2001 and my business imploded. In terms of cash reserves we were better off than we had ever been but we all knew that my business, Pathways, had been dealt a body blow and was unlikely to recover without a huge effort. I found myself in a lay-by off the A419 highway near Stroud in England, staring out across some unknown valley that I will probably never visit again, and seeing nothing. I felt numb. I had withdrawn from the day-to-day operation of the company for two years as I searched for ways to articulate a new vision – spirit in business.
The company I had created in 1989 financed my introspection, and it had felt good at last to be working outside again planting an orchard, and taking some much needed time to reflect. Sitting in my parked car with traffic sweeping by relentless and disinterested, I faced the prospect of picking up the pieces and starting again. The prospect didn’t appeal. Not because I shy from challenge but because the spirit that built that business had departed some time ago and without renewal it was only a matter of time before the masonry began to crumble. Easy to see now, in retrospect. Perhaps I had averted my eyes so as not to see so well. By the time I had left that lay-by behind, physically and emotionally, something very wonderful was emerging. The vision that had swirled unformed in my imagination and subconscious for the last year or so was now taking shape. I felt a surge of excitement – a tremor, a sense of the mist drawing back, offering a glimpse of home and the flickering dance of the hearth fire. The mist closed in again, but just receiving that one vivid picture had been enough. I knew I was close, and that I would find my way.
At precisely the same time an event of enormous significance unfolded two thousand miles away in New York. Terrifying and shocking, a huge gaping wound, a scream so loud it reverberated around the world. Unseen, unheard, unreported, equally terrifying, just as shocking – somewhere out there, another few thousand people stopped breathing and died, thankfully released from the agony of starvation and poverty, just as they have every day since I sat in that lay-by. The forgotten, the already dead.
I understand that we are all regularly deluged with images of imminent catastrophe. Paradoxically the effect of non-stop twenty-four hour news is to deaden our concern and the need to respond. Impending crises queue for a place on the front page. It is normal, and we’re used to it. In order to move forward with our own lives we take to wearing protective shields, look the other way and go deeper into pretence. I need to risk bouncing off your shield because I want to explore this pretence of ours before offering a way forward that does not rely on belief or the discredited attitudes that have created so many of our current challenges. Stay with me.
September 11th, the emergence of Corporate Social Responsibility and the anti-globalisation movement, fair trade initiatives, environmental degradation, Enron, WorldCom, the huge disparities in wealth that are growing ever larger and more dangerous – whether described as symptomatic of the problem or as emerging positive responses, we are surrounded by the signs of crisis and the need for fundamental change. We have to do what has so far proved impossible for us to contemplate. We have to square up to the shocking truth that we are systematically destroying the capability of our planet to sustain life, and that, absurdly poetic and abstract as it may seem to some, we are indeed part of life, and therefore also threatened. It is not abstract. It is fact. Organisations, structures, values, attitudes and beliefs that have sustained our outlook and way of life for generations, centuries even, are, one way or another, set to die. Meanwhile the party goes on. We take, consume, and spread our filth upon the feast we love to gorge on – but not for long. Cancer doesn’t seem to accept feudal privilege. Foul air gives rich kids asthma as well. We are, in effect, bent upon an act of mass suicide – and we’ll succeed – unless we find the courage to truly look at what we have so far ignored, jettison our ingrained conformist acceptance of those in ‘authority’, and insist, demand, lead, change.
The world of business holds within it some of the best and the worst of which we are capable. Never shy of the latest fashion we’ve had upsizing, downsizing, we’ve hammered quality nearly to death, made visions, set off on missions, and pretended the whole time that we know what we’re doing. It cannot have escaped everybody’s notice, however, that we also demonstrate a number of symptoms that studied from a clinical point of view are at the least alarming, and probably profoundly dangerous. Many times actions that would be considered brutal if promulgated by an individual are passed off as ‘normal business practice’ when emerging from the boardroom of organisations.
The logic advocating change is compelling, yet some still want more proof. Strange how quick we are to judge and condemn when it suits our plans, and so punctiliously anal when faced with evidence that implies our culpability. A symbol of capitalism is devastatingly destroyed and several thousand lose their lives. Every day thousands more starve. The one is personal and close to home, the other far removed, or so we choose to think: not our responsibility, not our business. The one lives as a symbol of everything upon which we stack our dreams, the other is a hideous nightmare that we strive to suppress.
We in business still persist in seeing work as separate from life, separate from ‘commercial realities’, separate from my niece’s birthday or the small bird outside my window hopefully scanning the bird table for food. All life is connected and in relationship. It is time that we accepted the obvious.
We need clever leaders, but much more importantly we need wise leaders. We need power to come together with ethics. We need to care about profits and my niece, about commercial realities and the small bird outside my window. Not one at the expense of the other. Of course we need to drive for performance, rewarding initiative, energy and enterprise but we need to pursue our business goals while also understanding that in doing so we are the architects of tomorrow. We compromise our values at the risk of forgetting that we owe the present to the past, and the future to the present.
