Coming Fall 2021
Chapters published here each week for comments in advance:
Opening Quotes & Table of Contents
Ch. 1: Business as Religion, Villain and Savior
Ch. 2: The Bison Way
Ch.3: Purpose First
Ch. 4: Culture is a Matter of Life and Death
Ch. 5: Bison @Work
Ch. 6: The Twin Drivers of Flourishing
Ch. 7: Principles and Emergence
Ch. 8: Bison @Play
Guided by the bison, we recognize we are ministers of our nation's soul and assume the burden of leadership.
Guided by the bison, we acknowledge that diversity is our strength, purpose is our divine right and inclusion is our spiritual path. We congregate at work to serve and empower others, to activate our unique purpose, fulfill our potential, nurture community and achieve our mission. We bring the bison home with us and let it guide our civic life. In so doing, we activate the purpose of this nation, repair the damage from our misspent youth and achieve redemption.
Without the bison, the eagle continues to desecrate all we hold dear. It entrenches political gridlock, hatred, inequality, violence and makes it impossible to respond to our escalating crises (biological, ecological, racial, economic and cultural). Without the bison, the eagle will continue to segregate our communities, siphon wealth into white suburban fortresses and defund our healthcare, education and infrastructure, and imperil our ability to co-lead the world's interdependent economy.
To claim our role as leaders in this battle, we have to SOBERLY meet our white supremacist reality as it is, adopt the bison as a SYMBOL of our leadership and nation, unlock the POWER of our unique purpose, understand the STAKES of this battle, re-humanize our organizations with an ethos of communal and holistic CARE, make thorough use of the two most powerful TOOLS in our hands (purpose activation and small, diverse group learning), understand the key principles of transformation, while listening and attending to our people's need and the emerging market with AGILITY, and stand firm in the future we want, one of purpose, belonging and FLOURISHING.
A brief summary:
SOBRIETY. In Chapter 1, we explored how white supremacy is the ongoing result of our collective efforts. To lead, leaders must soberly meet this reality as it is, as well as acknowledge the enormous power of business and our responsibility to steward it toward the collective good and national renewal.
SYMBOL. In Chapter 2, we confronted the sad truth that our nation's soul is gasping for breath. Hyperindividualism of the eagle is dividing and killing us faster by the day. A new symbol must now guide us as leaders and as a nation into the next chapter of our shared story - the bison.
POWER. In Chapter 3, we learned that your purpose is the keystone to your future, your company's future and the future of our nation. It has to be seen, felt and believed in order for anything else to shift.
STAKES. In Chapter 4, we faced the consequences of failing to activate the bison, and leaving our culture to the eagles - the continued dissolution of our democratic institutions, fraying of the social fabric and moral good, climate change, the decline of our relevance on the world stage and the desecration of all we hold sacred.
CARE. In Chapter 5, we explored a rehumanized vision of every business unit and every people function in a consecrated bison-shaped organization.
TOOLS. In Chapter 6, we examined purpose and belonging as the foundational bison capacities to activate and metrics to measure in every organization. If we have any chance of breaking free of the eagle and responding to our formidable crises, it will be through the powerful combination of purpose and belonging.
AGILITY. In Chapter 7, we learned the principles and pathways to evolve our organization, consecrate our purpose, minister our purpose and the needs of our people and meet the emerging world. We learned we cannot afford to analyze, debate and wait - we're not smart enough to figure it all out in advance. We must move. Now.
FLOURISHING. In Chapter 8, we dreamed our shared purpose into the present. With our sacred national purpose, your purpose, the purpose of every employee in your organization, and the possibility of them all fully realized, we get to finally become who we are - bison at play.
Only business can save the nation. We have the tools, principles and a good enough plan to take the next steps.
Below is a list of immediate steps you can take to do your part. These are not sequential, so take on as much as you and our ELT are able:
But most importantly, do not wait. Move. Now. Everything we hold sacred depends upon it. The world is watching. Hoping. Waiting. Praying.
"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." - Anne Frank, 1944
“This is America,” I said to myself as tears flooded my eyes.
It was a warm summer evening, the kind I fondly remember from my youth in the Midwest- a moment of liminal expanse, of kairos, of being briefly beyond normal time and part of eternity - a place in-between places, a place between playing tag and lightning bugs. Was their scotch and ice in my tumbler that night? Yes. Did I eat a couple mushrooms before I left the house? Youbetcha. The veil, as they say, was thin.
My eyes softened and a Gretzy-esque field sense of my environs came to view - the diversity, goodwill, connection and creative self-expression. I felt connected and jubilant. I was witness to a nation’s promise - from many, one - all of us created equal - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps this was the mountaintop Dr. King saw?
Fireworks don’t do it for me. The Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t stir my soul. What stirs my soul and evokes national pride is our national parks, justice, equity and people from all walks showing up fully and treating each other with dignity and care. What stirs my soul is compassion, beauty, prosperity and fraternity. It’s creativity and service. It’s coming together around shared values and across differences. That is what seized me that night.
I was at a local festival called “First Friday” in Oakland. On the first Friday of the month, Oakland’s art galleries are open and the street is filled with bands, vendors, fashion shows, stand up comedy, dance troops, drum circles, political movements, spiritual communities, non-profits and DJ booths.
In a sense, First Friday is like any street fair in the United States - folks of all ages, pimples, flirting and summer dresses, laughter and sweat, fried things on sticks. And yet, it is like no other gathering in the nation. Because of Oakland’s diversity and culture of openness, friendships and romance flourished across lines of racial identity. Because of its proximity to good jobs in San Francisco, public transportation and affordable healthcare and housing, Oakland had the economic conditions for our nation’s soul to take form.
As technology gained a stronghold in the Bay Area, rents skyrocketed, sending San Francisco’s diverse artists, activists and intellectuals to the east. By the time of my arrival in late 2012, the great majority of people who made San Francisco unique had moved east. Because the East Bay was separated by water and perceived to be far more dangerous than San Francisco, white yuppies largely ignored it. So the East Bay became this open secret - incredible weather, food, music, culture, diversity, community, bike lanes, great public transit and relatively cheap rent. Perhaps due to the progressive influence of the University of California, Berkeley and the Bay’s overall progressivism, we held this Golden Age / place lightly, mindful of the numerous injustices that made it possible, from the extermination of the Ohlone and Miwok, to "Three Strikes" to the NIMBY-ism that prevents affordable housing from being developed.
Of course, now the word is out that Oakland is cool and a relatively safe place for white folks. Rents have doubled since 2012, there are Google buses and startups, Victorians are being cleared for condos, and because of accelerating climate change, the annual fire season turns most of the Bay Area into an unbreathable, post-apocalyptic hellscape.
At the time I was there (2012-2018), however, it was magical. It seemed like everybody was up to something. Despite being poor, working or middle class, it felt like most folks had a commitment to something larger than themselves. Some were involved in racial, economic and environmental justice efforts, some were deepening their cultural traditions, some were developing their art, some were experimenting with novel sexual endeavors and relationship statuses, some were devoted to personal and spiritual development, and some were launching community gardens, fashion brands, religions, maker spaces, intentional communities and political movements.
I became present to all of this that night. The magic of human creativity, flourishing and connection, of purpose, empathy and inclusion, interracial romance, and a sense that nothing stands in the way of our dreams.
Two kinds of liberation grabbed me. The first is the freedom from want and oppression, to be oneself wholly and completely, to claim one’s destiny and to dream impossible futures. Of course, BIPOC folks are still regularly terrorized by Oakland Police, however on that night, the polic seemed to be nowhere in sight. This is a freedom that arises in a culture that: A. values diversity, B. ensures that basic needs are secure and/or guaranteed as a right, e.g., affordable housing, healthy food, public transit, Obamacare / Covered California, and C. makes people from all backgrounds feel safe, wanted and empowers them to flourish.
I was also grabbed by the freedom to - a freedom that comes with the power of purpose. This isn’t the freedom to be anything you want to be. It certain isn’t the freedom to ignite explosives at a gender-reveal party, or “murder out” your car, or move to Puerto Rico to avoid paying taxes. This kind of freedom is bound to your unique soul. This freedom is antithetical to the neck-up / eagle / Cartesian delusion of tabula rasa. It is the deep self-knowledge that you absolutely cannot and should not be anything you want. Rather it is the freedom to be you - TO be the fullest expression of your unique purpose. This freedom comes from connection - to your soul, your craft, your people, your earth, and the future for which you stand.
It is a freedom arising from clarity about who you are, the commitment society has to you, and your commitment to others, to family, community, nation and planet. It is being willing to die on the sword of your soul. It is the liberation of knowing what you are for and to whom you belong. It is the permission to care for and contribute to others, knowing that others will care for and contribute to you. It is the freedom to be yourself, freak flag and all, loving each and every one of your imperfections.
These two freedoms are embraced In the East Bay. Many people have done inner work and have a sense of who they are. They are cared for and are connected to each other. They get wild, experiment, make mistakes, clean them up and learn to do it better the next time. In my time in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco among the professional classes, I didn’t observe these freedoms.
I witnessed and participated in the shadow freedoms of detachment (“not my problem”), depersonalization (“it’s just business”), and dehumanization (“the world needs ditch diggers too”). We lived from the neck up as eagles, working the angles, trading gossip on hot startups, unicorn stocks, cheap real estate, and other forms of Machiavellian comeuppance.
The East Bay was different. There was rootedness, attachment and connection. Folks were in their heart, connected to what broke it and what world they are creating. In retrospect, this night gave me one of my first tastes of bison medicine, of feeling connected to my community, of marveling in the creativity, uniqueness, universality, fraternity and abundant spirit that only arises when these twin liberations -the freedom from and freedom to - are present.
This is what it takes to activate our national purpose. Everyone has what they need to flourish, to discover and activate their purpose at work, build community with their diverse peers, and feel safe, wanted and connected to a larger mission. They unlock a sense of legacy, fulfillment and belonging that they then bring home to their families and communities. In so far as business is the sandbox for the activation of purpose and belonging, it is a force for the greater economic, social, environmental, cultural and national good. In so far as it isn’t, it continues to desecrate it. Let us choose the bright, connected, creative and abundant path. Let us ignite purpose and belonging at scale.
Imagine the 20 largest employers in your area activating purpose and belonging in their workforce. Imagine the increase in productivity (+$20k/pp/yr), fulfillment (+64%), leadership effectiveness (+63%), innovation (+30%) and tenure (+7.4 months). Imagine the decrease in anxiety in diverse environments (4x). Imagine the resulting prosperity and tax revenues that would flow into diverse community. Imagine the quality of our public schools, clean energy, mass transit and healthcare now available because of the expanded tax base and enhanced ability to issue municipal bonds and invest in public works. Imagine police not murdering anyone ever again, but safely enforcing the laws through de-escalation and conflict resolution.
Imagine a deep regard and respect for all life. Imagine soulful camaraderie, creativity, curiosity and celebration as the foundation of our public life. Imagine intellectually sober, civil and empathetic political discourse. Imagine healing our twin genocides and ending our apartheid. Imagine sleeping well. Imagine your kids and grandkids respecting what you do for a living and who you are for the world. Imagine all the fun possibilities now at our fingertips.
All this and more is available to you, your company, your community and your country.
When we activate PURPOSE and belonging at WORK, we become a NATION.
“You’re playing right?” said Miles, the captain of the Columbia Business School rugby team.
“Huh? Na man, I’m just here to watch. Geno invited me,” I responded.
“Well, mate,” he said in his British accent, “We need you, we’re short men. Have you played before?”
“Nope. I’ve literally never even seen a game. I’m just here to watch. I would be of no use to you.”
“We need you. We’re short men.”
After a long pause, “Ok. What do I need to know? Do you have extra gear? I’m gonna need some Gatorade. I think I’m still drunk from last night.”
“I’ll find you gear. Grab Gatorade across the street. Geno will explain the rest in the cab.”
“We need you,” is a powerful phrase. It awakened something in me. It feels good to be needed. It feels even better to say “yes” to meet that need.
You are needed. Your people are suffering. Your planet is burning. Your democracy is crumbling. You are needed to march into the unknown future with your skills, networks and capital in your right hand and deepest heartbreak in your left. You are being asked to say “yes” to bringing forth all you have within you to co-create the future and lead.
In that cab ride from Harlem to the pitch on Roosevelt Island, Geno explained the game as best he could. Unfortunately, I was hungover, out of shape, and started cramping up during warm ups. However, by the time the opening whistle blew, a switch turned on. I crashed the first ruck, popped up, crashed the next one, and so on. In those first 10 minutes, I was in about every play, in a flow state, where my sense of self and identity fell away and there was only the game. It brought me back to playing schoolyard tackle football. Just the endless joy of play. Bodies crashing, full exertion - pure and simple fun.
I caught the bug, and the rest, as they say, is history. I joined the team, earned a starting position, took a leadership role, and fell in love with the sport and the culture. I loved my teammates, the practices, the matches, the road trips, tournaments, the drinking songs, wild nights, fights and arrests. I loved the sense of unity, of coming together with teammates from all corners, from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe, around our shared purpose - victory and a good time. This made the intense training and the injuries of the sport feel important, sacred even. There is a special joy in sharing a bottle of Jim Beam in the E.R. with a buddy. Because of this, I was always a little sad to see my stitches pulled.
In my second year, my friend, Gaby, and I started and coached the women’s rugby club to share our love of the sport and culture with all our classmates. It won’t surprise you to hear that most of my best friends from grad school, including the best man at my wedding, were rugby teammates.
I share this story with you to bring attention to the twin forces of creating a bison-shaped organization - principles and emergence. Like rugby, there are principles and best practices, some of which we explored in the last chapter, like purpose and small, diverse peer group learning. And like any adventure, there is emergence, dynamism, joy and deep fulfillment that you don’t get to experience unless you say yes to the mystery and put one foot in front of the other.
Don’t wait - people are suffering and dying on our watch. Don’t analyze - we're not smart enough to figure it all out in advance. We must move. Now.
When I said “yes” and got in that cab, the die was cast, even though I had very little understanding of what I was saying yes to. I learned the principles of the sport, of course, but the series of events, the joy, the creativity, the connections, the sense of belonging and mattering and the ways I was able to contribute and be contributed to after saying yes, no one could have predicted.
As such, if you expect that activating a purposeful organization is going to follow some checkbox pathway to a hockey stick chart, you’re in for a rude awakening. Our cosmos is dynamic, relational, omni-centric, emergent and co-creative. Eagle leadership is anything but - it’s linear in its thinking, contractual in practice and exploitative in impact. Bison leadership meets the dynamism, interconnection and emergence as it is and with common cause and agility. Volumes have been written on how leadership and strategy are evolving to meet our dynamic reality, e.g., An Everyone Culture, Tribal Leadership, Reinventing Organizations, Change, Purpose-Driven Organizations, etc., so I won’t belabor the point.
Moreover, every organization in every industry and size/maturity is different. There are no one-size fits all approaches to culture. Like everything else that matters in your life - marriage, family, faith -, saying yes to this adventure means paying attention to what is needed now and responding with care and courage. When you say yes, the future you step into will demand much more of you than you are currently capable of fulfilling, and it will be far more rewarding than your current self is capable of envisioning.
The reason for this is that by definition, a purpose-driven organization is unknowable until the purpose of each person in your organization comes alive and arises newly, moment by moment, as the organization meets our emergent and VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) world. As Carlos Rey PhD, Jon San Cristobal Velasco PhD and Juan Almandoz PhD assert in Purpose-driven Organizations (2019),
“...the fulfillment of personal purpose within the organizational purpose is the essence of truly purpose-driven organization… Strategy is based no longer on accurate predictions of the future, but on developing dynamic skills and capabilities that allow individuals and organizations to adapt rapidly. In this changing and uncertain world, employees no longer find solace in top-down definitions of organizational purpose… The new logic of purpose requires people to lead the evolutionary process of their own purpose at work.”
NOTE: It’s time to get some religion. As we explored, work is where we get most of our needs for meaning and purpose met. It is the plow, congregation, ale house, school and hospital rolled up into one. So we’re going to address it’s religiosity directly and use some familiar religious terms like covenant, soul, consecrate, ritual, congregation and ministry. This is not to advocate for any institutional religion per se, nor to infer the existence of God, but rather invite you into a new aspect of leadership and culture - lay ministry. A lay minister is not a person of the cloth, but one who tends the fire, tends to the shared purpose and tends the physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being of their people.
When a shared purpose comes online and is felt and embraced, it may not be the Buddha attaining samadhi under the Bodhi tree or Moses parting the Red Sea, but it bears marked similarities. It’s an effervescence, a coherence that is typically only experienced in religious and MDMA-infused contexts. I invite you to imagine your company as a community, as a congregation of purpose and belonging, where everyone’s freak flag is out, loud and proud, and we all are accepted and cherished for bringing the fullness of our gifts to the community.
Picture yourself in the choir, one where everyone is connected to their purpose and a shared mission, where each of us keeps the beat (shared purpose) and adds our unique flavor (unique purpose). Look about the choir and rejoice in the collective effervescence and redemption that arise when we've made it possible for everyone to fulfill their potential and share their unique contributions.
