Matters Column

The Ten Commandments: a good guide to business

May 22, 2015
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It would be hard to deny that Judeo-Christian teachings are the basic foundation of the culture of this country. Grand Rapids is an example of the quality of life that such a culture can engender.

I have told people for 40 years that, regardless of religious affiliation, following the Ten Commandments is a good guide to a happy life. I got to thinking about 10 commandments for small business, and decided to apply the original commandments, which I have to admit probably came from a higher authority than me.

1. Thou shall have no other Gods before me. Not an issue in business.

2. Thou shall not make graven images. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a graven image as an object of worship made of stone, wood or metal. In today’s world, cars, boats, houses, jewelry, etc., can be graven images. What are you willing to sacrifice to become rich in physical things? My father used to say if someone met him and what they remembered was his suit, he must be pretty pathetic. It is not the clothes, cars, houses and jewelry that mark a good person. The quality of the person stands out regardless of trappings. A person lacking in character cannot cover that defect with things.

3. Thou shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. Always show respect for all religions. Profanity indicates a lack of respect not only for the deity but also for those who revere that deity.

4. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. Think of it as a family or relationship day. That relationship could be wife, kids, parents, grandparents, friends, pets or nature. The Ten Commandments are rules for living from some very wise people. Even if you are not a practicing Christian, how can you go wrong dedicating a day to people you love?

5. Honor thy father and thy mother. If you have a business, you have something special. Maybe your parents weren't the greatest, but they gave you whatever it takes to start a business and that's something. If you did have good parents, honor them often and energetically. The quality of our community is attributable to many generations of hard-working, high-quality entrepreneurs. Let us remember to tell the ones still living we appreciate their legacy.

6. Thou shall not murder. I hope this applies to criminal activities only. Remember to keep employees and customers safe. Negligent homicide refers to taking someone’s life by not doing what is required. Leaving an employee alone and unprotected in an unlocked building can be negligent. Selling alcohol to an inebriated person is reckless. You don't want to find yourself in court trying to defend yourself as the cause of another person's death. If the morality doesn't move you, maybe the loss of your assets will.

7. Thou shall not commit adultery. There is no need to expound on this issue. Have you ever heard of a business improving due to the infidelity of the owner? There are a lot of crude statements about infidelity in the office. I can't repeat them here, but I can attest to the truth in them. Whether you get the message from Moses or Joe the bartender, believe it. Both of them are right. 

8. Thou shall not steal. Stealing is done in many ways: billing for hours that were not worked; using inferior parts in repairs and billing for the good stuff; cutting corners in construction. Just because you didn't wear a mask and use a gun does not mean you aren’t a crook. You can steal way more with a pen than you can a gun. Look at the big banks and Washington in the last Recession. If you rob a bank with a gun, you go to jail. If you steal money on Wall Street with the help of crooked politicians, you move to the Hamptons. I have more respect for the guy with the gun. He knows he's a crook.

9. Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Take the high road. Instead of denigrating your competition, defeat them with quality products and good service. Don't let the sickness that has infected our political system infect your business. If you’re better than your competition, go out and compete with them. If you’re not, get better. The entrepreneurial spirit is what made Grand Rapids one of the best cities in the country. I think I could make the case that at its core, Flint is a byproduct of the loss of the competitive edge. Make a better product and let the product speak for you. You don't have to bad mouth your competitors. Let their product do the talking.

10. Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, goods, etc. Don't waste your time comparing yourself to how the other guy is doing. My brother told me once that the sin of envy was the most damaging of emotions. It does not damage the person envied; it eats the heart out of the person who envies. Focus on making a better life for you and your loved ones. Your actions, not your neighbors, are going to determine the quality of your life. The Greek philosopher Epictetus raised the question as to what the message was in one’s neighbor having a larger house. The message is that he has a bigger house. There is no more significance to it.

Every profession has rules. CPAs, attorneys, doctors — all have rules. I think the Ten Commandments are kind of an overall set of rules for life.

If you are offended by my assertions in this article, I have a simple question. Have you ever known someone who broke these rules and ended up more successful? Success is not defined in money. It is defined as satisfaction with the results.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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