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Why Being Selfless is Good for Business

June 30, 2013, 10:00 AM
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The current worldwide economic crisis is often blamed on the greed, selfishness, and unethical excesses of unbridled free-market capitalism. To a large extent, I agree with this analysis, even though as a businessman and entrepreneur, I love our free-market system. Most of us assume, however, that greed, selfishness, and unethical behavior are intrinsic to free markets, capitalism, and "profit." And since capitalism has proved to be the most productive economic model the world has yet seen, this has led many to conclude that all we can do is manage a painful deal with the devil. Capitalism takes on the role of a wild and dangerous animal sharing our house; an animal we can live neither with nor without. This analysis assumes that this selfish beast can never be tamed, so it must be constantly restrained lest it suddenly turn on its master with the kind of disastrous consequences we have recently experienced.

Unfortunately, this description of capitalism traps us in a painful dichotomy; things like higher purpose, putting people first, and looking out for the customer are invariably at odds with "profit" and "bottom line" considerations. In this war the bottom line always seems to win, and higher goals are perpetually damned to the realm of altruism. There these higher goals languish, their only advocates the bully pulpit of corporate guilt and futile appeals to mankind's "better nature."

As I spent more and more time living and working alongside the monks of Mepkin Abbey, I began to realize that at heart they are living an ancient yet emergent economic model that rejects the assumption that capitalism and selfless service are essentially at odds with one another and mutually exclusive. The monks of Mepkin and agnostics like Warren Buffett alike have been wildly successful in business not despite their fanatical commitment to the highest principles but because of them. The counter-intuitive secret that the monks, Buffett, and the world's greatest salespeople have discovered is that the more successfully we forget our selfish motivations, the more successful we become.

If this analysis is correct, then our task, though still daunting, is no longer just endless, acrimonious, time-consuming, and expensive trade-offs between capitalism and socialism, competition and cooperation, profit and nonprofit, growing people and using people, free markets and government regulation, altruistic motivations and selfish motivations. Instead we must transcend these false dichotomies by conclusively demonstrating that service and selflessness is not all "motherhood and fluff." We must prove that selfless service can be more than a thinly veiled PR campaign and corporate- recruitment strategy masking as "give back." For, as Warren Buffett, the monks, and my personal experience as a salesman, executive, and entrepreneur will show, service and selflessness will lead to businesses that are more profitable and productive than those we have today. Service and selflessness is not about sacrificing growth and profitability for some abstract and elusive "common good." It is just damn good business.

This model does not envision dismantling the capitalist system and the "profit" that has lifted so many out of poverty. Service and selflessness transcends all the painful trade-offs listed above. It does so by tapping into the universal longing we all have for a mission that is so much bigger than ourselves that it transforms us, both individually and collectively, from selfish to selfless people.

The above is an excerpt from the book Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity by August Turak. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2013 August Turak, author of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity

August Turak is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, award winning writer and author of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity (Columbia Business School Publishing; July 2013). He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Selling Magazine, the New York Times, and Business Week, and is a popular leadership contributor at Forbes.com. His website is www.augustturak.com.

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