometimes violent efforts by the Ghanaian government to shut it down. In 1979 the military government accused the stall-holders of violating government price controls. Soldiers looted the market and demolished the marketplace. Governments cannot adequately provide human beings with the goods that markets provide. But they can do much to either hamper or enable markets. Sometimes governments can destroy markets brutishly; sometimes they can damage them more subtly. But in every case where governments diminish the proper contributions markets make possible, human suffering is increased. When government misgoverns markets, the result is misery. Governments have a proper responsibility for public justice, including by governing economic life—but government must recognize that economic life as a sphere of human agency has its own integrity and sphere sovereignty.

Are we demanding of our governments that they recognize the sphere sovereignty of economic life, making room for markets and businesses to flourish? Are we adequately advocating for the proper place of markets and businesses in human life?

Are we allowing or assisting the values of the market to burst their proper bounds?

However, while I believe "markets to be the best way—no, the only sane way—to structure interactions in economic life . . . the proper setting for economic interaction, for buying and selling," as I wrote in a Comment article in 2005, and also still "flagrantly support the idea and the reality of a market economy," I will emphasize, just as I did back then, that I do not support "the idea of a market society—what Warren Bennis calls 'a bottom-line society.' Human life is not all about economics."

On a personal level, the love of money will break your heart. And on a societal level, when everything becomes subject to economic calculus as the ultimate norm, when management practices proper to business guide the ways in which we shape other kinds of human relationships, when public justice does not establish proper space and limits for business practices, when markets hold more global sway than our many other ties of human commonality, we discover, like Hawthorne's Midas, that "gold is not everything."

A little while ago, Al Wolters wrote here in Comment about his mentor H. Evan Runner's "resistance to reductionism of all kinds." Wolters wrote:

If, by virtue of created structure, things have their own law-governed "kind," then it does violence to the created order not to honour and respect this diversity of kinds, to treat a school as though it were a business, or faith as though it were an emotion, or an animal as though it were a machine. Creation spells irreducible diversity, and the givenness of creation must be honoured.

Markets matter. But not everything belongs in a market. Business matters. But taking care of business is not the ultimate point of life. And the real responsibility for businesses and markets flourishing within their proper bounds but not exceeding those bounds lies with business leaders.

When we grow our businesses and markets, are we recognizing their proper limits? Are we respecting the sphere sovereignty and unique integrity of other human relationships by allowing our employees adequate time for family life, communal worship, rest, and play? Do we take care to respect the sovereignty and integrity of political communities, resisting the lure of corrupting political leaders with bribes, both overt and covert, respecting the laws of nations, contributing to the common good as corporate citizens? Are we careful in our shared stewardship of the commons in which we participate, such as the air we all breathe, the climate of the earth, and the civility of public discourse?

Questions inspired by hope

Do we inspire hope or foster despair about business among the people we influence?

It has been one of my great pleasures over the past few years to participate in the work of the Center for Faith and Work in New York City as an occasional speaker. The most enjoyable part of my relationship with the Center has been the opportunity to sit in on conversations among Gotham Fellows, who are mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, and hear the passion with which they struggle for the meaning of their work.

The Center for Faith and Work equips people in New York City to understand their everyday work as being integrated with their faith. It helps people to think and talk through the implications of the gospel for their industries—not merely as locations for evangelism, or opportunities for ethical living in a narrow sense, but as part of the world that God is busy redeeming. But it does so with honest attention, at the same time, to the fragility of our efforts, and the proximate character of all the good we can bring in a broken world. (As Sam Phillips sings, "Don't let perfect make you blind you to this beautiful world . . . take your mistakes and come with me.")

It is fascinating to listen to these passionate New Yorkers talk about ways in which the incentive systems in financial services firms may have to be redesigned, or how the fashion industry may need to take responsibility both for the lives of the people working in the manufacture of clothing and for the lives of people whose sense of themselves are being shaped deeply by fashion advertising, or what the public responsibilities of a newspaper reporter may be.

It is encouraging—inspiring!—to listen to people who believe that, despite all the hurt and anxiety in the world, they can make a difference in and through their work, contribute positively to the lives of the people they serve, and participate somehow in God's redemption of the world in the very execution of their daily responsibilities.

Every business leader by word and by deed either inspires hope or fosters despair among those in their realm of influence. And sometimes that realm of influence can be rather large. From the children at our dinner table, to the employees on our factory floors, to the people listening to us being interviewed for a news show—are their hearts turned to hope or despair by who we are and what we say? Do we model cynicism about the way the world works, or do we exemplify a robust everyday spirituality of work, and a vision of business as stewardship of the beautiful world, and contribution to the common good?

Do we practice business leadership as an art?

Max De Pree concludes what is still my favourite little book on business leadership, Leadership is an Art, by writing that "Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do. The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice."

My friends at Fuller Theological Seminary's Max De Pree Center for Leadership like to summarize Max De Pree's life teaching as "belief precedes practice."

If our business leadership truly is a condition of our hearts, and if our hearts are filled with Easter hope, then we can indeed offer the businesses and markets, and broader economic orders in which we serve, artful practice.

Do we allow our imaginations to be crushed and our own despair and cynicism to shrink our management practices down to formulae? Or do we ask ourselves with regularity how we might—as Max De Pree defines the art of leadership—"liberate people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible"?

Do we build business and shape markets, contribute to national economies and the global economic order, with an eye only on quarterly results, or with ten-thousand-year eyes?

A business spirituality that is shaped by wonder, heartbreak and hope has a far, far horizon. Makoto Fujimura exemplifies such a spirituality as an artist. Looking at a 500-year-old painting by Fra Angelico, he invites us to do work with such hope in God's future that we can evaluate what we do in terms of its prospect for making a cultural difference over as long a frame of time, at least, as Fra Angelico's painting. Yes, it is important to maintain adequate cash flow over the current quarter so that we can stay in business, and to make adequate profits in the medium term to warrant the trust of our investors. But are we shaping our businesses and helping to shape markets and larger economies with a view to the millennial implications?

There is reason for us to do so. Buying and selling looks to be part of the joy of God's future world. Isaiah 60's poetic description of God's future world—when the hope of the resurrection secured in Easter is realized and God's purpose of fully refining all the evil out of this world is accomplished—includes commercial activity. As Richard Mouw writes in his very fine little book When the Kings Come Marching In, "Isaiah pictures the Holy City as a center of commerce, a place that receives the vessels, goods, and currency of commercial activity." Later he continues:

We must train ourselves to look at the worlds of commerce and art and recreation and education and technology, and confess that all of this . . . belongs to God. And then we must engage in the difficult business of finding patterns of cultural involvement that are consistent with this confession. If, in a fundamental and profound sense, God has not given up on human culture, then neither must we.

"When we've been there [in God's new earth] ten thousand years," as the hymn goes, how will we evaluate the contribution we have made to the world in our business efforts? Andy Crouch suggests in his book Culture Making that "it's a fascinating exercise to ask about any cultural artifact: can we imagine this making it into the New Jerusalem?" We should ask this of the things that our businesses make, and the services we supply. We should ask it of the organizational designs of our companies, of the dynamics of our markets, of economic life as we, humans, are shaping it on every scale.

And then we should listen to Sam Phillips's song again, take a deep breath, and make sure that we're breaking even this month.

Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?