Got Soul?

In the run up to the 9th Women in Business (WIB) Women Leader Luncheon, Elsie Maio, founder of Humanity, Inc and the SoulBranding Institute, talks to T.C. Lowrie about corporate soul, breakthrough leadership, and the success of new paradigm business.

Do corporations have a soul?

The essential nature of all human institutions, including business, is up for debate in our fractured world today. In my view, it is people who have a soul, and when they gather in any coherent form, that group can also be said to have a soul. So yes, a corporation’s soul is the collective intent of its constituents.

Why is that important today?

Authentic corporate soul is the springboard to the next evolutionary leap for business, in both policy and practical application.

Underneath our fears, insecurities, and compensatory behaviors, human beings identify with the wellbeing of the collective. All our research since 1997, when we first launched the SoulBranding System, points to this. The people we have interviewed all talk about their longing to contribute, to make a meaningful difference for humanity, as one of their life priorities. But there has been no room for that aspect of soul in a world where “the business of business is business.”

Without the rudder of authentic corporate soul, business in the past 50 years drifted into aggressive pursuit of the bottom line, often at the expense of the living systems of this Earth. Some of those outcomes are the environmental, social, and political crises we see around us. Yet the absence of corporate soul is now also a liability for the profits-over-people paradigm that muffles it. Ironically, corporate soul is the very source of the new skills demanded by the complex VUCA environment: Authentic cooperation, humility, collective innovation, and community empowerment are some of those soulful impulses needed in today’s hyper-interdependent global system.

What does the practical application of corporate soul look like in business?

Employee engagement is an example. It is one of the top surrogates for corporate health today. Why? Because the innovation and agility required in fast-moving, disruptive markets depend on the voluntary enthusiasm and creativity of co-workers. Rather than direct that passion, companies must inspire and empower it. Here’s how it works: The Corporate Soul ignites inspiration. Then the corollary corporate Soul Values help co-workers agree on the practical behaviors that guide their passion and self-expression toward company objectives.

Authentic and ethical leadership is increasingly valued. What are some potential pitfalls or grey areas leaders should be wary of while executing strategies?

Perhaps the biggest pitfall is to isolate ethics as a discrete management function or discipline. Authentic engagement requires a whole person, their values, emotional connection, wisdom, competence. New paradigm businesses thrive because they trust and fuel the soulful spirit within each co-worker and then get out of the way to empower their choices and encourage authentic connection among stakeholders.

Another pitfall is to lean too heavily on rules, guidelines, and fixed approaches to managing culture. With few handrails to hold on to in this fast-moving world, it is the self-generating, self-aware individual that is the foundation of collective strength, not codes and guidebooks.

As the proliferation of “fake news” makes trust increasingly tenuous across the board, businesses turn to bold CSR and cause marketing to boost their goodwill balance and help regain consumer trust. Is this opportunism or does it signify authentic values-led transformation?

Motivation matters in the effectiveness of programs and in their credibility. The woke demos is wise not to trust old paradigm corporations who are driven by ‘me first and last” financial fundamentalism. Too many of them use discrete CSR, sustainability, and philanthropic initiatives as emotional talking points, while driving relentless short-term profit growth from the boardroom.

In contrast, new paradigm businesses thrive on trusting and fueling the soulful spirit of their employees, who in turn innovate for the joy of creating breakthrough mutual value for humanity. Here, CSR, philanthropy, and environmental sustainability are embedded in everyone’s decision priorities, not seen as separate activities. Some old paradigm companies are themselves forming consortia to empower and learn from such soulful new models.

Speaking of empowerment, are the cultural biases inhibiting women’s participation in male-dominated sectors shifting? Are you optimistic about gender equality in business and the future for women in leadership?

I am optimistic about women reclaiming their personal sovereignty. In turn, everything is possible as women join with millennials in a critical mass of committed action for systemic wellbeing. Some of the most vibrant new paradigm businesses are born this way, including social-impact disruptors in major business sectors.

Clearly, a new paradigm of business success is emerging, and it is defined by the wellbeing of the broader good, of “us, together”. That’s a deep leap from the prevailing paradigm where biases can be so pervasive they are invisible. Ask a fish, “How’s the water?” and he responds, “What water?” Transformation starts with self-awareness, and that’s an important aspect of the process for courageous leaders to take on.

In your upcoming keynote to AmCham’s WIB Women Leader Luncheon titled, Enough Is Enough: Prepare to Be Heard, you will discuss this process of awareness and transformation. How do you see the role of women in new paradigm business?

A “we” mindset is at the heart of the breakthrough business models. And that’s a sweet spot for women. While this inclination of the human spirit to generate wellbeing for the community first may be characterized in psychology as the “feminine archetype,” it’s not something women have and men don’t. It is something that has been repressed in everyone in our modern society, in favor of the aggressive transaction and “me first and last” acquisitiveness.

My upcoming book, Leap Deep, shows how the impulse to generate wellbeing for living systems is playing out in the emergent marketplace, and how to achieve it. Some of the model companies in the book originated with and are led mostly by men. Others were birthed by women. What these breakthrough organizations all have in common is their personal connection with the soul of humanity. It is what magnetizes stakeholders and sources continuous renewal in their ecosystems.

Leap Deep: Your Love of Humanity Is the Springboard to the New Business Paradigm—Insights from 20 Years of SoulBrandingSM will be published in March 2018 by Ideabite Publishing, Houston, TX.

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