“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour.

If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

Charlotte Brontë


“Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.

Principles are something different: a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away.” 

George Packer


“I do not think we have psychological and ethical and economic problems. We have human problems with psychological, ethical, and economic aspects.”

Mary Parker Follett


I almost called this “70 million reasons to shelve Purpose in business.”

Yeah. As of today, I call for people to stop talking about business Purpose (or Purpose over Profit) and speak of Principles over Purpose.

I have about 70,000,000+ reasons to say this.

70,000,000+ people is about how many voted for Donald Trump.

70,000,000+ people, and their children, believe business should be led in this way. Or. Maybe said differently. They believe this type of leadership is effective within their world view of business.

it’s a zero-sum game world

playing by the rules is for losers

good people don’t win

do whatever it takes to win attitude

the ends justify the means

hyperbole (lying) is simply optimism in a pessimistic world

destruction, without creation, is a net positive

I am certainly not suggesting all 70,000,000 embrace everything that is Trump, however, fundamentally to vote for Trump you must accept some fundamental things about how to be successful in Life and in business. I will let sociologists deal with Life, I am worried about business.

“The 2016 explanations of Trump’s appeal were based around the theme that a vote for him was a scream of pain, a shout of hear this. OK – but the millions who voted for Trump in 2020 were not just making a protest vote. They were making a positive choice. Trump isn’t just a cipher for people’s frustrations – they actually like the guy. Worse – they think he’s a good president.”

Ian Leslie, The Ruffian: 11/7 edition

Which leads me to the title of this piece – principles over purpose – and the belief business is in, and of, society. I have always a dubious relationship with business Purpose and an even more uneasy relationship with the Purpose over Profit concept. While I applaud the higher calling of Purpose my concern with the business world, at the moment, is more about principles. Because in this time, and this place, people are beginning to believe the way to be successful, in business and in life, is by doing whatever it takes to win, be corrupt, lie, nepotism, lack of dignity and absence of integrity. If business believes they can avoid this trend by simply saying “him, not us”, they are delusional.

Let me touch on Purpose a bit because I envision someone saying to themselves “well, if the organization has a Purpose, that would probably resolve the ethical concerns.” 

No. It would not. In fact, many businesses claim a purpose and use that purpose to be shitbags. Ok. Shitbags that sell things and make money. So their purpose provides affirmation, and meaning, tied to results (and being a shitbag to do so). The people do have meaning, albeit a warped one, but a meaning nonetheless. In fact. I could argue this type of meaning is so easy for 99% of people to grasp, results/achievement/proof based, that, if asked, most people would be quite comfortable with this. It is a quasi-impersonal calculation of meaning which permits people to keep some larger questions about Life, and their true meaning, at arm’s length.

“Our age has found a substitute for God: the impersonal calculation. This new god has turned into an idol to whom all men may be sacrificed. A new concept of the sacred & unquestionable is arising: calculability, probability, factuality.”

Erich Fromm (1968)

Businesswise, this is Purpose without principles. This is winning by playing the game without rules. This is a problem.

I imagine I am suggesting to the Purpose folk you aren’t going to get anywhere with Purpose until you resolve the principle, or lack thereof, issue.

This permits me to circle back toin, and of, Society.’ I do believe how a business embraces its intentions, its principled behavior, bleeds into how people embrace their own intentions outside of work. Work either offers an example to draw from or an excuse to act upon. Therefore, while some may want to use Purpose as a guiding compass, I believe business needs a map – a map of intentions.

Business intentions can get masked by visions or missions, both of the which can play valuable roles, but I believe a business should lay out its intentions.

An intent to act with integrity every day.

An intent to engage with community.

An intent to do what is right, not what just generates results.

An intent to be principled to create, not destroy.

Or, as Mary Parker Follett outlined:

      1. We do not follow right, we create right;
      2. There is no private conscience;
      3. My duty is never to “others” but the whole.

I could argue this is a version of organizational morality <or value beyond profit> which can become a leadership cornerstone within an organization and a leadership cornerstone within societal behavior.

It is true what I am suggesting is a long road to hoe.  Morality and virtue are developed over time <via repeated decisions to choose what is right and to forego what is wrong> which typically means there is no quick fix to any organizational morality problems, nor to societal morality problems. That said. Business, if it elects to take on this responsibility, addresses this challenge because lots of smaller pieces can be redirected in the here and now by business without the consent of people (i.e., it is simply the system of the way business works). It can simply become the way business is done.

