All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

The Beleaguered Businessman

Dr. Gresham is President Emeritus and Chairman of the Board, Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia.

The decline of the businessman’s power, prestige, and self-esteem is a salient fact of our times. National heroes of business and industry have fallen by the pens of sociologists, economic historians, welfare workers, environmentalists, consumer crusaders, reform politicians, and a spate of futurists. The unions and the government regulators have reduced the freedom of action and the power of the businessman. Ford, Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Morgan are names which once inspired awe and admiration, but today they are held accountable for many social ills such as corruption of the environment and the neglect of social costs of production. Their descendants turn from their heritage in business and industry to pursue fame in politics, for there is the focus of the new prestige.

The late Joseph Schumpeter foresaw the devaluation of status for the tycoon and the corporate executive. He had watched the businessman give way time after time without a struggle. The industrial executive has no title, no uniform, no ceremonials to honor him as a hero. He slips into his office at the back of the building lest he be seen on the way in. He dodges the society editors lest he be photographed in some holiday resort and accused of wasteful idleness when he meets the negotiators at the bargaining table. Even his children have turned on him and call his life style a rat race which even when won leaves the old man a rat. When he retires, he loses all identity and becomes a forgotten man. While he is in the fray, he does not defend himself very well. Since his leadership is in the areas of finance, production, management, administration, and organization, he tends to be much less articulate than his critics. The president of a vast corporation, says Schumpeter, has none of the glamour of a military leader, but “He is becoming just another office worker — and one who is not always difficult to replace.”1

Daniel Bell explains the debased status of the business executive in terms of the end of an era. As the industrial age peters out the role of the businessman declines in social value. The university and the scientific community, with the help of the politicians, take over. “The husbanding of talent,” he says, “and the spread of educational and intellectual institutions will become a prime concern of the society; not only the best talents but eventually the entire complex of prestige and status will be rooted in the intellectual and scientific communities.”2

This point of view is proclaimed by the academic community as both sensible and long overdue, but the analysis may be somewhat touched by preference and hope. The industrial society is not yet over, and the talents of a business executive may be just as essential to the next stage of political economy as they are to this one.

The plight of the businessman may very well derive from outside attack and from his inside ineptitude at defense rather than from the inexorable forces of a deterministic world. The attackers are strong and resourceful, and they have put the exemplars of business on the defensive. Who are they?

“The Scribblin Set,” as the Duke of Wellington called the literary intellectuals, have always been on the attack against business for the obvious reason of self-interest. Praise of business gets them nowhere, but blame of business brings praise and applause. Popular writers from Karl Marx to John Kenneth Galbraith have made socialism look good and capitalism look bad. Radical environmentalists in search of villains have lashed out at the business community with more anger than understanding.

Consumer crusaders sometimes appear to be more intent on the destruction of business than they are on the protection of the people. College and university professors, starved for power, assume that businessmen actually have affluence, prestige, and power at their command. The academic mind assumes that a professorial brain trust could take over if businessmen were put down. The new breed of newscasters, enchanted by the left, are easy on the critics, but hard on business. Some bureaucrats hope to wrest power from the business community to enhance their own positions. Politicians know that businessmen have few votes, and that the critics of business have many. Even some labor leaders have forgotten the wise counsel of Samuel Gompers who said, “The company that does not make a profit is the enemy of the working man.” All these and many others threaten business just at the time the businessman most needs understanding and help.

Failure of Nerve

The businessman can say with Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us!” None of the assailants has impaired the circumstance of the business community as much as has the businessman himself. He is like Conrad’s young woman who might have been raped had she not so promptly complied. Quite apart from human error which drew headlines when big steel raised prices, and when big autos faced a consumer crusader, the corporate executive has protested too much, hired professionals to plead his cause, capitulated, and settled for a position of centrism trying to make a buck on the right and four bits on the left. Afraid of the hard right which might throw him into the headlines or into the hands of his adversaries in union and government, he appeases the soft left without realizing that his cowardice amounts to treason.

