How can America preserve its free economy -- along with freedom itself? The question, at the heart of today's national economic debate, was the key issue of the day for 300 students and business leaders gathered at the recent Values-Aligned Leadership Summit
(VALS) hosted by Colorado Christian University.
For seven years CCU undergraduates and MBA students have met to take on various top issues and engage in a lively give-and-take with local and national business leaders. This year the leaders included Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy and nationally known economist Lawrence Reed.
VALS' 2009 theme, "The Role of Business in a Free Market Economy," proved prescient against the backdrop of the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. "This is an important day in the life of Colorado Christian University," said CCU President Bill Armstrong as he opened the day-long event at the Westin Tabor Center in Denver.
Government, Armstrong warned, is expanding its hold on the private lives of Americans and trying to foist the blame for the financial crisis on the free-market system. "It's time to set the record straight," said the former U.S. senator from Colorado (1979 to 1991) and former executive in the real estate and financial services industries. "For a bunch of free Americans to put their faith primarily in the government's ability to solve the economic crisis we face today would be a huge mistake." "We must not stand by and let something like this happen to our country," he added to applause.
Dr. Charles King, dean of the CCU School of Business and Leadership, conceived the VALS idea after becoming concerned that the culture and the media were making students cynical about the American free-enterprise system and about business as an honorable calling. The true record of the American system is that it's led to the most freedom and opportunity in history, King and the other VALS speakers argued. What's more, freedom can only survive if it's built on ethics and values, both from individuals and businesses.
Students, paired at tables with business leaders, were encouraged to hit the bosses with tough questions: How do you develop your core values? What's the worst ethical problem your company has faced? The hands-on exchanges energized students like Zach Backes, a senior in CCU's business school. Backes, 23, also owns a web-development company, Dire Solutions. "Most colleges have career fairs, but nothing of this caliber," Backes said. "I do like to have a clearer understanding of what's right for my clients." Plus, he added with a grin, "for me, this is a huge networking opportunity."
The audience heard from four nationally respected experts in business and the economy.
Lawrence Reed heads the Foundation for Economic Education and is author of Great Myths of the Great Depression. He spoke on the crucial role character plays in keeping a nation free. "Bad character leads to bad economics," Reed warned. "When people allow their character to dissipate, they become putty in the hands of tyrants and demagogues."
Dan Cathy, the flamboyant second-generation owner of Chick-fil-A Inc. of Atlanta, showed the role character played in the company founded by his father, Truett, in 1946. Chick-fil-A's business ethics and Christian principles -- such as no work on Sunday -- earned it the informal title, "chicken with a conscience."
In 63 years, the company has never had a year of sales less than in the previous year, Cathy said. He said offering great service contributes more to success than trying to match a competitor's fruit plate. "People are starving for a great service experience," he said. "There is not enough affirmation that we're receiving in our lives. I'm telling you, we've got a society starving for honor, dignity, and respect."
Dr. Robert Woodson, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement, is founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which uses free-market principles to break the cycle of poverty among individuals and communities. "People are motivated to change when they're told victory is possible," he said. By contrast, the government has created an entire industry to serve the poor with the result that "now the poor are (just) a commodity," he said.
The crowd also heard the tale of a local company run on ethical principles and concern for human needs. Joseph Ahearn is a retired executive with CH2M HILL, the international engineering and construction company based in Denver. Ahearn, a retired Air Force veteran given to colorful military terms, described how CH2M HILL, an employee-owned firm, fosters a culture of respect.
"Leadership is a selfless act. It's not about you," he said. "If you think it is, you'll go down [the success ladder] so fast your thighs will burn." Practice enthusiasm, and heroic aspirations, Ahearn said: "Get up in the morning like your hair's on fire. It's a great day when you do that."
The real-life stories from the speakers and the business leaders around the table were compelling to Megan Posey, a sophomore business student. "It's really impressive how many business professionals are willing to give of their time and dedicate themselves to our benefit -- and our futures," she said. "We can see how the things our professors taught us in the classroom have been reinforced by these business leaders."
Dr. King pointed out that the University's business professors average 20 years experience in the corporate world -- an element as valuable to students as academic prowess. "Book learning, as my father used to say, is a good thing -- but experience is a great thing," King said.
Two CCU professors, both with experience working at Fortune 500 companies, showed their business chops before the crowd. Associate Professor Dr. William Mesa got appreciative laughs for showing a graph that cleverly depicted economic history in 15 seconds -- beginning with "government" intervention, prehistoric-style, and ending with modern government intervention, Washington-style.
Associate Professor Tamara Hannaway presented a stark graph that showed how government-controlled economies also fare the worst in basic human freedoms, such as religion and expression, while free-market societies offer citizens the most personal freedoms as well. It's dangerous, she explained, when citizens run to government for protection from life's uncertainties, whether it's intervention in health care, paying for college, or one's retirement. "It comes at a terrific cost -- the cost of your liberty."
Economist Reed gave special praise to the wide, energizing scope of VALS -- students, business leaders, and professors, all coming together to discuss the crucial ideas that have formed America. "This is the kind of thing that can save the country," Reed said. "And it's not just what you're doing at this conference, but it's what you do in the classroom every day."