Our idea of entrepreneurship is based of hard work and success. A trudge through the hustle period of setting up an IP. Recognizing a niche and responding to it. Getting recognition, and eventually turning a profit through diligent and continuous work.
But there is seldom anything said about the ethics of being an entrepreneur. Indeed, are there any ethics of entrepreneurship, that we, as aspiring professionals and business owners should be aware of?
Is there a right way to be a leader?
Before we get into the ideas of leadership, let us briefly cover Corporate Social Responsibility. To make a long story short, CSR is the ethical responsibility of corporations to give back to the society from which they have been gaining their profit.
Now, CSR is usually applied to large companies. As businesspeople beginning our walk to success, becoming a corporation is a distant dream. There is yet to be any profit from which to give back to the world.
So let us tweak the term in our favour and call it Entrepreneurial Social Responsibility.
What is Entrepreneurial Social Responsibility?
The last year saw a public reckoning of CEOs, and for good reason.
Jeff Bezos was lambasted for his tone deaf press release where he thanked his workers for sending him to space. Elon Musk has seen his public persona falter, as he has gone from being the planet’s most beloved futurist, to a tax evading fraud. Bill Gates, despite his philanthropic activities, has been judged to be a poor example of a leader. Steve Jobs has received a posthumous reappraisal of his leadership activities and been found wanting.
None of these people had been shy, or secretive, about their concerns for the world. They had been consistent contributors to charity. Bezos has stepped down from his CEO position to focus on his charitable endeavours. Musk is trying to colonize Mars for the future of humanity. And not that long ago, Steve Jobs was considered zen guru of leadership, and now his rude behaviour with his subordinates has come under fire.
So, the individual leader’s responsibility towards the world cannot be subsumed under the purview of CSR. The human understanding of ethics cannot be covered in simple charitable donations and performative goodness. Charities do not make up for poor treatment of workers, and not pulling one’s weight in legitimate taxes.
The responsibility of an entrepreneur has to do with being a good human being, and a humane leader.
The Ethics of Humanity
Last year, a meme exploded in popularity, and died down soon enough. It was a picture of a CEO sleeping on a couch, taken by their employees. By the logic of meme culture the picture was edited with various captions and backgrounds.
But what appealed to me was the relationship betrayed by the picture. Of workers comfortable enough with their boss/leader to poke gentle fun at them.
I think that is where we can start understanding the ethics of being an entrepreneur. Being able to retain the human elements of existence beyond the pursuit of success and profit.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?
Then why do so many people fail at it? Why does Bezos seem so out of touch with reality? Why does Mark Zuckerberg look like an android doing its worst impression of humanity?
The answer lies in the class divide that is inevitably achieved in the pursuit of entrepreneurial success.
In running after business profit it is easy to lose sight of the human worth it costs. It is shrouded in the language of capital and investment. Hence the repeated reports of overworked and underpaid employees, and the current #antiwork movement.
In order to understand what the social responsibilities of entrepreneurship might be, we have to understand economy from a human perspective, instead of the movement of stocks and resources.
Why do people work? What is the meaning of earning a living?
Why do people work?
We do not work for the sake of it. Labour is not a goal in itself, but a journey to some destination. We might be working to run our family or household. We might be working to sustain ourselves through studies, on our way to a different career. Or we might be working to make the world a better place, using the skills at hand.
As leaders and entrepreneurs, we often dream of being harbingers of change. And it is in this recognition of simple human necessities and desires where we may begin to bring that change about.
What does it mean to earn a living?
Whether as an entrepreneur, a manager, or a simple worker, our aim is to sustain ourselves and build a future. That is the imagination of living as we know it. Knowing this helps us realize our responsibilities towards our superiors, peers, and subordinates. Towards our clients and customers. As a leader and entrepreneur, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of this knowledge as we grow our business.
It is not easy to hold on to idealism. With the passage of time it begins to feel at odds with practical reality. People are unpredictable, as is the economy. We fear that being a generous entrepreneur might be our undoing. So we tend to shift our focus from altruism to profit making, alienating ourselves from the world, and the workers from their work.
It is here, as a good leader, where we have to learn the balance between idealism and pragmatism. A cynical denunciation of either will not work. Instead we would have to focus on navigating the maze of reality as best as we can, making our own paths when the road seems blocked.
How to be an Ethical Entrepreneur?
It is in the concluding section that I admit to my title being a clickbait. It is not possible to lay out a path to be ethical in our entrepreneurial activities. The right path isn’t already there, but is something for us to pave. We would have to shift the definition of success in business from the idea of maximized individual profit, to a community based understanding of well being.
We would need to reimagine the structure of business and work from the ground up in our pursuit Entrepreneurial Social Responsibility. Only then will we be able to define the process of becoming an ethical entrepreneur.