At Work & Theology 101

Truth I Didn’t Learn In Business School

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Armed with Stanford undergraduate and MBA degrees and a fairly new Christian faith, I founded a business in the mid-1970s with $5,000 and a grocery bag of computer connector parts. Inmac started on the idea of selling computer accessories by mail order and expanded from there.

I led the business for 20 years until it was sold to another public company in 1996. At one point we had 1,500 employees in 10 countries and $400 million in annual sales.

Over the course of my years in business, there were a number of questions I was forced to ask about faith and work. I expand upon them in my book, “The Integrated Life,” but I’d like to focus on one question here: Where do successful business principles really come from?

Truth is truth, no matter where you find it, and indeed, business schools have discovered some truths in their work.

But what I didn’t learn in business school is that good business principles didn’t originate in the halls of academia; they are in fact biblical principles. There are a lot of biblical values business schools won’t touch or teach, and these, likewise, prove to be successful business principles. The scriptures are highly relevant to successful business.

Many folks operate under the faulty assumption that they can’t afford to act according to biblical attitudes and values at work. They might think, “Aren’t those who operate morally playing against a stacked deck? How could I possibly make it without cutting corners, engaging in dishonesty and treating employees dispassionately?”

We really need to rethink that point of view. Business success that results from following biblical principles should not be surprising. As President Grover Cleveland noted, “Business is not the less prosperous and successful if conducted on Christian principles.”

The Importance of Morality in Business

Amorality is becoming more and more the predominant moral foundation in the Western world today. The question is not whether something is right or wrong but whether it’s legal or illegal. The legal system takes the place of personal morality and values, and anything that is legally defensible is acceptable.

When business is conducted from an amoral foundation, trust and loyalty are foreign concepts. Promises can be broken “when necessary” if there’s no legally binding contract. Lawyers find loopholes and devise maneuvers around inconvenient laws. The result is a cold, calculating and bleak business environment in which employees find very little comfort and customers operate in suspicion of the fine print. It’s no wonder people are upset with this type of “capitalism.”

A business environment that operates according to a moral standard provides the decidedly best foundation for capitalism to thrive. People and companies exhibit values such as service, integrity and loyalty because they are morally right, not because the law mandates them. (It does not.)

The human spirit thrives in a moral business environment. When others are known to operate under an absolute moral standard, trust follows. There is less need for security, oversight and checks. Transactions are simplified and the cost of doing business decreases.

Personal character was touted as the overriding success factor in the first 150 years of the United States, notes Stephen Covey. Benjamin Franklin and others espoused virtues such as integrity, temperance, humility, courage and fidelity.

Today, a personality ethic has replaced personal character. Success is seen as a function of dressing right, understanding corporate politics, speaking eloquently and excelling in social situations. The business suit, not one’s character, is the measure of a man. But personal character is no less a success factor than before, as Covey and others are rediscovering. Character is the long-lost ingredient of successful capitalism, and biblical values are the underlying values of the character ethic. Lord Brian Griffiths concludes that the Judeo-Christian faith, “which sees business as a vocation or calling, so that a career in business is perceived as a life of service before God, is a most powerful source from which to establish, derive, and support absolute moral standards in business life.”

The Source of Values & Principles

I have also come to recognize that the Bible is that all-important source of the values and principles of successful business. God has a lot to say about what personal traits should mark a follower of Jesus: integrity/truthfulness, accountability, loyalty/faithfulness, trust, commitment, order/cleanliness, hope. He has a lot to say about what should characterize our interactions with our fellow man: honesty, humility, service, respect/dignity, justice/fairness, grace/compassion, forgiveness, consideration, trust, accountability, interdependence, love. And he has a lot to say about what qualities should describe our work: service, excellence, diligence, value, quality.

We find some of these values lauded by business scholars, but others are rarely if ever addressed in business education. Some are captured in the law of the land, but most are not. As Jesus taught, our actions are to go well beyond what’s mandated by the legal code—even in business.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in a special report by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and The Washington Times entitled, “Faith at Work: Economic Flourishing, Freedom to Create and Innovate.” Reprinted with permission. 

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