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Discovering Heroism in Business:Lessons Learned from Oil Spills and a Tennis Serve

“Great companies have great purposes.” –John Mackey, founder Whole Foods Market Inc.

In late 2010 I was on a flight seated next to a senior engineering leader with BP who was responsible for containing oil slicks along following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Having worked for Exxon at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill – we had much to talk about.

He shared a disturbing story about a day when a local official prevented him and his crew from containing a large slick headed for a beach full of wildlife. It seems the national media was arriving later that day and needed some dramatic footage for the evening news. There was no question in my new friend’s mind that they could have contained that slick. Instead, he was forced to watch powerlessly as the slick reached shore and laid waste to the vulnerable wildlife...

This BP leader reminded me of so many men and women I have worked with at Exxon, BFGoodrich and Pfizer who wake up every day wanting to have a meaningful impact on others, their communities and their environment. In fact, in 30-plus years working for these companies, I never met one individual who fit the profile of the evil, greedy, exploiter that is often conjured up at the mere mention of “big oil,” “big pharma” or industrial chemicals.

I often wondered, “How could bad things happen in organizations made up of so many bright, able and caring people?” Grappling with this question led me to a eureka moment when I discovered the concept of Conscious Capitalism.

Conscious Capitalism calls for an integrated business model that resonates through the entire ecosystem of the organization. It radically redefines the organization’s relationship with its stakeholders – the entire cast of characters. This paradigm shifts from the “supreme reign” style of the shareholder primacy model to one where shareholders, employees, communities and the environment have the same relative importance. Collectively, they define the organization’s purpose as - a purpose beyond profit.

In a conscious organization, productivity is essentially the by-product of a culture and work environment where everyone is armed with the ownership of that powerful purpose. In that mindset, they bring their “whole selves” to work – all of their creativity, best problem-solving skills, loyalty and commitment. In a conscious organization, employees are now working to create genuine, tangible value for themselves, their communities and their environment, rather than working solely for the benefit of anonymous stockholders.

One summer many moons ago, I taught tennis at a city park. On the first day I asked my class what they wanted to work on. They said “Our serve – we want our serves to be faster.” I asked them to play, so I could check out their serving style. To a person, they all used what I call a “pooch” serve – tossing the ball in front of their face and pushing it over the net. Aha! I knew the solution was to switch to an overhead serve. When I offered to teach them, I was taken aback by their response. “Oh no” they said, “we don’t want to learn a new serve – we just want to hit this one harder and faster.”

Just as my tennis newbies, organizations will not hit harder and faster by doing more of the same, even if they do it more creatively. Adding in-office massages, or bring your dog to work days will not result in the shift in leadership required to create and lead conscious organizations. This evolution will require a game-changing, brand new serving style for the role of leaders in organizations and ultimately in the role of organizations in society.

If business is to become its most noble self, or as Chris Lazlo at Case Western Reserve University wrote, “an agent of world benefit,” a new form of leadership must emerge. In fact it is already asking to be born.

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