The 10th commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” is the one that would seem the most easily forgotten. Even in a religious setting, the commandments that prohibit stealing, killing and adultery are so much more tangible and clear than the injunction against coveting.
But in a business setting, some may view covetousness as the essential motivator that drives our capitalistic economy. Far from just forgetting about the 10th commandment, many in business seem to consider violation of the 10th commandment as the first commandment of business. I disagree.
As an entrepreneur and CEO, I employ people who will work hard and produce effectively. I value ambition and self-motivation in my employees more than innate skill and knowledge. I want my staff to want: to want to excel, to want to succeed, to want to win.
But what does it mean to win? Toward what ultimate goal do we strive? Businesses are not people, but they should serve people and serve our overall society. I believe there must be a balance between work and the rest of life. The business does not succeed unless the people the business serves succeed. And the people the business serves include employees, in addition to customers and shareholders.
Covetousness can go too far. I believe it has gone too far in many business environments, and it is to the detriment of the business and society when this happens.
When information is withheld to benefit the individual rather than to maximize the productivity of the business, covetousness has gone too far. When compensation plans disincentivize collaboration, the business suffers. When office politics erupt because an employee covets a promotion more than he or she desires to perform such that the promotion is warranted, then morale declines.
When competition in the workplace causes employees to work so many extra hours that they must ignore family and miss the opportunities to instruct, guide and nurture our future generations, then covetousness is the cause of the decline of our civilization.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating for a 35-hour workweek or for all work emails to be banned after 6 p.m. I have had to let employees go because they have not worked hard enough, and I have no regrets for doing so. Employees have a responsibility to the business that matches the responsibility the business has to the employees. But as a society, we have lost our balance between healthy motivation and damaging covetousness.
The 10th commandment is relevant today, not only to guide us away from destructive behavior in the workplace, but also because in comparison with the other nine commandments, the 10th is the strongest call for balance.
In reality, desire for life’s necessities is good and virtuous. We should desire a comfortable home for our families. Food, shelter, security and educational opportunities are not free. We must have desire to motivate ourselves to action to provide for each other both in our families and in our businesses. But when this desire becomes excessive and self-centered, it becomes covetousness. Thus, “thou shalt not covet” is both a healthy injunction in its own right — to live at that higher echelon of existence and balance — as well as a model for its own outcome.
Chris Brinton is the founder and CEO of Mosaic ATM, a consulting firm in the aviation and air traffic management industry. He started his career working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He has been married for 22 years and has four children, one boy and three girls.