“It has been said that we cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening…What if there already is in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?” Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p. 184
In his 2007 book, activist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken considers the question posed in the quote above. His conclusion: we are in the midst of “the largest social movement in all of human history,” comprised of millions of organizations dedicated to solving the twin challenges of global social justice and environmental sustainability (p. 4). The movement, he argues, is fueled by the efforts of environmental activists, social justice advocates, and indigenous communities who are collectively addressing the urgent need for all people to live with dignity and without the threat of war, injustice, or environmental devastation. In contrast to the past, this social movement is unique because it is globally disbursed and leader-less. In addition, the movement is not a product of any particular ideology or “ism.” Rather, Hawken says, “what unifies [the movement] is ideas, not ideologies. There is a vast difference between the two: ideas question and liberate, while ideologies justify and dictate” (p. 16).
Lacking any cohesive ideology or identifiable leader, Hawken argues that this movement is largely invisible and unnamed. However, since its publication, Blessed Unrest, has become, de facto, the name many now use to refer to the cumulative impact of the millions of individuals and organizations dedicated to social change.
Hawken says that a critical view of global capitalism tends to pervade the movement, specifically the view that “goods seem to have become more important, and are treated better, than people. What would a world look like if that emphasis were reversed?” (p. 14). This brings us to the obvious question: What does all this mean for business? Additionally, do corporations, who are more often than not the demon in this narrative, have any positive role to play in this social movement? How might business executives and professionals be seen as a part of this change rather than as perennially greedy and self-absorbed antagonists?
These are important questions to consider, particularly by those of us in the field of leadership development. What seems clear is that business has always been a key player in social change, since the dawning of capitalism in pre-Renaissance Italy. Over the centuries business has been the source of massive innovation and change that has contributed to the well-being of many communities and people. However, it’s equally clear that business has too often turned its back on social concerns, particularly during the past few decades when business has focused exclusively on creating shareholder value. Furthermore, many businesses, particularly large corporations, have played an active role in creating the woeful human and environmental conditions that we now face.
So, business has a very, very long way to go before being seen as a positive force in the Blessed Unrest movement. However, I see many signs that indicate that the movement is having an impact; that these ideas are taking hold and gaining currency within business. First, as a voracious reader, I’m noticing new terms more frequently entering into the language of business, such as “purpose” and “social good.” Take as an example, a recent article by Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/sustainability/business_society_and_the_future_of_capitalism. Polman describes Unilever’s shift to a long-term mindset which led them to discontinue quarterly reporting, refocus their compensation structure, institute more environmentally sustainable practices, and attract new investors aligned with their vision and values. The benefits, says Polman, include better decision making, a “more mature dialogue” with shareholders, and employees who are better able to connect their work to a larger purpose. “Business is here to serve society,” says Polman, “We need to be part of the solution. Business simply can’t be a bystander in a system that gives it life in the first place…Business needs to step up to the plate”(p. 1,2 & 5).
Other tangible signs include the emergence of new business forms such as the Benefit Corporation, or “B-Corp,” a new breed of corporatoins that legally hold themselves accountable for a “material positive impact on the society and the environment” (see the website: http://benefitcorp.net/). These and other innovative business models are rapidly emerging under the broad umbrella of social entrepreneurism.
All of this makes me cautiously optimistic. And I do mean cautious as this change is emerging in concert with a lot of superficial “greenwashing” that has become more pronounced as the movement progresses. In her new book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, Lynda Gratton also wrestles with these questions. She sets out to examine exactly what is required to help corporations move out of an outmoded, industrial era, mechanistic mindset and into a twenty-first century mindset that “aspire[s] to and take a more central role in the affairs of the world” (p. ix). “It seems to me,” Gratton says, “that there is much we can ask of ourselves and our corporations. We can ask that in place of exploitation, there is renewal…We can ask of corporations that their executives see themselves as part of an interdependent world, where the impact of their actions in one place and at one time is felt across the system. In this world, collaboration and alliances are more successful strategies than resource competition” (p. xii).
These are provocative thoughts, which I’ll continue to explore in future blogs. Meanwhile, I invite interested readers to consider the Case Western conference, Flourish & Prosper Global Forum for Business as an Agent for World Benefit, http://globalforumbawb.com/about/. The conference, which takes place on October 15-17, will bring together over 1,000 CEO’s around this critical topic. I plan to attend and hope others will join me.
- Gratton, L. (2014). The key: How corporations succeed by solving the world’s toughest business problems. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
- Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world. New York: Penguin Books.
- Polman, P. (May, 2014), “Business, society, and the future of capitalism.” McKinsey Quarterly. http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/sustainability/business_society_and_the_future_of_capitalism