Business and Compassion
This is is a keynote speech I delivered in Monterrey, Mexico, at Octavo Encuentro Mundial de Valores, the Eighth Worldwide Meeting on Human Values, on October 21, 2016.
The Pivot Toward Flourishing
I believe that the highest purpose of every business should be to create a just, peaceful, and vibrant world.
Today may be the most important day in the history of humanity, going back hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. It may be more important than the day someone noticed that fire could be domesticated and used for cooking and security and story-telling. More important than the day someone thought of growing vegetables in a garden. More important than the morning someone woke up and thought, I need to build a temple, or I need to sing the first song, or create the first painting on the wall of a cave. Today may be more decisive than the first moment someone thought of inventing a steam engine, or an electric light, or a personal computer. More important than who will win the next election, or what we should eat for lunch, or whether we should wear the blue shoes or the brown shoes.
As human beings, one of the most significant decisions we will ever make is how we engage with the world through the work we do, day in and day out. We build bridges and web sites and chairs. We work in factories and offices and schools. We plant crops and clean bathrooms and translate one language to another. Through work we support ourselves and our families. We work in businesses, large and small. We have jobs in which we create things of utility or beauty.
And sometimes we create things that are profitable but destructive.
Today you and I — through our actions — may decide the outcome of the experiment of human life on the planet earth. We live our lives — all of us — in relationship to commerce and business. Our choices and actions — where we work, how we work, what we buy, how we use resources — are decisive. We face a stark choice between two possible futures.
Two possible futures
The first possible future: Our current path is toward ecological disaster, economic and social collapse. This month, in October of 2016, the level of carbon emissions in the earth’s atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million. This is the level scientists concluded years ago will lead to ever increasing temperatures if we don’t take immediate action.
Destroying our rain forests in the name of agriculture, damaging our coastal zones in the name of economic progress, will lessen our planet’s ability to breathe. Extracting carbon from the earth and then pumping it into the atmosphere will lead to massive weather events, drought, floods, forest fires, melting polar ice caps, rising seas.The consequences will be mass starvation, population dislocation, increasing violence, poverty, wars to control resources.
The second possible future: We awaken to the threat we all face. We become clear about the obstacles we have to overcome in order to survive. We have an inspiring vision of the world we want to live in and can create together. We cultivate the leadership we need to implement innovative solutions addressing the core problem of climate change. We understand that transitioning to clean, carbon-free energy is not only necessary but profitable, and that profit can serve a higher purpose. We all — every one of us — take action in every conceivable context to create a just, peaceful, and vibrant world.
How will we discover this second possible future? The most noble purpose we can imagine makes life worth living, creating a flourishing community able to live in harmony with the world. The closest I can come to describing such a world requires that I use the word compassion.
Create a flourishing world that works for all
Compassion, as expressed in the Charter for Compassion, is rooted in the capacity to connect to ourselves, each other and the earth. It’s the principle that knits together human community, and ensures that we can take delight in our existence. The more disconnected we are, the less healthy we are. There is research to support the premise that compassion and connection to ourselves, each other and the earth is essential to living healthy and meaningful lives. In other words, the capacity to connect is what makes it possible for us to flourish.
The Grand Unified Theory of Compassion
Years ago, when we launched Charter for Compassion International, we described our mission as “supporting the emergence of a global movement for compassion.” Not building a movement, but supporting the emergence of a movement. The distinction was important. We figured that compassion had to grow from the soil of human interactions and institutions; it wasn’t something that we could simply create through magnificent ideas and well-intentioned hard work.
Many people think of compassion as merely a nice warm feeling, or a sense of sympathy for people less fortunate than us, or our desire to give to some charity to reduce poverty or hardship or hunger. In this view, the only people who can speak knowledgeably about compassion are the Dalai Lama or the Pope or Amma the Hugging Saint. Above all, it makes no sense for business to talk about compassion and profit in the same breath. Compassionate business — it’s an oxymoron, like a dull roar or military intelligence.
