Tycoons deserve a sense of vocation -- here it is Management: American literature celebrates the entrepreneurial mission- but why are the books so vapid?


September 01, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,sun staff

The American businessman (and woman) is a central figure i our civilization, always influential, sometimes very powerful. But he lacks an element crucial to his own happiness. It is a calling: something to serve.

Books abound to instruct and inspire him. Some are absurd: "Winnie-the-Pooh on Management" (Dutton), "Jesus C.E.O." (Hyperion). Most promise much but deliver little; they are obvious and full of platitudes: "Thinking in the Future Tense" (Simon & Shuster).

But these books - a modern genre - do little or nothing to provide the contemporary business leader with anything resembling a true sense of vocation, or a canon of wisdom to draw from, to measure himself by.

Which is not to say that literature treating with the elusive subject of vocation, or calling, doesn't exist. It does, but much of it was written long ago and tends to be ignored by today's executives, possibly because they mistakenly think it is out of date.

A great deal of expectation was generated by the recent publication of Michael Novak's "Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life" (The Free Press, 246 pages, $22.50).

Each of the traditional professions has a calling, an elevated purpose beyond the self. Physicians tend the sick. Lawyers make law, the integument of society. Scientists work for humanity's sake, or at least most people believe they do. Teachers pass on the lore of the civilization.

Artists, writers, poets, (especially poets) are supposed to reveal the truth. Even dentists: they allay pain.

What do businesspeople do? They make money. Or, to gloss it up a bit, they "create wealth."

Well, creating wealth is still making money, and lucre is still filthy. The fact that it's absolutely necessary to a reasonable life has never been sufficient to lift the biblical curse upon it. People in business, those at least who occasionally think about what they do, the good and bad of it, feel this Mark of Cain. It stings.

Novak is certainly prepared to operate on the morally edifying levels. He was almost a priest, but thought better of it after 12 years of study. He went on to become a preachy writer instead who seems to believe that the Holy Spirit is a first cousin to the Spirit of Capitalism, which in turn inspires all progress, economic, political, even humanitarian.

But Novak's book fails in its purpose. It fails to prescribe with authority the behavior demanded by the capitalist's vocation; it fails to describe the businessman's calling as it should be lived. Worse for him, others have done this better, with more elegance, entertaining style, and with the authenticity of someone who has lived this life, as Novak has not.

In America tradespeople were never vilified as they were in the mother country. But aristocratic Anglophile attitudes did take root, and sneers were evident in certain quarters. Sinclair Lewis despised the American businessman. The entertainment media frequently portray him as greedy, a fool or villain. Many professors with soft jobs in universities - outside the business faculties - look down their tenured noses.

Angelic money-makers

To rehabilitate this figure the "theologian on capitalism," as Novak's publicist describes him, argues that generally the person in business, the capitalist entrepreneur, does more good than harm. He also goes to church more regularly than, say, federal judges or corporate lawyers. Indeed, Novak argues, it is possible to construe what he does - when he does good - as the result of a calling, a vocation. When he does bad he betrays that calling. In his book, Novak marshals stories of honest businessmen and women who have gained fortunes by imaginative strategies and have benefited many people in the process, mostly by giving them jobs. He suggests that there is something transcendent in all this. He canonizes Andrew Carnegie for his libraries and bequests. He mentions not a word of the force that produced Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez spill.

Basically, the point Novak seems to miss, or ignore, is that the good, as well as the ill, that flows from capitalist enterprise is almost always peripheral to its basic purpose. That purpose remains, as always, to create wealth, to make money.

Is there anything wrong with making money? No, but neither is their anything holy in it. And when the question is asked, usually rhetorically and by people who are making quite a lot of it, it often reeks of defensiveness, as if the asker suspects that, indeed, there just might be something wrong with it.

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