Service Is Our Business chapter 4

IN ancient Damascus—the “pearl of the desert”—was the tamed Street of the Sword makers. Here, in one corner of the oldest inhabited city in the world, lived a guild of artificers, and here they produced the famous blades of Damascus.

These blades were so keen that you could cut a floating thread of silk with them; so elastic that they would bend almost double and then spring back as straight as ever.

Death—death by strangling—the most shameful punishment of the time—was the sentence passed on any member of the craft found guilty of producing an interior product, because:

He did place the proof mark of our most honored and trusted craft upon badly smithed and evily tempered blades which, having failed in the hand of the purchaser, brought great disrepute upon all the master sword makers of Damascus.

It was as if each sword bore the fingerprints of its creator, a projection of his personality. And it is doubtful if these early craftsmen were entirely inspired by concern for the unlucky purchaser who might trust his life to a blade which had a defect that the eye of man could not detect. Rather they were motivated by a sense of indignation that their skill might be questioned.

When a Rotary club is formed, the first consideration is to secure as members, outstanding representatives of every worthy and recognized business and professional activity in the community. The same thought directs the selection of new members. They must be successful, that is, they must be skilled in their respective crafts. Their integrity must be above suspicion. They must be dedicated to the idea of supporting and improving the standards of their craft. Indeed, a Rotary club might well be described as an assembly of skilled craftsmen.

Unlike the ancient guilds, however, the Rotary club is not organized to safeguard and hoard the knowledge of particular skills. On the contrary, the Rotary club is dedicated to the task of extending the service which all skills can render to society.

The Rotary club, moreover, which selects its membership from different trades and professions contrasts in that respect with the ancient guilds which associated men of the same craft. A closer comparison might be drawn with the modern trade-union except that the guild was built around employers rather than employees. It would seem that the nearest thing to a modern guild is the trade association whose membership largely comprises employers of the same business or craft, many of whom are direct competitors.

The absence of competitors in Rotary clubs in order to include a cross-section of all business and professional activities in the community entails certain obligations. One of these was expressed by the board of directors of Rotary International when it enjoined Rotarians that they “should not expect, and far less should they ask for, more consideration or advantages from fellow-Rotarians than the latter would give to any other business man with whom he has business relations;’ Any abuse of friendship for profit is foreign to the spirit of Rotary, In other words, free competition is a blessing that Rotary clubs are designed to foster.

Another and more positive obligation of the Rotarian is to carry the message and ideals of Rotary into his business relations with competitors. As a trustee of his classification each member is regarded as an ambassador to his craft and urged to participate actively in the work of his trade association. This obligation was stated very forcibly by the chairman of one vocational service committee addressing the members of his club:

It is my duty as the spokesman for the vocational service committee, my fellow-Rotarians, to say to you in all earnestness and candor, that unless you are carrying back to your craft, your trade association, or your professional group the ideals, the precepts, and the high standards embodied in Rotary, you should resign. You say that you are not inclined to bother about your competitor, that you are too busy with your own affairs to be concerned with what the other fellow is doing, that you are not inclined to take on the responsibilities of leadership in your line of business. I am sorry. The membership committee made a mistake when they let you in. Those who fail in their duty to properly represent their line of business or profession choke up one of the arteries through which the lifeblood of Rotary flows.

The Rotarian who is putting his shoulder to the wheel in his trade association derives many advantages. Not the least of these is goodwill. A striking demonstration of this advantage was given in the course of a radio program on vocational service, broadcast from one small-town station. The work of medical associations was cited as the reason why doctors are regarded almost automatically as valuable citizens. Because his association has established minimum standards of education, enforced codes of correct practice, provided for the exchange of new methods and discoveries, the individual doctor has a long start in earning a place of respect wherever he may locate.

The practical benefits that small business gains from membership were interestingly illustrated by a tailor called upon to explain the value of his trade association in a Rotary meeting. Looking back over a generation of business dealings in his town, he found that general wages had increased five times while the price of tailoring had only gone up three times. It was at the meetings of his trade association that he and his competitors had exchanged the “know-how” which had enabled them to increase the efficiency of custom-tailoring so that competition from “ready-to-wear” clothes could be met.

With the viewpoint of an outsider, an Australian Rotarian expressed his amazement on observing the discussions of a meat-packers’ conference in Chicago. The domestic problems of individual plants were discussed before assembled competitors in a wholehearted and unreserved way. Besides raising the general level of the industry, these discussions proved that in a meeting of twenty men, any one individual stands to learn more from the other nineteen, than they in turn could learn from him. Yet in the commercial field, away from the conference, the Australian visitor found that these same men were engaged in the most vigorous competition which acted as a salutary stimulus to increased efficiency and the elimination of waste.

The advantage of belonging to the trade association being fairly obvious, it may be asked, what particularly is the Rotarian’s contribution.

The indication that a larger proportion of Rotarians belong to their craft associations in towns under 12,000 than in the larger cities shows how much the small business man has to gain from the ideas and improvements in practice made current by the trade association. But what can the Rotarian himself, coming from a small town and operating a small business, contribute to the work of these large and impressive bodies?

