The Capitalist’s Journey to Consciousness: Lessons from the Yellow Brick Road

Updated: Sep 28, 2021


When you hear the word Capitalism, are you triggered? Ready to either passionately indict, or throatily defend? The ideologues and power brokers on the far sides of this debate are as disingenuous and self-serving as ever. Yet the opportunity exists to improve our economic system by developing leaders who work within it.


I recently re-read The Wizard of Oz; a dear friend of mine handed me her vintage copy after hearing some of my musings about the importance of having a heart in business. Along with the brilliant, joyful story-telling, I found some interesting connections that can help guide us to a better path where we are always learning, growing, and constantly bettering ourselves and our world: the Yellow Brick Road.


JOURNEYING SHOULD BE A VERB

Even if you don’t think you’re missing brains, a heart, or courage, the journey – my journey, your journey, not the destination – is where the magic happens. And our journeys are rarely solo ventures; we are affected by the decisions and behaviors of those around us, those both on the journey with us and those we have left behind, as well as the social, political, and economic systems within which we are born, live, work, and wander.


Dorothy lost Kansas, the Scarecrow never had brains, the Lion no courage, and the Tin Man no heart… and the Wizard is easily indicted as all bad. Yet, it was not as it seemed, and their journey gained them what they sought, just not how they expected at the start. I found lessons in their journey as I sought to clarify my own beliefs regarding business, society, profits, and where I fit in.


UNCONSCIOUS CAPITALISM PULLS YOU INTO LOSTNESS

I was born without intelligence and wisdom; as I made my way through school and life, I found myself being tugged in opposing directions, the dissonance so clear in my mind, and so often ignored.


The attraction to money and the things and experiences it could provide.

Tug.


The repressed dismay of walking past and literally stepping over homeless people on the streets of Washington, DC and sorting through the guilt of knowing I saw it and yet would do nothing about it.

Tug.


Job, career, promotion, money, accomplishment.

Tug.


Sea turtles with plastic straws in their noses and the garbage patch in the ocean.

Tug.


Was Capitalism my problem, or were my inadequacies with how I was doing Capitalism my problem?


The raw, unbridled Capitalist is missing their heart and the brains to see their existence and contextualize their connection to many more stakeholders than the one to which they have sworn allegiance: profit. And yet, the Capitalist has done some incredible things. The often siloed perspective held by the Unconscious Capitalists doing Capitalism lets us chase and accomplish goals with no awareness (or concern) of consequences to others. It is the classic win/lose, with the glorious blindness that allows the winner to pretend the loser is fine, or simply not their concern.


Who doesn’t like to win, especially when we’re absolved unconsciously or consciously of the plight of the loser? The glory of getting rich selling cigarettes, while procuring safety, security, education, and amazing experiences for your family, and doing a few charitable things along the way, (apparently) feels wonderful as it washes over you, while the death and destruction of individual health, planetary health, and the economics of the healthcare system aren’t your concern, right? You’re not breaking any laws, people are free to make their own choices, and you’re rich. Cigarette companies and their unconscious Capitalist leaders are easy to critique. However, it gets less obvious as we get to chemical manufacturers who produce the polymers that allow for the brilliance of single-use plastics. A few people get rich, investors are thrilled, millions of people get the benefit of plastics in myriad ways, and yet a steep, deadly price is being paid by the planet, animals, and human health that’s not as immediately clear – but with a bit of effort and brains, becomes quite obvious.


But Capitalism isn’t the problem; unconscious Capitalists are the problem when they use Capitalism as justification to please and serve the singular stakeholder of profit.


Capitalism, done with a balanced, multi-stakeholder approach, is a solution that can lift people out of poverty, drive innovation that saves lives, protect natural environments, and reduce inequities.


I see that most of business and life is on the honor system. Even where there are rules, there are rarely rule-enforcers of the heft necessary. I have seen many businesspeople lose their way, stepping on the heads of those around them to climb up, relying on the win/lose, singular stakeholder approach to every decision. I made some of these decisions myself early in my career, confusing my wants with my needs, irrespective of the impact of my actions and inactions on the environment, communities, or individuals. I’m certainly far from perfect at this point, but I am conscious, and on the quest to keep broadening my ability to see the entire system that I’m in and that I affect. I have found positive business outcomes following my instincts – or rather, my brains, heart, and courage – to examine how incorporating the impact on multiple stakeholders leads to improved outcomes for all, including investors, when viewed long-term. I see that raw Capitalism, unregulated and with a relatively unenforced honor system, can quickly pull its participants into a lostness and a disconnection from their own brains, hearts, and courage.


FINDING OUR WAY WITH CONSCIOUS CAPITALISM

There is a magnetic message that can draw people together, that can be the gravity that replaces the disparate tugging. This source of gravity can be an attraction for the disenchanted, the disenfranchised, and for the current big winners and their profits, and for entities like the planet, local communities, and people as individuals and in their groups.


Great leadership, by my definition, of oneself and one’s company, requires balancing the weight of all stakeholders, and the unit of measure for weight is not dollars, but importance, in the eyes of the stakeholders, not in the eye of the dollar.


What do we need? The Capitalist is missing vital organs; I’m convinced the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion can help. We need a heart, we need brains, and we need courage. (I’ve left Dorothy out, because we have a home.)

There is a way we can keep a democracy and a powerful economic system, and make it work in a balanced way for all its stakeholders. We power our economic system with Conscious Capitalism. We teach it, we train it, we regulate business in a balanced way in accordance with it. We advocate and vote for conscious elected officials.


