While David Brooks has accurately portrayed the “do good and do well” dilemma of my generation, Travie McCoy beat him to the punch with his hit single “Billionaire”:
“I wanna be a billionaire, so bad, buy all of the things I never had….
I’d probably visit where Katrina hit and for sure do a lot more than FEMA did,
Yeah can’t forget about me stupid, everywhere I go Imma have my own theme music.”
Having just graduated from business school, I’d say that Brooks and McCoy have a good read on a demographic that prides itself on six figure salaries but eschews the typical portrayal of MBAs as heartless capitalists. To its credit, I believe that my alma mater at UVA lives into its mission to “improve society by developing principled leaders in the world of practical affairs.” It was one of the first business schools to require an ethics course in the core curriculum and remains the bastion of “stakeholder theory” ethicists. And I firmly trust that my classmates at Bain will create value just as much as those working for the National Park Service, and vice versa.
But even as we graduate, my classmates and I continue to grapple with a world that sees business as a necessary evil to provide resources for churches, non-profits, and even the government. Business is considered a lower calling—a means to a greater end. In many ways, my classmates buy into this very idea. Many of them are headed to McKinsey and Goldman merely as stepping-stones to their true passions of local government, international development, and social entrepreneurship. Others will volunteer their skills in tutoring programs perhaps as a way to mollify the self-interest they entertain from nine to five. And I don’t exempt myself from this grappling either: I left the non-profit world to try my hand at business and now find myself entering the strange hybrid of healthcare.
We have been taught from a young age that businessmen destroy the Earth, benefit at the expense of the poor, and only care about profit. Even in Sunday school, the stories of greedy tax collectors and hypocritical merchants in the temple sullied a career path of business in our young eyes. As a child, my father always discouraged me from watching Captain Planet. It wasn’t the “save the planet” message he was concerned about; it was the businessman as bad guy plotline that dominated the show.
And yet, we are the products of a Creator—the truest source of value creation. In fact, we have been made in His creative image. Adam worked in the Garden of Eden before the Fall even occurred. The parable of the talents reiterates the fact that God sees the investment of those talents as glorifying and honorable to Him. The two men who actually invested their talents dedicated themselves full-time to the increase of their portfolio as opposed to a casual hobby on the side. Our work truly matters. And God cares about how, what, and why we do it.
How we do business matters. All businesses ultimately come down to taking care of other people—whether it is a widget that saves someone time or a service that makes their day better. Think about this the next time you walk into a McDonalds or Chick-fil-a, and compare the two.
What we do in business matters. It’s not just the drug, tobacco, and firearms peddlers who have reason to check their consciences when it comes to doing good business. Bank tellers, waitresses, and locksmiths can do very bad things in the course of their business day, as any human can. What we do, make, sell, write, matters.
But more than anything else, why we do business matters most. We are made to glorify a creative God and to honor Him in all that we do. If we allow ourselves to bifurcate the person at work from the person at home/church/golf, we are selling the power of the Gospel short. And I’m not saying you should just be inviting your boss to church; I’m saying you should produce a better excel spreadsheet. But not because it will bring you a bonus or promotion, but because it matters on its own.
Bennett Graham works for The Advisory Board Company.