As you are transformed by your “yes”, your people are also transformed and turning on. You’re flipping switches in unique human hearts. You’re weaving the social fabric of your company. You are activating oblique and emergent logic, whereby the organization’s purpose and individuals’ purposes interact and innovate to meet and co-create the future. As the founder of Bimbo Bakeries aptly observed, “...the company has a soul made up of the souls of each of its workers.” You are unique as is everyone else who will discover and activate their purpose in your organization. Once activated, they will bring their fullness to work, their emotions, creativity, ethics, pain, dreams and wounds, and in so doing, they will change you, your organization and your future.
Your people will be empowered to voice their dissenting opinions, wild ideas and speak truth to power, so you are in effect licensing your employees to cause “good trouble” as John Lewis might say. This means on occasion, you will be called on your shit. Because they will be empowered by share their purpose and values in their small, diverse groups, and because you’ve shown them your vulnerability and heartbreak, and invited them to bring it, they will.
They will reveal weaknesses in your strategy, ethics and leadership. Because they are turned on, they will be able to tell when you are not being authentic. You won’t be able to fake it anymore. You’re basically saying yes to authenticity and courage, to the emergent possibilities of human creativity, and the burning away of everything in your life and organization that is unaligned with your purpose, our bison nature and the emerging realities of the market.
You’re going to make mistakes and maybe even cause/reveal a scandal or two. You’ll learn from them, clean them up and try it again with new knowledge. As beautiful as our Constitution is, it was not complete when written. It needed amendments. Plenty of them. So will you. You will never be done with activating the purpose of your people and organization. When you die or retire, there will be a long list of things that you wish you got to do. It’s important to accept this future heartbreak, so that you can just be here right now and create the conditions for everyone to play the game.
However, you will be fed by the progress along the way, the thrill of the game, the ups and the downs, the big wins and small. When roles fill quickly from employee referrals, and people turn down bigger compensation packages to work in your bison-shaped organization, your spine will tingle, you’ll grin and give thanks. When journalists start asking you about how you did it, you’ll giggle and say, “Me? Yah, right... Us and some luck.”
So what is your next step? Although this book is far from a how-to manual, it's still important to have a rough outline of what's important and when to take action on it. The actual plan of action will depend on your unique organization and the subject matter experts you call in to help guide the process. Let's explore a handful of principles to consider, as you dream your future into the present.
#1 Purpose to the People
Purpose is a civil right. It is the key to a life of fulfillment, vitality, connection, innovation and prosperity. Everyone has a right to discover and activate it. It’s the foundation of authentic individual and organizational transformation, and you now have the power to enable it at scale. It’s important to begin this with your executive leadership team (ELT) and front-line managers. Then everyone else. Then weave purpose and values reflection into onboarding and every DEI, L&D, wellness and culture initiative.
But what if someone’s purpose cannot be fulfilled in any way at your company? This does happen. In my experience, it occurs about 5% of the time. Folks turn on and then don’t see any opportunity to fulfill their purpose in their current company / role. So, you are going to lose a few good people, but these good people will have you to thank for their lives and fulfilled purpose at their new job and company. Create the conditions such that when they decide to leave they’ll tell you far in advance, and help you recruit and mentor their replacement.
After all, what’s the alternative? Not activate purpose and continue to waste everyone’s time, fulfillment, potential and creativity? Sit on your thumbs and let the eagle continue to descerate culture and the commons?
#2 Golden Gate Bridge
As we've explored, people learn best together in small, diverse, peer learning groups, over time and in the flow of work. And they also need “big tent” events to celebrate the journey, their achievements and to establish a collective sense that something new just happened among all of us. Picture the Golden Gate Bridge with it’s two tall towers that support the whole bridge. Think of the bridge as a chronological line from shore to shore, with the pre-program and group matching surveys before the first tower. The first tower is a big event to introduce the program objectives, guides / facilitators, logistics, meet their small groups and get their questions answered.
Think of the 5 small group sessions being stretched between the two towers. The second tower/ big event is to recap the program, celebrate the wins, distribute certificates, and enroll folks in their next learning journey. The post-program survey is then distributed after the second tower / big event.
#3 Inclusive culture = digitally native culture
Most organizations are in metropolitan areas where housing is frequently expensive, making convening in the office a physical barrier between the wealthy (and largely white), who can afford to live closer to the office and the poor (and largely BIPOC) who cannot and must either work remotely or commute a great distance, which negatively impacts their social and emotional health and family life, and reinforces existing inequities.
In an ideal world, there would be abundant affordable housing within biking distance and folks could convene safely and easily. Until that is the case, to develop culture inclusively, your approach to culture must be digitally native, such that wherever folks are, they can participate and contribute on a level playing field, e.g., a Zoom room, vs. a live training on-site. This also breaks down silos between functions and teams spread across multiple locations.
#4 Company as community and covenant
A job is no longer a contract to perform a faceless, nameless task at a faceless, soulless company. Rather it is both covenant and contract. It is a covenant to activate one’s personal purpose and values and join a community in service of a greater mission AND a contract for a healthy salary and benefits that improves the financial, physical, emotional, and social health of all parties. However, a community cannot form without a covenant - the company’s promise to deliver on its mission, live its values and be guided by its origin story - so these need to be developed, embodied, and consecrated.
It is also important to renew the covenant periodically. Never gather the whole company without some ritual to renew the covenant. For example, exalt the impact of the company’s work on customers and society, highlighting the commitment, community and contribution that made it possible. Distribute the facilitation of these events among diverse people at all levels, so folks feel we are all continually co-creating the covenant.
Instead of announcing promotions via email, induct the person via a public ceremony, by exalting how they exhibit the company’s values, their own purpose and passions, what makes them unique. Invite others to share how this person has impacted them personally or made a difference for customers or the community. To engender a sense of collaboration and shared success in this new role, have them vulnerably share their purpose, areas for growth and the help they will need to be successful.
If your company is on the ropes financially, instead of announcing layoffs, sending the message that some people are expendable, communicate that the company is temporarily cutting all salaries by 90% over the living wage, e.g., $70k/yr in 2021, to weather the storm, pivot and deliver on its mission newly.
#5 Ministry + Administration
In this sense, everyone in leadership is now also a lay minister, whose job responsibilities include ministry - contextualizing work in terms of the company’s mission, values and origin story, attending to the purpose and career development of everyone on their team and empowering authentic connection among them.
This means we model our own purpose and find our unique expression of the company’s values. This means practicing purposeful leadership, contextualizing priorities, initiatives and individual contributions in terms of the covenant and the impact on customers and society. This means creating a purpose-led professional development plan with each team member. It means holding folks accountable to their purpose and career path. It means we tell stories and encourage others to tell stories about our challenges and successes. It means exalting the accomplishments of teams, and on occasion, nurturing good-natured competition between teams, in service of the covenant.
This means we take on the role of hosting, where we ensure everyone gets what they need to flourish. We attend to the betweenness of things, nurturing connections between people, developing relationships between in-groups and out-groups, and empowering and sponsoring diverse candidates. This is the work that creates wide bridges throughout the company, dissolving bottlenecks, building trust, improving information transfer, breaking down silos, and empowering innovation.
This also means new administration. Do not pile culture onto someone who has an existing role and responsibilities. Hire at least 1 new person whose only goal is to support culture, ensuring that all culture change work is substantial and sustained, impacting at minimum 25% of each business unit and/or function, and developed over the course of many years. It means tying roughly half of the ELT’s performance and compensation goals to the health of the community, e.g., engagement, fulfillment, intention to leave, social and emotional health, and DEI hiring and promotion goals.
It means administering the table stakes - CSR reports, transparent compensation and promotion policies, paying living wages (>4x rent mortgage, <30 minute commute), empowering flex schedules, providing 3+ months of required parental leave for all parents, and designing collaboration-rich spaces and experiences for folks to enjoy spontaneous connection.
#6 Triage from the Heart
In every culture there are acute issues, such as missed DEI targets, low retention, pay inequity, low engagement, political polarization, women not returning from maternity leave, AND systemic / cultural issues, such as systemic racism, sexism, workism, hyperindividualism, homophobia, erosion of trust, lack of transparency, and poorly developed power skills, e.g., critical thinking, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, purposeful leadership, etc.
Systemic issues cause acute issues. And sometimes they collide and overlap in a perfect storm resulting in collective trauma and/or scandal.
Collective trauma is the emotional, psychological and cultural response to the immediate loss of something we hold sacred, e.g., 9/11, George Floyd’s murder, the January 6th Insurrection, a disgruntled employee shoots up the office. Scandal is when acute and/or systemic issues are revealed publicly, such as a sexual harassment suit, corruption, BIPOC employees file a discrimination suit, customers are harmed and file suit, etc.
Each of these needs to be addressed uniquely and simultaneously, versus sequentially.
So where do you begin? Which of these principles is most important for you right now? That depends on your size, industry, maturity, etc., but frankly these matter far less than the approach you take to begin the conversation. If you aren’t in the middle of a scandal, and are intent on becoming a bison-shaped organization and stewarding the purpose of our nation, I invite you to be transparent and humble in your approach. It could look like this:
Task #1: Humbly make the invitation
Tell people your vision for becoming a new kind of company, a bison-shaped organization, where power and wealth are more equitably distributed, where culture is crafted, where work is fun, where each of us fulfills our potential, where learning is social and ongoing, where we are driven by and measure the impact of our work on people and planet, AND that you have no idea what this looks like...
But it begins with each of us coming to work with our individual purpose and values, sharing our wild ideas and dissenting opinions. It begins with activating our purposes together, building deeper relationships and then collectively asking who we are for the world. It’s going to be a long journey with no known destination, and we’re going to need all your wild ideas and dissenting opinions. It will be messy and we’ll make mistakes and may even reveal a scandal or two, but we’ll learn from them, do it better tomorrow and celebrate the transformation. If you’re in for the adventure, join us. We’re going to begin a process as a whole company to activate our individual purposes and bring them to work.
If this doesn’t sound fun, we will be sad to lose you, but we’ll help you find your next job.
Task #2: Administer
Then hire your culture lead and activate purpose in small, diverse groups, beginning with the ELT, then the front-line managers, then everyone else. Next weave purpose and values activation into existing onboarding, leadership development, DEI, Wellness and culture programs. Equip them with the power and resources to deliver the table stakes.
Task #3: Co-create and Consecrate the Organization’s Purpose + Values
After the ELT has developed a connection to their purpose and values, hire a facilitator to convene the ELT to either refresh the company’s covenant (mission, values and origin story) or generate a “shitty first draft”.
Begin the covenant exploration with questions such as:
Then share out the ELT’s aggregated answers to these questions with the whole company and invite feedback. Then formulate a draft of the covenant that will guide the company over the next 2-3 years, after which it will again be revisited and re-imagined.
Lastly, consecrate the covenant. This is not to say communicate it, but consecrate it, which means to dedicate the company to the covenant in feel, form, function and shape. How you consecrate the covenant depends on your answers to these questions:
Task #4: Empower Teams to Align Key Business Processes with the Covenant
Look at each business line and function and ask the leaders of each to come up with a business and culture vision for how they could be re-imagined from the place of the organization’s covenant, as well as key market trends. To build community buy-in and shared success, review these business unit and functional visions at an all-hands meeting.
Invite employees to share their dissenting opinions and the synergies they see. Share out the aggregated feedback and empower each business line and functional leader to incorporate the feedback and revise their team vision.
Business unit and functional leaders then develop a 2-3 year plan to implement the revised vision, with quarterly updates that measure progress and integrate team feedback and emerging market realities. Align the team’s performance and compensation with the plan, AND ensure that culture development metrics are given equal weight to business strategy. When in doubt, trust people and empower them to take risks. Have faith that people’s purpose and values will rise to meet the challenges and uncertainties.
The Garden of Emergence
However, what you actually do next (vs. the aforementioned progression) depends on your listening, your tending and intuiting. As a leader, it’s helpful to think of yourself as a gardener of a diverse ecology. Leaders are gardeners who tend a space where every person can discover and activate their purpose on the job.
In addition to staking off the perimeter of our garden, we pay attention to how each plant is responding to the other plants and the environment. Do they need more or less sun? More or less water? Are they avoidant of dissimilar plants? Or do they flourish best together like the three sisters (corn, squash and beans)?
Most importantly, as every master gardener knows, you’re not raising plants, but cultivating soil.
Soil… Soul... Humus… Human… Cultivate... Culture… Habitat… Habits...
You are paying attention to the soulfulness present in yprofessional relationships. Are your people vulnerable? Caring? Innovative? Do they get excited? Are they sharing dissenting opinions? Are they sharing about their families and struggles? Are they growing? What is the feeling, the sentiment, the unseen and unspoken, the betweenness of the life and work of your people? Are they bringing their whole selves to work? Are they enthusiastically contributing to the culture? Do they claim the company’s mission as their own and innovate on its behalf? Is there a palpable sense of aliveness?
Or are they just showing up, playing kiss-ass/CYA until the next opportunity comes along?
For example, if women aren’t being promoted or aren’t returning from maternity leave, guess what? You have sexism in your soil. And if there is sexism, you likely have microbial climate that is ripe for all sorts of racist, ageist, ableist and heteronormative biases to flourish. If you grow healthy soil, and pay attention to the needs of each plant, they will flourish. Consider that mothers are the canaries in your coal mine. If your company is a place where mothers love to work, most folks will flourish.
Cultivate belonging and purpose. Consecrate the covenant. Celebrate soul, empathy, creativity, courage and vulnerability. Give mothers what they need to thrive.
When you do, you will have created a place where everyone belongs, is cared for, and feels fulfilled. Imagine what kind of partner and parent your people will we be after 8 hours of belonging and fulfillment Imagine how they will communicate with their loved ones while preparing for work in the morning. Imagine how they will show up with their extended family and in community.
Imagine yourself responsible for having begun the process, for listening to your people, activating their purpose and making your organization a place where mother's flourish and rise to the level previously only available to workaholic fathers. Imagine yourself facing uncomfortable truths about yourself and your leadership. Imagine yourself learning from these truths, growing and transforming into a more full version of yourself, alive and on purpose as a leader.
Imagine a country where this was the new normal, where tens of thousands of leaders like you joined together to activate purpose at scale. Imagine that we're successful and purpose is now a given, consecrated, activated and celebrated at work.
What’s now possible? How might our culture shift? How might voting patterns change? How might Congress? Healthcare? Education? Transportation? Community development? Civic engagement?
Whatever your vision is for this new world, it begins with you and your bison-shaped organization. Help isn't coming. Help is right here in your people, and in the mirror.
While life is hard for most folks, it does not have to be for anyone. We've made it very hard over time, and we convinced ourselves that this is always how it has been and must be. We can stop that.
As Robert Fulghum reminded us in his 1986 book of kindergarten wisdom, the most important things in life were taught to us in kindergarten, like listening, sharing our gifts, respecting others' beliefs and needs, telling the truth, asking for consent, taking responsibility for the impacts of our actions, making amends and hugging it out. In this sense, this the journey we're on as leaders, organizations, nations, a species and planet, is a deep remembering.
It's basic human stuff. And it doesn't have to be hard. It's relearning who we are, what are our unique gifts to bring to others, how to receive the gifts of others, standing up for what we believe, speaking up for what we hold sacred and making things right when they ain't. Sometimes we need our wisdom traditions and people like Brené Brown, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Friedman, Fred Rogers and Otis Redding to remind us of how simple it is. Of how our essential caring, courageous and creative nature is still there waiting to be expressed.
"...the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."
- Brené Brown
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I've got held up for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
- George Bernard Shaw
“We used to work with our hands for many centuries; then we worked with our heads, and now we’re going to have to work with our hearts, because there’s one thing machines cannot, do not, never will have, and that’s a heart. We’re going from hands to heads to hearts.”
“The older I get, the more convinced I am that the space between people who are trying their best to understand each other is hallowed ground.”
- Fred Rogers
"All you got to do is try / Try a little tenderness." - Otis Redding
Fortunately, we have more the Mr. Rogers and kindergarten ethics to substantiate this view.
“... what employees need is a more personal sense of purpose. When employees believe that their work is personally relevant, there is a 26% increase in the likelihood of the organization to sustain workforce health. Employees also need to feel connected to one another… Highly cohesive teams have a 37% higher likelihood of sustaining workforce health.” (Gartner, 2021)
The new way of developing people and culture is based on the work and research of two of my former teams at ion Learning and Imperative, who have led the way in measuring the impact of scalable culture change.
ion Learning Study Summary (Peele, Asbaty, 2020)
103 people from a large biotechnology company were placed into groups of 3-4 peers, with each group optimized for diversity. They completed a 6 module program where they learned new concepts, reflected on their purpose and values and shared their experiences with each other in 6, 1-hour small group discussions. The results of this approach are that 95% of people complete the programs, 90% can apply the concepts, 85% changed their behaviors, 76% embedded their understanding into daily habits, and participants reported they learned 63% more on average, because of their small group sessions.