I’ve got something of a business background, and I was taught that if you can’t measure it in some way, then maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe you shouldn’t waste your time on it. So if you can’t measure compassion, or you have no way to understand how it grows or how it matters, don’t bring it up. That’s an extreme view, and I don’t fully agree with it. But it contains a useful nugget, the idea that we can develop a systematic way to understand, measure, and express the impact and role of compassion.
So I set out to develop what I called a Grand Unified Theory of Compassion. I wanted to describe compassion systematically — not just as a vague sentiment or a nice feeling — but as something measurable, replicable, structurally necessary. So today, after years of research and development, I am ready to present my theory to the universe. Here it is:
My theory says that awareness multiplied by compassionate action times the power of networks yields the result of a flourishing world.
- Awareness. How aware are we of our connection with others — other people in our neighborhood, our workplace, the broader community, the whole world? Our common interests with every living thing on the planet?
- Compassion. By which I mean deeds, practical action to alleviate suffering and ensure the well-being of others. It’s not merely a feeling of empathy or sympathy, and not at all a feeling of pity.
- Networks. The exponential power of digital networks to spread and replicate compassionate behavior.
- A flourishing world is a just, peaceful, and vibrant world. It’s a possible future, but far from certain.
Sustainable Development Goals
I’ve got good news to report! The Grand Unified Theory of Compassion actually describes real-world activity! Today millions are working in businesses to create a sustainable global economy, founded on the principle of compassion.
One year ago, leaders from 193 countries gathered at the United Nations to sign the Sustainable Development Goals. This is a list of 17 goals to end poverty and hunger, create sustainable cities and communities, protect life on land and in the oceans, and take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact.
Almost 7,000 major corporations plus 11,000 small or medium-sized enterprises are part of the Global Compact, pledged to embed these specific goals in their business models. Over 1200 of these companies are right here in Mexico, including 269 major corporations. That’s an amazing statistic, evidence that my country, the United States, should be following Mexico’s leadership!
Just as important, maybe, is that over 500 business schools have pledged to embed the Sustainable Development Goals in their curricula.
Many of these schools are now connected by a project called Aim2Flourish. This is an online community of business students and leaders. The idea is that if you want to change the world, you have to change the story. Tell the positive stories of success, celebrate the solutions rather than dwell on the problems. So Aim2Flourish connects with schools, teachers, and students to tell the stories of thousands and thousands of businesses and their leaders who are making a difference.
Like the Sunshine Nut Company in Mozambique, whose purpose is to develop a profitable market for smallholder farmer communities, as they say, “transforming the lives of the poor and orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Or COBS Bread Bakery in Canada, which aims to completely eliminate all waste from the food chain, contributing all their excess baked goods to their community.
Or EcoAct Tanzania, a company that transforms waste plastic into durable and plastic lumber, creating jobs and preserving forests while creating environmentally friendly construction materials.
Or Sistema Biobolsa in Puebla, Mexico, a company that has deployed 3,000 digester systems that convert farm manure into biogas and a powerful organic fertilizer to aid in organic farming.
Aim2Flourish demonstrates how business plays a central role in creating a compassionate world. What makes Aim2Fourish influential is its invitation to tell surprising stories about businesses today working to create a flourishing world. The power of its network to spread those stories. The power of inspiration.
MSDN and the web
I started to learn about digital networks when I was hired by Microsoft a quarter century ago, before anyone had heard of the World Wide Web. Amazing to think, only the military, or academic researchers, or programmers had access to the Internet.
I was a software developer, and along with most of my peers, I thought Microsoft did a poor job of supporting its partners. We really hated Microsoft! Most of us saw Microsoft as a big bully who only cared about their own profits. We had to create software that ran on the Windows platform, but we got almost no help to do it. Finally, Microsoft decided they needed to heal their relationship with software developers. They saw that their business was in danger because of arrogant behavior.