Without a rapid and profound shift in the beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that guide current business practice, we may lose the spectacular opportunity that now presents itself for positive and radical change. None of us can plead ignorance. Somehow we have to rise to the challenge – put aside cynicism, put aside self-doubt, learn to play again, have an adventure – and do what needs to be done. We are all responsible and we are all culpable. Why can’t we enthusiastically support businesses in their efforts to trade successfully, make profits, and prosper, and yet absolutely reject the thesis that this can be done in the absence of a moral or ethical framework that celebrates human rights, cares for our environment, embraces social responsibility, and takes pride in so doing? These issues will present themselves increasingly to every one of us and somewhere down the line we will each have to make a choice on where we stand.
Until we rediscover reverence for life, for our Earth, for all the beings with whom we share our lives; until we perceive mystery without then needing to deny science; until we elevate rational thought without needing to denigrate spirit; until we set about our own personal development as human beings – seeking wisdom, growing compassion, healing ourselves of beliefs that are hurtful to ourselves and to others – we will never attain true freedom and our world will lurch deeper into crisis.
We have to grow wise fast. Spirit moves in us all. It is what brings us joy and urges us to strive for meaning and purpose in our lives. Spirit inspires you and me to be generous, to gasp at the huge presence of the ocean, to search for love in our lives, to dig deep and seek the very best of which we are capable. Spirit is not confined or defined by dogma, beliefs, churches or cults. Spirit should not be confused with religion. Spirit is you and me growing our gardens with tenderness and appreciation; it is the young child climbing her first tree; it is the huge leaping joy of birth, and the final embrace of someone we love. Spirit guides our greatest dreams and accompanies us in the darkest moments of loneliness. Spirit is the inspiration of all that is beautiful in you, and in me. In spirit we rediscover reverence for life, and perceive the meaning we long for.
How has it ever come to pass that we should be embarrassed to say or feel such things? How is it right that our business leaders – people who are chiefs to thousands of other humans – talk so little of things important either to their own families or the families of those they affect indirectly or directly – which is you and me, all of us – around the world.
All organisations seek ways of motivating their employees to give more; with passion and energy to pursue goals that will benefit the organisation. I think that we can motivate people to a point by using conventional incentives but beyond this we have to connect to their own deeply held ideals. This is what is fuelling those who fight for our rain forests, our oceans, our human rights. There is a huge opportunity waiting for companies that are brave enough to name values that truly relate to the dreams and hopes of ordinary people worried about the world that we are so busy destroying. Most governments are failing to meet this challenge. They espouse peace and yet enthusiastically trade in arms, they talk of the environment and drag their feet in actually doing anything about it. Business is the powerhouse of change, but if this is to be positive, constructive change, then our business leaders need to become much braver, more radical, more determined to lean into the wind and insist upon change. We must stand in awe of beauty, accept the challenge of our own self-learning, and be brave enough to stand up and be counted.
This is the stuff of leadership. It is born from inspiration, and from a vision of leadership that is, at its essence, spiritual. I see a clear difference between spiritual and religious. The former I have described above and concerns a respect and reverence for life, the latter concerns belief. We do not have to believe in a tree, or believe in the beauty of our earth. We have only to look up and see what exists around us. Our brightest and best leaders will find such visions if they are encouraged to touch the lives of ordinary people, and to see for themselves the destruction that accompanies corporate business activity when it resists any kind of moral framework. They will find such visions when they spend time in reflection asking themselves questions that are profound and universal:
What is of true value? What is my relationship to life, and what are the responsibilities that I carry? What do I perceive as my purpose and what gives meaning to my life? These gifts that are mine – how shall I use them? Who are my children — what are my responsibilities to them? Of what can I truly be proud when the time comes for me to die?
Some months ago I sat by a lake listening to the sounds that accompany the onset of dusk. The geese had flown in a few minutes before, and the trout were lazily taking the evening mosquitoes. The last swallows skimmed the water and the first owl called out, beckoning the dark. I felt skinless, raw – touched by beauty. I felt wealthy. This lake is well known to me, friends visit and almost all are in some way touched. It is confronting to meet beauty. It is confronting to meet life. No “belief” is necessary, just an openness and sensitivity to colour, scent, light, warmth, music, and the poetry that is whispered in the reflected images of clouds.
As the dark cloaked itself around the lake, my thoughts turned to the many remarkable people my colleagues and I have met over the last thirteen years of trading – the laughter, the wisdom, the generosity. None of us get there on our own. At every stage life brings us allies, guides, teachers and friends. There are many people in business who choose to direct their brilliance, energy and resourcefulness to finding solutions for the huge problems that now confront us. It is hope we need, and hope is to be found in each other. This is my work for the coming years – to do all in my power to contribute to this time of decision and action – to be with hope. As a young man I was so sad to have been born at a time when adulthood only seemed to offer the dreary safety of a planned career, a hefty mortgage and a plump pension. I am so glad I got that one wrong.
Later, on the same day that I had sat in my parked car trying to re-adjust and find a way forward, I arrived home in Devon. I was shocked at how easily I had moved from angry paralysis to excitement and purpose. Standing in the garden I took a deep breath, tasting the flavours of wood smoke, newly turned earth and the damp Atlantic breeze. It felt good to be alive. It still took most of the winter months to claw the vision of ‘spirit in business’ from the half-formed intuitions that hovered like shadows, dancing just out of sight. But a vision once seen is not so easily forgotten, and like the kingfisher that just now has blazed her blue fire across the lakeside waters, I have work to do.