A Canadian Rotarian responded to this question by recalling a childhood experience:

As a very small boy, I attended a rural school. There was one good-natured lad, not particularly clever, and with no particular gifts of leadership. The older boys were a tough and, in some ways, quite a vicious crowd. They used to tease this fellow unmercifully, but through it all, he preserved his good nature and steadfastly refused to deviate from his standards of conduct. The contrast of his good-humored determination had a tremendous influence. It’s the same way in trade associations. Without the influence and exertions of sincere individuals, a cynical minority can accomplish much mischief.

The great statesman-author, Edmund Burke, once declared that “When bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle” Rotarians combined can exercise a potent influence for good in their trade associations if they inject the larger vision of opportunity to serve society and the realization that only so far as the public is served can trade associations serve their own best interests.

That there is need for Rotary leaven in the practices of many trade associations was vigorously asserted during a discussion at one craft assembly at a convention of Rotary International. Too often it was charged, trade associations, instead of putting service ahead of profit, degenerate into pressure groups, conspiracies to circumvent government regulations, and merchandising corporations to control prices. Rotarians were urged to join forces against these tendencies and to support vigorously their association code.

An outstanding contribution of Rotary to the strength of the modern “guild” has been the development of codes of correct practices. In fact, it is generally recognized that the widespread movement by trade associations to adopt these voluntary commitments, sprang largely from the thought and effort of vocational service in Rotary. The results of this experience in drafting codes can be summarized briefly as follows:

(1) The code is not a law, but an expression of the determination of members in the association to maintain certain standards.

(2) These standards are stated positively and specifically as evolved from the experience of the particular business or profession.

(3) Example and friendly influence are the only ways by which the code is enforced.

The value of a code to a trade or profession depends largely on the fulfillment of these conditions. If it is limited to generalities, if it is out of date, if it is used only to adorn the wall or hidden away in files; it might as well or better not exist. The inspiration and labor which brought its adoption by the trade association may have been educational at the time when it was formulated, but now it no longer serves.

What finer opportunity for effective work in vocational service is offered than the methodical exploration of the status of codes?

Each member of a Rotary club might be asked to produce the code of his trade association for the purpose of critical comparison. In cases where no code exists or where the existing code consists of generalities or obsolete references, members may be persuaded to take action in their trade associations to repair the omission. In this great work, they should seek the whole-hearted co-operation of Rotarians in their classification from other clubs who belong to the association. They can obtain much helpful guidance in these efforts from Rotary International.

Even those members of the club whose trade association can boast of an adequate code of correct practices have a task to perform. They can take steps to make sure that its standards are observed in their own business or professional practice, as a training manual for employees, by spreading its influence among customers and suppliers, and by references to it at meetings of the trade association to revive its authority among their competitors. Thus they may help to spur the development of a new sense of craftsmanship in these modem guilds. Thus they may repay the debt which, in the words of Bacon, each man owes to his profession.

Because the great influence of Rotary is formulating codes of correct practices for trade associations was at its peak some forty years ago, there may be a tendency to assume that this kind of work no longer needs doing. Emphatically, such is not the case. A famous instance of price-fixing in the American electrical industry stimulated one Rotarian recently to take action on a broad scale. He was a past director of Rotary International and happened also to be United States Secretary of Commerce. From this strategic position, he inspired a movement to inject fresh vitality and increased sensitivity into the thinking of business and professions about ethical responsibilities.

Trade associations were only one sector of his campaign. While they were urged to take steps to ensure that their codes were more than just “window dressing,” the national Business Ethics Advisory Council published a call for action addressed to American businessmen as individuals. To help them analyze the ethical level of their own practices the appeal included a series of probing questions. Further influence was exerted through “committees of one hundred” that united leaders in all walks of life to work down through individual industries to individual firms. The first of these committees, organized by Rotarians in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., offers to share its experience with others forming similar groups.

Another recent development in the story of codes comes from Sweden where a Rotarian is director of a nationwide watchmen service. He discovered a need to help his employees “raise their pride in their work, their regard for its honor, and their interest in the body they belong to.” Instead of establishing rules for them to follow, however, he devised a process by which the watchmen discussed the specific problems of their occupation and worked out their own rules. Small groups of watchmen around the country met to talk about the situations that really concerned them. Reports from all these groups were gathered and sent back to them for further discussion. Eventually, representatives from all the groups attended a two-day conference at which a code of twenty rules was adopted. Signed by all the representatives, this code was presented to all employees of the company as something they had hammered out from their own experience. Since then, every new employee gets a thorough explanation of the code from an older colleague.

Obviously, such a procedure could be followed much more easily yet with no less heartening results in a business or professional institution where associates are in daily contact with each other. Observers of this instance from Sweden “were astonished, touched and delighted with the strong notions of honor clearly shown by the watchmen. Discussions were lively and provided a great number of varied, often puzzling examples, but unanimity was reached eventually on a great many important points.”

What action can you take personally to raise ethical standards in your business or profession?