03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Success in Business = Failure as a Human Being

With the financial crisis came a stripping away of the layers of superficial "success" and the pyramids came tumbling down. Hopefully people will continue to find it absurd that "success" is defined by wealth, and focus more on substance and sustainability than all that glitters. But as long as there are deeply insecure and damaged people, there will be a push towards narcissism and manipulative behavior in the business world. When the system defines "success" as linked to predatory and undermining actions, there is something inherently wrong with the system. It is time to change how society defines "success."

I keep trying to imagine what it is that makes people do everything possible to obtain "recognition," whether as head of a company, keeping their name in the press, or being recognized as some kind of "moral" compass (those are the most dangerous as that need to be recognized as "morally" superior is usually hiding a disturbing character flaw). Who raised these people? Were they ignored as children? Sent away at a very young age and not given the warmth and love they needed? Did their fathers beat them? Were they compared to others who were more successful than they were and thus they began to feel a deep jealousy and envy? Do their mothers, wives and children nag at them to make more money, obtain more status? Or are they simply deeply flawed individuals whose flaws match the recent trends which allowed them to "succeed"?

I always ask myself the question, "If their religious affiliation were removed, and their money and status disappeared tomorrow, would they know who their true friends are and even more importantly, who they themselves really are?" In other words, without the defining categories, who are we? Without the financial, social and religious pressure of our business world, parents or friends, can we live our lives in a way which is both true to ourselves, and beneficial to society?

Hopefully it is a time for looking inward and to stop lying to ourselves that all of these outward definitions really matter. When we look in the mirror, do we see ourselves or do we only imagine how others see us? And when we breathe our last breath, it does not matter anyway how much money or status we had. Who cares which school you went to, if you are still defining yourself by where you received your MBA when you are fifty, there is something wrong. Human beings are multi-dimensional creatures, and we need to express all aspects of ourselves, not just those which receive outward recognition.

Participating in a business which reflects a healthy respect for all of the individuals working within it is much more likely to succeed than one in which people are manipulated, used and treated badly. More and more often, we are beginning to look behind the curtain to see how businesses operate to see if they are indeed reflecting the images they project of themselves. When we find out that a company is using child labor, or abusive and predatory financial practices are at the heart of how profits are made, we can decide to boycott these companies. The worst abusers are those who claim a kind of moral superiority, and yet are actually damaging not only co-workers and promoting themselves while appearing to be doing good for the world.

But in the end, this is not success. True success can never be created by hypocritical people. We have seen in these past two decades, business schools and society itself turning out false definitions of success, just as religions have stamped false brands on those who claim to live "successful" righteous lives.

Business can allow human beings to fulfill their creative potential. It can provide great benefit to society. But it can also be used to promote falsehoods which end up hurting us all in the end. We must begin to question the meaning of "success" and change how we live, work and share profits, just recognition for good work accomplished. Otherwise we are not only not headed for "success" we are doomed to suffer the fate of the Romans, and others who left destruction behind them, amongst the ruins.