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The Shift: Business Leaders Choose Connection

by Michelle Long

We are not meant to be in service to the economy. The economy is meant to be in service to us. Yet today many of us feel powerless to an economic system that is collectively leading to results that no one wants. We have been taught scarcity and hyper-individualism, that it is “us versus them.” Nowhere more so than in business.

What we were taught was developed from a worldview that we accept as true: That we are separate from each other. That the world is a dangerous place. That there is not enough for everyone.

These beliefs have shaped our lives and our institutions.

We can choose other beliefs. Create different institutions, and communities.

We Are All Connected

I believe another truth is re-emerging. Its roots are in indigenous cultures and spiritual wisdom that has always understood the real nature of life. It is the organizing principle of interdependence. We are all deeply connected to each other and to all life on earth.

“In a real sense all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifteen years ago Judy Wicks co-founded BALLE as an extension of a transformational shift she had made personally. She shifted from trying to be the heroic, famous model of socially responsible business, to a recognition that we are all in this together. She knew that no meaningful, lasting change would happen unless she taught her competitors to adopt her ways. Her love for people and animals — pigs in particular — overcame her fear of competition. She took the ideas she had pioneered, and built a network of entrepreneurs who accomplished much more together than she ever could have done, alone.

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BALLE co-founder Judy Wicks.

The Emergent: The Mindset out of Which the System Arises

In the past 15 years I’ve also seen the violence and destruction that can be caused by “socially responsible businesses” that follow the path-breaking work of pioneers. Companies copy the “what” but don’t always cultivate the “why,” neglecting the source of inspiration and continued innovation. Whether it’s “micro-finance” or “free-range chicken,” when business people simply follow the rules of these methods, but are motivated only by profits without deeper connection and care, significant harm can follow. Lady Eve Balfour, one of the earliest advocates for organic farmers, said that the best kind of farming could not be reduced to a set of rules. The farming that produces the kind of food we really want to eat, she believed, depends “on the attitude of the farmer.”

Similarly, in scientist Donella Meadows well-known essay, “Leverage Points: Twelve Levers of Systems Change”, she names the top lever as the “mindset out of which the system arises.” This is because, based on what we believe about ourselves and each other, we design systems that support those beliefs. Then we build institutions, policies and procedures that support those systems.

The Shift

We have a world coming that we cannot predict.

The UN and WHO say that in just one generation, because of climate change and population growth, we will require 70% more food than we produce now. That’s my daughter’s kids and that horrifies me.

In two generations, half of all people won’t have access to clean water.

Does that just have to mean …. a whole lot more war?

In this time of deep and growing inequality, and with so much additional change on the horizon, it is no real surprise to see some people turning toward fear and wanting to put up bigger walls to each other.

While we are seeing disconnection and pain, we are also seeing many others who are leading in a different way, everywhere and across sectors — from government to natural sciences, to organizational development and finance. People are standing up to say what is actually going to be necessary to achieve the scale of change that’s required is a shift in consciousness, ala Einstein’s insight that “we cannot solve problems from the same level of consciousness that created them.”

“Me versus you” thinking cannot address complex crises of this era. New systems conditions require new leadership capacities, and we are being called to a new era of business leadership.

We need leaders who have cultivated their ability to see the “whole,” and so can take action that benefits the whole — including themselves, and not only themselves.

Members of the Etsy.org Good Business cohort of Brooklyn entrepreneurs participating in a day-long #ChooseConnection workshopMatthew Stinchcomb

Members of the Etsy.org Good Business cohort of Brooklyn entrepreneurs participating in a day-long #ChooseConnection workshop.

The Science of Connection

Charles Eisenstein wrote, “Love is the felt experience of connection to another being. Your sense of self expands to include other beings.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

We will not build a new economy without tapping into a deeper level of our humanity, of who we really are, and who we want to be as a society.

Some of you might be thinking, “But Michelle, um, I’m afraid we’re not that good!”

To that — I have good news. Current science into happiness and well-being shows that people universally want connection.

The Greater Good Science Center based at University of California Berkeley has spent two decades investigating what makes humans deeply “well.” Their research shows that regardless of geography and demographic, humans feel well primarily in four scenarios:

  1.     When we feel connected to ourselves and our “reason for being here”
  2.     When we feel connected to each other
  3.     When we feel connected in reverence to the larger natural world or something bigger than ourselves
  4.     When we’ve been generous and compassionate

In other words, the evolution we need for an economic transition is entirely possible because it is aligned with what makes us deeply well. Our common human-ness is interdependence and connection. And happily, research shows that even if we don’t feel it now, these capacities can be cultivated.

