May 01, 2012
Why are Mormons good at business?
Posted by Gordon Smith

I am not sure the premise of this question is correct (here is a similar story and a list from last year), but Adrian Wooldrige and Robert Guest of The Economist have two big ideas about the answer:

  • According to Wooldrige, the Church trains its members to "make the world a more ordered place." The emhasis on order "pervades Mormon theology." For example, the creation account in Mormon theology, in the words of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "recogniz[es] creation as organization of preexisting materials, and not as an ex nihilo event (creation from nothing)." (Wooldrige attributes this teaching to the Book of Mormon, but the better reference is the Book of Abraham.) Also, the Church is very hierarchical and young men are brought up in the hierarchy, drilling the need for order deep into their world view.
  • The Church expects its young members, particularly the men, to serve missions. Guest describes the mission as a "crash course in leadership, self-restraint, languages, and salesmanship." He sees two important features of the mission: being forced to learn a foreign language, which forces one to "think globally and understand foreign countries," and being forced to "practice salesmanship ... selling a product that nobody wants." While not all missionaries learn a foreign language, many do (including Mitt Romney, Kim Clark, Clayton Christensen ... and me!), and that is certainly a transformative experience for most of us. As for "selling a product that nobody wants," that's a very European perspective -- the Church is, in fact, quite in demand in many countries -- but for those of us who served missions in Europe, the long-term effect of being repeatedly rejected is hard to overestimate. This caused me to discover and embrace my core commitments, which continue to animate almost all of my decisions.

CNN did a story on this topic leading up to the last presidential election. In addition to the reasons mentioned here, the story cited several other factors: the payment of tithing, the emphasis on family and Church service as the highest priorities, and the keeping of the Sabbath.

Is there anything to this? I love being a Mormon, but I am skeptical about the purported links between our theology or praxis and success at the highest levels of business.

If Mormons are disproportionately successful in business, my hypothesis is that Mormons have a chip on their shoulder from being an outgroup. How does one respond in that circumstance? One option is to grin and bear it. Or, like Harold Abrahams, the Jewish runner in Chariots of Fire who feels the anti-Semitism of England, we can "take them on, all of them, one by one, and run them off their feet."

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