Lessons from the Vocation of the Business Leader

Dr. Michael Naughton is the director of John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, and also currently serves as the interim director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. In partnership with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he led the development of The Vocation of the Business Leader, a resource that provides practical guidance informed by Catholic social teaching to those in the business world.

This opening session provided a reflection on the vocation of work. How do business practices reflect the importance and dignity of the person within the primary sector of Agriculture?

Dr. Naughton began his presentation by stating that he would focus on the “Vocation of the Business Leader” reflection/resource and then suggest how to develop a similar one for the Agricultural Leader. “A document like the Vocation of the Business Leader was written to help people see God’s purpose for them in work they do,” he said. “This gives the widest conceptual map on which people can discern their work and meaning. This world needs this especially today.”

“In this talk,” he continued, “I would like to speak with you about how the document of the Vocation of the Business Leader and how it envisions ‘the Good’ business does and begin to address what this means for ‘the Good’ agriculture does.” He outlined these steps:

  1. The Context: How the “Vocation of the Business Leader” reflection came about and the Challenges in completing the document.
  2. The Wording of the Title:
  • “Vocation” (Faith) and why it is important to take religious/spiritual categories seriously in this technological and secular age.
  • “Business” (Institution) and why we need to think and act institutionally.
  • “Leader” (Person) and why leadership requires a person of good will.
  1. Structure of the document: See-Judge-Act.

I. Context & Challenges

The intent of the Business Leader reflection was to develop a concise statement and vision for the business world according to Catholic social teachings. The challenge was to boil this massive tradition and great depth of faith-based social teachings in a way that can connect to business leaders. Although written with Christians in mind, the document invites others of good will to reflect according to their faith tradition. Naughton proceeded to highlight critical challenges for Christian business leaders.

Accommodation: The church and its members assimilate too much of the world. “Christians . . . have accommodated themselves to the world, living as if God does not exist. They not only live in the world, but they have become of the world. When Christian business leaders fail to live the Gospel in their organizations, their lives conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”

Assimilation: Christians have assimilated much of the free-market ideologies that their faith seemingly has little to contribute.In effect, we accommodate ourselves to a divided life. The Church – in the form of dioceses, parishes, schools, universities, health care, social services – are run like other business or secular institutions: they become generically value-based institutions, rather bureaucratic, risk adverse, and appear no different than other institutions.”

Despite these and other challenges, the Christian tradition as a whole can offer a positive vision of work and business. “So in order to introduce you to this Tradition, let’s look at the three main words of the title of the document: Vocation, Business and Leader.”


II. The Wording of the Title


The heart of vocation is informed by a “Logic of Gift”. In the Gospel of Luke (12:48), Jesus tells us: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” This is the “logic of gift”.

Two realities to confront: (1) Receptivity: Businesspeople have been given great resources (material, spiritual, cognitive, etc.) and (2) Giving: The Lord asks them to do great things. This dynamism of receiving and giving is at the heart of vocation.

The Logic of Gift is very different than the logic of the market (which is an important but incomplete logic). The logic of market presupposes that nothing is given, that things are only “acquired” and “chosen”.

  • “Acquired” (worked for): Life is a struggle, the struggle between humanity and nature: You get from nature only through assailing her—the harder the assailing the more you get.
  • “Chosen/Choice”: Because things are acquired, life is about our individual choices where we maximize our utility satisfactions.

In the logic of the market, choice in and of itself is placed as the highest value, not the content of the choice. Choice by itself does not have the capacity to give our work meaning; we fall into “psychological perplexity” without a purpose for our choices.


Importance of Institutions: A vocation is lived out through Institutions: Vocation demands a location, so to speak. Business institutions include cooperatives, multinational corporations, small entrepreneurial start-ups, employee-owned businesses, family businesses. “Some of these businesses are publicly traded stock companies, while most are privately held. Some have revenues larger than many countries, but most are small. Some are owned by thousands of investors, others are owned by a single person or family.”


“Obviously we wish to speak specifically to Christian business leaders, who have at the heart of their work the deep sense of God’s calling to be collaborators in creation.” But a second audience is all business leaders of good will: all those “who have an influence on the behaviors, values, and attitudes of the people comprising their enterprises.” Third are leaders who exercise influence, whether formal and informal, in the political, social and cultural milieus (including mass media and civil society).