Further, 98% of people experience respect from their diverse peers and 96% of people experience empathy, 96% discover alternative perspectives to their challenges, and 94% feel comfortable discussing their anxiety and fears that distract them from work with their diverse peers (Peele, Asbaty, 2020).
Imperative Study Summary (Hurst, 2021)
People were placed in pairs to have 5, 1-hour guided video discussions to reflect on their purpose and share their work and life experiences with each other. This study involved 30,000+ conversations, across 27 functions, 14 industries (professional services, finance, retail, consumer, technology, healthcare, government, education, non-profit, etc.).
Before beginning the study, they found that 22% had no meaningful relationships, and that 76% of the participants' desire for growth were power skills and relationship development (vs. technical skills). They found that after the intervention, participants felt 2.4x more positive, had 2x more friends at work, 78% felt their experience made them more successful, 71% took new actions and 52% took a new action after each conversation. Further, among participants who were unfulfilled prior to the study, 62% reported a significant increase in fulfillment in less than three months.
Collectively, these paint a picture of how to develop diverse people, teams and culture:
A. put people in small, diverse groups of peers,
B. empower them to activate their purpose and values at work and find their expression of the organization's purpose and values,
C. and share their experiences with each other in the flow of work, over time and regardless of where they are physically.
Let’s now take a closer look at the twin drivers of organizational flourishing - purpose and belonging.
Driver #1: Purpose
Purpose gives us access to both more of ourselves and more of a connection to others. It is serves us individually, as it is the key to our aliveness, leadership, impact, fulfillment and prosperity, AND serves others, as it expands our identity and concern from self and family to community, company, nation and planet. It makes us more independent and self-reliant and also more connected and compassionate. Over the last few decades, we have come to believe that we have to be one or the other. We must be a bleeding heart, touchy-feely non-profit martyr who is woke to all injustices at all times, or a stone-hearted, hard-nosed, "just the facts" individualist. Purpose is a sacred salve that lets us be both, value both, and celebrate both.
When we activate purpose and belonging, we come alive. We know who we are, who we belong to, who we serve and what is ours to do. We have the clarity, confidence and courage to do the hard, right and unpopular things, but with care and compassion. We are connected to ourselves, each other and a future of shared prosperity. We move towards each other, towards discomfort and ambiguity, and find the hidden connections and hallowed ground between us. We lean on, versus lean down on, each other. We uplift each other, welcome one another's wholeness and stand for one another's purpose and greatness, empowering each of us to realize to feel seen, heard and valued and experience “...the true joy in life”.
As we explored in Chapter 4, your purpose is the starting point. People need to see and feel your authentic purpose and its connection to the organization’s purpose. An authentic and believable purpose must be on the table before anyone can decide to do anything differently or develop new skills, beliefs and behaviors.
It is also necessary for everyone of your employees to have a connection to their own purpose in order to understand themselves as bigger than their personality, gender, and skin color, and to be able to find their own unique connection to the organization's purpose. In a sense, purpose is like a muscle. It has to be developed first individually before it can be apprehended and embodied collectively. Having a connection to one’s own purpose is also the key to seeing new beliefs and behaviors as self-expression versus something outside of us.
For example, when we spend just 5 minutes connecting with our purpose, we are 4 times more likely to choose to live in a diverse city, (Burrows, 2014) and experience a 4x reduction in anxiety in diverse environments. (Burrows, 2013). While this is a stark difference, it is not unexpected, as purpose is correlated with numerous prosocial attributes, such as curiosity, compassion, self-reflection and generosity:
The reason for this is that purpose grounds us in our deepest identity which gives us the freedom to accept others for who they are. It is perhaps no surprise that 3 of McKinsey’s 6 aspects of an inclusive culture (Authenticity, Meaningful Work and Camaraderie) are driven by purpose (McKinsey, 2021).
In the thousands of purposes generated by participants in programs I’ve led, I have yet to encounter a purpose that isn't generative, inclusive and good-natured. Purpose statements are usually about peace, connection, love, compassion, healing, prosperity, creativity and/or service. There's never anything about being # 1, or hate or division or oppression in a purpose statement.
As such, without purpose first being cultivated, DEI initiatives are likely to land as obligatory and shaming for people in the dominant group (e.g., heterosexuals, men, Caucasians). In traditional DEI programs, people encounter their microaggressions, biases and privileges, but are almost guaranteed to feel shame about them, and thus resist transforming them or taking new actions, unless they have solid footing in the self-love, curiosity, grit, humility, self-worth and psychological individuation (FIU, 2014) that purpose provides. Without a grounding in their purpose, they are likely to experience paralysis, inaction, complicity and, as we’ve seen, even increased hostility to inclusion training and/or diverse team members.
When people activate their purpose, they are enacting a powerful shift in identity from the socialized self to the authentic self. We rely less on our ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, income bracket, age, religion, and political party to define us, and find a new home for our identity inside of our unique purpose and values. This is critical for everyone to experience, and especially for privileged groups, so that when we embark on DEI work, we see inclusion as self-expression, as an expansion of our truest and highest sense of self and a skill-set to more effectively lead any person or group.
Further, when we know our purpose, we recognize on some level that everyone else has a purpose and that they deserve the opportunity to discover it, activate it and bring it to work. I regard purpose as human right - without it we are beholden to our socialized self and the systemic inequities and internalized oppression that formed it. Accordingly, the personal liberation that results from purpose work, becomes an activist stance towards the purpose, self-actualization, prosperity and advancement of others as well.
In addition to the catalytic and foundational role purpose plays in DEI initiatives, it is and always has been what people wanted deep down. Increasingly people want work that is personally meaningful, as 99% of people believe that if they cannot be fulfilled in life if they are not fulfilled at work (Imperative, 2019). We want a generative impact on society and/or the environment and to be paid a living wage that allows us to provide for our families and enjoy nature, culture and community.
Although this might sound like “Duh. Of course. What kind of sick puppy would not want that?”, until very recently, a sentiment like this was largely regarded as silly, unrealistic, and/or impossible. Millennials and Zenials, who now represent 40% of the workforce, have been derided as entitled babies because they’ve voiced these wants. They are not entitled babies. They are merely better at articulating what they want than the rest of us.
Source: Google Trends (Google Trends. (May, 2019)
For Boomers and Gen X, it used to be that a job was a job, work was a four-letter word, and that we weren’t at work to be happy, but to make money. We used to believe that if we wanted happiness and meaning, we could do that on our own time through hobbies, art, religion, civic engagement or time with family. This has changed, as...
And as we've explored, 99% of people believe work should have purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, only 15% of people believe they can fulfill their purpose in their current roles (McKinsey, 2021).
This echoes similar shifts in consumer beliefs, as 9 of every 10 consumers say they would rather buy from a company that leads with purpose (Cone/Porter Novelli, 2018), and 87% of global consumers believe businesses should put at least as much emphasis on social interests as business ones (Edelman, 2017).
However, purpose isn’t the only thing needed for culture change. As we explored in the last chapter, every aspect of the way we think about and care for people must change, moving towards connecting people, towards caring for them as connected, whole, unique and sovereign adults, with gifts and passions that are longing to be discovered, acknowledged and activated.
Driver #2: Belonging
We ache to belong. We are kindergartners and bison, a herd species that is of, by, for and through each other. However, we’ve forgotten our nature and have tricked ourselves into thinking we were eagles. It’s time to come back home to ourselves and our relationships. But what does it actually mean to belong?
Belonging is the sense that you matter, that all of you is welcome, and you do not have to leave anything at the door. Alex Pentland, PhD and Oren Lederman, PhD of MIT's Human Dynamics Lab (MIT, 2021) have run dozens of studies on belonging, nonverbal communication and group performance. They discovered that belonging is not about fitting in or conforming, but about mattering and safety. It is the result of a series of behaviors or cues, e.g., energy, turn taking / inclusion, and intergroup communication that signal safety. Digging deeper they found that the most effective belonging cues had 3 qualities:
When these belonging cues occur over time, people feel safe, like they matter, can relax and are excited to learn, grow, connect and do their best work. And of course there is a powerful belonging ROI (BetterUp, 2019):
Belonging & Learning
As it turns out, we’re not just wired to connect and belong, but to learn together. Peer learning is how most learning already happens. Research suggests that 80% of us learn as much or more from our peers than authority figures (Imperative, 2019) and as we explored, we learn 63% more from conversations in small, diverse learning cohorts, than we do from consuming information alone (ion Learning, 2020). This is because weak ties, such as those between trainers and learners are good for spreading information only, versus the relationships, experience and reflection necessary to develop habits and build a successful career at a firm.
"...immersive, small-group sessions may not sound as sexy as a paid leave of absence to do good in the world, but they are a lot more effective at helping employees start to see the good they can do in their day-to-day work." (McKinsey & Co., 2021)
Belonging and behavior change require consistency, network redundancy (Centola, 2021), and strong ties, ties that can be developed via small groups of peers who meet together over time.
Belonging & DEI
This matters most for new and diverse hires. If diverse candidates build a wide network of diverse peers in their first six months, they are more likely to receive early promotions and enjoy longer tenures (MIT, 2021). Wide peer networks empower employees to develop a broader understanding of the organization and industry and bring a greater depth of knowledge and innovation to problem solving (Burt, 1992), thus making diverse hires more effective at work, able to build trust and receive promotions (MIT, 2021).
Conversely, if people aren’t developed equitably and early in their tenure, they are unlikely to stick around to be promoted (LinkedIn, 2018). Correspondingly, organizations suffer, as they can’t harvest the creativity and productivity benefits that diverse workforces foster (Scientific American, 2014).
Belonging & Wellness
As we explored the last chapter, nurturing belonging through connection, caring and contribution is the key to our social and emotional health (Ford, et al, 2015), driving social integration and increasing our life spans by 7+ years (Journals of Gerontology, 2020). Research from Tom Rath and Jim Hartner confirms that every hour of social time improves your chance of having a good day (Wellbeing, 2010). Further, regular check-ins empower us to complete our stress cycles and avoid burnout (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2020).
So how do we ensure everyone feels cared for, invested in and like they belong? We put people in small, diverse groups where they learn about themselves, each other and new skills over time.
The Power of Groups
Groups enable behavior change through social support (BMC Public Health, 2016), the formation of group norms (Behavior Research and Therapy, 2015), group identity (British Journal of Health Psychology, 2014), and social identities (Journal of Affective Disorders, 2016), and through group feedback and being challenged (Clinical Oncology, 2015). As Nick Craig and Snook observed in the Harvard Business Review, "you can't get a clear picture of yourself without trusted friends acting as mirrors." (HBR, 2014)
When small groups are designed in such a manner that we feel safe and can share uncomfortable feelings, we experience fewer feelings of isolation, alienation, blame, and stigma due to past mistakes (Group Dynamics, 2003). As people are engaged in supporting each other, sharing vulnerably, and skillfully challenging each other over time, their beliefs, behaviors, and underlying intuitions expand their sense of group identity and impacts their moral reasoning (Haidt, 2001).
Given the power that groups have to shift behavior (for better or worse), we must bring a great deal of care and attention to how we form these groups. The size, composition, duration of groups, as well as how people learn together are critical elements of a successful social learning experience.
For every person added to a group, there is a loss of intimacy and a gain in perspective (Soboroff, 2012). Additionally, larger groups (> 6 people) face logistical difficulties in selecting a time to meet there is a loss of conversational depth, as everyone has less time to share their experiences. Conversely, a group of 2 people doesn’t bring the breadth of diversity needed for a rich exchange and the connection, understanding and norms that form between two people aren’t reinforced by a third or fourth person, so the diad runs the risk of being a private matter, as something unique and outside of the broader culture, versus a part of the culture. As such, it is likely the optimal "Goldilocks condition" for a peer learning group's size is 3-6 people.
To create a climate of safety and full expression in the groups, it is important that there are as few power dynamics in a group as possible. This means that each group must be composed of peers at roughly the same level, and without direct reporting relationships.
Given the limited size of a group (3-6), when a person is placed in a group, it is important that the perspective they bring is diverse and unique. Research suggests that optimizing groups for diversity, especially in relation to gender (Computers in Human Behavior, 2015) and ethnicity (International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 2002), yields better learning and behavioral outcomes.
Gordon Allport's 1954 "contact hypothesis", and several decades of subsequent research, reveals that the more contact people have with those who are different, the greater they understand them and feel connected to them (APA, 2001). A meta-analysis of over 500 studies on intergroup contact revealed that interacting face to face with people who have different backgrounds reduces out-group prejudice 94% of the time (APA, 2006). Of particular interest to organizations is that fostering divides across function and geography is also critical as it breaks down silos, enhances institutional knowledge transfer and empowers diverse candidates to build a wide professional network (Organizational Dynamics, 2017).
Program Duration and Scope
Because people forget 90% of what they learn within 7 days after a one-time training(PLoS One, 2015), it is critical that learning is spaced out over time, so that it can be reinforced, woven into the flow of work, identity, and diverse relationships can develop. Research suggests that the optimal number of sessions for a social learning experience is 5-6 sessions (Imperative, 2021, Peele, Asbaty, 2020). Further, as we’ve explored, to effect a culture change across an entire population, such as an organization, at least 25% of the population must adopt a new belief or practice a new behavior before a broader culture shift begins (Centola, 2021).
While the aforementioned research is relatively new, building diverse relationships around a shared purpose has been central to many of our greatest innovations and proudest moments as a nation. From Farm Aid in the 1980's, to the Jigsaw method to racially integrate Texas schools in the 1970's, to the racial collaboration that put Neil Armstrong on the moon in the 1960's, and our nation's rapid WWII mobilization in the 1940's, we continually come back to the same conclusion: we are better, kinder and stronger together.
As long as we discover something new about ourselves and share that with people who are different in a safe container, we experience empathy and trust across differences, and we achieve the unimaginable. Given the power of purpose and small, diverse peer learning groups, are you ready to unleash the potential of your people and transform your organization?
In the next chapter, we'll explore a few more important rules of the game.
“White guys won’t work here anymore.”
“What? What do you mean?” I said to a friend of mine who heads talent for a multinational technology company. I was shocked to hear that, as her company had a great reputation.
“This month, I had two white guys from Texas turn down great offers because the company wasn’t diverse enough. I never thought I’d see the day when white guys in a job search, and in a recession nonetheless, are saying they need women and people of color on their teams.”
“Holy cow! I just got chills.” I exclaimed.
“I’ve been harping on this for years,” she replied. “I’ve been telling our CHRO that the time would come that we’ve fallen too far behind in creating a place that attracts diverse talent.”
That time had obviously come, as now 90% of white men place some value on DEI, with 42% who believe it is very or extremely important to them (Center for Talent Innovation, 2020). Unfortunately, 55% of all employees (and 45% of white employees) believe that racism at work has damaged their relationship to their employer. Now, 4 in 10 white employees avoid employers who don’t take a stand against racism (Edelman, 2021), far exceeding the 25% tipping point threshold (Centola, 2020) required for a belief or behavior to penetrate an entire population.
As older workers retire and hand the reins to younger ones, and as frontline managers, new hires and customers are increasingly more diverse, companies must be places where everyone feels like they belong, that their contributions matter and that they can thrive. If that's not the case, news travels and it becomes hard to fill roles, e.g., half of younger employees (aged 18-34) now avoid employers who don’t take a stand against racism (Edelman, 2021).
Traditionally, attracting new diverse hires meant recruiting at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), providing mentorship, forming ERG’s and paying living wages. Today, these are simply table stakes. Deep down, today’s workers want to be a part of something that matters. They want to join mission they can easily find on Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and to be on a team where all people belong and can do their best work.
Of course, these concerns have always mattered to women, and people from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities. Now, it matters to almost all of us. If the table stakes aren’t there, which we can easily tell from industry gossip, the company’s website and Glassdoor ratings, we’ll keep looking. If the board looks like a yacht club, we’re moving on. If we don’t get the sense that there is a powerful mission, and a culture of inclusion and warmth on the team, we either leave or undermine our company through petty squabbles at work and trash talking to our friends and family.
Companies have tried to fix the symptoms of a culture that lacks purpose and belonging with individual interventions like apps, free food, mentorship, and volunteering opportunities. Ultimately, these tactical point solutions fail to produce substantial and sustained results because they sit on top of a pile of dysfunction. From the underlying biases (privileging whites and men), culture (always on, impress the boss, similarity bias, no purpose activation), and systems (profit principle/quarterly earning reports, performance reviews, quotas), work generally dehumanizes and separates people.
We are experiencing a whole system failure, but few companies recognize it. Most companies still think that more individual interventions are the answer to the ongoing systemic failure. We can’t ice cream social our way out of a toxic culture. We can’t app our way out of anxiety. We can’t pill our way out of a crap boss. We can’t hire our way out of turnover. We can’t blog our way out of racism.
We can’t deck chair our way out of a hull breach.
We need to think holistically about the problem.
It’s time for a new way.
