Basketball Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley said that when he was poor no one would give him anything. But now that he's rich, no one will let him pay for anything. So it is with business leaders, who ostensibly rose to prominence because of their ability to deal with reality, complex and unvarnished. But now that they're running an organization, everyone protects them from even the most obvious truth.
This one, above all: If you're running a business in America, it's not enough to say that the work you're engaged in "creates jobs" or "serves customers." You have to do more. You have to improve things, make some kind of progress, attach yourself to something good. Your employees won't run hard forever on an existential treadmill, and you won't succeed in any profound way either.
I'm not saying you have to be engaged in objectively useful work. I guess the vast majority of causes, movements and reform efforts corporate or otherwise are misguided and will be revealed to be irrelevant by the passing of a couple of mere decades. You only have to believe you are doing something larger, because that belief creates a spiritual direction. Something noble to point your people toward, regardless of their chances of benefitting financially. Something to bargain with with customers, besides money. Something to fall back on in downturns or moments of despair: This is why we are here.
Here's the good news: As long as you demonstrate your sincere belief in a thing, employees and everyone else connected with your company will embrace it, no matter how daft or intellectually thin it is. As a citizen of Ghana recently complained about a presidential New Year's speech that left him cold, "Surely, the speech could have been a refreshing New Year music to tactfully shoo us into the better days we are feverishly waiting for." Your people are feverishly waiting for some motivating—any motivating—idea from you.
Here's the bad news: Though you can reject all of the above and still be a brilliant financial analyst or a cool logistical planner, you cannot be a great or even a good leader of an organization in America or any other first-world economy that American culture has influenced, over any length of time. You can't.
It's less than morality, but it's more than morale. It's meaning, even just a little, that your people want to have in common. No, will have in common, no matter what. And if you deny them any meaning because you can't conjure it yourself beyond your own miserly money-hoarding (a pleasure your salaried or hourly workers simply do not share), then the stinking, stifling, emptiness of working in the absence of purpose is the meaning they will make, the fetish they will fondle and the organizing guidance they will follow in all their dealings on your sorry behalf.
To quote a management consultant who knew how to talk straight: It's like that, and that's the way it is.
Can anybody disagree?