It’s often said that organizations of the future will be flatter and less hierarchical, organized as networks and according to the principles of self-management. But that can’t happen without a fundamental shift in perspective even more basic — from competitive to generative organizations. Competitive organizations are ones that define their edge strategically over other organizations, competing for customers in the same market niche and hoping to out-maneuver if not simply kill off other workplaces. Generative companies focus on the value of what they produce far more than simply their competitive advantage.
You may have seen, for example, Cleveland Clinic’s beautiful commercial using empathy as the theme. It’s a work of art.
Yet, there’s an irony here. Empathy, as a value, isn’t something that defines a “competitive” edge. Rather, empathy defines a community presence, a human connection. If the commercial were produced to simply get more customers than some other organizations but the value wasn’t lived, it might represent a temporary public relations coupe, for sure, but in the end it would likely be seen as extremely crass and destructive to the reputation of the organization. In order for the commercial to work, we have to believe that the Cleveland Clinic isn’t simply competing with other like organizations for clients — it is instead making a stand about the human value it delivers — empathy — regardless of what any other organizations might be or do.
Assuming that’s really true, the organization is a generative one, not a competitive one. There are also hints of that generative impulse in this particular video as it unfolds, showing how the ethic of empathy also applies to staff. It’s an inside-outside-in culture that respects the realities of those who deliver the benefits, not just those who receive them. All of which says, “this isn’t fake.” We didn’t put this up to win the game. We did it to tell our community who we are and to connect.
If you take the cynical view that this is simply a new competitive field, I certainly cannot prove you wrong. But I’d also suggest you challenge beliefs that suggest we as business people cannot work from our best ideals. I suggest you especially challenge yourself if you call the problem some kind of failure of human nature.
Granted we have so much in the current environment — with our habitual focus on short-term profits and money as the only real bottom-line — that would make any argument for the possibility of business by ideals seemingly indefensible and naive. Granted, I am almost constantly running into one cynical “realist” after the next who is completely fed up with American capitalism and what a con it is, how people indeed have become commodities, how the few are thieves of the many, how emotional disengagement is the only logical reaction. Granted, so many people, in addition, are fed up with the apparent complicity of government and the dirty, polarized party politics that have become the norm, who simply do not know what to do and so have given up hoping for someone to lead us all out of the mess, including themselves. Granted many believe that companies now are actually far more important in shaping the way we think, feel and live than the set of social principles, languages, and cultural foundations we used to call countries — our country, the United States, in particular. For now anyway they may well be right.
But it is also for exactly this reason, that so many feel hopeless and cynical and totally overworked, that there’s going to be a fight ahead. If not now, then later, and I encourage and endorse that fight. It’s not a fight about the structure of organizations or new forms of management, per se, but instead proof that in fact generative organizations can transform business culture. Proof that this shift is not a game, not a PR ploy, not a program, but a fundamental return to core values that support rather than erode society, that literally can save the earth rather than doom us to a more or less apocalyptic view of what happens next for the race, of how our children will be harmed over time and will suffer for our sins.
There’s a fight ahead for the human spirit, for liberation, and you and I are part of it. What we do is important. I believe that fight will be as crucial and close to the bone as, say, the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and its continuing legacies. Maybe the physical beatings and lynchings won’t be as prominent as the economic ones, but they will be just as real. I’m not convinced we need to totally give up on capitalist principles or even hierarchy (as if we could), so much as we need to find and begin to stand up for something like our own truthful and generative leadership — a leadership deeply based on:
• Our commitment to the value of what we do above and beyond simply being better, richer, more powerful, more successful than somebody else
• Our ideals and visions for what a good and ethical organization really can be
• Our sense of ownership for the future — what we do today even in small ways has enormous impacts over time
• Our application of heroic values (the ones we see so clearly in the midst of crisis) to the creation of truly good companies
• Our willingness to engage everyone in the open, inclusive forums that are able to break down the barriers we have historically erected to protect authority but which undermine real, collective leadership
• Our willingness to create value through partnership and collaboration and true community, not siloing people and pitting people against one another
• Our willingness to sacrifice — as so many have done in the quest for true equality, true opportunity, rather than the endorsement of a private, competitive quest for privilege.
To activate this kind of leadership is going to be our work. It does mean managing by truth, by openness, by love, by doing the right thing — leadership as a community, not as a commodity. It will hurt. People will likely get fired or worse for wanting it or simply for trying to achieve it. But it represents at its core a kind of human affirmation that we actually know pretty well in our own hearts and cannot deny. Not the affirmation that we’re best, we’re most successful. Most powerful. Not the affirmation that our job was to make a lot of money and we did — yahoo, aren’t we great. Not the affirmation that “I got mine” because, afterall, I’m better and the world is going to hell in a handbasket and I need protection and safety. Not that we won and now we get the spoils of that war, pretending that a personal middle class existence is still possible. But the affirmation that we took back the power to actually help make the world a better place for all people, that we lived the principles upon which a society, not just a profit and power making machine, is based. That we suffered for it, and found it, and we left a legacy.
In this, the urge toward civilization, self-sufficiency, and genuine care for the human race has always been a thoroughly, spiritually courageous act.
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The Arc Workshop
On May 14-15, I will be facilitating The Arc workshop in Seattle — an example of long-term leadership self-discovery. The cost for this small group workshop is $500. For more information please download the full brochure by clicking the image below. If you are interested or would just like to talk about the workshop, please get in touch!