There is no such thing as an individual human - like the bison, we are a herd species. We exist by, for and through each other. We need each other and always have. The neuroscience of empathy reveals that when one of us suffers, we all suffer (APS, 2017). Although we all have freewill and a unique purpose, they exist within the implicit wholeness and connection of our families, communities, companies, ecosystems and species. As such, all internal people activities now must be re-imagined with a holistic and social approach.
How can any of us be truly well when one of us is suffering?
A few innovative companies, such as Coursera, have begun to swing the pendulum from the eagle to the bison, seeing the increasingly number of dependencies between DEI, L+D, wellness, talent and culture and that each needs to be reimagined and inform the other. For example, wellness strategies need to be informed by DEI, as it is well-established that systemic racism is a public health issue (CDC, 2021).
Accordingly, Coursera is dissolving HR silos and is actively crafting new ways to care for the whole person and community. Wellness initiatives will now be informed by and amplify priorities of DEI, CSR, Talent and L&D. L+D will now adopt an inclusive/ social/ wellness/ culture-forward pedagogy. Talent, workforce planning, policies for hiring, performance management, promotion and compensation will include culture, DEI and learning goals. DEI strategies will address more than biases and behavior change, but are also woven into product development, marketing, culture, learning, and wellness.
It’s still too early to tell the results, but at least they are asking the right questions and thinking holistically, systemically and socially. Before we explore the particulars of what it looks like when the pendulum swing towards the bison, let’s do a thorough audit of where the pendulum is starting from. Of course, most organizations are somewhere in between the eagle and bison, however its illustrative to explore where we've come from and where we're headed.
Although HR folks are, in general, incredibly thoughtful, kind, self-aware and compassionate, the systems and culture in which they operate are paternalistic, individualistic, allopathic and dehumanizing, echoing the paternalism and exploitation that our settler colonialist nation had/s towards First Nations' people and those we enslaved.
Employees are regarded selfish, interchangable children who leave everything important to them, e.g., their love lives, souls, families, communities, faiths, and nation, and that impacts their life, e.g., ongoing socioeconomic dynamics such as flat wages, skyrocketing housing and transportation costs, police brutality, climate change, income inequality, political corruption, and systemic sexism and racism, at the door to the office or zoom room.
Eagle HR has spent the last 30 years attempting individual interventions to address collective failures. It assumes that if we’re uneducated, we simply need to learn information from superior beings - experts and trainers. If we’re unwell, a pill, program, app or therapist is the answer. It assumes there is nothing unique about any of us, that we are tabula rasa, a blank slate, without any endemic purpose.
This results in insecurity about our worth and value to the company. It has us hedge our bets, play cover your ass (CYA), put in face time and withhold our best ideas and dissenting opinions for fear of losing our income, housing and healthcare. It has us see our efforts as insufficient, our emotions as bad, our failings as moral and personal, and ourselves as always needing to work hard, or at least maintain the appearance of working hard.
As you might imagine, a people strategy so deeply dehumanizing, does not serve us well and is marked by high levels of stress, burnout, disengagement and employee turnover.
Let’s get out our magnifying glass and see what’s going function by function:
Eagle Learning and Development
Eagle L+D treats us as individual students who learn from experts in live or virtual classrooms. We are given information and are tested on it. We pass or fail and sometimes we get a certificate or badge to put on our intranet or LinkedIn profile. Unfortunately, we forget 90% of everything we have learned within 7 days (PLoS One, 2015), so it is fair to say that a great portion of the $446B global L+D spend (Beroe, 2019) is wasted.
Further, eagle L+D allocates resources in an elitist fashion, with cheap and boring e-learning for frontline employees (who are typically more female and diverse) and expensive training programs, off-sites and 1:1 coaching for executives and high-potential leaders (who are typically more male and white), and thereby edifying existing inequities.
Eagle Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Eagle DEI typically includes hiring quotas, mentoring, ERG’s, anonymous reporting systems, and one-time bias and discrimination trainings. It separates diverse populations into ERG’s, creating insular personal networks (MIT, 2021) and edifies the pattern of othering, secrecy and mistrust between groups. It also typically has the same ethos of treating people like children who are behaving or performing poorly. Underlying assumptions include:
While mentoring is desired by, and impactful for, diverse candidates, it actually reduces their tenure (MIT, 2021). Eagle DEI does indeed educate people, but because it is not centered in purpose, folks don’t see inclusion as an expression of their purpose, but rather as something exogenous to it. It also doesn’t create high-trust connections between diverse people, so it produces conscious and unconscious resistance to diverse groups and DEI initiatives as a whole.
As we’ve explored, the $8 billion DEI spend (McKinsey, 2017) has resulted in neutral to negative outcomes over the last 2 decades, wasting $8B per year and millions of hours of people’s time every year.
The eagle way of developing culture is not to develop culture. It’s frequently ignored and when it is acknowledged, it is an afterthought or deprioritized. Sure, ice cream socials, holiday parties, volunteering, townhalls and happy hours do have some benefits. They are excellent opportunities to take a break from the routine, and when done well, are a great way to recognize people’s contributions and foster common purpose. However, these rarely involve intentional relationship development beyond ice breakers like “two truths and lie”, treasure hunts, three-legged races and bingo.
But relationships do indeed form at work and culture does indeed develop - “wherever two or more are gathered”. Without being explicitly addressed and cultivated, insular packs form around the lowest common denominators of race, gender, and sexuality, similarity bias, grievance, passive-aggressiveness and nepotism. All you have to do is stand up on a chair at your next company event and observe who is talking to whom. White sales folks talking to white marketing folks. Asian engineers talking to Asian engineers. Black customer service reps talking to black customer service reps. HR ladies talking to HR ladies. And those with the most power holding court in the corner with their HiPos (folks designated as high potential).
This results in a culture of disparate tribes, resistance to change, and edifying existing exclusionary power dynamics (Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 2002).
Moreover, the role "office mom" is typically not part of anyone’s title, so it gets assumed by or "voluntold" to lower status folks (New York Times, 2021). Typically these are white women, who add these responsibilities onto their already packed schedules and unbalanced workloads. Without any time, staff or budget to think it through, at best it gets done quickly and expressing the tastes (food, music, activities) and unconscious biases of the white women in charge, further edifying the dynamic that culture doesn’t matter, because it’s done poorly, driven by someone with relatively low status, and/or it doesn’t include everyone, especially remote workers. This dynamic is part of what causes remote workers to have 50% fewer work friends than workers in offices (Olivet Nazarene, 2018).
At its worst, this becomes an opportunity for "office moms" to send the shit downhill by allocating budgets for Fourth of July activities, but none for Juneteenth or Pride, for Christmas and Hanukkah activities, but none for Diwali, Eid or Kwanza.
The ethos of eagle wellness is “Work is hell. Eat some broccoli, exercise, take a pill and get back to work.” It is reflective of our allopathic sickcare industry, that addresses the symptoms of our atomized, poorly/micro-managed, soulless and dehumanizing workplaces. It labels and stigmatizes mental illness, psychological languishing and physical illness, and produces a culture of denial and victim-blaming.
It treats the crisis of connection and fulfilling work as an individual failure. It assumes if we are not healthy and happy, we are broken, and unable to take the pressure. So, it doles out tips, tools, podcasts, apps, hacks and pills to get us back on the job, but doesn’t give us what we actually need to cure our malaise, burnout, loneliness and languishing - purpose and belonging.
Research shows that individual interventions designed to increase happiness and improve mental health may actually make us more lonely (Mauss, et al, 2012) and unhappy (Mauss, et al, 2011). In this way, eagle wellness is indistinguishable from an agricultural veterinarian, whose job is to make us just well enough to be exploited.
As work and money are the top causes of stress (Statista, 2017), it should be no surprise that few turn to their abuser for comfort. Despite 97% of us being unhealthy (Mayo, 2017) and 84% of us being stressed (APA, 2021), and our great need for support, only 24% of us make use of wellness benefits (Gallup, 2015).
Although a handful of great, award-winning wellness programs exist that are part of a holistic culture of purpose, transformation, connection and health, most wellness programs face the Sisyphean task of marshaling comparatively little time, power and budget to combat the perfect storm of hyperindividualism, overwork, and inequity.
The eagle way doesn’t work, and likely never has. To make matters worse, the pandemic exacerbated many of these dynamics. According to a June 2021 Gartner study (Gartner, 2021):
Of course, like nearly all dynamics in our nation, women, children and communities of color were disproportionately impacted. Despite poverty rates reaching all-time lows because of pandemic assistance, those who are most vulnerable suffer the most, e.g.,
As I mentioned, most HR folks are generally kind, inclusive and heart-centered, and there are multiple bright spots, swinging L+D, DEI, wellness and culture pendulum towards the bison. So this isn’t an indictment of HR professionals, but rather an indictment of the manner in which the eagle pervades our business logic, our corporate structures and people processes. It’s an indictment of the logic that says systems are not to blame for systemic issues. It’s a rebuke of victim-blaming that results from throwing apps and intranet tips at systemic problems. This is a call to end the madness.
If our nation didn’t have a noble purpose to be a place of flourishing, equity and unity, to be a democratic and multicultural beacon for the world, we could avoid responsibility for this systemic oppression and chalk it up to “man’s inhumanity to man”. But we do indeed have a noble purpose, so treating people in this way, lacks moral imagination and is out of integrity with our nation's purpose.
It’s time for the bison.
Instead of treating people like selfish children and then blaming them for perishing in a toxic culture;
Instead of driving people apart through elitist and ineffective L+D approaches that presume there is nothing unique about people and ignores the transformative power of purpose;
Instead of driving people apart through anonymous reporting systems, paternalistic mentoring programs and one-time compliance trainings;
Instead of driving people apart by allowing similarity bias to ensconce geographic, racial and political tribes; and
Instead of driving people who suffer mentally and physically into shame and isolation by telling them they are on their own to fix their broken selves with apps, pills and therapy,
Let’s treat them like adults with souls, families and communities; let’s bring them together, empower them to activate their purpose at work and nurture their shared humanity.
To do this, we must think holistically and get at the source of what people need to flourish - meaning, connection, care, and believing they matter and are apart of something that matters. The bison way is one relationships versus the eagle's outputs, of covenants versus the eagle's contracts. It is about establishing our personal covenant with our unique purpose, and with each other around a shared mission. It is the way of nurturing a healthy culture where each of us can activate and fulfill our purpose and enjoy rich connections with each other.
We must avail ourselves to the research and an emerging set of best practices, which we'll explore in greater detail in the next chapter, to come together to serve an aligned vision, empowering cross-functional teams to achieve common goals and objectives, and actively nurturing care, trust and autonomy. This means multiple business and people metrics. No single business unit or function can address belonging, inclusion, productivity, flourishing, innovation, wellness, employee engagement or attraction/retention. They all must align in order to create true systemic and culture change.
With this orientation and the powerful mechanisms for unleashing purpose and belonging at scale, let’s imagine how the bison way could look and feel by function:
Bison Learning and Development
Work is a source of community, self-discovery, fulfillment, and professional growth. People view their organization as a place where they activate their purpose, belong, continually learn, do their best work and develop authentic relationships with diverse peers. Learning is sourced in purpose and values, happens in the flow of work versus at an offsite or in a classroom.
It’s delivered in an egalitarian fashion, where people at each level in the organization, in the office, cafe or at home, come together to activate their purpose and values at work. Because it is delivered over time, the concepts and skills are reinforced, build upon each other, are translated into action and are retained in the relationships as norms and habits as institutional knowledge.
Work is compassionate, inclusive and forgiving. It doesn’t punch white people on the nose and label them as racists. Rather, inclusion is baked into everything the company does, from people development to culture to product development to sales to finance to marketing. As purpose, empathy and inclusion are the foundation for diverse relationships, collaboration, hiring, development and promotion, diverse peers learn skills together, share their experiences, purpose and values, empathize with and respect each other, and form diverse, lasting and authentic relationships.
Work is a fun and authentic community. People feel like they belong, can bring their whole self to work, and genuinely like the people they work with. Peers across differences and departments regularly learn together and develop a sense of the organization’s mission, history, structure and the interdependence of the various departments and geographies.
They each activate and share their purpose and values and find their unique connection to the organization’s mission and values, resulting in a 333% increase in alignment with the organization’s mission (Kumanu/Harris, 2021), 50% more meaningful work relationships (Imperative, 2016) and 7.4 month increase in tenure (BetterUp, 2019). The result is a dynamic culture and 3x return to shareholders (McKinsey & Co., 2020).
We recognize the transformative power of relationships and the healing power of community. We nurture relationships as the foundation of leadership, learning, inclusion, culture, and health. We cherish our relationships and lean on them, as they are an endless well that heals many forms of suffering. They are the foundation of our joy, growth, comfort and laughter.
Work makes us happy and healthy. Research suggests that nurturing thick culture through connection, caring and contribution is the key to social and emotional health (Ford, et al, 2015). When peers develop high-trust relationships with each other, they share their fears and anxieties (96%), and discover new perspectives on their challenges (94%) (Peele, Asbaty, 2020). The deep connections and check-ins in their peer groups empower them to complete their stress cycles and avoid burnout (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2019).
Especially in light of the trauma related to the pandemic and racial justice movement / white backlash, group / interpersonal interventions can be a meaningful driver of post-traumatic growth (Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 2021).
By activating their purpose, they improve their emotional regulation (+538%) and resilience (+529%) (Kumanu/Harris, 2021), resulting in 32% fewer doctor’s visits and 61% fewer hospital overnights (Harvard, 2014). These diverse relationships also empower social integration, a powerful driver of longevity resulting in employee life spans that are 10% longer, and increasing the likelihood that employees reach the age 85 by 41% (Journals of Gerontology, 2020).
When combined with the 7+ year longevity bump from purpose (Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, 2008), together we upper reaches of longevity and vitality.
Guided by the Bison
With a powerful, dieable why, a clearly communicated vision, a culture of purpose, belonging and autonomy, work now has the potential to re-humanize us and drive national renewal. Guided by the bison, we shape business units as communities. We develop roles and souls. We build a legacy via our products and customer success. It begins and ends with people - people on purpose and in deep relationship to each other and the power to create and experiment. It is mutual concern and common cause. It is recognizing that for any of us to win, we all have to belong and co-create.
Before the pandemic this may have sounded like warm fuzzy platitudes, however in the stark relief of the pandemic, the bison has revealed itself as essential, as food for our souls and the soul of the nation. With this picture of where you and your organization might be headed if you choose to be guided by the bison, let’s take a deeper dive into the twin drivers of flourishing: purpose and belonging.
Chapter 5 Summary:
Chapter 5 Reflection Questions:
“Maybe that works for y’all out in California, but we’re sitting on a powder keg right now.”
I was talking with a friend of mine who is the head of DEI of a 300,000+ person global technology company.
“How do you mean?” I inquired.
“We’ve got All Lives Matter MAGA folks here. Good people who do a great job, but who create this constant political hostility and resistance to anything DEI. We can’t put them in a training with people of color. It’ll re-traumatize folks. They’ll leave, I’ll miss my DEI targets, and then I’ll have to leave. I’m already seeing disproportionately high early retirements and leaves of absence for women and people of color. If we start a big culture change effort, I think it will only get worse.”
And she was right, it was July of 2020 and the political tension and racial unrest was at a fever pitch. She knew she had to do something beyond providing mental health resources and public statements, and that even a public statement was going to kick the All Lives Matter hornets’ nest.
This is because no American likes being told what to do or what to believe or how to feel, especially by those with more education, wealth and power. Historically, DEI, with its unconscious bias trainings, anti-discrimination trainings, anonymous reporting systems, employee resource groups (ERGs), and hiring quotas, has had an elitist, corrective and shaming feel. This has resulted in many white folks consciously resisting or tuning it out and subconsciously deepening the sense of feeling attacked and the need to settle a score. As we explored, the field of DEI has failed to deliver positive outcomes in hiring, retention and promotion of diverse candidates over the last two decades.
So introducing new or expanded DEI efforts at any time, given this history, is a giant risk. In the wake of multiple videos documenting the murders of BIPOC folks by police, a summer of protests and one of the most consequential elections in American history, that risk just expanded 10x. However, there is hope.
If there is any silver lining in 2020, it is that it shook the tree of liberty, and a bunch of aspiring white allies fell out to defend it.
That certainly happened to me and Mike, my conservative CEO friend. We were part of 2020’s bumper harvest of justice and equity co-conspirators. Many of us deepened our learning, reading “White Fragility” and “How To Be An Anti-racist”, formed book clubs, joined ERGs as allies, took allyship trainings, joined our local SURJ Chapter (Showing Up for Racial Justice), donated to organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM), National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and took to the streets alongside our BIPOC friends and family.
Unfortunately, much of this allyship harvest rotted on the truck. Most of it was short lived. Public support for Black Lives Matter jumped dramatically to 67% in June of 2020, up from 43% in 2016 (Pew, 2016). However, it then fell to 55% by September of 2020 (Pew, 2020) and then 50% by March of 2021 (USA Today / Ipsos, 2021).
