What part have greed and lust played in the business downturn?

Continuing the series on how 21st Century business behaviour reflects the seven deadly sins

Having started to write about the modern equivalent of the 7 deadly sins and how they show up in business I attended a TEDx talk on ‘Greed, Generosity and the Greater Good’; it was really interesting to hear the speakers’ take on greed from banking and the finance industry to personal greed. And the flip side being how generosity not only benefits those that we give to but us too, the feel good factor generated by chemicals and neurons in the brain that can actually sustain us in that ‘feel good’ feeling for some time.

And that’s the thing about greed – in the Intelligent Life article Jesse Norman, former banker and philosopher and now an MP ventures that the modern archetype of greed is those who don’t do the job they were hired to do and still get additional reward, which they consider to be a right.


He goes on to say that greed is a desire to have more, more than you need, or already have and certainly more than anyone else. And that it arises from an extreme form of ego where the world becomes a place to be absorbed, exploited and conquered. But to what end? What is it that people are seeking… what really lies beneath that ego and need for more?

Ultimately all that people are seeking is a feeling: even those who are altruistic still get a sense, feeling, when they do something to the greater good no matter how small and insignificant that act may be. And those who are greedy get a feeling from the greed, from the one up manship, the having and ability to have where there are have nots. And personally I’d venture the reason why they continue to seek more and more is because the feeling greed gives them doesn’t sustain them in the same way. The mental highs they get are not as long lasting or satisfying to the whole of them in the way that those who are generous feel.

It could be argued that greed is a basic driver of capitalism and markets, and Norman’s response to this is that the soul needs more, not more of but more different, to be nourished. And that markets need ethics and thereby hangs a tale… For is that not what’s happened in business up until recent years? The ethics that were once the cannons of business were thrown to the wind; it was every business for itself, every person in a business for themselves. Climbing over each other to gain leads, business, the next bonus, the next contract, not thinking about the impact of their actions?

There was nothing authentic in the way that business was being done by many and the feelings of wanting and having more were fuelled by both having more and the always wanting to be the proverbial king pin.

Market forces will always prevail and regulating (with the exception of the financial services but even that’s a moot point) often doesn’t work, it creates false paradigms and therefore false results and bases.

However there’s no reason why ethics is left at the door… there’s room for authenticity, sustainability and the ability to thrive as well has having a basis of business ethics.

Lust – Robert Guest, USA editor of the Economist and author of Borderless Economics suggests that the deadliest of the sins is a lust for power. Which must go hand in hand with greed for most of the greed that’s driven people has been a lust for power and what that brings. Guest further suggests that the most powerful organisations in the world, including governments, attracts those who most lust for power.

Like greed lust never seems to be satisfied as the feeling it brings isn’t long lasting or the feeling the person really seeks, it’s is only ever satiated temporarily. He suggests that in democracy we build in checks and balances to restrain leaders whereas in communism this wasn’t in place and the lust for power was too great. And to an extent I’d agree there are checks and balances but I’m not sure how well they really work.

Clearly in the financial world they have failed and perhaps because they were mostly set by financiers and there’s evidence in many democratic governments of degrees of success to temper lust.

Lately much has been written about trust and the lack of trust in businesses and of leaders yet alone in government and public departments. And that lack of trust so often results not just from what some might observe as weak leadership but from experience of the fall out from a lust for power. From the greed that feeds the lust.

Where a business is not operating from its values, from a place of authenticity then there cannot be trust in the business or the leaders. To call it the deadliest sin is true on many levels including the fact that the lust for power is likely to have caused much damage to individuals’ well being and probably has caused death for a number of reasons, yet alone war and extreme poverty in the third world. And it’s also caused the death of many businesses.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, (1834–1902), historian and moralist, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Whilst I wouldn’t say that great men are almost always bad men those with absolute power rarely have absolute values and morals and we have evidence of these people’s lust for power their scant regard for the consequences – no matter how wide reaching those maybe. But what none of these people have been able to do is eradicate hope and from hope there is always the opportunity to for change… little acorns can indeed become great oaks and there’s now a definite feeling of hope…

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