Sunday in the Park
May 29, 2009
I know my friend didn’t mean for the comment to come across in such a condescending/patronizing way. But when we were having lunch last week and talking about a situation I couldn’t wrap my head around, he said to me, "It’s not personal it’s just business, Teri." He said it as if I didn’t understand what it takes to run a business, or that my nonprofit world wasn’t every bit as businesslike as his for-profit one. Or a bit like my right-brain-writerly head just wouldn’t understand the nuance of the business way of doing things.
I’ve heard this argument/expression before as way for otherwise good people to excuse bad behaviors. I used to think I really didn’t understand. Or maybe I just didn’t have the heart or the right spirit. That I lacked what it takes to make it in the formal business world. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: If pushing people aside, or taking things that don’t belong to you, or walking away from promises or people can be justified with an expression, then I don’t have what it takes.
My neighbor is running a company in Salt Lake City and is struggling, like so many of us, with all the downturns in the economy. The other night over cocktails he confessed he was doing everything he could to keep things scraping by. "I have 40 people who work with me," he said. "And they all have families. So I need to think about 40 families in whatever decisions I’m making right now." I tried using the wine and my devil’s-advocate voice to say, "But you could do thus and such. After all, it’s just business." And he looked at me as if I’d grown two heads. "No, it’s not," he argued. "It’s about community and good business understands that. And if my company doesn’t agree with my decisions then it’s not a place I want to work anymore." I smiled. That’s the neighbor I hoped still lived there.
Later in the week I tried out the "it’s just business" expression at my weekly Rotary Club meeting on a few guys at my table. One man said his father had run a business in Salt Lake City his whole life and never once advertised. It was enormously successful. I started to ask how that was possible and the man next to me jumped right in and said, "See, he was able to do that because for him it wasn’t just business and his clients and customers knew that. It was about the relationships. The commitment. He was an honest man."
I left with that "honest man" part rolling around in my head. And I remembered this great film (at least, as I remember it, it was a great film) called "The Flim Flam Man" starring George C. Scott. And he goes from town to town bilking people out of hard-earned money by offering them schemes to make more. Finally, towards the end of the film, one man confronts him and says, "Don’t you feel awful cheating people out of their hard-earned cash?" The Flim Flam Man turns and says, "You can’t cheat an honest man."
Talmudic scholars would most likely enjoy the chance to argue that point. Still, I always liked the thought that we need to share responsibility for wanting to be part of something that seems too good to be true when we find out it was too good to be true.
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Back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, like a lot of folks I knew, I read Steven Covey’s book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People." And though I felt the tone was a bit preachy and patriarchal, the message was one that stuck. Covey contended that you can’t be one person on Sunday (or Friday night) and another the rest of the week. You couldn’t get away with saying "it’s just business" to justify an action that was unkind or, worse, unethical and still feel good about yourself come the Sabbath. His premise was that you needed to integrate your work world and your personal world to achieve real harmony.
Part of the gifts we are receiving right now in these difficult economic times is finding out, when it really counts, what matters. What matters to us, to our bosses, to our employees and to our neighbors. Living in a small town we understand community in an especially intimate and integrated way. I understand, when someone says to me in cavalier fashion, "It’s just business," that the odds are good that’s someone I don’t want to do business with not today and certainly not on Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.