Practice Connection

I am not saying it is easy; I know it is not easy for me. We all get scared. One thing I know for sure is that everyone has a story. We have all had personal and painful journeys and there are many reasons we have grown guarded with each other.

So – we take one step at a time – and we practice opening. As Audre Lorde said, “We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit.”  We practice, a bit at a time, to love without armour and protection even through fear, and pain.

As natural resources on our planet decline, as we experience ever greater trauma, we practice so that we have known the feeling of connection and know that we are safer, all of us, in community.

It’s going to get harder. Our choice will be in how we respond.

Today we see one path — 56% of our food picked by illegal migrant workers who are treated with the abuses you’d expect given their lack of power. The CEO of Nestlé saying water is not a human right, while buying up the rights to water springs. Redlining and discriminatory banking practices still facing people of color. McDonald’s personal budget counseling for their employees showing “two 40-hour/week full time jobs” as their only realistic path to solvency…and we all know this story.

Here’s Another Path….

Our founder Judy Wicks teaching her competitors how to do what she did, because she loved her community and the animals and the land more than her fear of competition. In the process inspiring a whole movement of people focused on “local” to re-root transactions in relationships and connection.

Businesses are leading revolutions in every sector, from a place of radical love and connection. Even realizing that zero might be a legitimate price point for some customers (Aravind). Questioning why profits are being extracted to the top (Mars). Advising the wealthiest investors to aim for a negative rate of return, to move wealth where it is needed most (Leslie Christian).

And businesses are showing us that thousands of small experiments can add up to a movement: a café in Israel offering discounts to Israelis and Palestinians who don’t know each other, to sit together for their meal. A moving company that provides free services to women escaping domestic violence. “Pay-it forward” coffees and bowls of soup so that a bite to eat can always be offered to someone who is hungry. A police force evaluated by how much compassion they show in an arrest. A company that not only hires the formerly incarcerated, but offers a suite of healing services, knowing a job is just one of many needs for these colleagues. A bank that offers zero interest loans for up to $50,000 to anyone remodeling, to offer refugees a home.

BALLE Fellow Jay Bad Heart Bull works to create economic opportunities and community connectioon for Native Americans living near Minneapolis.

BALLE Fellow Jay Bad Heart Bull works to create economic opportunities and community connectioon for Native Americans living near Minneapolis.

These modern day “parables” are the stories we need to tell ourselves — because they become how we are with each other.

I was talking once with Jay Bad Heart Bull, a BALLE Local Economy Fellow who is Lakota, and he said that it is uncomfortable to him to raise money from foundations for his community work for a few reasons, one being that it felt odd and culturally wrong for him to bow before the one who had hoarded the most. In his family’s culture, a man of honor — the one you bow before — would be the one who had given it all away. This touched me to my core.

Business Leaders: Choose Connection

There are tremendous examples all around us. They’ve always been there. BALLE’s founder Judy Wicks hosted table talks at her restaurant inviting in people to share different beliefs. She brought her customers on sister restaurant tours to build connections to parts of town they didn’t normally go. She intentionally practiced connection in ways that informed her business’ innovation.

Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader, talks about how the leaders who were behind the civil rights we enjoy today practiced together fiercely. They role-played, they looked to see the best in themselves and in those who opposed them. They imagined the “beloved community” until they could see it, and therefore make it so. Today we see the same commitment and solidarity in the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Movement for Black Lives. We see efforts toward Compassionate Cities, Social and Emotional Learning in schools, and deepening empathy and eliminating unconscious bias in health care.

But I would posit, none of this will matter if business leaders don’t do the same. Our economic system is destroying much of what is precious on this planet — and fast. If we don’t cultivate our own ability to see the world as a connected and loving place, and bring that into being, we will only move further toward building a world that divided and dangerous.

My friends, we were made for these times. Literally. Connection is our common humanity. But it is not guaranteed. It does requires a choice.

Join us and form a Connection Circle at work or in your community. We are standing together — with practices & parables — and a commitment to #ChooseConnection.

BALLE Executive Director with co-founder Judy Wicks and others at the 2015 BALLE annual conference.

BALLE Executive Director with co-founder Judy Wicks and others at the 2015 BALLE annual conference.