“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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