Why it pays to be wicked in business

Being a saint won't get you far in the commercial world - instead, a little sinfulness works wonders.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 03 Dec 2015

It is really hard to prove that unblemished virtue is an asset to a business. Indeed, it is easy to make the opposite case. Perhaps not all the seven deadly sins are useful in management: sloth, for example, is no one's friend, but avarice and lust are terrific motivators.

No one is going to publish a book called 'Seven Saintly Stratagems to Protect Your Bottom Line' because it would be very boring and would not sell, but 'Unscrupulous Advice from the Very Rich' would surely be an attractive title. And a thicker volume than the other one.

Hunter S Thompson once said that, looking around at his friends and indeed himself, and considering how happy and successful everyone was, he would positively recommend long-term abuse of drugs and alcohol. It is the same with sin in business. We may need more of it.

I am not talking about vulgar criminals, although they and business visionaries share certain traits: they have huge egos and see a system that is vulnerable to exploitation for personal gain. Of course, criminality is not attractive, although remember that Bernard Madoff had many admirers and investors until the very end. But crime does not pay: people like Sam Waksal or Bernie Ebbers ended up in jail because ImClone and WorldCom were crude frauds (but let's not forget that Waksal was able to sucker the supremely smart Martha Stewart).

Instead, there is a more subtle case to be made for the place of a little wickedness in business. And this has historical credentials so profound that it is tempting to argue a general theory that business is amoral and that a record of good behaviour does not necessarily make any contribution to success. They might even militate against it. We know this. Has anybody ever said: 'Ernest Saunders! What a lovely man!'?

Any survey of sin's place in good management must begin with Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of a Pope and one of the great soldiers and statesmen of the Renaissance.

Borgia existed in a stew of universal depravity where incest, back-stabbing, front-stabbing and poisoning were routine. He was the inspiration for Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. This was the first how-to book and Machiavelli was the prototype management consultant. His top tip was, and I paraphrase, the ends justify the means: decide what you want and go for it.

The men whose iron, coal and railroads made industrial America possible were called 'robber barons', not 'civic-minded philanthropists'. Theft is a common theme in success. Terence Conran once described an occasion where a friend's eight-year-old daughter asked, 'Daddy, what's a plagiarist?' Conran jumped in and said, 'I am!' Picasso knew that great artists don't borrow, they steal. Between inspiration and theft, there is a line so fine it is nearly invisible.

Henry Ford used armed thugs to break strikes and was a virulent anti-Semite. During the Second World War, Mercedes-Benz and BMW 'employed' slave labour to manufacture war materiel. Ferdinand Porsche mumbled he was just-doing-his-job when he put his design consultancy in the service of Hitler, creating Panzer tanks and supervising manufacture of the V-1 buzz bomb. The war encouraged business duplicity: after 1945 the old US ITT conglomerate claimed compensation for damage caused by Allied bombing of the Focke-Wulf factories it owned. Good business, but poor scruples.

A bad reputation never did anyone any harm. Suspicion that it subverts governments and certainties that it sells destructive obesity products have not stopped Coca-Cola becoming the world's biggest beverage business. Steve Jobs was a borderline psychotic, a bully. Bernie Ecclestone has only recently begun to talk openly about his long-alleged involvement with the Great Train Robbery. He denied it all, adding, mischievously, that there was not, in any case, enough money on the train to make the heist worthwhile. It's a matter of cost and benefit, you know.

Since Borgia, great leaders have rarely been immaculate. Rudolph Giuliani, later Mayor of New York and 2008 Republican candidate, was the highly principled lawyer who purged Wall Street of corruption in the 80s. By 2002, he was ready to publish his book Leadership in which he advises: 'Bribe only those who will stay bribed.' It is not irrelevant to say that Giuliani's personal life has been quite spectacularly messy.

High achievement does not necessarily mean high principles. A case-hardened PR friend of mine once went to a meeting with a leading retailer. She was astonished that he had spent the entirety of her pitch talking on his phone, then passed wind very loudly, gave her a bottle of claret, patted her on the bottom and said goodbye. This man owns most of the high street.

The question is not so much about sin in business, but the more general one that many of life's activities encourage loutishness. For example, to make progress in traffic, good manners are handicaps. The meek do not inherit the fast lane.

Still, we admire success, even if we are often unhappy about the way it has been achieved.

The moral mutability is revealed in that wonderful line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: 'I don't mind lying, but I detest inaccuracy.' I think this when scrutinising annual reports of my favourite companies. The good ones embrace sin: it's a reality you have to manage.

Stephen Bayley is an author and consultant and is a contributing editor to MT.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime