Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Language of Social Entrepreneurship

If corporate leaders and their acolytes are
not slaves to some meritorious social 
purpose, they run the risk of being 
enslaved by their own ignoble appetites.

That's not some radical preacher or ranting Marxist, that's not even Bob Dylan in his early electric phase -- it's Gary Hamel, business consultant and author of "The Future of Management,"

Hamel titled his post The Hole in the Soul of Business --and proposed that "humanizing the language and practice of management is a business imperative (as well as a moral duty)".
What was that all about? I'd say them's fightin' words!
Apparently, polls Hamel had read suggested that "only 20% of employees are truly engaged in their work -- heart and soul", and that depressed him. It depressed him to the point where he thought about it creatively, and came up with a simple experiment.
He took a look at corporate annual reports, mission statements, and CEOs blog posts, and found plenty of talk about "superiority, advantage, leadership, differentiation, value, focus, discipline, accountability, and efficiency" – but not much mention of "beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honor". Which he guessed were the values that people like MichelangeloGalileoJefferson, and Gandhi were passionate about.

So, he thought, no wonder so many people in the workplace aren't terribly enthused about their work… Here are some more of his thoughts on the subject:

There was a time when Disney was in the joy business. … Apple is in the beauty business. … There are many within Google who believe their company is in the wisdom business.

John Mackey, the co-founder of Whole Foods Markets, once remarked that he wanted to build a company based on love instead of fear.

A gut-level commitment to building an organization infused with the spirit of charity is far more radical and weird than it might appear.

Given all this, why is the language of business so sterile, so uninspiring and so relentlessly banal? Is it because business is the province of engineers and economists rather than artists and theologians? 

Is it because the emphasis on rationality and pragmatism squashes idealism? I’m not sure. But I know this -- customers, investors, taxpayers and policymakers believe there’s a hole in the soul of 

If Gary Hamel is right – and reading his piece, I have to say I found myself nodding and grinning a lot – there are really three things we can do.
We can model ourselves on Galileo or Gandhi and get out of the business of business altogether, we can find a business with heart, or we can build one. Social entrepreneurs, I imagine, will mostly favor the third option.
But let's think about this business of language, too. Let's ask some questions. Here are some that Hamel himself proposes:
  • Why are words like "love", "devotion" and "honor" so seldom heard within the halls of corporate-dom?
  • What values are in the driver’s seat?
  • Why are the ideals that matter most to human beings the ones that are most notably absent in managerial discourse?
  • Why do you believe the language of beauty, love, justice and service is so notably absent in the corporate realm? And what would you do to remedy that fact?
And here are some questions of my own, that Hamel's piece sparked in me:
  • What about our own language, as social entrepreneurs?
  • Does social enterprise already offer a business language that's expressive of care and concern?
  • Come to that, does the word "social" really say what we want it to say?
Words matter – I think that's part of the issue that Hamel is trying to bring to our attention. But there are even bigger questions lurking behind those ones, I think -- and I'm inviting you to think about them out loud with me over the course of this event…
  • Why and when did work get so bland, so detached from our more profound values?
  • As social entrepreneurs, are we still a minority interest swimming against the tide – or the new tide just coming in, bringing those values back? ..hmm..

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