So I was hired to help create the Microsoft Developer Network, or MSDN. This was conceived as a way to publish technical articles, sample code, software development kits. Doing so would encourage software developers around the world to use Microsoft platforms for their products — much like how Apple would later encourage developers to write apps for the iPhone.
I was put in charge of that effort. My group discovered the web early on, when only developers had web browsers, and we published the first web site at Microsoft.
But we quickly realized that to change our relationship with developers, we had to become a real network — not just a publisher. We had to connect developers to each other, and to our company, in a way that made us real partners. We couldn’t just exploit people and profit by selling them stuff. We had to deliver the help they needed to be successful. We had to foster our network. We had to focus on their needs — not ours.
Does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s the essence of the Grand Unified Theory of Compassion — awareness multiplied by compassionate action times the power of networks yields a flourishing result. That was my introduction to this new reality of networks as the new business model. Our network may have been the first successful subscription business on the web, and it was based on a new understanding. Networks would soon be the most powerful force in the global economy.
By 1995 my group was publishing over 80 different web sites at Microsoft. One of them was called the Internet Start Page — otherwise known as MSN.com. It was the first page you saw when you opened the Internet Explorer browser — your intro to the Internet. We decided we wanted to tell stories that demonstrated the potential impact of the Internet. It would be one of the first blogs, a full year before the word “blog” was invented.
Twenty years ago, then, I was in Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht Street. I went through the bookcase that hid the little apartment. I looked at the wall where Anne pasted her collection of film stars and picture postcards, her writing desk, the cramped quarters for eight frightened people. I was profoundly moved by my visit. On the plane ride back to Seattle, I began writing the first essay for our blog. I wondered how history might have been different if Anne had access to email or web sites in 1943, if she had been able to tell the story of their lives there, the reality of life for Jews in Europe, the terrible danger surrounding them. That story was read by a million people and I got thousands of email responses from around the world.
I realized, though, that just being aware of a developing tragedy, just knowing about human suffering, just empathizing with another isn’t enough, is it? Many knew about the plight of Jews in Europe, but few of them acted to protest or help.
Today, we may see the body of a drowned toddler washed ashore on a Greek beach. We may see the image of a little boy with blood on his face, a little boy who survived a bombing in Aleppo. Yet we can remain silent, trapped in sadness, not knowing how to intervene.
It makes you wonder, though, doesn’t it? What might be possible if networks of millions of people were able to act together, not just to hear stories or share information, but to act?
Power of networks
In the 90s we began to realize that in the new world of the Internet, digital networks can change human behavior. Networks of individuals. Networks of organizations. Networks in neighborhoods and communities and cities.
Networks of knowledge and knowledge makers. Networks that span the globe. People who are connected through a network are potentially more powerful, more productive, more influential, than the same number of separate individuals. This is what we’ve come to call the “network effect.”
Networks are rapidly transforming the entire global economy. In business, networks scale differently and much more rapidly than more traditional business models. Network-based businesses are worth more than their traditional counterparts; they grow faster, they’re more profitable, they’re capable of innovative solutions beyond the reach of their competitors.
Increasingly, across the spectrum, all businesses will be drawn toward a new business model that’s been called “network orchestration.” To be successful, increasingly, businesses have to pivot toward activating and relying on networks. Some obvious examples are Wikipedia, Craigslist, Facebook, AirBnB, and many others you can think of. They have to learn how to be nodes and partners in networks, co-creating value that is mutually beneficial for everyone connected. And not every network-based company places purpose — service to the community — over their own profits.
Business for good
One of the most significant networks I know about is the global and rapidly growing “business for good” movement.
I can tell you about the Conscious Capitalism network, which brings together hundreds of corporate CEOs who focus on cultures that support people to learn, grow, develop and flourish.
