Toward a Noble Profession

By Colonel (Retired) Sean Hannah, Ph.D. , Sunday, January 01, 2017

“Low thoughts [about business] mean low behaviour, and after a brief orgy of exploitation low behaviour means a descending standard of life... a great society is a society in which its men [and women] of business think greatly of their functions.”  — Alfred North Whitehead, 1933

A business, or a specific field of business, cannot simply declare itself to be a profession. Professions are granted status only when they earn it from the constituents and society they serve. It is society, not the aspiring profession, who will determine whether business is a profession. They will do so based on the legitimacy and trustworthiness earned by the profession through its actions and practices and the value it provides to constituent parties and society.

All professions have a dual nature—a bureaucratic nature that seeks to sustain and manage the daily operations of the profession efficiently and a professional nature, grounded in a pursuit of excellence, integrity, and effectiveness. How a practitioner balances this dual nature and the culture they establish is idiosyncratic, and this balance is further complicated by the collection of individual professionals into firms and professional organizations that create still more overlaps of profession and bureaucracy. Do they focus on efficiency and narrow effectiveness metrics such as short term shareholder wealth, or do they take a larger fiduciary perspective, seeking long-term results and the nurturing of the profession and its relationships with various constituents? Do they thrive with a sense of esprit de corps, full of organizational vitality and sense of purpose while being grounded in a professional ethos? Have they internalized their role as a social trustee and the responsibilities that entails? The navigation of the dual nature of professions to achieve a proper balance is a primary challenge for business leaders.

What, however, are those essential characteristics that can make business a profession? Figure 1 provides a draft framework merely to serve as a starting point to drive discussion. This framework focuses on the collective level of the profession versus the individual professional. This is purposive as it is critical to first understand what must be achieved collectively by the profession before we can understand the knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes required by individuals to operate in the profession; as well as how they should be trained, educated, developed, and certified. Further, it is important to note that there are many characteristics that business as a profession could establish. For parsimony, Figure 1 is limited to those that are essential - those without which a profession cannot be established or maintained.

The Moral and Ethical Foundation. As depicted in Figure 1, business as a profession rests on a foundation of two layers. First and of most importance is the moral foundation, grounded in free market ideals and a belief by the society being served that vibrant competition, conducted with honor, will produce the best outcomes for the society. All organizations are ultimately social constructions formed to provide services and products of value and they thrive when they do so effectively while also being responsible in their actions. The second foundation is the ethical foundation which consists of the legal and regulatory environment that a business operates in. In an effective system these laws and regulations are drawn from the moral foundation and serve to communicate and establish the boundaries and collective norms through which a professional business will operate. Yet, in an ineffective system, such rules may be emplaced to serve specific interest groups inside or outside the profession, and may conflict with the common good and professional ideals. Traditionally, laws and regulations have often been created when business is perceived to have neglected to operate as a profession and has failed to regulate itself, thus inviting external regulation.

Figure 1 – The Essential Characteristics of Business as a Noble Profession

The Capstone. When business operates as a profession they earn legitimacy through demonstrating that they can deliver products and services that are competent and valued, and that their behaviors meet norms of social responsibility; thereby establishing that they are trustworthy. Perceived legitimacy, trustworthiness and value serve to enhance competitive advantage in a free market system. Internal to the business, this capstone is supported through four essential characteristics.

Four Essential Characteristics. Individual professionals and leaders within the profession must seek to continually reinforce four essential characteristics depicted as supporting pillars in Figure 1. Each of these characteristics is perishable, requiring constant vigilance. Such characteristics can serve as aspirational targets to guide choices and actions and the development of business systems and processes to ensure that the organization maintains itself as a profession.

1. Theoretical and Practical Expertise. An entity cannot be considered to be a profession unless they possess ample unique professional expertise, making this first essential characteristic perhaps the most defining. Business professions must develop and continually refine and build their own unique knowledge, both theoretical and practical, and teach that knowledge to junior members of the profession. It is rare that parties outside the profession provide such knowledge. Thus, the academic and industry partners of the profession must develop and refine through practice the profession’s expertise. All professions face three critical tasks to sustain their unique expertise: (1) to develop on a continuous basis the expert knowledge that informs its expertise; (2) to develop in each of its professionals the expertise to effectively and ethically apply that knowledge; and (3) to certify the expertise of each of its professionals and organizations.

