Service Is Our Business chapter 2

Paul Harris, the founder of Rotary, was a lawyer. Jealous for the honor of his profession, he took an active part in the work of legal associations—local, state, national, and international. In those days of 1905, there was the gulf of a long tradition between members of the learned professions and those engaged in trade. Paul Harris felt deeply a need to bridge that gulf—to rescue the professional man from an isolation that was alternately lonesome and irritating—to dignify the occupation of tradesman with a zeal for its honor.

So to the first meeting in Chicago of the first Rotary club he invited a coal dealer, a tailor, and a mining engineer.

Men of different vocations, trades, and professions formed the first Rotary club. Vocation was the principle of selection at the beginning, and has remained the distinguishing core of Rotary ever since.

Let it not be thought, however, that the implications of this principle have remained unchanged through years. The impact of practical experience on earnest men such as Arthur Frederick Sheldon stimulated a continuing development. An early member of the Rotary club, Sheldon established a school of salesmanship based on the idea that successful salesmanship depends on rendering service and that no transaction is justified unless both parties benefit. He gave to Rotary slogan, “he profits most who serves best.”

Hardly had this concept been presented than objections were heard that it made greed the motive of service. An alternative proposed by B. F. Collins, President of the Rotary Club of Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A., was “service above self” which came into use on Rotary stationery in conjunction with the Sheldon slogan. This compromise received official sanction from the Rotary International convention in 1950 although complaints about each of the mottoes still occur occasionally. Those who believe that profits are the basis of free enterprise contend that “service above self” is unrealistic if not subversive, while others
reply that selfless dedication is the secret of success of any business or profession. Such vigorous controversy cannot help but move forward the thinking of Rotarians in vocational service, for where all think alike, there is not much thinking done, and little progress can be expected.

Nowhere is there more substantial testimony to the evolving character of vocational service than in the official phrasings of this avenue of Rotary. It appeared first in the constitution of the Rotary Club of Chicago (January, 1906). The first of the two objects reads as follows:
The promotion of the business interests of its members.

Before this aim is condemned as utterly selfish, the comment of a past president of Rotary International may be recalled: “Vocational service really started in the early clubs when they had an official known as a statistician whose duty it was to compile each week all the orders that had been given or received by members. But that kind of vocational service, we found, would not work. I am not ashamed of it, however, because they were helping each other even then.”

In 1912, this statement of vocational service was abandoned, and the International Association of Rotary Clubs adopted for the guidance of clubs and the individual Rotarian as the first of five objects:

1. To promote the recognition of the worthiness of all legitimate occupations, and to dignify each member’s occupation as affording him an opportunity to serve society; to encourage high standards in business and professions; to increase the efficiency of each member by the exchange of ideas and business methods.

“The ideal of service as the basis of all worthy enterprise” was introduced in 1918 together with a rearrangement in order of the objects. In 1922, the paragraph which called for an exchange of ideas and business methods was dropped, and the word “useful” replaced “legitimate” in the first paragraph of the object as last quoted.

No further change was made until 1935, when the Six Objects were restated as Four Objects, and vocational service was presented in the phrasing that was retained n 1951 when it became the second of four avenues in the single Object of Rotary:

2. High ethical standards in business and professions; the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations; and the dignifying by each Rotarian of his occupation as an opportunity to serve society.

So the dominant impulse of vocational service, present at the start, developed and expanded. Helpfulness to others—not only to fellow Rotarians but to all the “others” who make up human society. Respect for others—not only the rather ambiguous “legitimate occupations” but all “useful” ones. Thoughtfulness of others—not only in the cause of increased efficiency—-though that is important—but in every way that will extend the usefulness and consequent dignity of his occupation.

The dignity of a profession derives from the reputation of its practitioners for dedicating their learning and skill to the service of others rather than to personal profit. “In fixing fees,” declares the American Bar Association, “it should not be forgotten that the profession of law is a branch of the administration of justice and not a mere money-getting trade.” Doctors of medicine subscribe to the statement that “a profession has for its prime object the service it can render humanity; reward of financial gain should be a subordinate consideration.” In so far as a business man earnestly applies to his working life the dignifying concept of “service above self,” he too can aspire to professional status.

