When I was somewhere between 1 and 2 years old, my parents sent me off for my first overnight to the home of a favorite aunt. At the end of the visit, my mother, anxious to hear the news of her firstborn and his emerging language skills, asked her sister if I had uttered any discernable words. The enthusiastic affirmative of my aunt’s reply must have sparked some inquisitive delight in my mother at the prospect of the emerging linguistic prowess of her young son. “But,” reported my aunt, “he really only has one word – ‘More!’ And he says it often, especially around food,” she recounted.
I still remember another visit to this particular aunt’s house some years later, when after showing obvious enjoyment of the first milkshake, I was allowed the glee of another, only to discover its unfortunate gastro-intestinal consequences. To want “more” seems to be a very fundamental human urge. So perhaps it is not surprising that we have built our businesses around an insatiable appetite for more of just one thing: profit growth. And yet, we are all well aware of the consequences of excess. “Too much of a good thing…” would seem to be an almost universal childhood lesson. I will not soon forget how my second encounter with those milkshakes was a direct result of the pleasure with which I had indulged them the first time around, and which did not outweigh the pain of the consequences.
In our post-modern, consumerist culture we have actively cultivated an appetite for “more” instead of “enough”. The post-war boom in consumer spending fueled by advertising may very well have turned the swords of a military-industrial boom that crushed Nazi-ism into the plowshares of consumerism, but it also shaped business into a growth-addict. The appetite for more profit growth, sustained for several generations now and which lies at the heart of our massive increase in wealth, has also produced a hangover of volatility as the growth drug becomes harder and harder to find.
To navigate the realities of such volatile times, a heritage concept will prove essential: temperance. Temperance is one of the 4 cardinal virtues, after prudence, justice and courage (or fortitude). If you’re like me, you learned temperance’s lessons of “enough” viscerally as a child and only later came to understand their full and helpful application to all spheres of life. Temperance is a distinctly human quality that requires maturity.
In mainstream business theory, the idea of “enough” is not a plausible threat to the status quo. In fact, I’d wager that most traditionalists don’t even consider it. Yet it is what must come to govern our practice of business if we will ever move beyond the “take, make, waste” economy that is slowly paving our road to ruin. For those of you who want to fight this addiction to “more,” temperance is what you’ll be aiming for, and learning it will be a gradual process.
Allow me to pass on an unique formula for success from a wise doctor at the health clinic I have been attending for the last year or so in order to try to reset some of my own long-practiced habits to seek “more” (which eventually led to an inevitable rendezvous with the emergency department at a Miami hospital). “Your ideal weight,” suggested the wise clinician as I went through the protocols in pursuit of a healthier equilibrium, “is the number that your body chooses for you when you eat as little as possible, exercise as much as you can and thoroughly enjoy how you feel.” While most certainly a “first world” problem in the context of a hungry world, these instructions are helpful as we explore a much broader problem: what it might require to temper the appetites of a business. Perhaps the structure of this solution the doctor presented me matches the ideal formula for the better businesses we will need to survive the future? In other words, they will: make as little profit as possible, only the amount required to retain the capital employed and grow impact (the “eat as little as possible” part of the equation), deliver as much social benefit as they can, and thoroughly enjoy an enterprise that is creating an entirely new form of return – the meaning delivered by making the world a better place.
The idea that temperance might actually take hold in modern commerce and stem our corporate thirst for profit seems almost illusionary. As I and many others know from personal experience, we temper our appetites when we get sick, and then only momentarily. So, what chance is there that we might do so for one business, let alone for enough to make a difference! The application of reason – the knowledge that “I would be healthier if I changed my behavior” – will not suffice alone. Behavioral economists tell us that the sirens of desire can sing loud enough to overcome even the clearest voice of reason and the strongest willpower – recall that Ulysses put wax in the ears of his crew and had himself tied to the mast in order to avoid the sirens they encountered? It seems we can be similarly spellbound from making wise choices when it comes to things like milkshakes and money.
If there was any doubt, to pursue temperance is to accept certain difficulty, whether personally or corporately. We might choose an easier path, and many have. Except, the massive environmental degradation of the planet, the widening wealth disparity, the grossly excessive consumption of resources in the form of consumerism, and a host of similarly significant consequences are byproducts of our insistence on growth at any cost. Even though the last half-century has made us all quite aware of its benefits, we must choose another way. Ultimately, like all virtues, temperance is a choice to sacrifice some possibilities (that might be good) for higher order (and therefore better) ones. As Aristotle reminds us, that intemperance creates a pain of withdrawal.
Can your business make it, even flourish, through a bad quarter or two, or three, or is it so hopelessly addicted to cash flow that it has limited resilience? Is there an exuberant joy in simply making boatloads of money and little else in the culture seems to offer meaning? Has the logic of the business been so rigidly structured around profit maximization that there is no desire to find any other kind of meaning, especially real demonstrable impact for others, and no remorse when this vital dimension of every organization that employs humans is simply ignored? Are the NASDAQ position and the share price valuation the only triumphs the CEO can trumpet at the employee all-hands gatherings? Have the senses of the organization been so dulled that continued personal enrichment is a self-sustaining rhetoric and no other logic is even remotely acceptable? Such dangerous intemperate corporate behavior and dependencies offer us some clues that there must be a better way.
If the answers to these questions or similar ones that come to mind are in the affirmative, an intemperate organization is the likely culprit. The good news is that this very process of thought and reflection, if it leads to a concerned understanding and a desire to change, is actually the first agent of temperance. When that concerned understanding produces action or restraint, the journey of temperance has begun.
Aristotle tells us that the sophrosyne (Greek for temperance) is part of the irrational part of the soul, and that the best way to temper the appetite for more is not to slay it with self-control, but to choose something else. As I learn how to temper my own disordered appetite for food, my counselor and guide suggested that I should find rewards for choosing different, beneficial patterns. This approach has been helpful for me, as seems to the case for many. It should also work for our businesses, if we would try it.
What I have called “the purposeful enterprise” represents that attempt: a company that has refocused its addiction for “more” of only one thing – profit – and chosen instead to persistently focus on delivering a telos, a purpose-for-others that has got hold of it and encapsulates the beneficial social impact it seeks. The purposeful enterprise puts that telos ahead of everything else. Profit is a means, not an end. The temperate organization has its passions rightly focused, is satisfied by “enough” and is only compelled by doing more for others. This is the healthier form of business that is emerging.
I have a very visceral sense of how hard it is to actually pursue temperance. I try – and fail – often. But I am certain that the pursuit of more profit has led to some of my worst business and personal decisions. The same is true of organizations. Just this morning, an email from a colleague called out the alarming path of a client organization whose, “business model is terminal – a true Kodak moment,” he wrote prophetically. Perhaps the most infamous of corporate suicides, Kodak will forever be a reminder of the ruinous effects of “more profit” and how temperance could have brought health. [Tweet that!]