The Investor Network on Climate Risk, which now includes 120 institutional investors with more than $14 trillion in assets committed to addressing climate risk while building low-carbon business alternatives.
JUST Capital, a nonprofit that measures corporate performance based on the public’s definition of JUST behavior.
Thousands of companies that now are part of the B Corporation movement, companies working for public benefit, aiming to serve others, using shared lessons and metrics and resources to become a force for good.
The Conscious Business Declaration (created by Humanity’s team and its partners) offers a new standard for business that recognizes the interconnected and interdependent relationship of business to all life. Leaders of global corporations are starting to sign it. The CB training program and community of practice (which now includes 100 change agents, many working towards CCBA certification) is creating a professional community of trained change agents committed to conscious business transformation.
But I think you need to hear stories — not numbers — to get how amazing this is.
Maybe you’ve heard of Iluméxico, a certified B Corporation, which has the mission of bringing solar power to 50,000 off-grid rural homes in Mexico, while improving living conditions and creating good local jobs.
The people behind Iluméxico noticed that many rural Mexican households are not connected to the electrical grid. They normally light their homes with candles, diesel or other light sources that harm their health and the environment. The solution of Iluméxico was simple: exchange those sources for renewable energy. Provide much better quality lighting with solar home systems that almost anyone can afford.
Fifteen years ago, a fellow named Scott Koloms was a writing instructor at Kent State University. His father died, leaving Scott a small janitorial company called Facilities Management. Scott wasn’t sure he wanted to be the CEO of a company, so he went off by himself for a month on retreat to meditate and reflect. Then Scott came home to Louisville, Kentucky, with a decision.
He didn’t know how, but he wanted to create a truly compassionate company. So he developed a business based on inclusion, teamwork, integrity, and caring, and marked by high wages for the workers, educational opportunities, better benefits, open decision-making, transparent finances, and public/private partnerships. Years later, Scott’s company is an amazing success story, with employees and customers who feel they have a real stake in the company’s success. So Facilities Management is highly profitable and growing fast.
Creating value by orchestrating networks
In each of these stories, the company sees itself as an orchestrator of networks — networks of employees and customers, suppliers and distributors and partners. In each story, the company is profitable and successful precisely because it has a higher purpose that involves serving its community, not merely making a profit. We’re witnessing profit in the service of purpose.
To be clear, purpose is not the same as mission. A mission is something a group of executives can come up with in a planning session. A higher purpose is always about service to others, and it has to be shared by everyone in the business. A compassionate business is a purpose-driven business. An excellent example of a company that sought profit without seeing themselves in service to a higher purpose was Eastman Kodak. The goal of the company, seemingly, was simply to sell as many cameras and as much film as possible to make the most profit. The company failed and went bankrupt because they failed to make the pivot when photography went digital. If the company had a higher purpose, for example, “to help people tell the story of their lives through amazing images,” Kodak might still be in business.
Here’s how companies create value in the age of networks. Inside a company there are employees, managers, corporate resources, suppliers. Outside the company are customers and partners who create value together with the company. Thousands or millions of people can benefit from their relationship with the company as well as other members in the network.
What supports this new type of business is what we’ll call the company’s platform. The platform is a set of tools and technologies, including email and web sites and cloud-based services and even apps on smart phones. The platform allows people to communicate, to share ideas, to build relationships with each other, to create solutions. The members of the network create value together, and can share the value created.
You are the center of your network
Here’s the fundamental difference between a network-focused company and a traditional company — building cars, providing services, or creating technology.
In a traditional company, the hierarchy matters, tremendously, even for a purpose-driven company focused on serving others. Who is in charge is decisive, starting with a CEO and top executives who make strategic decisions, and then a hierarchy of executive and middle managers all the way down to the people who work the machines, sweep the sidewalks, answer the phone, and maintain the email servers. The purchasing decisions of customers have an impact on the company’s success, but customers don’t make the business decisions.
