Conscious Leadership Through the Lens of Two Simple Quotes

For today’s Friday Reads, I decided to offer a close read of two significant lines that have been tumbling about in my head this week.One is from David Sloan Wilson and the other is from David Attenborough.  I think these may have given me a new and simpler way to explain the benefits of Conscious Capitalism. 

I was reminded of the Attenborough quote last week while watching a series featuring Greta Thunberg called “A Year to Change the World.” She had just finished the Davos climate summit and was feeling discouraged. Attenborough was sharing his long perspective that comes with many years.  During the conversation he said; “Self interest is for the past. Common interest is for the future.” It was just so simple, and so profound.

The David Sloan Wilson quote is; “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. All else is commentary.” This needs a bit of unpacking.  

When there is a selfish individual or several selfish individuals within a group, those selfish individuals will take advantage of the altruistic members of the group and take more than their fair share. Therefore; “Selfishness beats altruism within groups.” Only that’s not the whole story.  

“Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”

David Sloan Wilson

In groups containing selfish members, not only are members of the group being unfairly treated, groups containing selfish individuals have to spend effort creating rules, policing individuals, and watching their backs. They are forced to waste potential creativity on guarding against a cheat. Altruistic individuals are forced to start thinking more about their own self interest for their own self preservation. Performance of the group is going to be miserable.

Altruistic groups who have no selfish individuals are focused on helping each other. This generates lots of win-win-win scenarios, and people are happy about it. Individuals think every day about how they can contribute more to their group. They love their group, and their group loves them. There is great positive energy and collaboration, more creative ideas and more energy. When someone needs help, the others gladly step in to lend a hand. There is no place within the group’s culture to be asking, “what’s in it for me?”

This is why Conscious Capitalism works. This whole concept of altruistic groups of individuals is fractal. It looks the same at whatever scale you are looking at it. A group of five people or a group of five companies. The same principles are at play. In either case, an altruistic group will beat a selfish group.  

What could be more selfish than a company focusing solely on generating profits for its shareholders, especially if it is at the expense of everyone else in the company or any suppliers or customers? Pay the employees less, buy materials at a price almost sure to drive the suppliers out of business, and cheat oops… I mean charge your customer as much as possible.

On the other hand….

What could be more altruistic than a group of Conscious companies acting for the benefit of all their stakeholders; the employees, the suppliers, the customers, the community, and the planet? This altruistic group will beat similar groups containing selfish companies.

What company culture could be more Conscious than one composed of altruistic employees intrinsically motivated and fulfilled by doing what they do best every day to benefit everyone else for a shared higher purpose?  

They will certainly outperform a company focused on shareholder profit in a culture that allows selfish individuals to contribute less and take more.

A Conscious Leader is engaged in the common interest of her people and all of the other stakeholders.  She has an abundance of altruism.

Cheers for Friday!

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

Let’s chat! Connect with me on LinkedIn

As David Attenborough said: “Self interest is for the past. Common interest is for the future.”


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Musings on Conscious Capitalism Strategy

Today I started a 12 month course on becoming certified as a Conscious Capitalism Consultant.

As all good first days of a course should be, it provoked some new thinking for me.  A question was raised.  How do we as consultants expect to transform business into something more Conscious?  

For me that requires answering the question: how did we get here in the first place?  Why is business done the way it generally is?  I can think of three possibilities; you may think of more.

Door #1 Was it originally a garden of Eden where businesses (like my grandfathers) cared deeply about their employees, generously shared profits, and went out of their way to help their people and the community?  My father is another example, in the 1960’s he was known to pay people more because they had families and needed to care for them.  (A crazy idea nowadays – and probably illegal – but there it is.)  He acted generously based on his compassion for a parent struggling to raise a family.  The New England Shaker communities would have agreed with him “to each according to need”)

Did the garden of Eden come to an end because of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Milton Friedman and Neo-liberal economics?  Was that a more compelling story?

Door #2 Or is it a stage of development thing, like Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development?  Do businesses move from selfish to selfless on some sort of continuum?  From ruthless and profit driven, to higher-purposeful?  Is it dependent on the leaders’ stage of development as Keagan and Lahey suggest in their book, An Everyone Culture: Deliberately Developmental Organizations.

Door#3  Or are selfish organizations, neo-liberal economics, extractive capitalism on the one extreme and Conscious Capitalism near the other end of the spectrum reflections of personality type? On the one extreme narcissistic and psychopathic leaders and their companies and on the other extreme companies run by a near Mother Teresa type personality and acting accordingly?

