Last week’s entry of businessman Kevin O’Leary into the leadership race for the Conservative Party of Canada provoked a fierce response from his quondam colleague on Dragons’ Den, Arlene Dickinson. It would have been perfect material for the script of the show.
“Since announcing his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party, I’ve been inundated with requests to comment on Kevin O’Leary,” Dickinson wrote for CBC online.
“The question on everyone’s mind is the same: ‘Is the cold, money-driven person we see on television what we will get as a potential political leader?’ It’s the exact same question I’ve received from Canadians from coast to coast since we co-starred on Dragons’ Den together. And the answer is: ‘Yes, he’s exactly the same person privately as he is on camera.’
“For seven years, I sat shoulder to shoulder with Kevin,” Dickinson continued. “We’d spend long hours together, listening to hardworking Canadian entrepreneurs pitch their businesses, which, all too often, led to real-life stories of enormous struggle. You get a window into somebody’s character by the way they treat people, particularly those who are vulnerable and need help or guidance. Kevin’s total lack of empathy toward these Canadians who put their heart and soul on the line, I can assure you, was genuine.”
Then Dickinson went in for the kill.
“He’s the business community’s worst spokesperson. Why? Because he represents capitalism in its very worst form — a soulless system that bases decisions solely on dollars and cents, profit and margin. But this isn’t the reality.
“After 30 years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that business is about people. It’s a series of relationships between you and your customers, your employees, your partners, and ultimately, the public. Business is personal.”
Dickinson’s criticism is not just that O’Leary is a flawed man, lacking the necessary empathy we desire in our leaders. She accuses him of not understanding business, and the personal nature of the market system.
O’Leary plays something of a caricature, the greedy businessman who is, for an extra nickel, ready to exploit his workers, his partners and his customers. Such people do exist of course, but the free economy – which is a network of voluntary relationships – generally does not reward those who act in such a way. Who wants to work with them? Which customer will return a second time? Even if they do prosper, they represent a corruption of the free economy, not its ideal, or even its norm.
I don’t know if Dickinson has read St. John Paul II, but her comments echo what he wrote in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus on the free economy.
“The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well,” John Paul II says.
“When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency.”
Then, in an insightful and sympathetic passage, John Paul II defines a business as a personal reality before it is a commercial one.
“In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society. Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business.”
There are entire libraries full of business books that advise the same thing. The ongoing health of a business depends more on the long-term relationships that constitute it as a community of persons than on the short-term benefit that might be extracted at the cost of damaging those relationships. The greatest management guru of all time, Peter Drucker, made that the heart of his philosophy of business.
Reality television is largely built on the twin ignominies of exposing that which should be intimate and subjecting the losers to public humiliation. There are plenty of reality shows about business or professional development that largely stick to such format. One notable example used to star the man currently serving as President of the United States.
Dragon’s Den does not traffic in intimacies. The entrepreneurs are not locked in a house and filmed discussing their private lives. They make a pitch, and usually the “dragons” enquire as to the personal story behind the product. They speak about the relationships necessary for success and celebrate the courage it takes to be an entrepreneur. They are hard-headed business owners to be sure, but not hard-hearted.
There are sometimes humiliations – usually delighted in by O’Leary – but often there is affirmation and encouragement. Dragons’ Den, despite the forbidding title, is not a place of danger and exploitation. Neither is the free economy, properly understood. As Dickinson points out, O’Leary does not understand this.
Business ought to be a noble vocation because it is a profoundly personal vocation, serving the needs of others. It can be like teaching or politics or even philanthropy. It can be corrupted, as can any field, but properly understood it is not soulless, but good for the soul. Doing well in business, from both a Christian and financial point of view, ought to include doing good.