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No going it alone in the 21st century
The Age[Friday, June 22, 2007 11:16]
Enlightened self-interest advocated by supporters of corporate responsibility is in-line with the Dalai Lama's views.(Photo: Jacky Ghossein)
Enlightened self-interest advocated by supporters of corporate responsibility is in-line with the Dalai Lama's views.(Photo: Jacky Ghossein)
Humanity's challenges are beyond the reach of the individual, writes Stephen McGrail.

THE Dalai Lama has been and gone but what was his message to business? Together with the spiritual messages in his calls for warm-heartedness and real compassion are a number of astute observations on the context and the nature of "enlightened self-interest". These suggest we need new perceptions and concepts to see differently and be effective in the 21st century.

At his public talk on Universal Responsibility on June 9, the Dalai Lama described what he called "the new reality". The new reality is one in which the challenges facing humanity are "beyond individual effort" and our interdependencies have become starker. These challenges are being created by the global population explosion, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, growing inequality (both between and within nations) and global warming. They will require "humanity as a whole to look at common threats as one entity". The typical rebuttal to any call for Australia to reduce its greenhouse emissions, that "there is no point if the rest of the world does not too", vividly illustrates this.

Furthermore, His Holiness asserted that the fact that "repercussions elsewhere reach everywhere else" — citing the interconnection of global financial markets and instantaneous spread of news around the world — means "the concept of us and them is today a limit". "You have to think now that the rest of the world is part of yourself," he said.

Perhaps most pertinently, he argued that the gaps between our perceptions and the new reality are "based on having previous century concepts in our minds" and that "the wrong perception creates the wrong approach".

In business, these 20th century concepts include management approaches that focus on maximising short-term profits (not on delivering longer-term "triple bottom line" outcomes), ignoring activists or critical stakeholders, only caring about a regulatory licence (not the broader "social licence") and an "us and them" approach to problem solving.

In business terms, wrong perception is today likely to lead to wrong strategy. It is increasingly likely to lead to a poor reputation and missed opportunities. Worst of all, it is likely to prevent an effective approach that addresses the key global challenges outlined above.

The Dalai Lama also advocated a view that a happy life (or successful business, for that matter) depends upon the whole society or community, with the individual receiving substantial benefits from his or her community. The "enlightened self-interest" advocated by supporters of corporate responsibility is in line with the Dalai Lama's views, and is set to become increasingly important. Businesses are clearly grappling with new responsibilities as global and corporate citizens, and new expectations to be proactive on complex environmental and social issues — often by taking public stands. These tasks are in the long-term interests of business, as well as society.

Whilst the messages are very timely, they are hardly new. Thirty years ago, economist Barbara Ward appealed for the world's people to develop a sense of planetary responsibility and a shared commitment to simultaneously improve the wellbeing of the earth's disadvantaged peoples and the environment.

Ward may simply have been ahead of her time. I believe that we are living through what could be termed a global planetary awakening. We are more aware of the global consequences of our actions and forming more global connections. We are far more aware of what is happening around the planet and how its health affects our health and, ultimately, our economies. Further, global issues such as climate change dominate the agenda at a time when the only effective global organisations are large corporations and non-governmental organisations.

The Dalai Lama's astute observations echo the research of futurist Peter Ellyard, who uncovered a huge shift in paradigms that has been accelerating over the past decade. Dr Ellyard argues that we are witnessing a shift in the dominant world view, from modernism to what he calls "planetism". He believes that this paradigm is now shaping public opinion and markets, and that it is likely to become the dominant world view by 2020.

Ellyard's research has found that those embodying this emerging paradigm, who he calls "planetists", exhibit a transformation in values. This includes shifts to:

■Interdependence (from independence);

■Communitarianism (from individualism);

■Priority to planet (from priority to nation or tribe);

■Humanity a part of nature (from a separation);

■Conflict resolution through co-operation/negotiation (from resolution through confrontation/combat);

■Sustainable production/lifestyles (from unsustainable development); and

■Democracy (from autocracy).

Planetism is clearly a world view that embraces the acceptance of universal responsibilities, and greater awareness of interconnection and interdependence, as advocated by the Dalai Lama, whose talk is also closely aligned with the global sustainability movement. Although planetism is a new term, the overall philosophy is already influencing business — and it looks set to do so more in the near future.

Greater embodiment of these emerging values will dramatically shift expected business practices, the required approach to problem-solving and further accelerate the global integration we are witnessing. Clearly, in the current context of a sustainable development agenda, business would be wise to ensure its strategies are not relics that have spilled over from last century.

What the Dalai Lama, Ellyard and consultancy Futureye would agree on, is that the 21st century requires a new and sustainable approach embodying these values. The approach should be part of an overall business foresight process that more broadly assesses risks and opportunities, challenges "us and them" thinking, and takes a fresh look at the nature of "enlightened self-interest".

Such an approach, which embraces "the new reality" and "universal responsibility" will, the Dalai Lama suggested, "need patience and determination, looking forwards not back". But his optimistic message is that this approach will enable executives to see more clearly, business to meet new expectations, and society to achieve sustainability.

Stephen McGrail is foresight manager at strategic advisory firm Futureye. (www.futureye.com)
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