If it is Door #1, that Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand destroyed the garden of Eden then we just need to work on a more compelling story than the one Ayn Rand tells in Atlas Shrugged.  David Sloan Wilson, an Evolutionary Biologist, has done just that in his new book Atlas Hugged.  Kate Raworth rewrote economics and destroyed Milton Friedman’s neo-Liberal economics in her book Doughnut Economics. 

If it is Door #2 a stage of development problem and a company can’t go beyond the level of development of it’s leader then we would employ a strategy of leadership coaching and development.  These programs are a dime a dozen.  I think a lot of these programs fail.  The ones I witnessed certainly did.  

My bet is on Door #3.  It is personality based.  It is the personality of the leader that is relevant. So the temptation is to ask the question: how do we change someone’s personality?  The problem is that we can’t.  Every personality trait is highly heritable. It’s mostly genetic.  We are who we are and we get more entrenched in our personality the older we get (see the work of Robert Ploman and his book Blueprint.)  Compassion is an element of personality therefore it is highly heritable. Both the extent to which someone is compassionate, and who that compassion is directed towards – only our family, only our close group members, or absolutely anyone who is suffering – gets passed down.

Everyone I have met so far in our Conscious Capitalism tribe felt strongly that something was deeply wrong with corporate life.  Some of us had developed our own versions of something similar to Conscious Capitalism and were fighting to make it real. Then we discovered Conscious Capitalism and realized this was what they were looking for.  It was not the other way around.  We did not think corporate life was great (as clearly some people do) until we read about Conscious Capitalism and only then realized it could be better. People find us and express the genuine feeling that they have found their tribe. Reading and attending lectures did not convince them. They already felt out of place in the corporate world and upon discovering a Conscious Capitalism group feel right at home.

John Mackey is himself a great example.  He was not a born capitalist. He was on a mission to serve a community by providing good wholesome food. Later on he discovered capitalism enacted in a conscious way could help him, and was indeed necessary to serve this mission.  

I am arguing that people will either have a combination of personality aspects to be genetically disposed to get it and feel excited about Conscious Capitalism, or not. No amount of pounding on the door of a person who is not tuned to that frequency is going to persuade them. You might at best get them to agree that it is an option on the table, but they just don’t want to taste it right now… maybe later.

So if this is the case what do we do? Certainly not give up! There is a rich audience of people out there who are going to get it when they hear it and immediately and joyously join the tribe.  We need to be speaking much more clearly and passionately so they hear us.  

One of the things that struck me recently was the Gallup engagement survey data. It just hit me that the 15% who are “actively disengaged” who are drilling holes in the boat are actually engaged and just pissed off. They would not have that negative emotion if they did not care. They feel strongly that something is just wrong. Drilling holes in the proverbial company boat is not constructive behavior, but I would bet that if they were in a Conscious Culture with a high degree of autonomy and they felt free to bring their whole selves to work and that they were appreciated for their uniqueness, we would not see that behavior. Instead most in this group would become highly engaged. The problem is not the people, it is the system and culture. But I digress.

Turn up the volume!  I think we Conscious Capitalists are soft selling our idea because we are generally more thoughtful and understanding than most.

We have experienced the pressure from the traditional business leaders to conform to the traditional practices and we don’t want to behave like that. There is also a desire to win over a larger audience so we don’t want to offend any potential business owners. If it is door #1 or door #2 that is the right strategy. But if it is door #3 that is a mistake. If it is door #3 then we need to be loud and unapologetic about what we believe, while at the same time acknowledging it is not going to be for everyone and that’s ok.

If we are unabashed and unapologetic, loud and clear, those who are predisposed to connect with the principles of Conscious Capitalism will hear us and show up. They are members of our tribe that have not found each other yet. We can then help them along the journey they already yearn to be on. We can provide a language and a framework with which they can explore their feelings and ideas and share them with others in their organization. This is the most effective path to converting the highest number of companies to this framework. This is the way we will have the highest positive impact on people working at companies who deserve to be fulfilled by work, when they are investing 90,000 hours of their lives there. This is the way we will change our societies and save our planet.

These conscious companies will of course continue to dramatically outperform the regular companies, but don’t expect that to sway any non-believers. They will continue to take a wait and see, maybe I will have a taste of it later, approach until the cows come home. It’s just not their thing and it is never going to be.

Of course, there is an upside and a downside. On the downside we won’t get everyone to become a Conscious Capitalist. I never expected we would. On the up side we can take a bolder stand, attract the leaders who are looking for this tribe, and assist in converting more companies to these principles faster. People deserve to have fulfilling work lives, and our planet desperately needs more conscious businesses. For me the mission is clear.  The urgency is great. 

Cheers for Friday!

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates


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