If the purpose of medicine is to improve health, and of law, justice, what is the purpose of management? I have asked this question to hundreds of MBA students for the last decade and the responses don’t cease to surprise (or even shock) me. To some, the central purpose of the profession they are training for is to “maximize shareholder value”. To others it is to “maximize profits”. And, to many, the question itself is irrelevant, or even worse, absurd.
I routinely ask the same students “who are their business idols?” – the role models they would love to emulate. I ask what it is about those individuals that they admire so much. Some cite Apple’s Steve Jobs, because he transformed personal computing and made it affordable, accessible and beautiful. Others bring up Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin because they made the dream of universal access to information a reality and because they continue to come up with amazing services at no cost. I also hear Henry Ford, who helped normal citizens own a car and who helped create modern management techniques that radically improved productivity. Or Warren Buffett, for his responsible, long-term approach to investing that has produced billions of dollars in value.
We admire business leaders who create products that make our lives better, who innovate, who find ways to do things more efficiently. But when asked why we choose to dedicate our professional lives to managing businesses we either can’t answer, or at best, confuse the means with the ends. This disconnect has been a cause of great concern to me.
For management to occupy its rightful place among the learned professions, for it to be looked at as an honorable calling, a respected and technically complex occupation that can be personally rewarding and socially useful, it is paramount that we deliberately and concisely articulate an inspiring purpose.
That’s what The Oath tries to do in its preamble: it reminds us that at its very core, managers bring together other people and other people’s resources and organizes them in ways that are valuable to all parties involved.