III. Structure of the Document: SEE, JUDGE, ACT 

Dr. Naughton laid out the structure or process for determining the principled actions of a leader. An important part of the business leader’s vocation, he said, “entails seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people, and acting in a way which implements these principles in light of one’s unique circumstances.”


Acknowledging that business leaders see and experience “permanent white water” in the daily flux of events, it is possible to identify major trends or factors in the business world. “The Vocation of the Business Leader” reflection guide highlighted four “complex factors” within business – along with the moral and spiritual issues they present:

  • Globalization, which increases economic opportunities as well as inequality.
  • Communication technology that reduces barriers of entry, but create a “tyranny of the immediate”.
  • Financialization, which reduces everything to price: commodities (people as labor, nature as property) to be bought and traded.
  • Cultural Changes, spurred by self-interest, that leads to radical individualism, consumerism, and relativism in contrast to the common good.

These trends are “a complicated mix of factors” that present “a complex interplay of light and dark, of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, of opportunities and threats.” What may appear as an economic opportunity could also be a social and ecological threat.

{Note: The Vocation of the Business Leader document acknowledges that many other factors than the four above have a bearing on businesses today: e.g., state regulation, unions, role of international authorities, environmental issues, work/family tensions. These deserve analysis, but were skipped over in the Vocation of the Business Leader reflection in order to be succinct.}

So how can we see in a way that reveals rather than conceals reality? “Business leaders need to see things whole, not just parts. They need to see things in relation to each other (including inherent tensions between things) and begin to form judgments about the overall nature of realities they encounter.”

[Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that many Leaders don’t see things whole because universities have instead provided an unimaginative, narrow and specialized training that have produced minds incapable of evaluating the conditions they confront. “Specialization” creates a syndrome of disconnection from other disciplines and the objectification of the subject matter. The unfortunate result of specialization is that is reduces all rationality to instrumental rationality. MacIntyre explains that these failures are the product of the misjudgments of an intellectual elite, often trained in the most prestigious universities. What they lacked was a larger habit of mind which would allow them to interpret complex and converging realities, especially in terms of how their institutions impact the common good.]


The way we see already implies a “judgment,” Naughton explained; in particular a judgment about the good a business does. What is the concrete good that business does? When operating well, a business creates three goods which contribute to the social conditions of society:

  • Good Goods: making goods which are truly good and services which truly serve.
  • Good Work: organizing work where employees develop their gifts and talents.
  • Good Wealth: creating sustainable wealth and distributing justly.

As an institution, business contributes to the larger community by the way it orders these three goods which subsequently are shared in common with customers, employees, investors, suppliers, and society in general. [Note: There is a vigorous debate going on among pundits whether business is really only about one these goods, Wealth – more specifically, “shareholder wealth maximization.”]


So how do we act in business and agriculture that is informed by a robust seeing and judging? We need to root human action in the “logic of gift” and reconnect the contemplative life with our active life. This begins with understanding that we have been “gifted” with something.

First Act: Receiving

As Naughton explained it, a person “comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does, but through what he accepts.” The significance of life is not measured by outward achievements, but inward acceptance of what is right: Receive the sacraments, live by the scriptures, honor the Sabbath, pray and participate in the disciplines of the spiritual life. Without a deep well of reflection, contemplation and prayer, it is hard to see how businesspeople, or any other professionals, can resist the negative dimensions that come from financialization, technological overload, hyper-competitive situations, etc.

It is precisely this kind of receptivity that helps us to see reality:

  • If we don’t get “receiving” right, we won’t get “giving” right.
  • If we don’t get inward reflection right, we won’t get external work right.
  • If we don’t get the Sabbath right, we won’t get Business right.

Receptivity may be the most difficult activity for the businessman or woman. But it does not stop here: What has been received must be given.

Second Act: Giving

The Church calls the business leader to give in a way which responds to what has been received:

  • Individually: The better we understand what has been given to us, the better we give in a way that develops others and ourselves.
  • Institutionally: This giving must find expression through business practices and policies that provide Good goods, Good work and Good wealth.

In summary: It is in receiving that we find our most profound identity, and it is in giving that we experience our most expressed mission.


So what does all this mean for the vocation of agricultural leaders? Dr. Naughton put forward a set of questions for this symposium to answer:

  • SEE: What are the principal challenges and opportunities within Agriculture?
  • JUDGE: What principles are most important in defining the good Agriculture does?
  • ACT: What are the necessary actions of agricultural leaders in light of these judgments?

In other words, how would one manage the complexities of agricultural production and the global food system as if faith mattered?