Equally illustrative are the empty promises of corporations. They promised to spend $50 billion on racial justice initiatives in 2020, but by March of 2021, less than $250 million (0.5%) had been spent or committed (FT, 2021). Further, the March 2021 USA Today / Ipsos poll suggests that support for racial justice among white people may have already fallen below 2019 levels.
What’s telling is that support for BLM is at 88% among white Democrats and 16% for white Republicans (Pew, 2020) and that 91% of all Democrats say black people face a lot of discrimination in American society versus 42% of Republicans (American Survey Center, 2020). This suggests that the topics of diversity, race, equity, and inclusion are likely to ignite these deeper racial/partisan identities and further aggravate the wound. My friend was right, DEI is indeed risky business.
While some white folks opened their hearts and began the journey to allyship, many dug their heels in. Regardless of whether we actually increased support for healing our genocides and apartheid, what's clear is that we cannot keep doing the same things and expect different result. Whether its being proactive with more bias trainings and diversity hiring programs, or denial, something has to change. Help isn't coming from churches, school or Washington. It's on us, and the stakes are higher than ever.
Death to the Tyrants!
Unfortunately, our political and racial tribalism isn't merely one of catty clicks and scornful frowns. Many believe that the other side should suffer and die. 54% of us believe our fellow Americans are the biggest threat to our country (CBS News, 2021). 33% of us now justify the use of violence for political gains (American Enterprise Institute, 2021), with 15% of Democrats and 20% of Republicans believing it would be a good thing if a bunch of folks on the other side just died (Kalmoe, 2019).
This is the powder keg my friend was talking about. Workers who feel culture, race and/or politics play a role in them being passed over for promotion or in their dismissal could resort to violence. Of course, this threat wouldn’t be such an issue if AR-15’s and ammonium nitrate were not so easily accessible. Obviously, this is way more than a business risk. It’s more than people not getting along, or not wanting to collaborate with or promote diverse colleagues. This deep tear in the moral fabric of society is a risk to our bodies, minds, souls and democratic institutions.
In the summer of 2020, my wife and I wanted to show solidarity with the BIPOC community in San Diego. Like many folks, we painted our windows and put up a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard. After a few weeks, our sign was defaced, so we fixed it. Shortly thereafter, we learned that a neighbor had taken a photo of our home and posted it along with our address on the Instagram feed @DarkNightSD. He had public discussions about bringing death to the tyrants and forming a militia to take us out, along with the other homes in our area voicing BLM support. Let me repeat - he wanted to take us OUT.
I reported it to the San Diego Police Department. I had proof of @DarkNightSD being linked to the personal account of my neighbor, which also showed him marching at Trump rallies without a mask. After I told the dispatcher what had happened, and described the evidence I had in my phone, she said, “So what did these Black Lives Matter people do to you again?” I was shocked. Had she not heard anything I said? How could she think this white supremacist had anything do with Black Lives Matter supporters?
Three hours later, two units showed up and I told them what had happened. I offered to show them the evidence in my phone and they declined to look at it. Instead they invited me to take down the signs. They told me there is violence and intimidation on both sides of the issue. Both sides of what I wondered? Then it clicked for me why the dispatcher thought it was BLM supporters who were suspected. It was clear that SDPD viewed BLM negatively, and it was likely that their sources of information were the same ones painting BLM as a domestic terror organization - which is literally the opposite of what it is - an organization to mobilize support for stopping the terror rendered upon communities of color by police and white nationalists.
I was advised to report the incident to the FBI, which I did. A friend at the Department of Justice talked to her friends working on domestic terrorism (covertly of course, as the Trump administration officially ignored it and allocated no resources to stopping it). I learned that politically and racially motivated domestic terror incidents are popping up all over the country, such as the blue dots spray painted on the curbs of Biden supporters in Roseville, California (Independent, 2020) to the lynchings in Palmdale, California (NYT, 2020) to the nooses in Connecticut (NYT, 2021). She also told me that nothing was going to happen about it unless there was a change in the DOJ’s policy on domestic terrorism.
However, there is only so much the government can do. And as the surveys reveal, many of us likely have family and friends inclined towards the use of violence, even if they’ve never said anything about it to us. We also are clear that this is the beginning of something far worse. 51% of us expect an increase in violence (CBS News, 2021), 71% of us believe democracy itself is in jeopardy (CBS News, 2021), and 93% of us recognize that our hatred for each other is a problem (Civility in America, 2019). We are perhaps in what Boston University professor and former Reagan administration State Department Official, Angelo Codevilla, has called a “cold civil war.”
We need only recall the Rwandan genocide to see how quickly things can escalate from cold to hot, from disinformation and hate speech to genocide and war. There were months and months of vitriol on the radio, while tens of thousands of machetes were quietly distributed. Then the long-waited for cue, “Kill the cockroaches”, came over the radio. Within the next 100 days, 500,000 to 1,100,000 Rwandans were dead.
It wasn't that long ago that our nation tore itself apart over our differing views on race. 750,000 of us died in the Civil War, representing 2.5% of the population. If 2.5% of our nation died today, that would be 7 million deaths. Was the 1/6 insurrection a dry run for Civil War II, like Hitler's 1923 failed coup? It is hard to say. But what is clear is that polarization and racial animus aren’t just harmless societal trends.
Nor do they operate independently from the economy. They are enmeshed in the economy. These people are our investors, employees and customers. Many of us see the news, and assume this is only happening to other people, or in other states, not to us or near us. There are 838 registered hate groups in the United States (Southern Poverty Law, 2020). The odds are good that there is one near you and that your organization counts their members as investors, employees or customers.
These are the people representing your brand, holding your shares, servicing your customers and buying your products. As it turns out, our vicious cycle of media hyperbole, social outrage and political entrenchment, has significant economic consequences as well. According to a Harvard Business School Faculty Report, political dysfunction is the #1 barrier to our nation’s economic competitiveness (HBS, 2016).
It’s clear our approaches to culture, such as DEI, must be re-envisioned in the wake of this deep and increasingly violent tribalism. Like everything else pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd’s murder and pre-insurrection, how could it not evolve?
When even the words “diversity”, “equity” and “inclusion” raise the hairs on the backs of many white necks, we must address inequity and racism with more than a frontal DEI approach, e.g., mandatory one-time trainings, hiring quotas, etc. We can’t keep punching resistant white folks on the nose with it - it just doesn’t work. It never did. We have to treat the problem holistically and systematically. To do so, we must get at the root of the tribalism that endangers our organizations, social and racial progress and descecrating our sacred nation purpose. To do it will be helpful to understand what brought us to this point.
How did we get here?
It’s a mix of loneliness, hyperindividualism, mistrust and lack of purpose. As we explored in chapter 2, individualism has been part of our identity and culture since the 1800's. However, in 1960’s, we threw gas on the fire, each of us coming to believe that we are on our own, and not connected to anything larger than ourselves. As we’ve explored, we have few close friends, we don’t trust our neighbors, and our participation in faith communities is on a multi-decade decline.
Because of our social isolation, the eagle / bootstraps / rugged individualist myth and the endless opportunities to disconnect from people to turn to screens, we feel increasingly distant from our friends, families, neighbors, community, workplace, faith and nation. The result is that we are conditioned to believe that we are on our own to get our needs met, to find meaning and purpose, and succeed. And if we fail, it's our fault.
For Boomers coming of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, this individualism initially came with greater freedom, fulfillment, pleasure, prosperity and self-expression. They no longer had to live like their WWII / Spanish Flu / Depression-era parents, who were bound by duty, faith, prudence, hard work, self-sacrifice and restraint. They could love how they wanted, study what they wanted, smoke a joint, ditch their bras, drive a cool car, listen to rock’n’roll, choose their own path and be far more self-expressed than their parents. While this yielded many benefits for society, it also had a dark side.
By the 1980’s, greed was considered good, big was better, and gas was cheap. More champagne, more coke, more of everything, and it was ok because everyone was doing it. With the exception of a few hundred Freedom Riders and a few thousand college kids who protested in the 60’s, nothing really bound this generation together. It was everyone for themselves - liberty in overdrive.
The children of Boomers - latchkey Gen X kids like me, millennials like my wife and zenials like my cousins -, came of age in this individualistic and consumerist culture. With no moral code and no genuine elders (remember many of our Boomer parents are pleasure seekers who take no responsibility for the impacts they have on others or future generations), we grew up watching our leaders burn the planet, raise tuition, kill unions and flatten wages.
Although we have an abundance of choice, we lack moral clarity, common cause, life direction, and the faith that we will have a prosperous future. As mentioned we are not just confused and alone, but 67% of us are unfulfilled (Imperative, 2016), 75% of us are distrustful of our government (Pew, 2020), 84% of us are stressed (APA, 2021) and 97% of us are unhealthy (Mayo, 2017). Amplifying this fear, disconnection, resignation, resentment and confusion is the political and media landscape that peels us off into ideological eddies claiming to explain and blame away our problems.
Initially, this individualism, meaninglessness and isolation was good for business, as the core human needs for purpose and belonging that were traditionally met by family, friends, community service, religion, farm life and war, could now be readily, although not substantially nor sustainably, sold back to us via an ever increasing menu of consumer goods and experiences. However, as we explored previously, it has been taken to a shameful extreme. Combined with the last four decades of flat wages, we have become increasingly unable to buy ourselves back any of the meaning, connection and wholeness that we so deeply need.
Stripped of a social identity, deprived of genuine elders, and a shared moral code, we turn to anything to help us feel like we matter and belong. Increasingly, this void is being filled by racial and political tribalism and easily accessible firearms. Extremists pray on the lonely, poor and marginalized. As Hannah Arendt revealed in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the source of political fanaticism is loneliness and spiritual emptiness: “Loneliness is the common ground of terror.”
Extremists give people a common enemy to blame for their suffering. Grievance becomes common cause. We are experiencing what is called the footballification of culture - my team is perfect, good and divine, and yours is a bunch of immoral, selfish and untrustworthy animals. I will defend my team to the death, especially if it means yours.
How We Can Heal
Our last chance against this deluge of danger, despair, disarray, dehumanization, and democratic collapse is the organization. Work is now how many people try to get the majority of their needs met - income, healthcare, meaning, connection, growth and achievement. It is the plow, ale house, church, and hospital rolled up into one. While I think most of us would want it to be otherwise - having a fulfilling career, with affordable quality healthcare disentangled from work, and a shorter and flexible work week with time for friends, family, the outdoors, religion and civic engagement-, it is what is so right now.
As such, work has become the epicenter of all that is good and bad about our nation's culture. Which is also to say that corporate leaders are responsible for what continues to be good and bad about it. And with the clarity about what we know to be missing - purpose, belonging, connection and common cause - we have an incredible opportunity for reckoning, repair, redemption and resurrection. We have an opportunity to lead our nation into the bison era and establish a meaningful legacy.
In times of peace, as leaders we have to look at the data dispassionately, assess the risk and opportunities and invest our time and resources wisely in accordance with our purpose. In times of crisis, however, we must not only take wise and purposeful action, but swift, substantial and sustained action. This is a time of crisis - we are unwell, impoverished, angry and heavily armed. 46% of us own guns and there are a total of 393 million guns in the U.S. (Small Arms Survey, 2018). We mobilized our economy once to defeat Hitler. We must now do so again to prevent a second civil war.
As my friend, Renee Smith of Make Work More Human observed, this is our economy's Apollo 13 moment. She referenced (Smith, 2021) a scene from of my favorite movies, "Apollo 13", when Mission Control realized that the astronauts would not survive unless they rebuilt the C02 filter mid-flight.
This is what needs to be done. Our flight plans from 2019 and even from 2020 and 2021 are dead. Organizations are hemorrhaging diverse talent, erasing the last 6 years of gains for women (McKinsey, 2021), people want to be fulfilled and belong at work, cultures are in atrophy, stress is at an all-time high (84%, APA 2021), supply chains are disrupted, democratic institutions are crumbling, extreme weather is decimating our communities, and customers want purpose-driven, carbon-neutral products and living wages paid to workers.
It's time to accept these new design constraints, dump all our tools, our purpose, our values and our assets on the table and rebuild the entire business from the ground up.
So how about that purpose of yours? Do you hear the call? Do you feel responsible for the health, safety and well-being of the people in your care?
Before we dive into how you can transform your organization, let’s look at what's on the table, what’s working, what’s broken and what could be next for you, your people and your organization.
Chapter 4 Summary:
Chapter 4 Reflection Questions:
“I’d use a 3 or a 4-iron,” I said to Mr. Bernstein, the member I was caddying for at L.A. Country Club.
“Gimme the 4,” he responded.
(thwack) His ball bounced just before the green and rolled to 10 feet from the pin.
I handed him his putter for our long walk to the green.
“What sort of work you looking for?” He asked, knowing that I had an MBA and caddying likely wasn’t my dream job.
“I’m not sure yet. I’m trying to find a way to shift our culture, so I think it’s in media production, because that is a big part of what shapes us. But I really can’t be sure.”
“Why not just get a job in finance or marketing at a studio and start there? Should be easy for someone with your credentials.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. And I would put a bullet in my head if I was responsible for the next Fast and Furious. It’s gotta make a difference.”
It was the Summer of 2004. I had just completed my MBA at Columbia and was making $15 an hour reviewing scripts and answering phones for a talent agent in an effort to learn the production side of the media business. To make ends meet, I caddied on the weekends. I lived in a 2-bedroom apartment with two other 20-somethings and their 5 cats. My “room” was the living room, where I had a mattress on the floor and my clothes in banker’s boxes, which turned out to be perfect places for the cats to leave turds.
So why would a former country club member, with a background in investment banking and tech startups, an Ivy League MBA and $150k in student loans make these choices?
At Columbia, I had taken a powerful self-awareness program that oriented me towards having a career of purpose and impact and leaving a legacy. For me, there was no looking back. Through the exercises, readings and close friendships I developed in that program, I came to the view that my life couldn’t just be about success, prestige, pleasure or acceptance, but self-expression and service. I needed to pay forward the tremendous privileges I had received and the talents I had developed. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet know how to do that. All I knew was that if I followed the money and went back to Wall Street or Silicon Valley, I wouldn’t find out.
I knew there was something inside, that I had a great work within me, but without any wizened elders at my side, I was on my own to sort it out. I needed to find my way to what Dr. King called a "complete life", a legacy that had length, width and height:
Over the next several years, I hired therapists and coaches and sat in men’s circles. I participated in numerous spiritual, personal and leadership development programs, read hundreds of books, made trips to India and Latin America, went on meditation retreats, worked with plant medicines and wandered through Burning Man camps.
It wasn’t until 2011, that I had the good fortune to experience purpose discovery work first hand, and find actual clarity about my purpose, the “why” I would give my life to.
Those 7 years between 2004 and 2011 weren’t easy. There were gurus and charlatans. There was heartbreak, failure, rejection, loneliness and shame. There were false starts in media, renewable energy, education and non-profits. But something within me kept going. I knew I had a reason to live that was bigger than myself or my family. I knew that my life had to be for something, and that if I relented, if I gave up, I couldn’t live with myself. So I kept putting one foot in front of the next, hoping the next job, course, book, guru or ceremony would crack me open to the path to wholeness, to a complete life with length, width and height.
Since February, 2012, when my purpose revealed itself, I’ve devoted myself to making this journey easier, more accessible, connected and scalable, so that no one will ever need to wander alone again. That’s at the heart of my writing, teaching, community and work in the world. But this isn’t about me.
It’s about you, the reason you’re here, the very thing you will give the remainder of your life to - your legacy. Your legacy is your gift to your people. It's the sum total of your existence poured into works.
You will need access to it in order to change your own leadership behaviors. It's the foundation of believability. It is what inspires others to join you. Folks need to get the sense that it not only matters to you, but that you are the person to do because it is a source of personal salvation, redemption and service to the greater good. They need to get that you're willing to lose it all in service. Without this connection, the “empathy, community, and shared purpose“ (McKinsey & Co., 2015) required to innovate and transform, nothing will change in your organization.
People want to see a brighter future, feel a sense of solidarity, and know they are guided by someone who really cares for them, the company culture and their impacts on society and the planet. Without a connection to their legacy, a person is at best a manager. With an awareness of their legacy and the clear connection between it and the company’s mission (who the company is for its customers, employees, community and planet), they have earned the right to lead. It's important to note, that your legacy is not the same thing as your company's mission. It's both more personal and bigger than that.
So what is your legacy? And how do you encounter it? There are several well known instances when a legacy appeared and the real story of a life and an enterprise are revealed, such as Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard’s awakening to his - to empower people to make contact with their true selves through nature, or Interface Carpet CEO, Ray Anderson’s awakening to creating planet positive flooring. Volumes have been written on these encounters (and many more) and their resulting organizational transformations, including: The Soul of a Business (1993), Good to Great (2001), Firms of Endearment (2003), Let My People Go Surfing (2005), Reinventing Organizations (2014), An Everyone Culture (2016).
