The All-Knowing Businessman Myth — It’s Ruining the U.S.

After being a business professor for nearly 30 years, you’d think I’d be delighted with the worship of businessmen. But I’ve advised many CEOs and just being one doesn’t make you an astute or honorable person. It does not mean you have a clue about how the “real world” functions, because for many the largest focus is on making a small group of people richer.

I’ve listened to CEOs brag about making tough decisions that included firing secretaries to save a few bucks while they padded their pockets. There are exceptionally gifted CEOs and many impressive ones.  They exemplify leadership in their fields.  Then there are those who share a limited world view — what Donald Trump calls “players.”  It’s all about making deals and profits.

I’ve taught and written about skilled negotiation, so I’m not opposed to learning how to negotiate effectively.  Much of life involves negotiation.  The difference between my views on skilled negotiation and that of senior business executives – like several of those being chosen by Trump for his Cabinet – is one of morality and myopia. Success as a leader is not mutually exclusive with concern for people or for society. It is not single-minded.  Quite the contrary.

The “It’s not personal, it’s business” mantra has allowed far too many senior business executives to harm, with impunity, those who work for them. “You’re fired” is supposedly, no thanks to Donald Trump, what real “players” say often.

Yet, as I wrote for The Harvard Business Review, courage at work is not doing what’s good for oneself. It’s not selfish. It’s not self-serving.  Neither is leadership.

Business is not a place of worship, but it’s getting to be a lot like a “religion” where followers never doubt. The results are likely to be catastrophic. When being buddies with Vladimir Putin is a good thing because it’s “just business,” we’ve lost the plot. We are drinking the cool aid. We’ve bought into a fiction with huge potential for terrifying consequences.

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