Wisdom-Based Business: Applying Biblical Principles and Evidence-Based Research for a Purposeful and Profitable Business
In Wisdom-Based Business, Hannah Stolze demonstrates that biblical wisdom is useful, indeed necessary, for modern business practices and that this has been confirmed by many business researchers. Stolze takes the perspective that the purpose of business is kingdom impact and then develops a model in which biblical wisdom forms the building blocks for that redemptive purpose.
This book should be helpful for business faculty members to provide faith-based frameworks for students who are future business leaders, for non-business faculty members to help students better frame the role of business in society, and for faculty members engaged in business scholarship by both providing an additional framework for faith-explicit scholarship and an example of how faith-implicit scholarship can be integrated into faith-explicit thinking. In addition, this book can help and inspire business practitioners to be wise as they lead their organizations for kingdom impact.
Stolze takes on an ambitious task, but this work is needed for three reasons. First, Stolze provides another helpful biblical framework for understanding business. We have the “common grace” framework developed in a special issue of Journal of Markets and Morality which contains approximately a dozen articles explaining how God’s common grace is evident and helpful in business and its various disciplines.1 We also have the Van Duzer “creation-fall-redemption” framework in which God created business so humans can pro- vide useful goods and services and meaningful employment, and by Jesus’ redemption we can accomplish some of that.2 Stolze proposes a more significant purpose, kingdom impact, and demonstrates how biblical wisdom is needed to apply our knowledge and understanding to achieve that end. Her approach is complementary with the above frameworks but does challenge us to consider whether business is graced by God not only for meaningful employment and useful goods and services but perhaps for even broader kingdom impact. Importantly Stolze’s ultimate purpose of business, kingdom impact, is broadly consistent with the business-as-mission movement and provides a helpful conceptual basis for that movement. The second reason Stolze’s work is needed is that Christian scholars and practitioners should incorporate more of the vast faith-implicit research and knowledge into our faith-explicit research and practices. She takes a useful step in that direction. Third, it is helpful and inspiring to look at actual leaders and companies and to tell stories of successes and failures in God’s kingdom work. Of course, Stolze’s work is just the beginning of connecting wisdom, faith-implicit scholarship, and business practice. Hopefully it will spark additional work in this area.
Stolze explores biblical wisdom literature, using Proverbs 31 as the animating biblical wisdom passage, and on that basis develops a means-end, multi-layered, hierarchical model for business, with the end being kingdom impact. The means to that end start with a foundation layer of servant leadership, upon which rests a layer of five wisdom orientations: sustainability, quality, stakeholders, supply-chain, and long-term. Those orientations enable the next layer in the model in which businesses can be reputable, profitable, and have comparative advantage. With these multi-layered means, if a business can practice both biblical high performance (chayil) and biblical steadfast love (chesid), it can achieve the end goal of business, which is the kingdom impact of loving God and loving others. Chayil is the Hebrew term which describes the noble woman of Proverbs 31 as “capable of creating wealth, profit, and financial returns” (178). Chesid is the Hebrew term which means mercy, kindness, and steadfast love, which are exhibited by the noble woman of Proverbs 31. As modelled by the noble woman, both profits and love are needed in business for kingdom impact. For each of the building blocks or layers of the model, Stolze provides a short case study from a company she is familiar with and provides support from extant faith-implicit scholarship. Stolze’s examples and scholarly support are tilted toward her disciplinary field of supply chain management. The paragraphs below step through the layers of Stolze’s model.
Since servant leadership is foundational for her model, the author defines the concept carefully. Servant leadership is “leadership that is focused on serving the needs of others and is characterized by personal integrity, selflessness, and a strong moral compass” (43). Kip Tindall, founder and prior CEO of The Container Store, serves as an exemplar of this concept, and of course, Jesus is provided as the ultimate exemplar of servant leadership. The author’s literature review related to servant leadership finds some evidence that servant leadership increases follower citizenship behaviors and organizational outcomes.
Drawing on biblical wisdom literature, especially Proverbs 31, Stolze gleans five wisdom orientations that comprise the next layer of her model: stakeholders, long-term, quality, supply-chain, and sustainability (74). Her literature review uncovers many different orientations companies have utilized over the past 100 years. She traces how stakeholder thinking has now become mainstream in business but had its foundations in the wisdom literature 3,000 years ago. “Employees (servants), neighbors, customers, suppliers, and the poor are all given attention throughout Proverbs” (90). The reviewed literature previews the author’s other four orientation by arguing that the research demonstrates “the impact of stakeholder orientation on quality, long-termism, sustainability initiatives, and supply chain performance” (91). Yili Group provides an example of a company with clear orientations which propelled it to dairy industry leadership. For each of the five orientations, Stolze provides examples from biblical wisdom literature and Jesus, which teach the wisdom of the orientation. She also cites evidence from faith-implicit business research demonstrating how each orientation leads to improved organizational or financial performance. In addition, Stolze provides an inspirational example of each orientation from an organization, including Admont Abbey, I Have a Bean, Unilever, and Telunas.
The next building block layer has three elements: profitability, reputation, and comparative advantage. The story of successive ServiceMaster CEOs, who have consistently viewed profits as a means to the end goal of honoring God and others, provides an example of the goal of profitability rightly pursued. She shows how Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 and the wisdom in Proverbs 31 point to using profitable businesses as a way to extend our hands to the poor and needy, including our businesses’ stakeholders. The author posits that reputation is about matching a company’s image to the company’s reality and is a driver of sustained financial performance. In Proverbs 31 the noble woman’s reputation is based on both her business acumen and her mercy, kindness, and steadfast love: “Integrity is the key to a powerful reputation” (183). Stolze cites her published empirical research, which demonstrates the linkages between the mistakes companies make and the spillover impact on consumer perceptions and corporate reputation. The author uses Chipotle as an example of a company who works hard at maintaining its reputation by doing the right thing even when it makes mistakes. Rounding out the three elements, Stolze illustrates what makes Trader Joe’s special: its comparative advantage. The women in Proverbs 31 and Ruth 3 are persons of valor and strength. She argues that their valor and strength are biblical examples of comparative advantage, resources and skills that were unique in their day. But these women also showed loving kindness. Stolze points out that any comparative advantage is to be used to love God and others, as Jesus commanded us to love God with all our heart, mind, and resources and to love one another as He loves us.
The traditional neoclassical view that the end goal of business is to make a profit for shareholders is far too narrow. A broader view has developed in which the end goal of a business is the impact on all stakeholders. However, Stolze proposes to go further and ask how business can honor God and people and impact the world for the kingdom of heaven. She illustrates how Tom Chappell developed Tom’s of Maine as a mission-driven business. Stolze emphasizes how the biblical-wisdom building blocks of her model can enable a business to have kingdom impact which is more economically sustainable and scalable than many charitable and nonprofit organizations who must rely on donations and grants to sustain and grow their kingdom impact. Stolze reminds the reader that the kingdom of God is here and now and argues that “business can become a tool through which we can have kingdom impact by loving and serving every person God brings across our paths just as Christ loved and served us” (224).