Individual self-interest forged the corporate world of today, but selflessness is returning to prominence and will shape the successful company of tomorrow.
At first glance, we might be forgiven for underestimating the significance of 342 pounds of black tea. Tea is the pacifist of drinks, a historical delicacy that invites those who partake of it to sensibility and conversation. What, really, could 342 pounds of it do except steep in the swirls of conversation as old friends reconnect, new ones are made, and families pause for a moment to visit amidst their everyday hustle? This particular shipment, however, had been carried by the East India Company from Davison, Newman and Company in London and was stowed aboard the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver in Boston Harbor. This was no ordinary tea—something far more historic was brewing.
The Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk warriors to declare their identification with the new, independent land of America, did not board the ship to partake of the usual social accompaniments to tea, but rather to toss it, along with their colonial fetters, into the sea.
And so began a revolution—the overthrow of an Empire and perhaps the first whiff of a continental preference for coffee that would later set the stage for the global colonization success of a new “nation” – Starbucks – a mere 200 years later.
The rejection of the Tea Act of 1773 by Britain’s American colonists is noteworthy as much for the social revolution it represented as for any political implications, significant as they have so clearly been. Some 30 years prior to this heave-ho of British economic hegemony and its efforts to safeguard the profits of the East India Company, another European exporter, Jean Jacques Rousseau, had launched his Social Contract and later Confessions, which painted such a compelling portrait of self-awareness as to fuel French peasants to revolt against the deaf ears of the aristocracy and the American colonists to overthrow their economic masters to better accommodate the individual pursuit of happiness. Other writers such as John Locke and Adam Smith would further nurture the independence of the individual and the right to private property.
Set loose across the wide-open plains of the uncharted Americas, these continental ideas evolved into the enshrined individual—a self of its own self-making—backed by a durable constitution safeguarding individual liberties. The person was now unfettered in his pursuit of private property ownership, self-recognition and self-interest.
In the following century, the observant French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted that America had become a laboratory for the new social experiment that he called, “the rise of the individual.” He sounded a caution that balancing material self-interest with the needs of society would be challenging.
The independent colonists—called “Americans” now—cultivated a new sense of self: an autonomous individual with newly protected rights and freedoms, who could pursue wealth for its own sake. And, so we “selves” forged the engine of commerce, the modern corporation, in our own autonomous, individualistic and pragmatic self-made image.
It is perhaps fitting that in US law at least, the corporation is legally recognized as an individual person. We have for generations linked the primary engine of commerce to the same individualistic and self-actualizing identity that has been driving the ever-expanding Western economies.
A dissenting opinion is emerging. At some point in recent decades, we have come to believe that wholesale individualism is flawed. Some forms of altruism have become socially acceptable, even expected. For instance, commonly held world-views now include ideas like the “global village” or a commitment to sustainability, and place the individual within context of and relationship to the whole society. This signals a renewed appreciation for our reliance on one another and an expectation that we will provide for present and future generations.
We are seeing signs of this shift from the children in our communities, and we are seeing signs of it from our corporations in the marketplace.
When society starts an inquiry into the consequences of unfettered individual consumption, it also begins to recast the corporate identity we have forged in our own image.
As we have seen in recent years, revolutions come in various shapes and sizes. They happen overnight (as in Tunisia and Egypt) or with mess over decades (as in the Industrial one). The self-evident truth about all revolutions, however, is that they are inexorable and signal a profound shift of one sort or another. Today, that shift demands that a corporation should exist for a purpose other than just for itself (usually in the form of its shareholders).
The revolution is underway and it is changing the way the world works.
This change requires that we appreciate how utterly consumed we, and our businesses, have been by the elevation of the individual to the exclusion of the other. Solving real, global problems as a primary intention isn’t in the classic definition of a shareholder’s best interest.
Telos, a unique “purpose for others,” as I have come to call it and will explain more later on, is found at the intersection of “me and we,” of self-knowing and other-orientation. For a company, this intersection is of a “brand’s best self” and a “cultural tension.” That’s not a natural way of thinking for shareholders, however, because all they have known companies to deliver against is their own self-interest to accrue greater financial returns. Our system drives them to consider only what is in their “best interest” short term—profit—but not what is best for others except as it produces more profit. The new prominence of purpose is both a human and marketplace response to the slow but certain dissipation of that way of thinking.
342 pounds of tea pitched into Boston Harbor, along with the uncompromising and stirring words of the revolutionaries, signalled the overthrow of a suffocating Empire. This revolution may not be so vivid or so beautifully articulated, but it may prove to have effects that are similarly far-reaching.
Today’s revolutionaries are ordinary people now, as then, and they are reforging the companies from whom they buy and for whom they work. These ordinary revolutionaries demand that businesses should live up to a purpose that serves others.
They hold that truth to be self-evident.