Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Mackey; Sisodia (Harvard Business Review Press: 2013)

What: This book is a charter for the Conscious Capitalism movement. It draws heavily on the experience of John Mackey, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets. The book has four primary goals (cf., 8-9; 33):

  1. To promote purposeful companies, driven to deliver social impact through their core businesses;
  2. To provide a holistic framework for seeing how all business decisions take place within a rich and complex stakeholder ecology;
  3. To encourage mindful business leadership, which exhibits emotional, spiritual, and systems-level intelligence.
  4. To make a compelling business argument for the power of compassionate cultures.

Thesis: “We believe that the way forward for humankind is to liberate the heroic spirit of business and our collective entrepreneurial creativity so they can be free to solve the many daunting challenges we face. Our world does not lack for business opportunities: there are billions of people whose basic needs are not being adequately met, and we need to rethink how we can continue to meet the needs of the already-prosperous in a more sustainable manner. Companies that recognize this and unlock the natural human creative spirit to address these challenges and capitalize on these opportunities will flourish for a long time” (39-40).

Key Idea: When we refuse to see our place in the economic whole to which we belong, business looks like a fight for survival. But when we entrust our well-being to one another in the context of a self-conscious ecosystem, business becomes playful collaboration. Ironically, people and cultures of trust are also more fit for survival than those who imagine they’re always on their own.

Reflections: This is a big, resonant book. It dares to imagine what our corporate life could be. It’s audacious. It insists that business begins with philosophical questions: Who are we? Why are we? How do we make a good life together? (cf., 34, 46)

There aren’t too many books claiming–unapologetically–that companies exist for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But this one does just that.

To this trio, which philosophers used to call the transcendentals, the authors add a fourth: the heroic. My questions about this book mostly revolve around that addition.

In their conclusion, the authors emphasize that they have carefully chosen each word in the book’s subtitle (271). I take that to include the word heroic and the word spirit. But the heroic spirituality of this book points mostly toward enacting the good (cf., e.g., 60).

Heroic workplace spirituality focuses on doing things: finding purpose, achieving winning stakeholder integration, delivering value that makes us collectively more prosperous.

Indeed, the book climaxes with a rhapsodic ode to the promise of conscious capitalism: “We have at our disposal all the tools and technologies we need to solve virtually every one of our challenges, and we have the capacity and creativity to invent anything that we need but do not yet have” (271). It’s only a matter of actualizing this potential together. In the end, the promise of business looks like the power to get good things done.

But business is about more than doing things–no matter how heroic they might be.

Besides doing the good, excellent humans receive it. They’re open to it. They’re ready to acknowledge it wherever it shows up. In the end, that’s what makes them excellent. They’re good because of what they imaginatively reflect and pass on–not because of what they originate without acknowledgement.

Both activity and receptivity have a place in business. But receptivity is the more basic orientation. It’s what shows where action comes from and why it matters.

Business is about more than doing things together. It’s about being available to one another–and to the center we share.