South Africa

OP-ED

Business leadership can contribute to our healing

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

We still inhabit a ‘zero-sum mindset’ world, believing that business is mostly about crushing the competition and that resources, including other humans, are there to be exploited. This way of thinking leads to great suffering for all parties, including our very Earth itself. There is a better way.

“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”
— Milton Friedman, 1970

Most business school curricula are built on that deeply foundational premise, a rigid dogma that has caused massive and unnecessary suffering to people and the planet itself.

Today we know that it matters not only how much you make, but even more how you make it.

The pandemics of pathogens and viruses, obesity, opioid addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, wars, gun violence, corruption and the very ecological emergency of our planetary ecosystem are all exacerbated by the way business is conducted. 

Business pervades our lives. More than governments, non-profits, labour unions or religious institutions, business is the dominant force in modern life, for better and for worse. Yet, even as we progress in so many ways, especially our technological revolution, we allow drastic, unnecessary suffering to continue — and business plays a sometimes defining role in causing it.

The clearest example was the way in which hate, racial vitriol and violence were stoked on social media a month ago in our country that led to at least 350 people losing their lives and more than R50-billion in short-term economic damages and a long-term, perhaps a full decade, setback for our nation-building project, with untold consequences for economic recovery.

The direction in which we as a country go depends on how we evolve our thinking about business. If we continue on our current path, foolishness and despair will prevail. If we evolve and transform, by applying wisdom and light to change how we think about organisations, we have a real opportunity to heal.

Darwin believed that empathy is the strongest instinct of human evolution. In a sense, we are born to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and therefore intelligent cooperation is essential to our thriving as a species, especially away from a toxic brew of patriarchy. Whatever one’s level of income, when meaning and purpose are absent, when we feel dehumanised, objectified and commodified, we experience emotional and psychological pain and suffering.

That is the shared wound of South Africa, whether it is the wound of superiority or inferiority based on race, status, culture or sexual orientation.

Economist, people’s banker, social entrepreneur and Nobel Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus believes, “Indifference to other human beings is deeply embedded in the conceptual framework of economics… We need to design a theory keeping in mind the true human being, not a distorted and miniaturized version. A true human being is selfless, caring, sharing, trusting, community building, friendly — and at the same time, the reverse of all these virtues.”

In other words, how do we design organisations and organisational systems that uplift the “true human being”? How do we create companies that promote our selfless, pro-social nature while liberating us from distortion and miniaturisation?

If the operating systems of democracy and economy are both designed to build pathways of hope and opportunity for all from an inclusive basis of our shared rights and responsibilities, then the result is abundance, creativity, joy and fulfilment for all. When these systems are dominated by fear, the result is the oppression of minorities, attempts to suppress the right to vote, tribalism, vilification of immigrants and xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, greed, exploitation and a growing disparity between winners and losers.

So if we are all wounded and traumatised by this disjuncture and lack of connection, then how do we in the workplace fulfil this yearning for purpose, meaning and more conscious behaviour?

The overwhelming majority of humanity wants peace, happiness and social cohesion. No one wants to live in a bubble of insecurity hemmed into a prison of affluence protected by high walls, electric fences and armed response. The recent upheavals have shown that the majority of South Africans of all races stood up and extended their hands across the barricades. In solidarity. And thousands of new grassroots leaders rose up and said — NOT IN MY NAME.

How do we build from this positive outcome of an insurrectionary nightmare that we had? Can business play a role beyond the social responsibility ticking of the box exercise that has failed to deliver anything of consequence to the underclass of excluded young people who today still have nothing to lose but their chains, as Steve Biko said?

Can business find the political will to rise above its high-cost interventions mediated through their country club networks or the corporatist deals between government, labour and captains of industry indabas in expensive air-conditioned hotels?

If we can have a vision of healing our collective wound through concrete acts that commit us all to serve the needs of all stakeholders, including our employees, customers, communities and the environment, then we have a real chance.

As a former labour leader, I saw an ugly, cold and hardened divide between labour and management. I thought that the divide seemed natural; labour and management have come to be seen as natural enemies. But we still never burnt the factory down. We learnt to negotiate even when the train was going off the rails because of the volatile situation in the country.

Today in South Africa, we see a fear-driven, scarcity-propelled “zero-sum” way of thinking about business and everything else. In the political arena, demagoguery, race-baiting and destructive tribalism that we thought we had seen the back of forever, are raising their violent tentacles. Only one obstacle stands in its way — an organised and united citizenry that believes in our country.

There are many well-meaning people in South Africa. But we still inhabit a “zero-sum mindset” world, believing that business is mostly about crushing the competition and that resources, including other humans, are there to be exploited. This way of thinking leads to great suffering for all parties, including our very Earth itself. There is a better way.

We can dump our outdated ideologies and paradigms of thinking. We can transcend our old race, class and cultural divides. We can rise above the laager mentality of narrow nationalism and find the common ground at an economic and land reform resolution of our past.    

It’s time to create a new, more human, life-affirming story about what business is and what it can be, one that can serve us and will heal us. In The World Is as You Dream It, economist John Perkins recounts a conversation he had with a Numi, a shaman and indigenous leader in South America:

How can people change this terrible situation we’ve created?

“That’s simple,” replied Numi, “All you have to do is change the dream. It can be accomplished in a generation. You need only plant a different seed, teach your children to dream new dreams.”

I believe that our children here in South Africa have already learnt this lesson. They are standing up in their millions to declare that our systems, laws and institutions, from local to national and global, do not serve them or future generations. And the science today, especially the recently released IPCC Report, confirms that.

It’s time for my generation of those who still cling to power and old outdated thinking and ideologies to grasp that message and build an authentic, inclusive and concrete intergenerational dialogue and cooperation from the bottom up. DM

PS. I am grateful that this Op-Ed is a product of a shared discussion with a close collaborator and friend, Jeby Cherian, the head of the Isha Leadership Institute set up by Sadguru, in Bangalore, who has deepened my insights into reimagining the role of business in healing.

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  • Good article. I have yet to come across a fellow business person who has the mindset of exploitation of others. The perpetuation of this communist inspired narrative is unhelpful. The scale of NGO activity in SA is testament to the deep seated philanthropy emanating from the business community dating way back before 1994.
    The real issue is a lack of trust based on perceptions rather than reality. Here we need to recall the golden years in the early to late 2000’s where the creative energy of the private sector was unleashed.

  • That organisations rule our everyday world is well accepted and most believe there is not much that can be done to improve the situation. The documentary ‘The Organisation’, featuring a number of big hitters, including Naom Chomsky, have also adressed this theme.
    Hopefully the seed you are trying to sow fall on fertile ground.