Friday, July 21, 2020
Economics and Achievement
I turn now to urge a more discriminating scrutiny of what is considered the greatest achievement of the twentieth century: economic success. . . . William Shakespeare lived in a country with a very low gross Domestic Product. Paris in the years of the Impressionists was appreciably less affluent than it is now. So, also, was the world that gave us Charles Darwin, and no one since has so challenged embodied belief. It is clear that success that is measured by economic output bears no close relationship to human achievement.
— John Kenneth Galbraith, The Unfinished Business of the Century, Lecture at the London School of Economics, 1999.
The most economically successful countries in the world do not always—or even typically—produce the greatest minds and the most creative artists. The wealthiest individuals are neither the cleverest, the most creative, or the nicest people to spend time with. Career success does not guarantee happiness. We all know this. So why do people sacrifice their leisure, their health, their ability to be creative, and their relationships purely in order to earn more money?
Slow Leadership’s definition of a civilized workplace is one that provides a good place to be, as well as a satisfactory income to support the rest of life. This means building organizations that can survive and prosper indefinitely, while giving everyone connected with them opportunities to live well, to feel a genuine sense of purpose, and to enjoy their association with colleagues and customers. Flexibility and inclusiveness are essential too, since different people hold different values and one person’s definition of an enjoyable working life may not be quite the same as another’s.
For individuals, neither wealth, nor status, nor recognition are guarantees of happiness or enjoyment of life. Living a good life demands a balance between having enough wealth to afford the lifestyle you prefer and enough free time, peace of mind, health, and energy to enjoy it. There is little benefit in being richer if you have no time to enjoy your riches and feel constantly anxious about losing them.
For organizations, there is a similar balance between sufficient short-term profitability to avoid cash flow problems, and a long-term outlook that focuses on using those profits to promote the purpose for which the organization exists. The true goal of any organization is to survive and prosper for long as its purpose remains a worthwhile one. Short-term profits bought at the expense of long-term benefits are symptoms of foolishness. Growth, in itself, is no guarantee of survival or prosperity. There are many examples of organizations that have outgrown their ability to operate successfully, and either collapsed or been split into several more successful offshoots.
All this can best be accomplished by slowing down, leaving time and space for people to enjoy what they do, moving to a longer-term definition of success, and redressing the balance between thinking and action. Today’s organizations are obsessed with constant action and almost entirely short-term in outlook. Thinking is carelessly equated with impracticality and theorizing; reflection is dismissed as doing nothing. Yet thinking can yield results that last for centuries and affect the lives of millions—consider the great philosophers and people such as Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein—while action itself is over and gone in a little while, often leaving no trace. Without time spent in reflection there can be no learning, and organizations today need to learn as never before.
This brings us back to balance. Thinking without acting on those thoughts has little relevance to creating a sound organization or a good life. Action without sufficient thought, or action based solely on rules of thumb (which is what happens in most organizations today), is foolhardy and inflexible. The faster you rush, the less time you have for anything save instant responses. The more you concentrate on the short term, the more you miss or ignore what might provide for long-term prosperity.
Wealth is no guarantee of a good life or a civilized community, nor is constant industry proof of either individual or corporate virtue. Amassing money for its own sake provides no meaning for what you do. Corporate growth is not an end in itself, any more than growing taller is the appropriate goal for a child. To provide meaning and fulfillment, life needs a purpose that you can believe in with your whole heart. Organizations can surely help to provide such a sense of purpose, but only if their goals too go far beyond merely making a return for shareholders and fat salaries for the executives in charge. Only misers find pleasure in in a purposeless accumulation of money. For the rest of us, wealth is merely a means to an end, and if that end is sordid and petty, that is what our lives will be also.
Our Western culture is certainly suffering from all the symptoms you list: speed at any cost; short-term and superficial thinking; and a bias for reflexive action over active reflection. It is not clear to me how you think we got in that state. I believe it is due largely to the rising prominence of publicly-owned and -directed financial markets. Despite their enthusiastic mission statements and gushing product campaigns, public corporations remain unabashedly accountable to their shareholders and regulators, not to their employees and customers. These allegiances are played out in the open financial markets, which are also, by the way, where we have parked our college and retirement savings.
Furthermore, Western governments—led by people we helped elect—are now fully corporatized: they exist to foster and promote the major beneficiaries of the free market system.
I believe a system-wide re-balancing must parallel organizational and individual changes. I do not believe current leadership is up to the task.
So where is there hope? The only really new capability we have this century is information technology. Intelligent machines are already taking over many of our more mundane and time-sensitive tasks, freeing up more time for us to reflect, play, and learn where our civilization is headed. Maybe someday we won't even need leaders.
Your questions are most thoughtful and seem to me to be right on the button.
There's a limit to what can be explained within the reasonable limitations of a posting. To tackle the questions you raise, I have written a book. It's called Slow Leadership: How to Civilize Your Organization and it will be published in the Fall. I'll post details of publication when I have them.
Until then, I'll try to deal with at least some of your points in future posts.
I very much aprreciate your wisdom and experience on this issue. Please keep reading.
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