I’ve always said that running a business is an opportunity to put your beliefs to work. There’s no greater exercise in courage than starting a company; no better way to test your faith than sweating through a cash flow crunch; no finer experiment in integrity than debating whether to do the right thing when the wrong one is so much more convenient.
I recently stumbled on a book called A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith, the long-time headmaster of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. In his prologue, Smith writes, “What particularly struck me is that the Quaker ideals formulated in the seventeenth century remain contemporary in every sense, and the basic injunction to ‘let your life speak,’ to live each day in accordance with these beliefs, seems totally untarnished by the passage of time.” This timeless approach also applies to all of us who own companies or sit at the top of an organization. We have the opportunity to do the same in our work lives, to let our businesses speak for what we believe.
The traditional Quaker approach to business, according to Smith, is based on what they believe about the world. “Friends organized their workplaces as an expression of the way they conducted their lives, treating all people as equals–employees, customers, business associates–and adhering strictly to the truth in all transactions.”
That doesn’t mean the Quaker approach eschews profits. The 18th century whalers of Nantucket, a topic I’ve been researching lately for a book project, were known for their no-nonsense business practices as much as for their adherence to the principles espoused by the Friends. They saw no conflict in their worldly success, which in some cases was significant, and the plain living demanded by their faith. They also didn’t shy away from charging whatever they considered a fair price, which is not something you can say for many entrepreneurs today who continually cut their prices out of fear that no one will pay what their services are really worth. An old source I was thumbing through quoted one Quaker man telling another, “The only way for a Friend to do business with another Friend is to offer him the same goods at the same price as he would anyone else.”
However, the Quaker tradition of business is not one of cutthroat practices. “Instead of seeing their workers and customers as adversaries,” Smith writes, “they view them as partners. Quaker businesspeople understand that they are accountable to the individuals they employ, the customers they serve, the community they share, and their own conscience. Not surprisingly, this adds up to both good citizenship and good business.” If all this sounds strangely familiar, maybe it’s because so many of us in recent years have focused on just this sort of approach to business. Like they say, there is nothing new under the sun.
Apparently Quakers are also known for their innovation. “Despite their conservative ways, Quakers have always been noted for their willingness to innovate, to experiment with doing things in a more efficient way. I think this openness,” Smith writes, “which has served them well in the world of business, stems from Friends’ optimistic view of the perfectibility of human beings and their institutions.”
This optimism seems to me endemic to the lives of entrepreneurs. If you don’t have that essential optimism, that belief that you can improve the performance of yourself, your people and your company, then the weight of running a business day to day will grow heavy indeed. With it though, it can become a rich journey of experience, whether you seek your guidance from the Quakers — or from Buddhism, Judaism, Native American spirituality or all of the above.