Within these intentions the people IN the organization then have a variety of paths they can choose to walk on – and clearly see where undesirable paths do not lie. These intentions don’t constrain, but rather construct. I hesitate to call these principles because, well, they seem simply like intentions. Call them what you may, but they are not Purpose.

“Morality is not the refraining from doing certain things – it is a constructive force”

Mary Parker Follett

In fact. What I am suggesting is a conscious decision to shelve Purpose and focus on the principles of ‘doing’, attitudes and, ultimately, behavior.


Principles and principled actions are a tricky topic. Tricky in that while principles ‘are statements denoting fact or generality which are universally or widely considered to be true and fundamental’ they, in fact, have a great range of meaning. ‘Principles’ most often refers to fundamental, basic, propositions of some system or of conduct.

It would be much nicer if we actually referred to ‘principled behavior’ as an axiom. While an axiom is a derivative of ‘principle’ it is more tightly tied to ‘one agreed upon as the basis of truth … a truth so self-evident as to be indisputable’.

Principles, in theory, are an axiom. Unfortunately, in practice; they are more a theorem <a proposition>.

The distinction may feel like dancing on the head of a pin, however, within that distinction resides my belief it is time to set aside Purpose for principles and principled behavior. And, yes, I have 70,000,000+ reasons why.

Look. Here is one thing I know for sure. This is a Life truth.

I am not sure there is a worse feeling than looking back and wishing you had been more principled.

In a business world where sometimes, jobs are tough to get, and keep, setting aside principles to “win in a zero-sum game world’ seems like a fair trade.

Every day we are asked to compromise in some way. Sometimes it is simple ‘tradeoffs’ <do this or do that> and sometimes it is ‘a no good choice’ decisions <all choices are bad … which is least bad> and sometimes it is an actual ‘right versus wrong’ choice.

These are not difficult choices in our minds. These are difficult choices in reality.

You have a job to do, you have accepted responsibility to do that job and everyone around you is counting on you to do that job <and you do not get paid if you do not do your job>.


I am fairly sure some Purpose proponents are going to suggest “if you understand how your decisions/behavior impacts others you will act principally.” Well. I am not so sure. If I am working within the 70,000,000 bucket of people a shitload of them would simply say “if you help us win, no matter how, you have had a positive impact on us.” I will say this. principled behavior echoes through eternity (which includes homes, communities and society). It MAY serve a higher Purpose but at this time, in this place, I believe the business world just needs to focus on principles and principled behavior.

I could argue the #1 issue facing the business world right now isn’t Taylorism, short-termism or even profit, its how business plays the game – how they go about conducting business. In general, every business seems to treat every day like it is a zero-sum game which inevitably zeroes out principles (or at least minimizes them or gives some space to compromise them) and puts people on the slippery slope of ethical fading.

This kind of competitive attitude bleeds out of business and into society. It creates a sense that this is THE way to be successful and if you do not, someone else will.

Business was already teetering on the edge of maybe not complete corruption, but certainly corrupted principles. We look around and see unworthy ‘but-won’ and worthy ‘but-lost’ – inside the companies we work as well as society. In fact. I could argue 70,000,000+ voters are my proof they have seen this and have decided winning is more important than how you win.

That needs to be fixed.

And Purpose, in my mind, is not the answer. It isn’t the answer because the corrupted mindset will only corrupt the true purpose of Purpose. They will simply add it to their already long laundry list of objectives to be completed.

Principles, not Purpose.

That’s the battle at hand.

Just a warning as we enter into this important fray. Principles, while we like to think of them as solid cornerstones, are actually a reflection of a series of actions and choices over time. Work the system, consistently, and culture follows. It’s not like this time you will compromise and the next you will not. In other words. This will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire organization, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new demands and decisions unfold.

If we do this, that same attitude will occur outside the walls of the business.

And, well, society will benefit.

Let me end with maybe the most important thought. I am not sure there is a worse feeling than looking back and wishing you had been more principled. In the moment this can easily be forgotten, but at some point the past catches up with you and, well, your meaning will be defined by how you played the game, not whether you won all the games. People may not grasp this, but business certainly should. And in this time, and in this place, at least 70,000,000 people are willing to believe being principled is an obstacle to success. That is a problem. I just don’t believe Purpose solves the problem at hand.



“We believe we are issuing executive orders, whilst most of the time we are actually engaged in hastily constructing plausible post rationalisations to explain decisions taken somewhere else, for reasons we don’t understand”

Rory Sutherland

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Written by Bruce