In 1912 Louis D Brandeis addressed the graduating students of Brown University. Tradition dictated that the graduating class was divided between those receiving learned degrees in the professions of law, medicine and ministry from those in the skill based disciplines, such as business management. The future Supreme Court justice did an interesting thing that graduation day: he turned away from the professional degree candidates toward the business degree candidates, and said:
Each commencement season we are told by the college reports the number of graduates who have selected the professions as their occupations and the number of those who will enter business. The time has come for abandoning such a classification. Business should be, and to some extent already is, one of the professions.
Brandeis minced no words in defining what professionalism was all about. It was:
An occupation for which the necessary preliminary training is intellectual in character, involving knowledge and to some extent learning, as distinguished from mere skill; which is pursued largely for others, and not merely for one’s own self; and in which the financial return is not the accepted measure of success.
Spoken to clergy, physicians and lawyers in 1911, these words would have had a familiar—if unheeded—ring. But to businessmen? Brandeis’ intuition about the decisive character of business management for human welfare has been borne out across the tortured years of this past century. His argument, however, that business management was essentially professional in character is debated still.
The three characteristics of professionalism cited by Brandeis address detail the nature of the requisite responsibility, and are the crux of why it is still controversial to call business management a profession:
- First. A profession is an occupation for which the necessary preliminary training is intellectual in character, involving knowledge and to some extent learning, as distinguished from mere skill.
- Second. It is an occupation which is pursued largely for others and not merely for one's self.
- Third. It is an occupation in which the amount of financial return is not the accepted measure of success.
Within Brandeis’ three paradoxical pronouncements lies the answer to what it means to be a professional in business.