The Conscious Capitalism movement, and its tome – “Conscious Capitalism: liberating the heroic spirit of business” – provides structure to what I, and many, are inclined to do naturally. (See the Four Tenets of Conscious Capitalism to the right.) This structure is valuable, as it gives us a way to teach, a road to reveal and entice. The overarching belief is that people can elevate humanity through business – but this isn’t a badge or label for a business, this is about business leaders. While a business has no heart, no mind, and no courage, a business does have human leaders, and they are my focus.


If you have no other reason or tug to Conscious Capitalism, consider your current and future customers and employees. According to an annual poll on Capitalism and Socialism, 60% of Millennials support a “complete change of our economic system away from Capitalism,” and 57% of GenX’ers feel the same. When a population experiences downsides and is given an easy narrative that explains it, it is understandable how these seismic changes in opinion happen. Clearly, we have millions of people in America and around the world, searching for something; something they’ve lost, or maybe more so, something they believe they’ve never had but want. As business leaders, we have an opportunity to earn the trust of these people through our actions – showing how we increase the positive and decrease the negative when we do Capitalism, Consciously.


THE CONSCIOUS CAPITALIST’S JOURNEY

We each likely have the brains, heart, and courage necessary to (1) create change; (2) see that we are connected and consequential to the world, its parts, and its people; (3) understand what we impact with our words, actions, inactions, and silence; and, (4) realize we are not the sole stakeholder in our life, just as the investor is not the sole stakeholder in our business.


Conscious Capitalists are on the road, on the journey – there's no finish line, and there's no purity test for who is, and who isn’t. But there is a starting point: make a commitment as a business leader to understand all your stakeholders, acknowledge your actions and decisions affect them, and weigh them fairly as you go forward. Channel the Lion to drive change and generate long-term successful results for your business, because you have the courage to define success to include outcomes that go beyond just short-term profit.


The true magic in the Wizard of Oz is everything they learn about themselves and the world while they are journeying together. So, I say keep journeying; keep adding to your consciousness; keep understanding your stakeholders more deeply; keep connecting your profits (generating them, using them, foregoing the short-term for more long-term) to your stakeholders in ways that drive your decision-making process; and keep honing your definition of winning to include the view through the eyes of those affected.


OK, I’m done, and this is a nice place to stop. Although, if you’re feeling sprightly and want to stay on the ride, dive into more thoughts in the Appendix.



APPENDIX: A BIT OF NECESSARY BACKGROUND ON CAPITALISM & DEMOCRACY

In the US, we have an economic system of Capitalism, and a political system of representative democracy; always imperfect, often unjust and inequal, with levers, strings, and steering wheels that can be pulled and turned to benefit the one, or the few, rather than the many, and can also be turned to benefit the many and not the few. Imperfect for sure, and yet still a democracy, by definition, for sure; and a Capitalist system, for sure.


In our system, we have many programs that create social safety nets. We have areas where people can make a case we need more, and areas where people can make a case we need less. No amount of social safety net programs or equality programs would make the US “not a Capitalist system” or “not a democracy.” So, for those screaming we can’t do more to help people because it will be the death of Capitalism – pipe down, you’re lying for selfish reasons, or you’re an ideologue that doesn’t understand the facts of the matter. For those screaming that Capitalism is the problem and profit is the root of all evil – ssshhhhh – you're doing the same thing. Political systems and economic systems are separate but not separated.


DEFINITIONS MATTER: Economics & Political Systems

I love starting with the dictionary when I’m trying to better understand something with many varying and passionate opinions. As a kid, I loved reading my parents’ dictionary. It was so big and heavy, and the pages were full of exploration. Geeky, I know. I also loved reading our Encyclopedia Britannica set, which yes, was purchased from a door-to-door salesman. I return to both to provide some clarity on the oft-misunderstood, maligned, and misused Capitalism and Socialism.

THE BASICS

(Some definitions from Merriam-Webster.)

Capitalism: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.


Socialism: 1) any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. 2) (a) a system of society or group living in which there is no private property; (b) a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state;

3) a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between Capitalism and Communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.


Marxism: a theory and practice of socialism including the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, the class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat until the establishment of a classless society.


Democratic socialism, aka social democracy: According to Brittanica, a political ideology that originally advocated a peaceful evolutionary transition of society from Capitalism to Socialism using established political processes. In the second half of the 20th century, there emerged a more moderate version of the doctrine, which generally espoused state regulation, rather than state ownership, of the means of production and extensive social welfare programs. Based on 19th-century socialism and the tenets of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, social democracy shares common ideological roots with communism but eschews militancy and totalitarianism. Social democracy was originally known as revisionism, because it represented a change in basic Marxist doctrin, primarily in the former’s repudiation of the use of revolution to establish a socialist society.


None of these definitions prescribe specific rules, nor do they say there’s only one way to do it or you aren’t doing it. So, we get prefixes and suffixes as people stake out their views, indicting others and glorifying their own approach.


We have Capitalist pigs and we have Capitalist saviors. We have Socialists morphing into Communists and we have democratic Socialists as people confuse economic systems with political systems. It seems that everyone using these terms is trying to prove their point – me good, you bad. Some devout convincers go further, by claiming vigorously what we have is great, such that we must protect it at all costs, even when in reality we don’t have what they claim we have. I want to break down the usual walls between us, the walls that don’t serve their alleged purpose and don’t protect those on either side.

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