2. Esprit de Corps. To manifest the ideals of free market competition and to persevere and prevail, business must have a sense of esprit de corps: the spirit, morale and cohesion of the collective. It is grounded in social bonds and camaraderie and a shared sense of purpose which give the profession a winning spirit. This is manifest in the continuous pursuit of excellence and when competition is at hand, to seek the honorable defeat of market competitors. Such esprit can be nurtured by the culture and reward systems and through traditions and history of the profession that provide its members pride to be part of something exemplary and larger than themselves; and through the examples of professionals that have served as its exemplars – and have “done it right”.

3. Professional Ethos. In balance to esprit de corps is the profession’s ethos, the canon of values, beliefs, duties and norms that define how business will be approached and conducted. A profession’s ethos is at the heart of its culture and establishes the core moral principles that define what it means to serve honorably in the profession. The ethos also informs the collective identity of the profession and its professionals, providing them with meaning, driven by an understanding that they serve a useful purpose and are part of a principled organization. Further, the ethos should inspire members to act as fiduciaries. All professions have a fiduciary role in that they are social trustees. Businesses provide products and services that other either cannot provide for themselves, or seeking specialization and efficiency, choose not to provide for themselves. Firms can take an approach of caveat emptor, "let the buyer beware”, or credat emptor “let the taker believe in us”. The operations of business also impact the greater society through their effects on natural resources, pollution, labor markets, etc. Businesses thus serve as social trustees and if they are to operate as a profession, it is imperative that they approach social responsibility not as an external mandate, but as an operating principle, embedding in their ethos and culture a sense of aspiration toward fiduciary responsibility. True professionals see their position not as just a job, but as an office. An office is a view of work that is infused with purpose and significance beyond the technical tasks currently at hand.

4. Stewardship of the Profession. Stewardship is about the internal responsibilities to the profession. Professions are duty-bound to not just complete today's missions and achieve near term goals and objectives, but those of the future, ensuring that the profession is sustained and capable of thriving and succeeding in whatever endeavors it takes over time, ensuring its long term effectiveness. Stewardship involves the maintenance of the other four essential characteristics. It includes ensuring that the profession continually refines its expertise and trains, educates, develops and certifies that its members, as individuals, can practice that expertise. It includes building a professional culture that nurtures collective esprit de corps while also reinforcing the profession’s ethos so that results are achieved with integrity. It also demands that the ethos is self-regulated such that the profession does not require external regulation. And finally, stewardship requires that the profession builds in its ethos inspiration for its members to internalize their fiduciary responsibilities. Stewardship is not only a mindset, but requires that the profession establishes systems and processes that manifest stewardship across the profession.

Extending to the Individual Level: The Professional

A framework of what collectively constitutes business as a noble profession should serve as a starting point to formulate what preparation is required of individual professionals. That is, the academic and practicing members of the profession should take a somewhat normative stance, purposively growing junior professionals based on the aspirational model of the profession. Said another way, the profession should not merely be a reflection of whatever members and their idiosyncrasies may populate it at any point in time.

Further, the essential characteristics of the profession shown in Figure 1 suggest that preparing true professionals requires more than training skills – it must also include education and development. Training entails the formation of technical skills and abilities, education entails the learning of the profession’s theoretical and practical knowledge, and development entails the deeper changes in one’s identity, character, and meaning-making systems that are required to identify with the profession and internalize its ethos.

First, professionals should be competent in the theoretical and practical expertise of the profession, forged through gaining technical skills and the learned knowledge and practical wisdom needed to employ the right skills, in the right way, at the right time, when needed – the science and the art. Second, professionals must have formed a professional identity where they identify with the profession and have internalized its esprit de corps and fiduciary responsibilities and their role as an active steward of their profession. Finally, professionals must develop character that is aligned with the ethos of the profession with capacities such as the moral courage needed to enforce the professions ethos with their peers. To summarize, competence/expertise, character, and commitment/professional identity are key hallmarks of a professional, preparing them for their primary responsibility: the exercise of discretionary judgments that are evidenced by their accuracy, effectiveness and moral basis.

Colonel Sean Hannah, Ph.D.

ExpertiseExemplary inspirational leadership and leader development; creating adaptive high-performance teams and organizational systems to face VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) contexts and thrive; building character-based high-performance cultures; business ethics, strategic thinking and strategic planning systems; executive coaching and development.  ExperiencePart of the Thayer Leadership faculty since its inception, COL... Read More +

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"Most people spend 90% of their time on tasks and 10% on leadership. Start spending 50% of your time on leadership and you will notice that others will pick up the slack on the tasks."
Colonel Sean Hannah, Ph.D.
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"Most people spend 90% of their time on tasks and 10% on leadership. Start spending 50% of your time on leadership and you will notice that others will pick up the slack on the tasks."
Toward a Noble Profession

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