The enthusiastic crowds that greeted Pope Francis during his visit to the U. S. last week demonstrate how his influence extends beyond the realms of Catholicism and religion itself. His message of caring for our common home by cultivating an integral ecology founded on morality and compassion is meant for each of us – especially those with economic power.
As organizations have increased in scale and complexity, work has become more specialized and fragmented. Big data offers the potential for deeper insights into the dynamics of complex relationships, but can also be used in a reductive way to pursue narrow aims.
The shareholder-centric ideology that currently dominates rests on the goal of maximizing profits for one group of stakeholders (providers of financial capital) ahead of, and often at the expense of others (providers of social and environmental capital).
This amplification of narrow self-interest often leads those in power to find ways to systematically internalize the benefits of their economic activity while attempting to externalize as many costs and risks as possible to society and the environment.
“…the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.” – Pope Francis
Business, then, becomes an institutionalized vehicle for the pursuit of self-interest with altruism being something that is reserved for the nonprofit charity sector. But as Peter Buffett (Warren’s son) has written, this apparent separation between for-profits and charities hides what he describes as a co-dependent “charitable industrial complex.”
As our economic system continues to create negative social and environmental externalities in the forms of poverty and pollution, for example, new nonprofits are created to address the growing list of problems. And much of the funding for these nonprofits comes from the very people and companies who have benefited from, and perpetuated an economic system of exploitation. Commonly referred to as philanthropy, Buffett says that it’s really more like “conscience laundering” since it enables those in positions of power to kick the can down the road rather than lead the systemic changes that would reduce the suffering that gives rise to the need for charities in the first place.
“….as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.” – Peter Buffett
How can we break free from an exploitive economic system that is based on the illusion of separation and control? And in its place, how can we co-create a regenerative economic system that is based on the reality that everything is interdependent?
Evolving from self-interested technocrats to values-based leaders for the common good
Pope Francis not only knows his theology, what makes him such an inspiring and authentic leader is that he lives the values that he is espousing. No gaps; no separation. So when he speaks, it’s from a place of sincerity.
He doesn’t just teach humility by quoting scripture, he teaches it by being humble. There’s an arrogance underlying a belief that technology can solve all our problems, and a misplaced faith in the invisible hand of the market that we use to justify and even promote selfishness as a virtue.
“Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems.” – Pope Francis
Identifying and addressing the underlying problems that the Pope is pointing to requires honestly and humbly looking within our own hearts and minds. Whether we are religious or a humanist, we each live our lives according to certain values whether we are aware of it or not.
By quietly examining and clarifying our own intentions and values and how they relate to the wellbeing of others, we take the first step away from conditioning and toward authenticity. And by acknowledging when our thoughts, words and actions deviate from those values and then renewing our commitment to living them, we water the seeds of honesty. And by increasing our awareness about the influence of our actions not only to those closest to us but also to a wider circle of inter-related social and environmental systems, we cultivate the wisdom and compassion necessary to create value for the common good….which includes each of us.
Closing the Sunday – Monday Gap
To some degree, we are each complicit in the current condition and trajectory of our common home, and taking care of it is our shared responsibility. While we each have a choice in whether to help perpetuate the current economic system or work to change it for the common good, some of us have more influence than others.
With all of the excitement and media hype surrounding the Pope’s visit behind us, it’s easy to fall back into the same patterns and turn our short attention span to what’s next in the endless stream of headlines: Russia bombing in Syria, or the progress of Hurricane Joaquin up the East Coast. It’s easy to keep our Sunday values separate from the values that we often feel compelled to practice when returning to work on Monday.
But hopefully for many of us the Pope’s challenging and inspiring message still reverberates, knowing full well that the imperative grows each day: “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action.”
If you are a business leader, where do you find yourself?