Networks, on the other hand, are NOT inherently hierarchical. Now don’t get me wrong. Networks, in and of themselves, are not the solution. We all know of companies that are in business only to exploit and profit from networks. However, in a network, every individual is potentially powerful, potentially connected with every other member of the network. In a networked company, in a networked society, value can be created by any or all members of the network. In a sustainable network, the rewards are likely shared as well.
Who is a leader?
In the past, we assumed that a leader was someone who was in an overt position of power or authority in an institution or a community. Someone given the responsibility for making decisions, or someone who can sway the opinions of others. A leader might be a corporate CEO, or the mayor of a city, or the president of a country.
But I propose a new definition of a leader.
A leader is anyone who has an impact on the system.
Think about that. A leader is anyone who has an impact on the system. This means that a leader could be anyone. I’ll go further and say that in my opinion, everyone is a leader. All of us have an impact on the system, and any one of us has the potential to change the history of the planet. The lesson here is that your network begins with you.
You are the center of your own network.
No one else is in charge of your network, your relationships. You are. Not only that, but your network potentially connects you with every other network in the world. The direct influence you have might be with only two or three close friends or family members. But you hold the potential to influence every other person in the world, starting with your own network.
Try an experiment. When you see someone today, maybe just a casual acquaintance, say good morning, wish them well, ask how they are — as you might on an ordinary day. This time, however, do so with genuine concern for their well-being, as a dear friend might, someone who really cares about their welfare.
When you work to deeply connect, even for a moment, you will experience how it feels to create the basis for a successful network based on trust, respect, compassion. It’s a different feeling, isn’t it? You might see that mere acquaintance no longer as a stranger, as an object. You might have witnessed something in that person that I would call their soul, or their spirit. And they may have witnessed yours. There are some new possibilities for people who have seen the soul of another human being.
Grand Unified Theory of Compassion — Again
Here’s my theory, again:
Awareness multiplied by compassionate action times the power of networks yields the result of a flourishing world.
- Awareness. Our expanding identification with every living thing on the planet.
- Compassion. Practical action to alleviate the suffering of others.
- Networks. The power of networks to replicate compassionate behavior.
- Flourishing. A flourishing world is a just, peaceful, and vibrant world.
As networks dominate the structure of the global economy, the successful orchestration of networks will soon become the hallmark of every healthy enterprise. Technology tools are being invented to enable rapid and democratic decision-making by ever-larger numbers of people, based on solid real-time data and shared values and objectives.
For millions of human beings to act in concert, we need ever faster communications, and advanced networking platforms that allow us to make decisions and take action together — in real time. These will be powerful tools, and we’ll need to learn to use them well and wisely. Most of all, though, we’ll need to balance purpose with profit, to subordinate profit to our higher purpose of creating a flourishing world.
Today, on what may be the most important day in the history of humanity, going back hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, you’ll leave this place and return to your everyday lives. Many of you here are young. You’ll be finishing school soon, going out into the world, and many, perhaps most of you will be working in a business.
You’ll work with your hands and your minds and your hearts. And there is no one more responsible for the leadership of that business than you, no matter what your job is in that company.
You are the center of your own network. You are connected, through your network, to every single person in the world. You are potentially the most powerful person you have ever met.
What can you imagine? What can you do?
Resources for Compassion and Business
- B the Change
- World Business Academy
- Real Leaders
- Charter for Compassion
- Conscious Business Declaration
- Strategic News Service
- The New Grand Strategy
By Patrick Doherty, Mark Mykleby, and Joel Makower
- Compassionate Capitalism: A journey to the Soul of Business
By Blaine Bartlett
- The Zero Marginal Cost Society
By Jeremy Rifkin
- What Then Must We Do
By Gar Alperowitz
- The Network Imperative
By Barry Libert, Megan Beck, and Jerry Wind
- New Economy Business
By Marga Hoek
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations
By Adam Smith
- Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
By Paul Mason