His attempts at rational economic answers for his critics are ineffective against the political bias. His adversaries believe what they wish to believe, and the media supports them. The opinion polls measure the effect of the media more than they measure reasoned opinion, and they, thereby, serve the interest of the enemies of business.

The late T. V. Smith said: “No man is an S.O.B. to himself.” He went on to say that when he was young, he thought some very obvious S.O.B.s would be grateful to him for his understanding when he applied the appropriate title. As he grew older, he realized that each man — quite apart from not being an S. 0. B. — is actually a hero to himself. Yet the businessman has sufficiently flagellated himself, and suffered flagellation at the hands of his enemies, until he is no longer a hero — not even to himself. His self-blame may deny the philosopher’s declaration. He cannot throw himself into the battle as would a military leader; he cannot compromise away his problem as do the politicians; he does not understand the sociological nature of the case against him, with the result that he either lashes out with overkill or gives his case clean away. He, being a sensitive human being, and nudged by his wife and children, is fired with the same do-good impulses that inspire all sorts of social service projects only to see them turn back against him.

Business leaders use up so much ammunition on each other that they run out before they feel the full attack of the enemy. The once strong united defense of business interests has vanished as the interests of business have diverged and have become conflicting if not contradictory. The small entrepreneur may feel more threat from the big corporation that sets his prices and wages than he does from the attackers. The hired executive of a vast corporation may find more difference with the factory owner who defends his own plant and interest than he does with the public sector bureaucrats who are themselves employees of a giant monopoly. The industrial community, however, has one large thing in common — the leaders know that socialism will do them in.

Strategy for Survival

Thomas Carlyle once said, “Be honest and there will be one less scoundrel in the world.” Some changes are indicated for the American businessman, and these changes begin with himself. He must change his beliefs, his attitudes, his habits, and his opinions — not just his image. Even his manners need some reform. The self-assured aggressiveness by which a few break the queues at the airport, hotel, or restaurant, preempt a taxi by petit bribery, or disregard the rights and feelings of others by preoccupied self importance, creates some antipathy toward the total community of mostly honorable and cultured business people. Rudeness and boorishness can be accepted more readily from those who carry less responsibility.

The beliefs and values of the businessman are important factors in the survival of the productive industrial community, upon which American economic well-being depends. Critics who have been seduced into a lotus-eating mentality assume affluence when scarcity is the much more likely prospect. Moderates who are concerned not only with the quality of life but also with the necessities of life see the businessman as friend and benefactor—which he is. The practitioners of industry, commerce, and finance are challenged to rethink, revise, and renew their faith. Greed is no longer an acceptable goal for business, even though it was extolled by Mandeville and practiced by many in times past. Fear of loss is a powerful business motive, a minimal profit is essential; but the goals of business are much more complicated than the stereotype of greed would indicate. Profit must continue to be a major motive if business is to perform its function. Without profit, the firm must die and everybody loses, but the stereotype of maximum profit as the sole objective is no longer appropriate — if, indeed, it ever was.

The businessman cares about society and hopes to be regarded as a benefactor and friend of man. He feels pride in the people who work with him and for him. He has ego identification with his firm and cares about its health and its survival. He cares about the environment and his fellow consumers as much as do his critics —probably more. But he has not been able to state his faith in convincing terms — largely because he has been busy with other things and has professed what his critics expect him to believe and cherish. He wants his firm to grow, but he has not been obsessed with economic growth as charged. He longs for a freedom from crises brought on by government interference, which he cannot anticipate. He has enough difficulty dealing with crises brought on by technical and social change.

Business as Servant

The business organization can be “socially responsible” without attempting to deal with “social problems” which are not part of its business. Peter F. Drucker said it well — organizations are socially responsible “when they satisfy society’s needs through concentration on their own specific job.”³ The corporation has no business trying to manage the private affairs of a community, or, for that matter, the private affairs of its own employees.

