“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.
"I know... that change is gonna come. Oh, yes it will." Sam Cooke
As older workers retire and hand the reins to younger ones, and as frontline managers, new hires, customers and end users 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).
Historically, 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 everyone. 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 isn’t a powerful mission, and a culture of inclusion and warmth on the team, we’re out.
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 tactics fail to produce substantial and sustained results because the way of the eagle has not been rooted out. From the underlying biases (privileging whites and men), culture (profit principle/quarterly earning reports, always on, impress the boss, similarity bias, no purpose activation), and systems (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 has proven 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, ecosystems and species. As such, all internal people activities now must be re-imagined with a holistic and social approach.
A few innovative companies, such as Coursera, are seeing that DEI, L+D, wellness, talent and culture have much more in common than they differ 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).
How can any of us be truly well when one of us is suffering?
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 be driven by 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 the new way of developing people and culture, let’s do a thorough audit of where we’re starting from.
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 condescension, disgust and paternalism that European settlers had towards First Nations people.
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.
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 or app is the answer. It assumes there is nothing unique about any of us, that we are tabula rasa, a blank slate, without any purpose, meaning or mattering.
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 versus, 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 and disconnected from our true bison nature, 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 demonstrating we’ve passed. 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 industrial complex (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). As such eagle L+D edifies 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. Because it also doesn’t create high-trust connections between diverse people, it creates conscious and unconscious resistance to diverse groups and DEI initiatives.
As we’ve explored, the $8 billion DEI industrial complex (McKinsey, 2017) has resulted in neutral to negative outcomes over the last 2 decades, wasting $8B and hundreds of thousands 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. 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”. All you have to do is stand up on a chair at your next company event and watch who is talking to who. White sales guys talking to white sales guys. Asian engineers talking to Asian engineers. Black customer service reps talking to black customer service reps. White HR ladies talking to white HR ladies. And those with the most power talking amongst themselves in the corner.
This is because, people generally strike up conversations with people who they have something in common with, and generally based on age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, education, politics, department, etc. 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, culture is typically not part of anyone’s title, so it gets assumed by folks, and frequently lower status white women, to add onto their already packed schedules and unbalanced workload. Without any time, staff or budget to think it through, at best it gets done quickly and edifies 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 and driven by someone with relatively low status, and it doesn’t include everyone. At its worst, this approach becomes an opportunity for those with little status and power to exercise power and “lean down” on diverse employees, such as allocating budgets for Fourth of July activities, but none for Juneteeth 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, loser.” It is reflective of our allopathic sickcare industry, that addresses the symptoms of our atomized, micromanaged, 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, unable to take the pressure of the always-on, soulless, dehumanizing workism of the modern corporation. 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 a veterinary pharmacy. Like a agricultural veterinarian, its job is to make us just well enough to be exploited for burden or slaughter.
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 the great need for support, only 24% of employees 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 sysiphean task of marshalling comparatively little time, power and budget to combat the effects of an eagle culture.
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 and communities of color were disproportionately impacted, e.g.,
Of course, as I mentioned, most HR folks are generally kind, inclusive and heart-centered, and there are multiple bison-shaped bright spots emerging in L+D, DEI, wellness and culture. 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 we didn’t have a noble purpose to be a beacon of flourishing, equity and unity 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, both 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 ERG’s, anonymous reporting systems, paternalistic mentoring programs and one-time compliance trainings;
Instead of driving people apart by allowing similarity bias to form tribes and destroy culture; 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 and empower them to activate their purpose at work.
The bison way is generative and specific. It gets at the source of what people need to flourish. People need to be a part of a healthy culture where they can activate and fulfill their purpose and enjoy rich connections with each other. e.g.,
“... 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 last 30 years of breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology, social learning and integrative health has revealed a coherent picture of how to develop and scale a thriving culture:
A. put people in small, diverse groups of peers,
B. empower them to activate their purpose and values at work,
C. and share their experiences with each other over time.
The results of this approach are that 95% of people complete the programs, 90% can apply the concepts, 85% take new actions and 76% form new daily habits. 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 (ion Learning, 2020).
Guided by the bison, all functions come together to serve an aligned vision, the details of which we’ll explore in the next few chapters. Cross-functional teams are charged with common goals and objectives, and a large amount of trust and autonomy to deliver on them. This means multiple business and people metrics. No single business unit or function can address belonging and inclusion or productivity or flourishing or innovation or wellness or employee engagement or attraction/retention. They all must align in order to create true systemic and culture change.
