Business as a Calling by Michael Novak
February 3, 2023

Do you see your role in business as a calling?

By Paul Laughlin

Building on our recent focus, let me share my review of a classic text from 1996 on seeing jobs in business as a calling. Now allow me to begin by acknowledging that this book won’t suit everyone. Parts sound dated & the examples are draw from American society and politics. Add to that an author who is a devout catholic scholar and you may think I’m limiting my appeal. But, I encourage you to suspend disbelief until you’ve heard what it offers.

Business as a Calling” by Michael Novak achieves in 250 pages what many others have failed to communicate. It communicates the societal & moral benefits of businesses. It helps connect readers of all faiths & none with both their own beliefs and how leaders in business can make the world a better place.

Importantly, as I mused in my own story, it does this not by adding extra ESG values or social causes which businesses are asked to promote. Rather it helps us better understand how businesses, commerce, capitalism & democracy can help the world’s most needy and be noble causes themselves.

Define the problem and what is being overlooked

The late great Michael Novak is well qualified to write on this subject. As well as being a serious academic (one of Stanford Universities’ most influential professors) he also published over 50 books and was praised by world leaders for his human rights work. So, he has given this topic serious thought. More so than is the case for many who are quick to characterize commercial businesses as morally suspect.

Right from the start of this book, Michael addresses such sceptics. He distinguishes between flawed individuals who have manipulated the system & the moral potential of business leadership. It’s also interesting to read his responses to the challenges of excessive executive pay & the human cost of innovation/automation.

Importantly for the rest of this book, he then goes on to define a number of important terms. What is a calling? Little-known facts about commercial businesses (including more people of faith working in them than is the norm in wider society). Plus a deeper understanding of wealth creation & capitalism. Building on that he makes the case for capitalism as the most successful force in terms of lifting the poor out of poverty. The data is clear. But whether or not you agree it is helpful to read his clarity of thought on understanding the symbiotic but distinct relationship between capitalism & democracy.

What about virtues? How is this calling moral?

The more religious amongst my readers may by this stage be wondering where’s the evidence for a calling. Something of equivalent status to a religious vocation or a similar moral calling. What about virtue? Personal holiness? Or serving others to make the world a better place?

In the next three chapters, Novak outlines what he calls: “Virtue in the modern city“, “3 cardinal virtues of business“, and “Seven plus seven corporate responsibilities“. The first is a very insightful expose of how society has allowed the liberal arts and the idle rich to define moral sensibilities. Unlike the grounding in practical benefits that defined the understanding of virtue in Greek philosophy.

Those chapters listing virtues from business when lead aright should prick (or encourage) the consciences of all business leaders. Novak identifies these virtues in business as including:

  • Creativity (the creation of new wealth through the application of intellectual capital)
  • Operating as a community activity (fostering belonging & cooperation)
  • Pragmatism (translating ideals into what is doable & so avoiding passivity)
  • Satisfy customers with goods or services of real value to them
  • Make a reasonable return on money invested by investors in the business
  • Create new wealth
  • Create new jobs
  • Defeat envy by generating upward mobility via accessible opportunities
  • Promote ingenuity, invention & progress in arts & sciences (sponsoring)
  • Diversify the commercial interests of the home nation (improve economic security)

Beyond the basic benefit of business, aspire to more

Micahel Novak closes his classic book by raising the bar. He outlined in the chapters above how business & business leaders can be good in & of themselves. Next, he goes on to how they can improve the wider society & nations within which they operate. The first chapter summarises how nurturing & role-modelling the rule of law, diligence, diversity, meritocracy & democratic principles within a business can help. He makes a balanced case for how these can encourage less free nations to evolve. But also calls out the trap of multinationals operating within repressive regimes & failing to oppose abuses.

Building on that moral responsibility, the final two chapters focus on human rights and giving it all away. The former outlines the responsibility businesses have to be positive examples of more libertarian countries when operating in repressive regimes. He makes several specific suggestions & moral challenges (plus cites positive examples) that I advise senior leaders in multi-nationals to read.

If the above is more of a focus in many businesses (at least in their published code of conduct), the last chapter is more personal. Michael outlines the opportunity to give it all away. Not carelessly. Taking care to select good causes that are well-run and make the difference you want to see in the world. It has been encouraging to see successful business leaders like Bill Gates & investors like Warren Buffet work toward this goal. To give away the majority of their wealth before their death. What a difference such a calling can make in the world today.

Do you feel called? Are you called to what you are doing now?

I hope that review inspires you to check out this classic. Even if you borrow a copy or skim it, I encourage you to take the time to think carefully about your working life. We spend so much of our lives at work, let us not waste our lives on what does not feel meaningful to us. I encourage you to reflect beyond financial targets or social status or even others’ expectations. What are you gifted to do? How could you flourish in the right role in a business and feel a sense of vocation & fulfilment of your purpose?

If you have a story to share in relation to this aspiration, I’d love to hear it. If your role as a data or analytics leader feels like a calling to you, please get in touch. I’d love to publish your story & why.