Think of it as a huge public Wall Street confessional. Lots of
companies, willingly or unwillingly, are going to be making public
confessions about how they have sold their souls.
Big companies who yesterday wouldn’t let you and I walk
on their carpet are going to confess. Even smaller “Mom and
Pop” businesses will examine themselves to ensure that their
practices will bear moral scrutiny. What else is “sin” but a violation
of a high moral standard? What we are seeing are sins of deception
on debt and
earnings declarations. The sin of putting profitability over product
safety. The sin of paying huge bonuses to inept leaders while workers
continue to lose. The sin of putting shareholder value ahead of
doing what is right and of making the world a better place.
Chief among sinners right now, it appears,
is the leadership of Enron. Are you caught up in this whole thing?
Probably to most
of us it is a distant happening. It wasn’t our employer.
We didn’t have our money in Enron’s 401k. None of those
zillionare executives invited us to a party at their mansions.
Yet we are not as distant from occurrences like this as we may
think. The whole story of Enron’s sins is immensely sad. Sad because
thousands of people have been betrayed. Sad because Enron’s
former vice-chairman J. Clifford Baxter shot himself because he “could
not take the pain,” leaving a wife and two children to make
sense of it all. He was only 43. He had a brand new 2002 Mercedes
the papers were careful to point out, as though the kind of car
you take your own life in is important. May God grant his family
unusual courage and peace.
I can’t follow the unfolding Enron story without recalling
an ancient teaching along the lines of: “What does it profit
someone if they sell all their shares based on insider knowledge,
accumulating extra-ordinary wealth at the expense of others, and
lose their soul in doing so?” (Well it goes something like
that.) Now it seems to me that once you sell your
soul, you can’t
buy it back. There is not some grand universal Pawn Shop in the
sky. You sell it, it’s gone. You can pay a fine, settle a
lawsuit and even build a park in the middle of the city – but
that doesn’t mean you get your soul back. You get it back
only if you confess and come clean before God, man and the marketplace. Obviously, I am no Enron expert – apparently
no one is. But it seems to me that this company went to a great
deal of trouble
to sell its soul. According to various news sources, they set up
between 900 and 2,000 different ventures to conceal billions in
debt. We have here a sin of commission if there ever was one.
Cliff Baxter “complained mightily to (former CEO) Jeff Skilling…about
the inappropriateness of our transactions.” Some think his suicide was
really a reflection of his despair over participating in selling the soul of
Enron – that he deeply regretted not being able to stop it. Like I said,
once you sell your soul, you can’t buy it back. “Soul” is one of those words where everybody knows
what it means but nobody can really tell you.
Every business, has
a soul – that is if it hasn’t sold it already. It is
that mysterious spirit you feel but cannot measure. It is the light
in the eyes of those who work there. It’s the fire in the
belly. It is the pervasive sense of calling that gives reason for
every activity no matter how mundane. It is knowing that together
you are fulfilling a higher calling, helping creation come to perfect
fulfillment. It’s making the world a better place. It is
what distinguishes you from all others. We shop at a Safeway store near our home.
This Safeway has a soul. I don’t know if they all do. It hits you like a breeze
when you walk in. The spirit of the people who work there. The
genuine friendliness. The willing offers to help. And it’s
not just what people do – it is much more permeating than
Does your grocery store have a soul – or does it just
have groceries? How about your bank – does it have a soul? My observation
is that most people just roll their eyes and smirk, like the answer
is obvious. Our small local bank used to have a soul. Then it merged
with a big bank and, well, let’s just say it’s different
now. Now it just has checking accounts, makes loans and does various
other financial transactions. Let me be clear – it is possible
for big banks to have a soul, it’s just harder for them. Been in touch with a law firm lately? Does
it have a soul? How about your accounting firm? I think accounting
firm Arthur Andersen
is fighting for its soul right now don’t you? AA is trying
very hard to confess lately, offering a penance of $750 million.
Money won’t cleanse, however. Does the United States Senate have a soul? Congress? Where do
you buy your office supplies and does that supplier have a soul?
For vet care we take our lab puppy Destiny to Dr. Debra Scharrer
because her animal hospital has a soul.
Ever gone to a very expensive restaurant that has no soul? You
feel it instantly. It can have chocolate lava cake and still have
no soul. When you do find a restaurant with a soul you become a
faithful and frequent patron. The cynical reader will instantly protest, “You go to a
restaurant for decent food, not for a spiritual experience!” I
disagree. Most people do want a spiritual experience – oh,
and of course good food too. A restaurant that has soul will do
everything it can to ensure your meal is the best it can possibly
I believe your customers want a spiritual experience from you
too!So do your customers think your company has a soul? I would like
to convince you that that is precisely what keeps customers loyal.
Do your employees think the company has a soul? I would like to
convince you that that is precisely what will keep them committed
to supernatural service and performance.We are spiritual beings and we grow and perform
best in spiritual contexts. If your company has lost its soul
you might as well forget
about performance improvement! Asking spiritual beings to perform
in a situation with no soul is like trying to grow a maple tree
out here in the Arizona desert. Or a cactus in northern Canada.
Can’t be done because the object and the circumstance aren’t
meant to go together. If your company has sold its soul, the only remedy is confession
followed by correction. There is no other way.
Just how does a company lose its soul in the
first place? Most businesses start out with the most admirable
of intentions – at
what point do things start to be compromised? That question will
be the subject of the next column!In the meanwhile, if your company has a soul I want to know about
it. Please contact me and tell me the story. Maybe you have something
to teach us all.
Ian Percy is a business speaker, author.
Reach him at www.ianperc.com