One of my favorite photographs of Ayn Rand dates back to 1961. In it, she is the only woman at the President's Advanced Round Table of the American Management Association, surrounded by executives who are dressed in what still passes for casual business attire.
It is an improbable image. What is this popular novelist and self-professed philosopher doing at such a meeting, and what could she possibly have to say about building profitable businesses and successful careers? Lots, as it turns out.
Rand's "philosophy for living" was, and is, a philosophy for working, too. Although she surely would have scoffed at the notion that there was any difference between living and working, Objectivism does offer a sound foundation on which to build careers and businesses.
Some businesspeople have done exactly that. John Allison, CEO and chairman of BB&T, a financial holding company with over $97.9 billion in assets, declares that his company's philosophy is to "encourage our employees to have a strong sense of purpose, a high level of self-esteem, and the capacity to think clearly and logically." Not coincidentally, these three qualities are Objectivist values. High-tech entrepreneurs T.J. Rogers of Cypress Semiconductor and Larry Ellison of Oracle have credited Ayn Rand for influencing their approach to business (even though they may not agree with all of the precepts of Objectivism ).
Many other businesspeople espouse ideas that clearly connect back to Rand, without crediting her directly. "In short, we're in a new business environment," claim former head of Honeywell Larry Bossidy and management consultant Ram Charan in their new book, Confronting Reality. "The tools, practices, and behaviors that will distinguish success from failure can be summed up in one phrase: relentless realism." New business environment or old, Ayn Rand was teaching that same lesson fifty years ago.
In fact, the biggest difference between the metaphysics of the business environment of today and that of fifty years ago may be this: Then, Rand focused her efforts on saving businesspeople from Big Government and other external forces. Today, in the wake of the dishonesty that led to the collapse of companies such as Enron and Parmalat, and the irrationality that created the Internet bubble, she might well be more focused on saving businesspeople from themselves.
Is Rand, on the centennial of her birth, relevant in today's business world? Now as much as ever; and as long as rationality, productiveness, pride, independence, integrity, honesty, and justice continue to be the driving forces behind corporate and career success, so shall she be.
Theodore Kinni is co-author (with Donna Greiner) of Ayn Rand and Business (Texere, 2001).