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November, 29, 2019  |  Mike Rowlands  |  

A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

As business stands at a crossroads, will we continue to walk the path that got us into the troubles we face?

Mike Rowlands
is President & CEO at Junxion. He’s also a board member at Social Venture Circle. Reach him via [email protected].

Last week, I was in Berkeley, California for the Social Venture Circle conference, an annual event that convenes many of the pioneers and leading thinkers of socially responsible business. Many of us this year were most excited to hear from keynote speaker Anand Giridharadas, author of the powerfully provocative bestseller Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

In Winners Take All, Giridharadas focuses his patient, analytical lens on the self-aggrandizing philanthropy of vaunted leaders of the private sector. “Many believe they are changing the world when they may instead—or also—be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.” He makes the case that the challenges so many social innovators decry as ‘intractable’ are in fact reinforced by uber-wealthy do-gooders. Winners Take All is among the most important books of this decade—and it’s an essential read for anyone involved in social venture, social enterprise, the B Corp movement, or philanthropy.

Giridharadas’s conversation with SVC Executive Director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl certainly lived up to expectations. But let me back up for a minute…. or a year….

I first listened to the Winners Take All audiobook about 14 months ago and was struck by its unabashed critique of many of the increasingly popular social purpose business movements. I have long held the view that these movements are essential for the redress of social inequity and environmental degradation. As a friend of mine echoed recently, the book assaulted that view, seemingly peeling away layer after layer of assumptions, ideas, and trusted beliefs about the world of work and the role of business as ‘a force for good.’

After listening to it for the first time, I found it oh-so-easy to criticize the critic. I remember debating another friend, arguing that Giridharadas was long on criticism and short on solutions.

It’s easy to criticize the critic when we feel defensive or disrupted.

My friend disagreed. So I read the book again…. My friend was right. The solutions are present in the book. I had simply found it easier to settle into defensiveness of the work I’ve focused on for the last dozen years. After that second read, I was feeling less defensive and more disrupted.

As I traveled to the SVC conference, I was ready to hear Giridharadas’s more detailed account of his thinking—particularly before an audience of people that have for nearly four decades been dedicated to using business as a vehicle to solve what ails the world. Fourteen months of reflection and further research has a way of settling the soul, one might say. But many in the room were hearing these ideas for the first time. (Big thanks to one SVC member who personally sponsored the purchase of 100 copies of the book for conference delegates to read in the weeks before the conference.)

“The Culture of Business Has Conquered Everything”

Winners Take All is a well-researched, clearly argued, and fundamentally honest assault on the very systems so many of us are trying to reform. Complementing the book, a recent headline in The Guardian argues that “for liberal democracy to recover, we will have to recast prevailing liberal philosophy, politics and economic policy.” That is precisely Giridharadas’s thesis. In conversation with Valerie, Giridharadas pointed to massive wealth inequities, persistent social injustices, resource-driven conflicts, the climate emergency, and myriad other so-called intractable problems as the fallout of a society that “was reorganized around money.”

Certainly, Giridharadas is a provocateur: “The economy is a crime scene.” Like salads at fast food restaurants, the movements toward social responsibility in business have “provided cover for a system rotten at its core.” (You didn’t think everything on the fast food menu got healthier, did you?)

Certainly, the current caricature of capitalism delivers duopolies in place of thriving markets, spreads American consumerist homogeneity in place of cultural diversity, and tolerates the world’s biggest companies paying zero in taxes while spending fortunes on political lobbying.

Yet he is also a dreamer and a poet—a bristly idealist. Consider one of his metaphors—that of society as a stadium. As social sentiment, electoral politics, and business trends shift from left to right and back again, we move from one side of the playing field to another.

A bristly idealist, Giridharadas is optimistic we can unwind complicity in the systems that are failing so many of us.

What is needed, though, is that we “tear down Reagan’s stadium” entirely, building anew, rejecting unfettered, unregulated, unscrupulous neoliberalism in favour of “unwinding complicity.”

The Courage to Ask the Hard Question

Among the first questions asked by members of Social Venture Circle was one that cut straight to the heart of Winners Take All. “To what degree have we been complicit?” The implication was clear: many of us are wondering whether the organization that inspired so many others—American Sustainable Business Council, BALLE (now Common Future), B Lab, Net Impact, Opportunity Collaboration, and so many more—is itself providing cover for a rotten system.

“There’s a good chance this second gilded age is ending with [these] movements,” responded Giridharadas. Perhaps SVC’s first “40 years were pilot projects” in the effort to try something different, something harder—a capitalism that delivers dignity.

Shifting from Discomfort to Action….

Giridharadas examines, explicates, and exhibits uncomfortable truths with an admirable and unapologetic clarity. And within that clarity, he was deeply encouraging of the work members of SVC and like-minded allies have done. His suggestions for what’s next?…

Engage people who don’t think like us. “I’m a writer. We can say sh*t that people with salaries can’t!” Like any good critic—in the model of the jester of old—Giridharadas holds up a mirror into which we may not want to look. But it’s impossible to ‘unsee’ that which he makes so clear. Rather than smugly resting on our laurels, we must continue to show the world how business can be done differently. Build exemplars. Celebrate successes. And advocate for reforms to the systems that no longer serve society.

Unwind complicity. Now that you’ve been handed the mirror, look into it. Deeply. What is your company doing well? And where is it failing? What are you paying people? For what are you lobbying? What are the moral touchstones that guide your business leadership? Audit yourself. You might be disappointed by the negative impacts you find hidden behind your best intentions.

Collaborate toward a better system. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere. We’re just measuring ‘success’ with the wrong metrics. We’ve written before about the absurdities of using GDP as a central measure of economic health. How can we pretend unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet?! What we need are new models that celebrate collective success.

Humans are narrative makers. We navigate our surroundings and our lives by seeing patterns, building stories in our minds, and connecting the dots to predict what’s coming next. A new narrative of collective success is essential. When so many of us are facing climate despair, or falling into grief, a new story that inspires and reignites hope, that points a way forward for each of us, our organizations, and our society is an imperative, invaluable contribution.

Junxion is proud to be involved in some of these narrative-building efforts. Top of mind as I write today is the Wellbeing Economy Alliance’s forthcoming Guide to the Alternatives to Business as Usual,  which will propose new definitions of success, present new frames of leadership and community engagement, and outline leading edge models for measuring impact and return on investment.

As Giridharadas and so many others point out, wellbeing is everyone’s business. As business stands at this crossroads, will we continue to walk the path that got us into the troubles we face? Or will we strike out in a new way?…

Let’s find the courage to be bold….

Let’s be audacious, together….

Image Credit: Mackenzie Stroh

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