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The Nobility of Business

I was having a conversation the other day with a good friend about the culture of investment banking. I used to work at an Investment bank in London and I was describing some of the less palatable memories of my experience which I thought reflected a part of the general culture of investment banking. I mentioned for example, the standard working weekend, the not altogether infrequent “all nighter,” the stressed out boss, the forced cancellation of plans and holidays, the high divorce rate and the huge stress around bonus time. He responded adamantly that he could never work in an environment where people’s values could allow such a culture to flourish. These were, he thought, bad people motivated purely by money. I understood his sentiment. But then, I began to think that investment banking really just lies at the outer limits of the spectrum of business cultures. Business, as we are taught, is about creating value. That this value is generally measured in monetary terms suggests that business, in general, is about creating money. I began to wonder, since business is fundamentally about money, whether it was possible to pursue a career in business and do so nobly. Can one be noble in a world where inherent self-interests dominate?

If I were to conduct a general poll evaluating the ten noblest careers that one could pursue, I am pretty confident that business would not appear amidst the list. Teaching, medicine, research, volunteering, and public service no doubt would feature. These are clearly noble careers: a teacher who lends him or herself to nurturing the education and progress of our students; doctors who seek to ease suffering, to heal and cure malady; researchers seeking new ways to solve human problems; volunteers who work for worthwhile causes; public servants serving, well, the public. We think of noble individuals, and we think of people engaged in some kind of service – Mother Theresa, the Pope, Martin Luther King, Einstein and Churchill. JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Gates, Milken, though famous, are seldom thought of as noble figures.
Yet, few would argue against the central role which business plays in providing a satisfactory way of life in today’s world. Perhaps, it is simply irony that business, while ignoble, is essential and one which few would prefer not to exist. Perhaps, business is like the dirty grimy grease which makes the engine of our society run smoothly.

So what place therefore has nobility, if any, in business? I personally believe that there is great potential for nobility in business. To me, nobility is not solely a function of the activity; it is also a function of the manner in which that activity is performed. Yes, business is about making money. Yes, an effective business leader is focusing on the bottom line, but these facets do not necessarily translate into an absence of nobility. The focus on the bottom line is often, and should be, aligned with creating the most value for all. Profitability is achieved by serving a need and to the extent a new need is served well or an existing need is served better then there is definitely scope for a business leader to seek to serve just as in any other more traditionally noble domain. I would also argue that if incentives to self serve in the business domain are indeed more pervasive than in other traditionally more noble domains, then the business leader who acts with a moral code, a sense of duty and purpose is demonstrating superior nobility as he or she has cast off greater temptation.

So what then of the ignoble investment banker? I personally believe that investment banking provides a critical service without which, the ramifications of vastly reduced capital availability would be felt far and wide. I am, however, not so na‹ve as to presume that most bankers are in the business because they feel they are serving the capital needs of the world. But that is not my point; my point is that you could be in the business because you are driven by the desire to be an effective distributor of capital interests. You could be in the business with the motivation to serve. You could act with integrity even while all around you are acting less than honestly. You could act with the client’s best interests; it is in the end the best policy anyway and you could be noble. In fact, you could be far nobler than a teacher, or a doctor, or a volunteer who have pursued their careers with little thought to the nobility of the service that they provide. Nobility can never be simply passive. It can come only from constant striving and the business world is as good a world as any in which to strive.

February 20, 2001
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