Notice I use the words “encounter”, “appeared”, “revealed” and “awakening”. A legacy is not decided upon, nor can it be outsourced to marketing, nor guessed at by an expensive consulting firm. It is an encounter with your soul. Although this encounter can be facilitated with outside help, by people who ask good questions and hold space for revelation, it comes from within a leader's heart and soul. It can appear mid-sentence in a meeting. It can just as easily erupt in the shower, on a walk, or over breakfast with your kids.
But it cannot be decided upon. It must arrive as a revelation, as an incandescent truth that was always there right in front of you. When it is revealed, two things happen. The first is that feels a little obvious, like a coherent pattern that emerged from the data you've been staring at for years - “of course, that’s what I’ve been doing this whole time.” The second is a religious conversion, of feeling something sacred erupt inside you as new energy to incarnate your legacy, let it guide your leadership. It shapes how you do business, communicate, develop people, shepherd culture, deliver for your customers, capitalize your company and serve the community and earth’s ecology.
This is why every conversation about culture change begins with someone on fire. My hope is that seeing yourself as a steward of your people’s flourishing and our nation’s purpose, and making an impact you can be proud of is part of your legacy. My greatest hope for you is that you die a good death…
With gratitude, tenderness, fulfillment and a sense of legacy completed…
With the bone deep knowledge that you did what you came here to do...
Surrounded by those you love, and...
Able to look your grandkids in the eyes and honestly tell them “I did everything I could to make this world better for you”.
Your access to your legacy and a noble death is to bring forth what is inside of you and your enterprise, and take it out into the world as an act of service. Numerous traditions have provided us similar guidance, e.g.,
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” - Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas
“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma [fate, purpose, legacy] than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma… The ignorant work for their own profit... the wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought for themselves... Perform all work carefully, guided by compassion.” - Krishna, Bhagavad Gita
"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." - e.e. cummings
Before you can be clear on your legacy, we need to know what legacy actually means. Even among trained purpose practitioners, answers somewhat vary. Below is how I hold it.
Now legacy is much more than this, as I’ve explored in my previous book, Planet on Purpose, e.g., its also fun and spacious, creative and sensual, etc., but this is the part that matters right now, because without it, you cannot lead your organization into a purposeful future, nor steward the sacred purpose of our nation. So what is it?
We're looking for what is yours to give your life to and die for. As Malcolm X said, “If you’re not ready to die for it, put freedom out of your vocabulary.” Same with your legacy. It has to bleed. It's not your kids, their college funds or your reputation. It's not a hobby. It's found in your suffering.
Your access to fulfilling this destiny is through the transformation of your suffering into wisdom, creativity, care and service. You are on the path of “follow your blisters”, as Michael Meade declared, and that means leading from a place sourced in your heartbreak, in your weakness, pain and loss.
This means standing naked before the largest entity you hold dear, e.g., God, Source, the Universe, Life, etc., with your deepest heartbreak in your left hand and all your gifts, virtues, experiences, capital, and relationships in your right. It’s you saying, “Take me. Use me. Let’s do this. I’m tired of half-measures and simple pleasures. I’m ready. I’m here to fulfill my legacy or die trying.”
It’s likely you already know or could generate a quick inventory about what’s in your right hand. But can you tell me what’s in your left? Before you move any further into this book / your journey as a leader, there has to be something at stake, something you’re willing to change everything for. So what is it?
For me, it’s sourced in not ever being good enough for my dad. I never felt seen, like my gifts and talents mattered. I received affection and praise only insomuch as I mirrored my father’s values and aspirations. I was denied affection and shamed when I shared the contents of my soul - my creativity, my femininity, my values and aspirations. Well-intentioned as he was, this left me a fraud, a prostitute, a machine who performed for his praise. Behind the facade of good manners and athletic, social and academic achievement, I was deeply unhappy.
I know the pain of spending a quarter century trying to be someone I’m not. I know the pain of getting good at lying to myself and others. I know the pain of being dead inside. So I’m willing to die for soul, for purpose, for the right for everyone to be blessed - to have their gifts seen, accepted, developed and stood for by others. I want every person to be liberated by the dignity of their soul and fulfilled by their purpose, to know that they matter, are wanted and are blessed.
Of course there are many ways this shows up. Blessing is a thread woven throughout my life. It’s not just in writing books and culture change work. It’s in my marriage, my friendships, my mentees, my racial justice work, my men’s circle, my self-care, the way I relate to children and connect with my neighbors.
In this sense, legacy is the one and many, the parts and the whole, a guiding light that is equally useful in a marriage, a boardroom, and a shipwreck.
For the rest of this book to be of most use to you, you need to agree that you do have a legacy, even if you’re not crystal clear on what it is right now.
If you feel like you're close and would like some more clarity, I invite you to journal a few sentences for each of these prompts. Please be warned, answers to these questions will bring up painful memories and might re-traumatize you, so check-in with yourself to see if you have the energy and psychic stability to dive in. If you don’t feel ready for it or have no clue what it might be, I invite you to work 1:1 with a trained purpose practitioner (see Appendix A: Purpose Activation Resources). As a reminder, this is about you, not your organization, career or role.
Now review what you’ve written and circle the powerful and evocative phrases. What themes do you see? Any new information about your legacy? Now, you don’t need absolute clarity right now, nor understand all its implications for your career, relationships and organization. All you need right now is the awareness that something is there inside of you, some kernel of passion, aliveness and heartbreak that will transform your life and the world if you give attention to it.
The next chapter, “Culture Change is a Matter of Life and Death”, we explore what is at stake in this next phase of your leadership, you might discover some new information about your legacy.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Chapter 3 Reflection Questions:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…”
- Martin Luther King Jr.
Every nation has a dream, a code, a unifying myth, a tradition that evokes our origins, calls us to rise to our highest aspirations and live out our most cherished values. These myths, codes, symbols and heroes orient our ethics and inspire us to serve others.
As we explored in the last chapter, the mythos of the eagle that currently governs life and commerce in our nation is different from Dr. King's dream - it is that of the rugged individualist (and usually white) who was destined for greatness. He overcame the odds, through wit, guile, creativity, determination, privilege (and usually more than is acknowledged), built an empire, made a name for himself and fulfilled is pre-ordained destiny. Elon Musk. Jack Nicklaus. Thomas Edison. Andrew Carnegie. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. John Rockefeller. We praise men like these - the resource extractor, the champion, the inventor, the investor, the technology “disrupter”.
The eagle is an individual bird of prey (vs. social / herd animal) who sweeps down from on high, hunts and retreats to its perch to savor the feast. Like the centralization of wealth in white families and our foreign policy, the eagle scavenges, hoards and retreats. Like the power and wealth of our nation, the bald eagle is predominantly dark on the bottom and white on top.
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest…”
- Benjamin Franklin
This is not to take anything away from the bird, an integral part of numerous ecosystems playing an important role in regulating fish populations, and distributing nutrients from lakes and rivers to the forests. This is about how eagle mythos dominates our nation. It’s about the symbol of getting ahead, sharp elbows and leveraging every advantage to improve one’s circumstances, and minimizing responsibility, expenses and risk.
It's a powerful symbol chosen by several nations and movements, e.g., Rome, Iraq, Russia, Syria, Mexico, Poland, the Czech Republic. The Nazis were also big fans. This eagle mythos carried Calvinism across the ocean into the Mayflower Compact and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, establishing white Puritans as God's chosen and divine. From the outset, First Nations people were regarded as the enemy, as the devil, as dark, lusty and sinful. As punishment for their sinful existence, Massachusetts and Connecticut began a privatized "forever war" to incentivize otherwise peaceful Christians to own slaves by awarding white men an extra 75 acres of land for every enslaved human they owned, and to burn native villages and feed stores, murder them and sell their scalps to the state.
It is important to remember that these first settlers arrived after having been oppressed, marginalized and traumatized for centuries by eagle doctrines in their home countries. Monarchy and feudalism slowly degraded and homogenized the lived experience of European peoples, first by stripping them of their freedom and sovereignty. Christianity, then came for their languages, pagan gods, rituals, animist theology, and their witches. The Enlightenment finished them off by disembodying culture and relatedness, by privileging the mind and the individual over the body, nature and relationships. By the time most Europeans set sail for the new world, they had become almost entirely disconnected from nature, their bodies, animist cosmologies and anything else that might connect them to spirit, the earth or the dignity of foreign peoples. The cross, crown, reason and moral code extended only to other white Christians. The gun and hatchet were for others.
When they arrived on Turtle Island, they survived in large part by paying forward their oppression, taking the fruits of the labor of the First Nations people (fields, stores, cultivated forests, roads, trade routes, systems of governance). Then through disease, starvation and war, they enacted legal and systematic genocide, resulting in 5-15 million deaths). They continued this tradition with the human trafficking / slavery / murder / rape / torture of African peoples (35 million dead Africans). Broadway was cleared by the enslaved. The wall from which Wall St. was named, the White House and the Capitol were built by the enslaved. Citi and J.P. Morgan financed the trade of the enslaved, and accepted enslaved humans as collateral. Aetna and New York Life ensured the trade. In the 1800's, our eagle's talons turned abroad, via manifest destiny, into Latin America, Africa and the South Pacific.
In the early 1900's, via the "Second Great Awakening" in Christianity, the eagle set to work on our culture by further perverting Christian theology, morphing it into an evangelical individualism. It was no longer about God's chosen white people seeking refuge in white Jesus and the white community, it was now every chosen white person for themselves. Ministers, like Charles Finney and Oral Roberts, put the path to wealth and divinity in our hands, laying the foundation for the prosperity gospel of Reverend Ike's "Fake it to you make it" in black communities and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker's televangelism in the white communities.
This gospel focused on the individual and the individual alone as the source of all good and bad fortune. It equated wealth with divinity and poverty with sin. It bled into our nation's two booming secular religions - consumerism and self-improvement. As we made the transition from farmer and blacksmith to financier and marketer, our deep need to produce something went unattended, so we set about producing the best versions of ourselves. As we made the transition from community member to consumer via Edwin Bernays' advertising "innovations" (translating the psychology of his uncle Sigmund Freud into irresistible subconscious messages to generate desire to fill our otherwise empty lives with goods) and the legions of Mad Men who followed him, we came to believe that goods and brands were needed for us to stand out, have worth and survive.
According to the gospel of Charles Finney, Oral Roberts, to Reverend Ike, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and Joel Ostein, the self-improvement gurus like Norman Vincent Peale, Werner Erhart, Tony Robbins, and Oprah Winfrey, and the Mad Men who dressed us for the occasion, we now had only one person to thank for anything right in our lives and one to blame for anything wrong - ourselves. If we didn't project wealth, beauty and boundless optimism, we had succumbed to the devil / limiting beliefs / loserdom.
The results are are we've become self-centered eagles. A study examining the evolution of language in the United States throughout the 20th century revealed that words such as "thankfulness", "kindness", "appreciation", and "helpfulness" decreased by 56% (Kesebir & Kesebir, The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America, 2012). Additionally, the average 2009 college student scored higher in narcissism on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, than 65% of students in 1982 (Twenge, Generation Me), and 75% of college students in 2009 scored lower in empathy than the average student in 1979 (Konrad, O'Brien, 2011).
"When there is no 'we' anymore... then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association." -Dov Seidman (NYT, Thomas Friedman, "Where did 'We the People' Go?"
Now empowerment and freedom are not a bad things at all. In a cohesive, intact and just society, where the eagle is in balance with the bison, they a great source of self-expression, individuation, actualization and community wealth. Empowerment in an eagle society (one devoid of social ties, ecological empathy and shared purpose) however, goes wrong very quickly, e.g., our two unhealed genocides, a remaining apartheid, gated white suburbs, subsistence wages, climate change, rape culture, etc.
Another problem of the eagle mythos is the likelihood that it will actually bear any fruit. While the media is fascinated by the few eagles who amass gigantic fortunes, e.g., Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and escape to space, most of the time the eagle way ends in failure. 65% of new businesses fail in their first decade (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). Because we divinize wealth and shame poverty, we blame the poor for their obvious lack of intelligence, creativity and hard work, and when it is us on the ropes we either delude ourselves into thinking that soon our ship would come in, or we give up and turn to crime or seek refuge in alcohol, drugs or God.
As John Steinbeck once mused about why the labor movement had so much trouble gaining steam in the United States, "...we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist." We don't need solidarity with other oppressed peoples or government handouts, we need more hard work and a little luck to acquire the wealth needed to insulate ourselves from the cruel morality of the market. To raise the stakes in this eagle game, we gutted unions, public education and our social safety net, which disproportionately impacted our BIPOC sisters and brothers and further equated darkness with poverty with sin.
The eagle way segregated our society and economy in numerous ways. As we explored, the suburbs contain a largely white managerial class of people, who own homes and employ a largely BIPOC working class of people who predominantly pay rent in the cities and exurbs - to provide them with food, goods and services. Those who live in the suburbs are largely white home owners who commute to the cities where they make their income, but do not pay taxes.
The result is that suburbs have become eagle's nests, with well-funded schools and social services, smoothies, sushi, massages, gardeners, golf courses, plastic surgeons and yoga studios. Starved of tax revenue, the exurbs and cities have underfunded schools, are food deserts, epicenters of malnutrition and obesity, and continue the tradition of exiling the poor, dark and sinful to the slums and hinterlands. The necessary solidarity and revolution doesn't happen, because the bootstraps / prosperity gospel has thoroughly saturated every institution with which the poor engage (business, media, religion, education) and offers us only one path to salvation - individual achievement, wealth and status.
It's not unions, protesting or Civil Rights that are needed. It's entrepreneurship and hard work. One day our ship will come in.
"The world we live in is not working. We have these multifaceted crises — health crises, economic crises, societal crises, racial crises, environmental issues, geopolitical tensions.
"For me, on the top of my F.B.I. most wanted list are two people. One is Milton Friedman, with his shareholder primacy — the excessive, obsessive focus on profits as the key thing that matters. And the other one is Bob McNamara, with the model of scientific, top-down management — getting a bunch of smart people, coming up with a plan, tell everyone else what to do, put incentives in place and hope something is going to work...
"So much of what I learned in business school was either long dated or incomplete. The definition of madness is doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome, so for me, there’s this urgent, urgent need to rethink the foundations of our economy."
-Hubert Joly, ex-CEO, Best Buy, Harvard Business School professor, and author, "The Heart of Business" (NYT, 2021)
As the eagle way de-unionized our economy beginning with Carter and Reagan, it then off-shored manufacturing to countries that offer dramatically fewer protections for labor, and fewer social benefits and environmental regulations. This resulted in stagnant median wages and job insecurity at home to cover skyrocketing housing, healthcare, education and transportation costs. The eagle way made life considerably less stable, abundant and secure for most people.
And that’s just how the way of the eagle shows up on our soil.
We are also eagles abroad. A reading of the last 100 years of U.S. foreign policy reveals we have done little but preach about democracy, while impoverishing other countries with expensive debt, overthrowing their legitimate governments, assassinating their leaders, installing corrupt dictators friendly to American business interests and then bullying them to sell us their labor and natural resources for pennies on the dollar. By 2021, the eagle has subjugated the will of the people in over 80 countries in all 5 continents (Wikipedia, 2021). As a finishing touch, we then appropriate and commercialize their aesthetics of their cultures, their spiritual practices (yoga), fashion (Comanche headresses at Coachella and mala beads and dashikis at brunch) and cuisine (kabobs, curries, tacos, etc.), fetishize them as noble and exotic, and then use them as props for our vacation selfies.
It’s almost as if Europe’s marginalized and dehumanized classes came over here, didn’t heal any of their traumas or rediscover their own cultures or gods, robbed from and exterminated the people they encountered, and set up interlocking systems to perpetuate separation and suffering. From scalps, to slavery, to sharecropping, to Jim Crow, to lynching, to suburbs, to congested freeways, to flat wages, to contract lending, to Hoover's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to harass and assassinate Civil Rights leaders, to pesticides, to consumerism, to housing projects, to Superfund sites, to privatized healthcare, to rape culture, to pollution, to plastic surgery, it’s almost as if hurt people can’t do anything else but devise new ways to make a buck by hurting others. Eagles gonna eagle.
There are so many wonderful things to celebrate about our country, from our democratic institutions to music to our crafts to our technology, higher education institutions and scientific achievement. However, these things exist in large part because we have taken from and exterminated others, and without remorse or fair compensation. In the same way the gilded palace halls of Buckingham and Versailles are truly extraordinary, and yet also dirty with the blood of war, murder, slavery, torture, rape and oppression, much of what is good, true and beautiful in our society was built on the backs of the enslaved and oppressed. If this make you feel bad about our country, I don’t blame you.
However, feeling sadness or shame is not a bad thing - it’s natural in the face of shameful information. It’s healthy to feel remorse and shame when we and our ancestors have been complicit in hurting others. Let us use this sadness and shame to guide us back into our ideals and moral imagination.
Our history would not bother us if we knew ourselves to be better than murderers, thieves, rapists and slavers. If we didn’t hold ourselves to a higher standard, reading this would produce no resistance, no knot in the pit of our stomachs. Let us remember the suffering our ancestors caused, the danger of perpetuating it through our inaction and the redemption available to us through reckoning, responsibility and repair.
