Defending "Business Values"
For the past six years, as director of leadership and management programs at West Point, I can't tell you how many times I've felt I had to defend the concepts and courses we teach in the program. It's a typical undergraduate business program, but at West Point, it can be a lightning rod for criticism. "Why are you teaching them business concepts? Aren't you encouraging them to leave the Army after their active duty obligation is satisfied?," critics ask. And most relevant here, "Aren't you afraid that they will adopt 'business values?'", and by "business values," they mean greed, selfishness, performance at all costs, and treating the people at lower levels in the organization as if they don't matter.
When challenged this way by military officers without a business background, I usually try to defend "business values" by providing positive examples of business leadership; leaders whose values are very similar to those reflecting selflessness, service to something greater than themselves, a genuine care and concern for the people that work for the organization and serve with you, and courage to intervene when things don't feel "right."
I have to admit that defending the business world has become a very difficult prospect. It makes sense that those who have committed the most egregious offenses will be the ones who make the news, as AIG has done recently. And I'm sure that there are many, many CEOs who are leading well who have not made the news because they are doing what they're supposed to do, quietly, without drama or fanfare, feeling no need to make headlines.
The Army has had it's share of scandals and missteps, often around leaders who have lost touch or who have been derailed by the power associated with leading in the unstructured, unfamiliar and unregulated environments offered by war. While these incidents also make the news, I believe that the difference exists in the contrasting cultures that are reflected in these institutions.
The military has far fewer examples of leaders taking advantage of their people to further their own agendas. People come first, and we learn as very junior leaders that we are responsible for their welfare. I've seen many senior leaders shed genuine tears when talking about soldiers, and what they mean to them as leaders. With respect to the value of loyalty, the order is country, unit, and then self. The self becomes subordinate to mission and people.
It makes me wonder how many former service members are involved in this crisis of values in business. How many former military officers are "throwing employees under the bus" to enrich themselves as CEOs or business leaders? Does a military background and learning to lead in a culture that values selfless service prevent greed and arrogance? How does the character formed during military development "stand up" to the pervasive culture of Wall Street?
Posted by: john2 | March 20, 2009 10:14 AM
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