No Margin for Character

No Margin for Character

We misunderstand and misuse the idea of character in our business culture because in business, margin drives everything. To go all business for a second, margin is the difference between a product or service’s selling price and its cost of production or to the ratio between a company’s revenues and expenses. Even if you don’t consider yourself a businessperson, that is important to understand because we, as a culture, define something’s value by its margin – by the difference between the cost we pay and the benefit we get. This is important in business because without margin, an organization cannot sustain itself without that margin or some other infusion of money. The problem is that we use that same formula to measure or to assess character in ourselves and others. When we do that, we limit character to a definition that is only valuable if the positive net gain is there for us. That’s a big problem when we blindly do that because we begin to measure every decision, good or bad, and every moment by it’s potential gain for us. If we all use that formula as the measure of our character, we are left to either end up as success mongers or on the other end of the spectrum, those whose identity become defined by our failures without a path toward redemption. When we measure others that way, they either serve our “margin” or they don’t.

I’m not suggesting I have this all figured out, but what if character doesn’t fit in that economic model? What if we are called to sacrifice more than we may benefit? It’s not that benefit might not come at some point, but what if that was the key? Even more disturbing, imagine a world where no one was willing to sacrifice anything or pay any cost unless there was a positive margin for them? That frightens me as someone who is invested in developing leaders.

Margin matters in business, but when we allow the emphasis on revenue over costs to define our character and the character of others, the math is somehow off. The question for me is this, how do I hold the necessity for margin in healthy tension with the possibility that I might be called to rethink that math at any point in time when the question has to do with my character or the character of those around me?

-Dr. Rob McKenna


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