Let us now complete this chapter of American history and start a new one. Let us put to rest the pattern of dominating, impoverishing, hoarding, bullying, retreating, externalizing costs and avoiding the consequences of our actions.
Let us articulate a new era of collective flourishing, healing, belonging and purpose, one that calls forth our most cherished ideals and effectuates Dr. King's dream. What symbol calls us into our nation's true purpose?
In a time when culture and politics have devolved into gang warfare, where even our flag and colors are polarizing (NYT, 2021), our country needs a new symbol to guide us into this new era of respect, reckoning, responsibility, and redemption. As the fates would have it, this symbol arrived under auspicious skies and bipartisan support.
“We recognize the bison as a symbol of strength and unity,” Fred DuBray, Cheyenne River Sioux
In 2016, as a result of a bi-partisan coalition in the House and Senate along with the InterTribal Buffalo Council and the National Bison Association, the bison became our National Mammal, but it is much more than that. It is a symbol of strength, redemption, protection, resilience, care, courage and commonwealth.
From the National Park Service:
“After four years of outreach to Congress and the White House, by the Wildlife Conservation Society, its partners the InterTribal Buffalo Council and National Bison Association and 60-plus Vote Bison Coalition members, the National Bison Legacy Act was signed on May 9, 2016, officially making the bison our national mammal. This historic event represents a true comeback story, embedded with history, culture, and conservation.
“To honor such an iconic and resilient species, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act on April 28, 2016, making the bison a U.S. symbol of unity, resilience and healthy landscapes and communities. The Act recognizes the historical, cultural, and economic importance of bison. More than 60 American Indian tribes participate in the Intertribal Buffalo Council, an organization working to help coordinate and assist tribes in returning bison back to tribal lands. Also, over one million acres of tribal land contribute to the conservation and cultural efforts of bison. Not only do bison play an important cultural role, but they also have significant economic value. Private bison producers own about 360,000 bison, creating jobs and providing a healthy meat source as well as leather and wool products to the American public. Bison also play an important ecological role, beneficially influencing prairie ecosystems through their grazing patterns and behavior.
“Although the recognition does not convey new protections for the bison, the Act recognizes the great conservation success story and importance of its comeback to Native Americans and rural communities alike. This new and permanent designation conveys a vision of shared values of unity, resilience and healthy landscapes and communities. No other species is so iconic of American history and culture like the bison.”
As we begin the Era of the Bison, we cannot simply say “the past is the past” and begin anew. That has never worked. People remember. People carry the wounds and injustices of the past into the present. Reckoning and reparation are required. We must take responsibility for our actions, and heal and repair the impacts of the last era. For starters, this means giving some of the stolen lands back to indigenous peoples, such as our National Parks (Atlantic, 2021), making reparations to the descendants of those we enslaved (Coates, 2014), ending the preschool to prison pipeline and beginning a restorative justice approach (Restorativeustice.org, 2021), and treating each bio-region / watershed as a living entity with rights (NPR, 2019).
These may seem impossible. They are major undertakings for sure, but not impossible. Remember, we defeated the Nazis, Communists and the Confederacy. Surely, we can pull up our grown up pants, and clean up our messes. We can take responsibility for our actions, make things right and create a future of collective flourishing.
The Bison Way
The energy of the bison elicits something deep in our souls. It connects us to the wide open range, lush forests, rushing rivers, majestic peaks, the rising sun, a prismatic dusk and a starry sky. It calls us into relationship with wild nature, play, community and adventure. It beckons us to be grateful for natural beauty and summons us to care for all that is sacred:
So what does this mean for us? It means that we allow the bison to work on us individually, to move through us and into greater courage, care, inclusion, play, independence, interdependence, boundaries and generativity.
It means we remember who we are before the eagles broke us and told us we needed to work ourselves to the bone in order to exist, stand out or matter. This doesn't mean abdicating will or purpose, but remembering that as we express them, we remember that we too are mammals and are fundamentally relational and responsive.
It means we remember that we're invested with voice, emotions and neurochemicals that bind us to one another (Frans de Waal, "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society", 2009). We evolved empathy and altruism, not pure selfishness, to survive. We are wired to connect, feel, communicate, play, relate and cooperate (Thomsello, "Why We Cooperate", 2009).
It's time to accept that we are all in recovery, in a post-traumatic response to centuries of dehumanization and oppression, and individual coping mechanisms to endure it. We're all in varying stages of grief, healing and recovery. To heal from our multiple traumas and enter a period of post-traumatic growth, we must turn towards one another, and once again place care, authenticity and belonging as the primary units of measure and success.
So what does this mean for you as a leader? It means we guide our organizations towards greater connection to, and care for, the commonwealth. It means we view the world and each business decision through the lens of resilience and long-term wealth, versus extraction and short-term profits.
It means we must also be vigilant for the remnants of the eagle way in our thinking, marriages, families, and neighborhoods, that we find new ways to communicate, lead and do business. As Hubert Joly continued, "If you think about business by first thinking about how you want to be remembered as a human being, most of us gravitate to the golden rule — doing something good to our people. If you can connect that desire in your heart with the way you run the business, the employees will love the company. The customers will love the company."
To do so means we transform our approach to our people, culture and learning. We no longer view people as an expense to be reduced, but rather as a source of long-term wealth, resilience and innovation. We no longer abdicate our responsibility for culture and well-being, but intentionally develop it. It means that we view each person as whole, with emotions, a soul, a life, family and community. It means we see each person as worthy of dignity and prosperity, that we bless the beauty of each soul, empower each person to develop a connection to their purpose and the opportunity to shape their lives and careers in its image.
It means we are deliberately developmental - seeking to unlock and activate human potential within and outside of our organizations. It means we move labor from a line item expense on the income statement, something to be reduced in service of shareholder profit, to an asset on our balance sheets, something to be invested in, cultivated and treasured. It means we give as much attention to burying our dead as we do celebrating new life, by bringing care to each phase of the employee lifecycle, from new hire to leader to alumni.
It means we stop our paternalistic approach to people, where we view them as selfish actors that need to be reformed, conformed, and motivated with compliance, incentives and punishments. It means we move from a talent ethos of “culture fit” towards celebrating our uniqueness as a “culture add”. It means we adopt an ethos of empowerment and connection, bringing people together to learn about themselves and each other in a safe and effective way. It means we end our reliance on one-time compliance trainings, and begin ongoing social learning experiences, of learning and authentic connection as part of the normal course of business. It means we stop our extractive and oppressive business models and practices and look to regenerative, cradle-to-cradle approaches to meet customer needs.
This might sound nice and all, but if you tell your boss or board you’re doing this, they’ll fire you on the spot. People will laugh at you and your name will be Mudd. At least some part of you is thinking that. Luckily, you have more than the people, history and bison on your side. You also have the numbers.
There is a solid business case for activating a culture, beginning with purpose and belonging. You can expect to realize more than $20k per person per year in additional productivity and an additional 7.4 months in average tenure (BetterUp, 2018, 2019). Given that the average tenure of an employee is about 4 years, that’s an expected gain of $80k+ per employee. Let’s say you get each of your employees a purpose and leadership coach at $6k a year - that’s a 3.3x return. Let’s say you activate purpose and belonging with small, diverse peer learning groups at $500 a year - that’s a 40x return.
How many investments can you make that yield that kind of return? Economic productivity and tenure aren’t the only priorities you’ll impact by activating purpose and belonging. If you decide to take this path it will improve matters with all your key stakeholders - your investors, customers, employees.
Employee Productivity, Engagement, Satisfaction and Tenure
Before we explore how to transform your organization, you're going to need a big reason, one that excites and scares you.
Ch. 2 Summary:
Ch. 2 Reflection Questions:
“It’s the only way to treat a white man.”
I was 16 when I heard these words. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I joined in the laughter and nodded in agreement. I had just finished a round of golf at my all male and almost all white country club (except for a few Japanese businessmen with whom we never interacted). As a kid, I enjoyed the game of golf, and at the urging of my father, became a junior member of the club. We were sitting around a card table, smoking cigars and watching sports. Tony, the Cuban bartender, had just brought us our drinks.
A friend of my father then said these lamentable words and we all laughed. I didn’t think anything of it and we continued our conversation.
In the 20th century, clubs like this one were where business got done in America. The relationships that form in these wealthy white enclaves, from the Harvard Club in New York to the University Club in Chicago to the Olympic Club in San Francisco, have been the engine oil of American capitalism. This is not to say you couldn't do business without belonging to such a club, it was just a lot easier as a member, as trust was assumed among members within each club, and between the members of these clubs via reciprocal guest agreements. My dad made his living managing the wealth of many of our club’s members. I was counselled to do the same - hang out with rich white people, ingratiate yourself and do business with them.
And there was no sense of anything lost or wrong in joining or wanting to join these exclusive and primarily white male communities. As the thinking went, what was good for business was good for the nation. As business just happened to be controlled by white men, so white men in business in the 1980's and 1990's were revered and idolized. Men like Michael Milken, Jack Welch and Ted Turner adorned magazine covers, bought jets and estates, offered us a gospel of prosperity, and in so doing, they filled the hole previously occupied by religion.
Business as Religion
During my childhood, business was revered as an unqualified good, as what helped defeat Hitler and the U.S.S.R. and put a washing machine in every home and a car in every driveway. There was an implied nobility in it, and it never bothered us that women or BIPOC folks weren't really involved. Friedman's "business of business is business" battle cry empowered us to pursue wealth as a moral good. It also meant, all was fair in love and war, sanctioning our discriminatory, anti-labor and environmentally disastrous business practices, with quips "It's just business", "Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette". As far as anyone I knew knew, U.S. style capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.
What I did not know was that because business had become the driving force in culture and politics, that it had become the theater for the soul of our nation, between the desires of the individual (the energy of the eagle - the solitary hunter and our national bird) and those of the commonwealth (the energy of the bison - the tender of the people land and our national mammal), between capital and labor, between matter and spirit
For every new product and and service created, a large eagle fortune was made, and often at the expense of the people and planet (bison). This gave rise to new social and environmental movements, protections and institutions, e.g., child labor laws, the weekend, the right to organize, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Organization (EPA), Medicare, National Parks, Bureau of Land Management, etc. I did not know that the business environment I grew up in during the 1980's and 1990's was the result of the battle between individual freedom and collective responsibility, between the eagle and the bison.
I, of course, wanted to fit in and followed the path laid our before me. I picked one of the whitest majors (finance), joined the top white fraternity on campus, bartended at the top white bar, dated white sorority girls, played sports, made the Dean’s List and held leadership positions. Like most of my fraternity brothers, I wanted to be successful, and used college as a resume polisher for my destiny - a career in white professional services, a house in the white suburbs, complete with a white housewife, 2.3 white kids, membership at a white country club and white church, and plenty of BIPOC folks to serve us.
Business as Villain
To bring us drinks. Mow our lawns. Clean our houses. Wash and valet our cars. Carry our bags. Raise our kids. Make our food. The weird thing was that no one talked about it. No one seemed to notice that if you squinted your eyes, the Chicago suburbs looked a lot like plantations. Not that I was privy to overt malice or secret meetings, but the centuries old relationship between white folks like my parents and our BIPOC "help" continued.
While it was working out nicely for us, it obviously wasn’t working well for Black folks. Black men earn $.56 (BLS, 2019) and Black women earn $.63 for every $1 a white man earns (US Census, 2020), and Black families have $.01 wealth for every dollar a white family has (Northwestern, 2020). Although none of us actively sought to oppress and exploit people of color or women, the net effect of our jobs, biases, marriages and our suburban lifestyles did exactly that.
Our collective actions (giving contracts and jobs almost exclusively to other white guys, cutting taxes education and social services that benefit women and BIPOC folks) and inactions (ignoring the rising poverty, addiction and crime in BIPOC communities) ensured that we kept the power and wealth for ourselves, while women and people of color made a lot less money serving us. Our kids are now making us feel more uncomfortable about it, but nothing has really changed.
Granted, we do have increasing diversity in boardrooms, media and political leadership and overtly racist attitudes have subsided. Unfortunately, our country remains segregated, geographically, politically, racially and generationally. As anyone who has ever been to grade school knows, its not just white people finding new ways to oppress non-white people, its everyone trying to oppress everyone else.
Since the first ships of oppressed, dehumanized, and traumatized Europeans arrived, we’ve inculcated an ethos of dominance over nature, natives, women, and each other. This is not to romanticize indigenous or African peoples - they also had politics, fierce warriors, injustices and skirmishes. However, what they had and we Europeans did not, was an intact culture, where war, peace, spirituality, economics, culture, love and friendship existed in relative harmony both within First Nations, between them, with the earth and the great spirit.
With a few exceptions, this eagle ethos of dehumanization, dominance and oppression has driven us away from each other and into homogeneous tribes. Whether we look at ourselves as a country of:
It appears the eagle is winning. We seek to amass wealth (eagle) to protect us from the cold realities of the market society, versus seeking solidarity and shared prosperity (bison). We isolate ourselves from those who are different, diminish and dominate others, and come together only in the face of special circumstances like an economic depression or to stave off a genocidal maniac.
The net result is that 74% of us don’t have any friends from different ethnicities, 69% of of us don't have any friends from different generations, 63% of us don't have any friends with different levels of education, 62% of us don’t have any friends who vote differently and 56% don't have any friends from different income brackets (Barna, 2015). It appears that white folks are the most segregated, as 92% of people in the networks of white people are white (American Survey Center, 2021). And it is getting worse, as our education system is increasingly segregated along the lines of race, class and politics (PBS, 2014). Over half of our children now attend deeply segregated schools (NYT, 2019).
Many of these divides overlap and enforce a dynamic of “Christian white male ableist heteronormative supremacy”, or for short, “white supremacy”. Today, being a part of a white supremacist system doesn’t just mean lynching and burning crosses, although there are a few thousand white nationalists still actively perpetuating in domestic terrorism. It means that we all participate, regardless of whether we lean towards the bison or the eagle, in an interlocking system that keeps wealthy white men on top, and deprives others of their rights, dignity and the fruits of their labor.
It is no longer a conspiracy by overtly racist white folks, but continues as a symptom of our lack of moral imagination and our failure to activate a bison-led vision of shared prosperity. Without moral imagination and a vision of collective flourishing, we turn on one another. We dehumanize each other. White supremacy just happens to be the main way we do that in the United States, and it runs through every institution in our nation - every church, company, school, non-profit and local government. It is in every American heart. Yours, mine, everyone’s.
It is the water we swim in. It's why luxury cars and strip clubs exist. It's why Jack Welch boasted about culling the bottom 10%, why women live in constant fear of sexual assault and why we've clear-cut, monocultured and poisoned our land. It continues largely unabated to this very day. There is so much eagle at play, we turn on each others and can take our pick of folks to blame for our suffering - the media, the other political party, "kids these days", capitalism, white men, immigrants, etc. Unfortunately, when blame each other, we miss the deeper dehumanizing narrative of our nation's history. We think it’s the nearest sheep dog or shepherd who is responsible for the culling of the sheep and not the system of exploitation and culture of dehumanization.
This is not a persecution nor an exoneration of the sheep dogs, e.g., academia, media, corporations, politicians, clergy and police, or the shepherds, e.g., wealthy white families, just a metaphor that explains the power dynamics in a country rich in resources and poor in moral imagination. Without the guidance of a shared vision and our "better angels", we do the only thing we have been trained to do with our sharp elbows, e.g., pay subsistence wages, beat the competition, find the angle, maximize return, plunder nature, “get the girl”, capture market share, “make it rain”, etc.
Since 1619, white supremacy has evolved from a "forever war" against native peoples, including their genocide, rape and torture, into the genocide, slavery, rape, and torture of African peoples, and into gems like the ⅗ compromise, broken treaties, Black Codes, contract lending, Jim Crow laws, payday loans, redlining, policy brutality and the preschool to prison pipeline. The mechanisms of white supremacy have evolved, but the outcome remains the same - white men on top.
“Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” - Malcolm X
What else can explain why Black families only have $.01 of wealth for every dollar a white family has? Either we’d have to say that there is something deficient in Black people or their culture, which is both explicitly racist, and factually incorrect, as it can be argued that much of our nation’s finest writing, music, legislation, science, technology, athletics, art, spirituality and cuisine came from the minds, bodies and souls of our BIPOC brethren, or we admit that our system creates better outcomes for white people as a function of the system, not as a bug in the system. If we admit the latter, we at least can be factually correct.
Now comes the hard part. We then must acknowledge that, regardless of our racial, ethnic, religious and sexual identity, that we depend on white supremacy to survive, and that “staying out of it” or doing nothing is a vote in favor of it. Remaining neutral ensures hard working BIPOC folks, no matter how hard they try, will not succeed, and eventually will be forced by the market to serve wealthy whites. Staying neutral is both a vote for further oppression, also dissonant with our wild-eyed, rambunctious nature. It is fundamentally anti-American, as anthropologist Margaret Mead observed…
“One characteristic of Americans is that they have no tolerance at all of anybody putting up with anything. We believe that whatever is going wrong ought to be fixed.”