Robert Greenleaf has suggested the self-image of “servant” for the businessman and also for the corporation. This venerable concept from the Judeo-Christian tradition could restore the dimension of dignity and honor which has been lost. The man of business affairs has talked a great deal about service without the correlative implication that he is himself a “servant.” Any truly effective leader is a servant. A dictator may be able to force performance, but he does not truly lead even though he gains compliance from his subjects. The servant leader, however, internalizes the needs and interests of those for whom he works — his colleagues, his customers, his community, his country, and the whole family of man on this little planet. The servant leader finds meaning in his work and a sense of satisfaction in service to his fellow man. He becomes a hero who believes in what he is doing — a new man sensitive to the changing times and willing to cherish and defend new values and old ones alike.

The Need to be Informed

Canny ignorance could once succeed in business, but the new businessman must know something. The executive who reads nothing outside his field except thrillers and Playboy or The Wall Street Journal is asking for the new socialism. The going literature of economics and politics would be much more realistic if its market included the business community. Sociologists writing for sociologists, economists for economists, political scientists for their own colleagues — even teachers for teachers — bring on a state of affairs wherein bias becomes accepted as truth since the so-called experts accept it. Such bias would soon be exposed if business leaders read the books and responded. An informed businessman can sense the threat to those he serves in time to act with understanding as well as with decisiveness and sound judgment.

Knowledge is now so vast that nobody can acquire it. An inquisitive mind, however, together with an enlightened philosophy of vocation can enable an intelligent businessman to accumulate enough information for the conduct of his affairs. A fine sense of honor and responsibility together with a genuine dedication to service can provide the beleaguered businessman with a defensible philosophical base from which he can exert his influence on the shape of the future.

The beleaguered businessman would do well to recognize that rational answers about the standard of living will convince none of his critics. The charges against business are frequently more political than economic. The new socialists are much more interested in a new social order than in any of their specific charges they bring against business. The environment, the minorities, the so-called “social costs” of business are all important to them as they are to the businessman; but if business were to do its utmost in all these areas, the new socialists would continue the attack, because their concern is for a new society wherein the business private sector has been subordinated, if not completely socialized.

Socialist Objectives

The business goals of a more abundant life through economic growth and a still better standard of living are consigned by the new socialists to the limbo of outmoded bourgeois values — the real goals for them are a new style of life based on equality, interpersonal relations, group concerns, art, love, and freedom from authority. The more hidden goal is for a shift in the balance of power in their favor. Their faith in getting a new kind of government to bring these things about may seem naive to the businessman, but it is a firm conviction on the part of the true believer. The businessman believes what he wishes to believe, and socialists — old time Marxists or new time charismatics — believe what they wish to believe. Politics deal in power and preference. Their arguments are more rationalized than rational.

The business community must close ranks and marshall its strength, or lose the values which capitalism and freedom have brought to America. Theory for survival has been written already by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, the late Ludwig Von Mises, and others. No successful refutation of their economic logic and observations has appeared — yet the public opinion tide runs toward the left. Business is not without numerous political supporters once the mutual interest becomes apparent. The blacks, the poor, the young of modest means, farmers, and laboring people who sense their deeper interests, are not about to eschew economic growth in favor of a reduced and more primitive life which has great appeal to the opulent and romantic young. The populist power in America is interested in economic gains — not in more art, more governmental control, and more government ownership. They turn to government in the hope of economic gains — not in political agreement.

The Doctrine of Liberty

The doctrine of liberty can thrill the hearts of the many when and if it is set forth with clarity and persuasion. The post-industrial doctrine of equality has much less appeal when once it is fully understood. The young may march in behalf of a utopian promise of equality of results, rather than equality of opportunity, but they soon reject the idea when their liberties are thereby threatened. They soon discover what thoughtful and realistic people have always known — that people are different in strength, mind, skill, and aspiration the same as they are different in athletic ability, age, and strength. The Platonic doctrine of justice — “each having and doing what is his own” — is a persistent and defensible idea.

Nobody can better expose the unworkability of bureaucratic and political power and control than can the businessman who has tried to operate under the arbitrary and uninformed efforts at regulation. The evils of big corporations look quite benign when measured against the inept, lethargic, unpredictable, and sometimes corrupt performance of government, whether in Russia, China, welfare democracies, Cuba, Chile, or our own bungling efforts at a managed economy. The ablest and best public servants complain more bitterly of their bureaucratic system than do the grousing and disenchanted employees of the commercial system.

The men who manage successful business enterprises and thereby serve by supplying needed goods and services benefit their fellow human beings in several additional ways. They plan the venture, assemble capital, provide employment, bring leadership to the communities in which they operate, support hospitals, universities, art galleries, music, social welfare agencies, and pay taxes — do they ever pay taxes! When I buy a car from General Motors, I pay a pretty steep tax on it; the materials that go into the car were taxed; General Motors pays a whopping tax; dividends from my stock in General Motors are taxed again; the money I use to buy the car has already been taxed; the dealers are taxed, and each employee of General Motors is taxed on what he is paid. A thoughtful and dedicated employee of General Motors is not only a servant leader, but also a public benefactor. Instead of going on the defensive when the corporation is charged with self-service, influencing the government, using the government for research and development, plus aggregate demand for its products, the corporate executive could very well feel quiet pride in his public service. To supply people with goods, services, and gainful employment is worth far more than to provide them with welfare payments.

Multinational Opportunities

Multinational corporations are adding a new dimension of glamour to vocations in business. These giant enterprises are somewhat comparable to the rising domestic corporations at the turn of the century. They are, to be sure, subject to the political instability of host countries, and they are subject to the military power of the host government, as well as to the embarrassment of revolutions, dictators, radical politicians, and misguided hostilities of some segments of the public. They can only lose in a political confrontation. They have, however, what the host country needs — capital, expertise, organization, and a host of talented executives. This provides considerable leverage. The technostructure elite of the multinational corporation offers an exciting new opportunity for a career in business. Such an elite may serve as the best hope of peace and prosperity in the decades ahead.

Multinational oil companies exemplify the predicament of the beleaguered businessmen. They have been accused by consumers, politicians, bureaucrats, pundits, and professors of engaging in subversive activities such, for example, as profit-making at a time when capital is absolutely essential to new exploration, and when borrowed capital is almost prohibitive in cost. While much of the attack is politically motivated, much of it results from a lack of economic perception. The consumer resents high profits of the oil industries. He feels he has been robbed —when he is poor and they are rich. Oil company executives have been less than shrewd in meeting the crisis. They have misunderstood the political nature of the problem — even those who are astute enough to sense trouble. Irving Kristol has wisely suggested that businessmen must learn to think politically as well as economically if they are to survive in this hostile climate.

The Best Offense

The time has come for business leaders to defend themselves, their functions, and the political economy in which they can work. The so-called “post-industrial age” will not eliminate the talented manager and his merited rewards. Some bungling politicians and bureaucrats will continue to make socialism unattractive to thoughtful people. The future is not yet determined, and those who believe in the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and Property” have equal opportunity to state their case. The beleaguered businessman can sustain the attacks, and emerge with more legitimate strengths and more honorable functions if he can become aware, think more clearly, develop a true and effective theory, enlarge his sense of responsibility, and be worthy of the hero role he now attempts to defend.

The late Adlai Stevenson quipped cleverly: “Eggheads of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your yolks.” Young business people on the campus have called themselves the Sons Of Business, and have used the acronym, S.O.B.s. I now call to their older counterparts:

Sons Of Business unite! You have nothing to lose but your acronym!


1 Schumpeter, Joseph A., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, (New York: Harper & Row, 1950) p. 133.

2 Bell, Daniel, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973).

3 Drucker, Peter F., The Age of Discontinuity, (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) p.206.  

  • Dr. Perry E. Gresham (1907-1994) was President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College. Bethany, West Virginia.