A musing on my recent mental captivity to conscious capitalism.
The Conscious Capitalism Pebble
Somehow, someway I was introduced to John Mackey’s 2007 manifesto, “Conscious Capitalism: Creating a New Paradigm for Business.” (1) That essay led to a book promoting the the notion that business can be done better and an organization to convene the like-minded around those ideals. (2)
And I can’t get enough of it.
I read Mackey’s essay nearly a year ago. It’s been like a pebble in my shoe since. Its slight, nagging presence won’t let me forget it; won’t let me ignore it. Its themes have dominated my recent essays, hijacked my reading stack, and overwhelmed my thinking.
So, why? Why this fixation on doing business in a better, more conscious way?
Rejecting the Dogma of “It’s Just Business”
My thoughts drift back to an episode of Boardwalk Empire last season. Nucky Thompson tells a burgeoning rival, whose livelihood he’s just put in jeopardy by cutting off his supply of bootlegged liquor, “I learned a long time ago not to take things personally.”
It’s the old yarn, “Don’t take it personal. It’s just business.”
To which the gangster replies, “Everyone’s a person though, right? So how else could they take it?” (3)
That line is insidious, “It’s just business.” Somehow it’s become acceptable dogma for cleaving the ethics of business from ethics in general. As if business deserves its own special exemption from the ways we guide our interactions with our fellow human beings. As if putting the “business” label on a decision means we can disregard the conventions of decency. It’s a dirty disclaimer to excuse otherwise (and here I quote a former teacher of mine) rude, crude and socially unacceptable behavior.
Business does not deserve an exemption to operate outside the bounds of how we expect people to treat each other in almost every other form of social human interaction. Everyone’s a person, including in a business setting. It’s absurd to think we should suspend kindness, ethics and basic decency for this realm of activity simply because it involves the exchange of money.
And yet we frequently do.
To John Mackey’s point, this dogma has given capitalism a bad name. Something that can and should be a constructive form of good is often given a free pass to disregard the rules of fair play.
Count me among the guilty. I’ve long accepted the “It’s just business” dogma, assuming that by playing the business game you just accept that high-minded things aren’t part of the rules. Virtue isn’t enforced and isn’t expected. And the exact opposite merits its rewards.
All justified by the lowbrow credo, “Don’t take it personal. It’s just business.”
I’ve accepted and doled out abuse from and to colleagues. I’ve leaned hard into suppliers, requiring concessions I know impair their ability to operate in a healthy manner. I’ve clinged tight to the idea of shareholder primacy, gladly encouraging companies in which I invest to trade a more expensive sustainable approach for quick profits that get funneled to owners like me.
I’ve accepted that this is how it works when you opt-in to capitalism.
A Slow-Evolving Damascus Experience
That’s why conscious capitalism has been an irritant; that pebble in my shoe. In reading Mackey’s book, I see that there is another way. A better way.
And it does not require you to separate the need to invest in a good business (i.e., able to generate a profit over time) from participating in a business that’s about doing something constructive and worthwhile for society.
This has created a bit of a road to Damascus experience for me. The scales are slowly peeling from my eyes. It’s becoming hard to imagine investing in, working for, buying from or otherwise doing business with organizations that don’t hold themselves to some ideal more noble than “the business of business is business.” (4)
Doing good business and doing business good are not mutually exclusive activities. In fact, I’m having a lot of fun studying companies that demonstrate that following the tenets of conscious capitalism can make your venture more competitive; can give it advantages over companies that cling to the “it’s just business” dogma.
Everyone’s a person, right? It’s high time to take business personal.
(1) You can download the pdf at http://consciouscapitalism.org/library/pdf/resources_creating.pdf.
(2) You can read more about the book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, here: http://www.consciouscapitalism.org/resources/538
(3) HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Season 3, Episode 3. “Bone for Tuna.”
(4) This quote, from economic philosopher Milton Friedman, represents the opposite side of the conscious capitalism idea. You can read about it here in his 1970 New York Times Magazine article, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits:” http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html
Here are a couple of my previous essays on this theme:
Conscious Capitalism and Thresholds for an Exceptional Business, October 2, 2012: http://www.pauldryden.co/conscious-capitalism-thresholds-for-an-exceptional-business/
Conscious Capitalism vs. the Profit-Biased System, April 20, 2013: http://www.pauldryden.co/conscious-capitalism-vs-the-profit-biased-system/