Success in business is a result of many different traits. Industry knowledge, diligence, and a good reputation are prominent among them. These traits are valuable not only on their own merits but also because they contribute to a businessperson’s ability to inspire confidence, the key ingredient in business success.
If employees believe in you, they will work hard for you. If investors and suppliers believe in you, they will finance your operations and guide business opportunities to you. If customers believe in you, they will hesitate to buy elsewhere.
Confidence, however, is a fragile flower, and the question of how to build it among one’s various constituencies – and how to maintain it over time – is a prime consideration for anyone who wishes to maintain or grow a business.
President Clinton’s troubles are well known and the negative reaction to his speech acknowledging an “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky was widespread. Whether or not President Clinton will be impeached, will resign, will be censured or will simply serve out his term, in a significant way, I sensed that the speech marked the end of the Clinton presidency.
A mentor in business once told me he wouldn’t do business with those he couldn’t trust. Consequently, he more than once refused business cooperation with men who cheated on their wives. He reasoned that if they would cheat on their wives, surely they would cheat on him. In this sense, the Clinton presidency faces the almost overwhelming obstacle of trying to make deals with people who simply won’t believe what President Clinton says.
Yet something more happened in that speech. The Chinese used to speak of their emperors as acquiring, having, or losing the “mandate of heaven.” The line expresses the notion that great leaders hold their positions as a result of something more than formal occupancy of a position. They hold their place in the world at the sufferance of something greater. In a republic in this post-Nietzschean age, one remembers the ancient Latin: Vox populi vox Dei – “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
Here something has changed. Defenders of the president will point to supportive polls. Indeed, it is uncertain that the country has the stomach for impeachment. Yet people do not think of the president the same way. Popular comedians earn their livings by knowing what will resonate with the people. So when David Letterman brings on Jesse Jackson essentially asking what is wrong with our president, the jig is, for all practical purposes, already up.
For businesspeople, the lesson is not solely to avoid giving into temptation, though that is hardly bad counsel. Rather, the key is to be found in taking responsibility for one’s actions.
It is said that in preparing for his speech, President Clinton read from the Bible the story of David and Bathsheba. It is a painful and beautiful story, filled with lessons of leadership. King David spies a beautiful woman, who he finds out is married to one of the men in his army. David has her brought to him and has relations with her. When she becomes pregnant as a result of their liaison, David brings back her husband, a soldier in the army, hoping to cover his own transgression by allowing the man a night with his wife. But the man, Uriah the Hittite, is uncommonly virtuous. He will not enjoy himself while his colleagues are caught in battle. David then issues to his general one of the most famous and evil orders in history: “Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle.”
The Lord sends a prophet, Nathan, to see David, and the prophet tells him a story: “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended the lamb and it grew up together with him and his children. It used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom. It was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest, so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Upon hearing this story, David becomes angry: “As the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!” Nathan responds with another line that echoes through history: “That man is you!”
When David hears the explanation of his sin, he responds quickly, clearly and simply: “I stand guilty before the Lord!” Immediately, the prophet Nathan responds: “The Lord has remitted your sin; you shall not die.”
Such a story must have brought comfort to President Clinton as he proposed to address the nation. Yet his speech confirmed only that he is no King David.
Another Biblical story tells of Saul, chosen by the Lord to be the first King of Israel, being commanded by the Lord to destroy Amalek and all the Amalekites. Saul is commanded to destroy the city and not to allow any bounty to be taken. Yet when Saul destroys Amalek, he spares the life of King Agag of Amelek and captures him. Furthermore, the choicest sheep, oxen, lambs and other animals are taken as bounty.
Afterwards, the Lord sends the prophet Samuel to King Saul and points out his transgressions. King Saul vacillates, claiming that he did follow the Lord’s instructions. When confronted with evidence, Saul claims the animals were taken only to sacrifice them to the Lord. When confronted again, Saul acknowledges that he transgressed the Lord’s command, but blames the troops whose actions Saul says he feared.
In other words, Saul lied, made excuses, blamed the troops and fought in every possible manner against taking responsibility for his actions.
In the end, the Lord was stern. Despite Saul’s entreaties, Samuel explains to Saul, “The Lord has rejected you as King over Israel.”
The stories are interesting in thinking about President Clinton’s role and useful in looking at the components of leadership. David clearly commits the more heinous sins. He covets and commits adultery and he commits murder. That violates three of the 10 Commandments. Saul, on the other hand, spares the life of a king and fails to kill some animals. Yet David is forgiven while Saul is stripped of his kingship and his entire family line is eventually wiped out.
Why is this so? What is the distinction? David accepts responsibility for his sins. He does not lie or cover up; he does not blame others for his predicament; he does not wait for others to marshal proof seeing if he can get away with it. He acknowledges his own responsibility. Saul, on the other hand, does not accept that responsibility and so, literally in this case, loses the mandate of heaven.
Perhaps in business, our mandate is more trifling and we cannot expect heavenly intervention. Still, it strikes me that the world is surprisingly forgiving of sin and of error, for after all, we are all sinners and all makers of mistakes. Yet those who others trust are those who acknowledge, forthrightly, the error of their ways.
For most of us, there is a temptation to think that our transgressions are inconsequential. This is not true. A king or a president may have a broader constituency, but every businessperson has many a constituency. Our ability to make our businesses succeed is as much dependent on the faith of others as the president’s position depends on the faith of the people at large. If, as a result of President Clinton’s actions, we all have newfound remembrance of the importance of moral responsibility, history may point to this age as the beginning of a new renaissance.