While it’s understandable to not want to face the music, it is not honorable to make the inquiry itself wrong, e.g., ignore it, ban it, deflect, engage in doublespeak or cancel people. That’s the work of cowards. A courageous person is willing to have the discussion, accept the facts, admit his wrongs, face her accuser, and make satisfactory amends. Yet, few leaders are willing to answer this call.
Answering the call is a hard and long road, which makes it tempting to ignore. Due to the volatility and competition in our economy, and the great fear of screwing it up, it is tempting to lower our sights on what is possible. It’s easy to snack on small, surface-level wins like diverse TV shows, board members, entertainers, Olympians, politicians and scholarship winners. It's easy to comfort ourselves by saying it's not as bad as it used to be. It’s uncomfortable to face the reality that little has changed. Although racist attitudes of white people have dropped remarkably over the last 100 years, life is considerably less free and equal for BIPOC folks today than it was 50 years ago (Putnam, 2021).
If we continue to ignore, and thus damage, our sacred purpose, we do so not just at the expense of the flourishing of our multicultural commonwealth and our biosphere, but at the expense of white flourishing as well. White people also have trouble sleeping. White working moms are also stretched thin. White people are also hustling for subsistence wages and struggling with obesity, addiction, and lack of education and healthcare. Had we decided to activate our shared purpose and made our society and economy caring, inclusive and equitable, and continued the social and economic policies of the 1950’s and 60’s, we would all have been better off.
We would have generated an additional $16T in our economy over the last 2 decades (Citigroup, 2020). This is because the policies that liberate our BIPOC brothers and sisters from oppression and empower them to make their highest contribution, such as those that guarantee access to the basic necessities of life - living wages, affordable healthcare, family leave and education, safe communities -, also benefit poor and middle class white people. More white Americans would get what they need to become healthier, wealthier, more fulfilled, and more productive. This would mean there would be less incentive across the board to turn to vice to escape and numb, and crime to provide for oneself and family. We could end to the preschool to prison pipeline that is currently laying waste to 2.2 million of our nation’s souls.
Our founding documents speak to a powerful purpose - a deep call for equality, justice and liberty, a healthy marriage of the eagle and bison, a commitment to welcome and treat everyone with dignity and respect. In 2021, our purpose means a living wage, which is $25-50/hr and less than a 30 minute commute, depending on the area (MIT, 2021). It means affordable healthcare (<5% of income). It means a safe, loving, stable and inclusive community. It means clean water, air and soil. It means healthy and affordable food. It means small class sizes. It means sustainable and affordable public transit and housing (<25% of income). It means we are free from oppression and have the right to vote. It means we do not get murdered by the police during a routine traffic stop.
Our nation’s purpose means that no matter what color your skin is, who you love or worship or who your daddy is, you deserve dignity and respect. You deserve equal treatment under the law. You deserve the opportunity to discover, live and prosper from your purpose. You deserve to belong and realize your full potential in your life and career.
Unfortunately, help isn’t coming. The very people we hire to ensure that our rights, dignity and purpose become reality are on the take.
Landmark research at Princeton University on the state of our democracy has revealed that we are a democracy in name only. We are an oligarchy, ruled by largely white, wealthy, male and corporate interests who ensure their power and wealth expand at the expense of the well-being of our nation’s diverse citizenry (Gilens, Page, 2014). And this isn’t some left-over vestige from long ago, some antebellum hangover working itself out. These mechanisms are still being actively implemented by our elected officials. 389 restrictive voting bills in 48 states have been introduced since the 2020 election. As of June 2021, 17 states have enacted 28 new voter suppression laws (Brennan Center, 2021), the majority of which are designed to suppress votes in diverse, urban populations.
In other countries, when these dynamics exist, we call it what it is - an apartheid. Here we just offer heartless quips like "May the best man win", “You make your own luck”, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, “To the victor, the spoils”, etc. But the secret is out, and unfortunately our government seems unable to listen, feel or do anything about it.
Business as Savior
As a result, many of us have stopped believing in our nation’s promise. Black and white folks alike who have spent decades trying to achieve some level of security increasingly believe it will never happen, as over half of Americans now believe it is unattainable (One Poll, 2020). As such, it is no wonder that our trust in government has fallen dramatically. Only 24% of U.S. citizens trust the government, down from the high of 77% in 1964 (Pew, 2021).
Well, at least we have each other, right? Nope.
In the struggle of our poverty and the growing shame and resignation that we will not achieve our dreams, we suffer alone. Only 47% of us belong to a spiritual community, down from 70% in 1999 (Gallup, 2021), 61% of us are lonely, up from 46% just a few years ago (Cigna, 2020), 33% of us have only 1, 2 or 3 close friends and 17% of us have no close friends, double the number from 2013 (American Social Survey, 2020). 41% of us don't have a best friend, up from 23% in 1995 (NY Post, 2021). Trust in our fellow Americans has fallen to 32% from 57% in 1968 (Vallier, 2020).
Further, this dynamic seems to be impacting men disproportionately, in what has been called a "male friendship recession", the number of men reporting zero friends has increased 5x since 1995 (NY Post, 2021). Given that we laugh five times less when we're alone versus with others (Proveen, Fisher, 1989), the argument can be made that more alone we are, the more our "pursuit of happiness" is unrealized. It seems individual happiness (eagle) depends to a large extent on our connection to each other and the land (bison). This points to an age old truth - money, screens, drugs, alcohol, and consumer experiences don't give us what we actually need - meaning, belonging and connection. Individual experiences cannot replace social experiences. To fulfill on e pluribus unum and our pursuit of happiness, most of all, we need each other.
There is hope.
Business is in the perfect position to intervene, as organizations are the only place where we have sufficient diversity across gender, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and age, with 5 generations now intermingling in the workplace (Purdue, 2021). Although religion, non-profits and academia are well-regarded and highly trusted, the diversity in most of these organizations reflects the aforementioned geographic, political, economic, and racial segregation of the nation, and thus they are insufficiently diverse to nurture the necessary empathy, trust and belonging across differences.
The substantial and sustained time commitment that is required to build authentic relationships and for the transformation of beliefs and behaviors is low in religious, civic and neighborhood organizations (50-500 hours/year) and high in organizations (2,000 hours/year). Because U.S. organizations are already in action training and developing their people, spending $80B per year in learning and development, $8B per year in DEI and $6B per year in employee wellness, we also have existing channels and budgets, through which we can develop individual and shared purpose and create belonging.
As such, the responsibility of realizing our purpose increasingly falls upon the enterprise. While it may seem counter-intuitive, as
business is still regarded as the most ethical and competent sector, with 72% of us trusting our employer to do the right thing (Edelman, 2021). There is even greater trust in small businesses (<500 employees), where 47.3% of us work (USSBA, 2021), as 94% of us trust small businesses to do the right thing (Gallup, 2020).
Further, 68% of us expect business to fill the government’s leadership/trust void (Edelman, 2021). In part this is due the the immense power of business. Business knows no borders, has vastly greater resources than any other sector, is unencumbered by term limits and the need to constantly engage in media spectalces. People expect business to step up, because it can do so much good in the world.
It's needed and it's time. As you'll explore in the next chapter, your employees, customers and investors now demand it.
To change behavior and beliefs, people need a reason, a commitment worth changing for, such as the impact of one’s work, the love of one’s craft, or simply the impact of one’s paycheck and health insurance on one’s family - these things are unique to the workplace. Culture change isn’t a matter of merely learning new information, but rather a sustained commitment, requiring self-inquiry, modelling, practice, support, and the network redundancy (Centola, 2020) that organizations amply provide.
What this means is that to effectuate any change in beliefs and behaviors, the mechanisms of change must come from multiple people in a network, versus top down, learned in a class, sent out in an email or painted on a wall. They must be continually modeled, developed and expanded over time. The good news is that once 25% of a population adopts a belief or behavior, it soon becomes the norm (Centola, 2020).
In a sense, an organization is like a sovereign nation, with its origin stories, values, mission and vision; its own economy and culture, with its own education and healthcare and environmental functions. From the CEO to the new hire, organizations are fertile gardens for the cultivation of thick culture, comprised of strong ties (close friends) and weak ties (acquaintances), criss-crossing a company and sometimes an entire industry.
You are likely aware of organizations in your industry who have begun to integrate the eagle and the bison, e.g., Thomson Reuters, AirBNB, LinkedIn, Patagonia, Ford, Johnson & Johnson, PwC, etc., and have invested heavily in robust purpose and belonging initiatives. They have embodied the wisdom in Peter Drucker's adage, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." They know their cultures cannot serve only 25% of the workforce (Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white men). They know that 70% of people want to live their purpose at work (McKinsey, 2021). They know how much better they perform when 100% of their employees feel safe, like they belong, can grow, activate their purpose and do their best work. Especially as artificial intelligence (A.I.) makes the rote and analytical, cheap and easy, if there is to be any hope for our nation and species, we must remember and unlock what makes us uniquely human - purpose, creativity, our bonds to each other.
Imagine each employee you work with being connected to their purpose, bringing that sense of belonging and fulfillment back home, impacting the health and resilience of their families and neighborhoods. Imagine the culture and economy of a nation where this is the new normal. Imagine 330 million souls alive, activated, curious, creating, caring and connected. Imagine the sense of fulfillment you will have in helping bring forth this future.
These ripple effects are what can make America’s sacred purpose real, and not just words. Just as our nation's business leaders rose to the challenge in the 1940's to ensure our survival, mobilize the economy and defeat Hitler, we are being called upon again to activate our purpose, liberate our people from oppression and create a shared prosperity that is on the whole, greater than anything we have seen.
And so the question is, is your organization going to activate purpose and belonging, or will you let other players attract diverse talent, innovate, capture market share and fulfill on our nation’s purpose? The deeper question is,
"Knowing the stakes and what's possible, will your last breath be one of shameful regret or tearful pride?"
Before you answer this, let's explore the deeper truth of who we are as a nation, and claim a new future for ourselves, one that is a victory over our white supremacist past and present.
Ch. 1 Summary:
Ch. 1 Reflection Questions:
“Hey, Mike. Good to see you.”
“So, what’s up with Black people?!”
(Pause. Shock. Squirm.)
I was speaking with a CEO after a multi-session anti-racism program his organization just completed. We developed a connection during the training, and I offered to meet with him about my own journey towards allyship. To hear these words from him after the powerful experience we all just had together made me wonder what feelings he had about Black people before the training.
It was the summer of 2020. Black Lives Matter (#BLM) protests were sweeping the globe, and companies were scrambling to both demonstrate support for #BLM, and giving serious attention to inclusion, diversity and equity (DEI). DEI budgets ballooned and by September of 2020, there were over 100,000 open DEI positions on LinkedIn. In part, our engagement at his organization was a result of George Floyd’s tragic murder and the moral awakening that men like us had after witnessing it.
My first conversation with Mike following the program was very enjoyable, with each of us talking about our lives, purpose, values, families, faith and careers. He must have felt very safe with me, because at the outset of our second conversation, he opened up with “So, what’s up with Black people?!” Which of course is a hell of a way to begin a discussion about allyship.
I would discover, over the course of that conversation and more, that he wanted to make sense of the racial unrest, the impoverished state of many BIPOC communities, his commitment to inclusion, his conservative politics and his role as company leader. He was looking for coherence and a path forward to be an ally to BIPOC folks without abandoning his conservative values. He valued individualism and personal responsibility, and was having trouble squaring it with the new knowledge of the role that systemic racism plays in tilting the tables against African Americans.
He was also a consumer of state and conservative media that had been painting #BLM as a violent, lesbian, socialist domestic terror organization, and suggesting that Anti-fa supporters were both lazy libtard snowflakes, and also, magically, a dangerous domestic terror organization - which of course was not true, as 93% of 2020 protests were not violent (CNN, 2020). To activate one’s allyship and reconcile it with the 2020 edition of conservatism is a heroic choice. It would be far easier to look the other way.
More importantly, he was beginning to see how a lack of inclusion was morally abhorrent to him as an American and a man of faith. Nowhere is it written in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads, that a human life is unworthy of dignity, acceptance, and opportunity. Indeed these sacred texts say the opposite. I could feel the tension in his heart and mind. On one hand he wanted all the #BLM stuff, the protests, the riots, the lawsuits, etc. to just go away and on the other hand he knew it couldn’t until justice was served and equity was achieved.
And he felt deep down that leading inclusively was a personal expression of his Christian faith and values and his citizenship. He was called into service on this front, but unsure how to square it with his conservative beliefs, and the expectations of his board and pressure from investors.
Of course, he’s not alone. 90% of white men place some value on DEI, with 42% who believe it is very or extremely important to them (Center for Talent Innovation, 2020). Although, of these 42% who deeply believe in DEI, many simply do not know how to support it. Less than have of these true believers have ever confronted anyone about an exclusionary comment or behavior, and most have not voluntarily joined an employee resource group (ERG).
Many have heard the call to lead and activate America’s purpose in 2020, however few answered it. In light of the prevailing over work / meritocracy / always on / rat race ethos of America’s work culture, the endless pressure from board members and investors to beat earnings estimates, and organization inertia, it’s understandable to ignore the call.
It’s understandable to want to look away from the fact that if success was only about hard work, then the executive suite would look like a Benetton ad and 1st generation immigrants would rule the world. Unfortunately, the leaders who courageously answered the call to create inclusive cultures, and activate the twin purpose of the United States, were also not effective.
For example, the last two decades of DEI (hiring quotas, mentoring programs, employee resource groups, mandatory bias trainings, anonymous reporting systems, etc.) has failed to produce results for our BIPOC, female and LGBTQIA+ team members. The now famous Harvard Business Review study of 800 organizations’ DEI efforts revealed that , on the whole, the field delivered neutral to negative outcomes (HBR, 2016). And this is after sinking $8 billion a year into DEI (McKinsey, 2017).
In part this failure was due to the moralizing and compliance-driven nature of these trainings, making people in power (mostly straight white men) feel attacked. And what do people do when they feel attacked? They resist and fight back. And they did. So leaders are right to be skeptical of playing God with their cultures.
And yet, this is the tension. Leaders know that culture matters and they can no longer stay silent on social issues, as 62% of adults now demand that companies take a stand on social, economic and environmental issues (Accenture, 2018) and 87% of consumers believe business should put just as much attention on social issues as economic results (Edelman, 2017).
They’ve also seen culture issues torpedo M+A and other critical strategies, and be at the source of scandal and corruption. They’ve seen the resulting missed hiring, retention and performance goals. They’ve seen top talent flee for startups and organizations with inclusive cultures, great Glassdoor ratings, and B Corp designations.
Leaders are stuck between taking the laissez faire approach to culture ensuring the same white guys get hired and promoted, resulting in lawsuits, missed targets and customer and employee churn, and actively crafting culture which will take a bunch of time and money and is unlikely to succeed. Until recently, this was an unsolvable tension.
In 2020, as VP of People Science at ion Learning, I co-authored a research study in partnership with Golden Gate University, to measure and assess a unique culture change method with a global biotech company with 50k+ employees. This method involves forming small, diverse peer learning groups who learn something together over time. We saw outstanding results: 95% course completion (vs. 5% industry completion rate, Jordan, 2015), 85% behavior change and 76% new daily habit formation rates (ion Learning, 2020).
Further, 98% of participants experienced respect from their diverse peers, 96% experienced empathy from their diverse peers, and women and BIPOC employees reported increases in organizational commitment of 11.3% and 13.6% respectively.
When this method is used to activate employees’ purpose and values, both people and organizations thrive:
There are new tools and approaches now available for leaders to achieve their performance goals and reduce risk and employee turnover by activating purpose and belonging in small, diverse groups. In so doing, they also activate our nation's twin purpose. Before we explore this proven pathway, we’ll look at why organizations are the front line in the fight for our nation’s purpose (Chapter 1).
In short, America is deeply segregated racially, economically, geographically, generationally and politically, and it is only at work where we connect across boundaries and have a shared commitment to learn and grow together. We’ll also look at a unifying mythology to activate the common bond between leadership, investors, employees and customers and among all people of our nation, and then lay out the robust purpose and belonging value proposition (Chapter 2) and the key trends driving the business case (Chapter 3).
We’ll look at the skin you will have to put in the game to realize this return (Chapter 4) and how the fate of your people and our nation depends on it (Chapter 5). We’ll explore how the old way of doing Learning and Development, DEI, Wellness and Culture is a huge waste of time and money and actually creates greater division and disengagement, and how the new way - building authentic, high-trust and diverse relationships across an organization - delivers better results and enables unprecedented productivity, innovation, information transfer and organizational commitment (Chapter 6). We’ll conclude with a roadmap (Chapter 7) of how to activate a culture of purpose and belonging in your organization, and a vision for our shared success as a nation (Chapter 8).
Chapters will be published each week. Subscribe below to receive an email notification of newly available chapters.