With this orientation and the powerful mechanism for unleashing purpose and belonging at scale (small, diverse peer group learning, over time and in the flow fo work), let’s imagine how the bison way could look and feel by people 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 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 at work (85%) and are retained in the relationships as norms, habits (76%) as institutional knowledge in each small, diverse learning group.
Work is kind, compassionate, inclusive and forgiving. It doesn’t punch white people on the nose and label them 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 (96%) and respect (98%) 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 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%) (ion, 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, it is likely that group / interpersonal interventions are a powerful 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) and have 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), small, diverse peer learning groups centered in purpose and values, may be one of the most promising solutions for human longevity and vitality in existence.
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 product 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.
“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 the wealthy and powerful. 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.
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 people 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 aspiring ally harvest. 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 performative and 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 is that only 60% of people believed George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin in June of 2020, and that number fell to 36% by March of 2021 (USA Today / Ipsos, 2021). This means that by March of 2021, 64% of people who had seen and/or still had access to the footage of the actual murder, said it wasn’t murder. Just as disturbing 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 USA Today / Ipsos poll suggests that support for racial justice among white people may have already fallen below 2019 levels.
While some white folks opened their hearts and began the journey to allyship, many dug their heels in. What’s telling is that support for BLM is at 88% among white Democrats and 16% for white Republicans (Pew, 2020). What’s telling is 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.
Death to the Tyrants!
Unfortunately, these aren’t just caddy 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. 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 called the San Diego Police Department to see if a crime had been committed and to file a report. 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 domestic 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.
Luckily for us, a new administration was elected.
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 disinformation and hate speech to genocide. 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?
As even the words “diversity”, “equity” and “inclusion” raise the hairs on the backs of many white necks, we can no longer address inequity and racism with only 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 is rotting the roots of our democracy.
How We Got 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 through 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 the 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 would 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 social media landscape that peels us off into inumerable 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 accesible firearms. Extremists pray on the lonely, poor and marginalized. As Hannah Arendt revealed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, 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, even 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 redemption and resurrection. We have an opportunity to vanquish the eagle, 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.
So how about that dieable why 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 in service of your purpose, its purpose and our nation’s purpose, let’s get clear on the state of people initiatives - what’s working, what’s broken and what’s next.
“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.
“Thank you. Doesn’t always happen that way.”
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 wasn’t likely my dream job.
“I’m not sure yet. I’m trying to find a way to positively impact 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.
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 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 what Dr. King called a complete life, one 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, 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 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 dieable why.
You will need a why big enough to change your own leadership behaviors, and believable enough so that others are inspired 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 of an idea or outcome.
Unfortunately, very few leaders are able to do that. 80% of leaders don’t know their purpose (Snook, Craig, 2014) and thus are unable to furnish an authentic connection to their company’s mission. Without this awareness and connection, they cannot inspire and unify people.
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 people and planet. Without purpose, a person is at best a manager. With their purpose and the certainty that connects it to the company’s mission, they have earned the right to lead. Without this connection, the “empathy, community, and shared purpose“ (McKinsey & Co., 2015) required to innovate and transform, nothing will change in your organization.
So what is this “why”? And how do you encounter it? There are several well known instances when the why appeared and the real story of a life and an enterprise are revealed, such as Yvon Chouinard’s awakening to the soul of Patagonia (to empower people to make contact with their true selves through nature), or Ray Anderson’s awakening to the soul of Interface Carpet (to create carbon negative flooring). Volumes have been written on these encounters and the 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 dieable why is not decided upon, nor can it be outsourced to marketing, nor guessed at by an expensive consulting firm. It is an encounter with both your soul and the soul of your enterprise. Although this encounter can be facilitated with outside help, by people who ask good questions and hold space for transformative experiences, it comes from within the leaders’ hearts and souls. 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 everyone’s noses. When it is revealed, two things happen. The first is that feels a little obvious, like a coherent pattern emerged from the data you've been staring at for years - “of course, that’s what we’ve been doing this whole time.” The second is a religious conversion, of feeling something sacred erupt inside you and those you serve as a call to incarnate the soul of the enterprise in all matters, in 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 purpose, a “why” big enough and inspiring enough to surrender the old ways for the new. My hope is that seeing yourself as a steward of your people’s flourishing and our nation’s purpose, and leaving a legacy you can be proud of is part of your why. My greatest hope for you is that you die a good death…
With gratitude, tenderness, fulfillment and a sense of completion…
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 eye 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 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
We need your purpose, right here and now. So what is it?
Before we can be clear on your purpose, we need to know what purpose actually means. I haven’t yet defined purpose, because when properly considered, it should scare the bejeezus out of you. So I waited until now.