“I thank God that I am in the paper business,” a manufacturer told a Rotarian clergyman. “I believe that it is a service calling just as much as your ministry. Every time I see children carrying home bread and meat from the store wrapped in clean paper, I give thanks that I am permitted to serve them in this manner.”

On the other hand, it should be apparent that the human relations that concern vocational service are just as challenging to the professional man. He, too, is obligated as a trustee of his classification, to exemplify and share the ideal of service with his patients, clients, or pupils, with suppliers of his practical needs, and with colleagues or competitors. Even if he has few or no employees himself, he is still in a position to help people become better and happier employees. In association with Rotarians who are businessmen, he may be reminded how the dignity of his occupation derives from service.

“It has been said that in this town,” reported a Rotary club in the Eastern Hemisphere, “certain members of the medical profession have not been living up to their Hippocratic Oath, and that in the course of healing they also clean out their patients’ pockets. Washing of dirty linen among Rotary members may well have a salutary effect. It is proposed to arrange a symposium of a doctor, patient, and onlooker to discuss the comprehensive picture, the difficulties, problems, and prospects.”

These critics were trying to defend the dignity of an occupation by providing an opportunity for practitioners to explain its contributions to the common welfare. Without such opportunities for defense, the rascality of a tiny minority of doctors with money-mania is used to justify general charges of clandestine fee-splitting, prescription of unnecessary treatments or surgery and the abuse of insurance plans. Miracle drugs and vaccines are given the credit for keeping people well while the old-fashioned doctor—sitting beside the bedside waiting for nature to take its course—is mourned. Opportunity to examine such charges before his Rotary club will be welcomed by any physician just as the representatives of education, law, and religion rejoice in defending the honor of their occupations against similar accusations.
If these professions whose reputations for service are long established need to defend themselves, how much more is business subject to suspicion and attack. The target is so broad and so vulnerable at many points.

A cultivated distrust of business, in fact, is often one of the most formidable obstacles in the path of service, and Rotary clubs occupy a strategic position in helping to overcome it. The general manager of a great corporation told one Rotary club that the businessman is too often like Little Jack Horner sitting in a corner and saying “What a good boy am I” when pointing to employment provided, high taxes paid, and products or services produced. “A lot of our neighbors,” he continued, “see us as we see Little Jack. We wail loudly each time new social legislation threatens our sphere of action, just as Jack would howl if anyone tried to take away any of his pie. Despite our calamity howling, the plum pops out quite regularly in the form of good business earnings so that no one seems to believe us any more.”

The public relations of business is too often conceived in terms of a contrived image or “the engineering of consent,” whereas the real need is eloquent example and courageous leadership in the common cause of human betterment. A Rotarian who “puts Rotary to work where he works”—a Rotary club that singles out some local leader for a vocational service award or opens the offices and factories of its members for a tour of frank inspection by school teachers—contributes more to understanding and respect for business than any amount of breast beating and mutual admiration. Indeed, if business does need an image, one of soul-searching and even self-criticism is most likely to arouse a sympathetic response.

Can—or should—business aspire to the status of a profession? The question produces constant and fruitful debate. Present trends lend urgency to the quest for an answer. Even though profit is still the accepted prize in the great game of business, how the game is played, rather than the amount of the prize, is increasingly the concern of businessmen. The growth of educational requirements for business employment and the accumulating body of technical knowledge in each field suggest comparison with the professions. And, perhaps most significant of all, membership in trade associations arouses in businessmen a feeling of common loyalty and responsibility for the dignity of their calling.

One difference, however, does exist between business and the professions. By licensing the right to practice, the professions are shielded from the competition of unqualified individuals. In most business, by contrast, anyone possessing the minimum of cash or credit can get into the game.

Accordingly, the attitude that businessmen take toward their competitors is crucial to the success of their efforts in dignifying an occupation.

Who in your community would you nominate to receive a public award

for exemplifying the ideal of service in his or her daily work?