Purpose is a megatrend. It's hard to pick up a Harvard Business Review from the last decade and not see the word heralded as a cure for all that ails. However, depending on who you're talking to, they use it differently. Ask a marketer and they’ll come back with a logo, brand promise, style guide and communications strategy. Ask a minister and they’ll say surrender to God’s will. Ask a consultant, and you’ll drown in focus groups and 2x2 matrices. Ask a parent and they’ll say “kids”. Ask your CFO and prepare to discuss opportunities and risk.
In short, don’t rely on anyone who hasn't been trained as a purpose or soul practitioner to tell you what purpose is. And even among trained practitioners, answers somewhat vary. Below is how I hold it.
Now purpose is much more than this, as I’ve explored in my previous book, Planet on Purpose, e.g., its 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 purpose. It has to bleed.
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.
You are here to activate your purpose as a leader, and 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 destiny 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 your deepest heartbreak?
For me, it’s 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 and accepted, to have their gifts acknowledged and developed. I want every person to be liberated by the dignity of their soul and fulfilled by their purpose.
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 friendship, 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 purpose is the one and many, the parts and the whole, a guiding light that is equally useful in a marriage, meeting, and shipwreck.
To move forward with this book, you need to agree that you do have a dieable why, even if you’re not clear on what it is right now.
If you would like some more clarity and certainty, 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 retraumatize 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, I invite you to work with a trained purpose activation coach (see Appendix A: Purpose Activation Resources).
Now review what you’ve written. What themes do you see? Any new information about your dieable why? Now, you don’t need absolute clarity on your dieable why right now, nor understand what it means 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.
Once you acknowledge that it exists, you’re ready to see how you can leverage it to transform your life, career, and organization and steward our nation. If you still don’t think you might have a dieable why, the next chapter, “Culture Change is a Matter of Life and Death” might land it for you.
“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 men 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 myth 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. Carl Icahn. Bill Gates. John Rockefeller. We praise men like these - the resource extractor, the champion, the inventor, the financier, the technology “disrupter”.
This myth is best represented by our national bird, the bald eagle, 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 shows up in 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 Massachussets Bay Colony, establishing 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, Massachussetts and Connecticut began a privatized war to incentivize otherwise peaceful Christians 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 by eagle doctrines in their home countries. They survived on Turtle Island 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), and then through starvation and war, they enacted legal and systematic genocide, resulting in 5-15 million deaths). Their descendants continuted this tradition with the human trafficking / slavery / murder / rape / torture of African peoples (35 million dead Africans). In the 1800's, our eagle's talons turned abroad once more, via manifest destiny, into Latin America 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, 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 smith 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 citizen to consumer via, Edwin Bernays' advertising "innovations" (translating the psychology of his uncle Sigmund Freud into irrestible messages to fill our 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 occassion, 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 succombed to the devil / blue pill / limiting beliefs / loserdom.
Now empowerment is not a bad thing at all. In a cohesive, intact and just society, it's a great source of self-expression, individuation, actualization and community wealth. Empowerment in an eagle society 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 moralize 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 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 rent in the cities and exurbs - to provide them with food, goods and services. Those who live in the suburbs often commute into 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, and continue the tradition of exiling the poor, dark and sinful to the slums and hinterlands. The necessary revolution doesn't happen, because the bootstraps / prosperity gospel has thoroughly saturated every institution (business, media, religion, education) and offers us only one path to salvation.
It's not unions, protesting or Civil Rights. 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"
As the eagle way de-unionized our economy begining 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 out their labor and natural resources. By 2021, the eagle has subjugated the will of the people in over 80 countries (Wikipedia, 2021). As a finishing touch, we then appropriate and commercialize their spiritual practices (yoga), cultures (speaker kittens in Comanche headresses at Coachella) 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, robbed from and exterminated the people they encountered, and then set up interlocking systems to perpetuate separation and suffering. From scalps, to slavery, to sharecropping, to contract lending, to Jim Crow, to surburbs, to congested freeways, to flat wages, to pesticides, to consumerism, to housing projects, to Superfund sites, to privatized healthcare, to rape culture, to pollution, it’s almost as if hurt people can’t do anything else but devise new ways to hurt people.
There are so many wonderful things to celebrate about our country, from our democratic institutions to music to our crafts to our technology and science. 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, e.g., our Capitol Building and White House. 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, theives, 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 symbolizes 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 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 you as a leader? It means that we allow this myth to work on us, to move through us and into greater courage, generativity, play, interdependence and responsibility. 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 activate our national purpose, and restore national pride.
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 an 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 history and bison on your side. You also have the numbers.
There is a solid business case for activating a bison-shaped 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 build a bison-shaped organization, you're going to need a big reason, one that excites and scares you.
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