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When thinking about purpose, our society is not caring enough and we are driven by predominantly competitive and conflictual practices. In his essay, Prof. Dr Aschari urges us to use our imagination to think beyond our current time. We have to stop being busy decorating the deckchairs on the sinking Titanic.

The Human Side of Purpose

Prof. Dr Omid Aschari

Purpose is a fascinating term. It prompts one to immediately agree to a need for it - and, honestly, who would seriously object having or following a purpose. So, usually and in principle, there is ample agreement about it. However, here is the dilemma: You may follow a purpose, but then on what basis do you define it and, more importantly, who defines it? If that „who“ is meant to be me, who am I? After all, if I invest in following a personally meaningful purpose, wanting to know more about myself is only understandable. It would be reasonable to investigate more in depth what prompted me to subordinate my resources, my time and energies - my „capital“ - to it and align my life priorities accordingly. Beyond that, how does a group or an organization as a whole define and clarify, who „we“ is? In other words, what do we stand for together and what is the core reason for our existence? 

A World with Two Faces

Now, I wouldn’t have been prompted to pick exactly this issue for an essay, weren’t there troubling global developments that are receiving increasing attention in recent times. To my mind, they make the aforementioned question of our core identity so pressing. Indeed, the condition of our present-day world is anything but amusing. Despite technological and other advancements in many areas, our planet is experiencing an ecological „multi-organ failure“ and it is a case of emergency. Furthermore, as many scholars point out, our social behaviors are driven by predominantly competitive and conflictual practices. These, in turn, evoke social, ethical, ecological and economical challenges, that result in protest, a practice that has been intensifying from year to year. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos in early 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres found significant words to describe the state of the world as one in which global challenges are increasingly interlinked while our responses are increasingly fragmented. This contradiction is very apparent. Our business organizations, actually whole industries, that up until the recent past were following expected growth patterns, are loosing grip and suffer under such conditions. They are torn between how to square the circle of building resilience to disruption while developing a path for growth and employment. 

The behaviors and conversations oftentimes reveal a mindset that can best be visually described as being busy decorating the deckchairs on the sinking Titanic.

No question, technological disruption and business innovation have brought improvements for millions of people, but negligence of other pressing issues so far have cost a tribute in form of extreme imbalances, injustice and inequalities for millions. By and large, it is a world with two faces. Both tell their compelling, though contrasting story. But alone from a moral standpoint, we simply cannot accept the ugly story as part of our „daily business“. It cannot be our standard. For the moment, our world is one lost in transition and we have to find a way out of the mess we are responsible for. However, the behaviors and conversations oftentimes reveal a mindset that can best be visually described as being busy decorating the deckchairs on the sinking Titanic. Society is not caring enough of the kind of precious capital that is difficult to restore, let alone to make it blossom and grow under such unfortunate conditions of distrust, egoism and indifference. Instead, we need to heavily and consciously invest into our human capital in the broad sense of its meaning. To my holistic understanding, it encompasses besides our intellectual capital also our social, cultural and spiritual capital. Together they are integral parts of our human existence, even if some contemporaries belittle or abrogate the transcendent aspects of our nature. If we believe that we have vast potentialities within us, distinct noble qualities, then we can raise them. 

The Fundamental Question

Who are we - together? What binds us together as human beings? Exploring the question of our common legacy is, in my view, crucial if society wants to move beyond the limitations of our present-day mindset. It all starts with yet another question: What is the nature of the human being per se? The answers are usually as colorful as a rainbow. Skeptics often argue that human nature is fundamentally selfish and adversarial and advocate that our relentless focus on contest traces back to our genetic inheritance. Scholars point out that this was the conventional wisdom within many of the social sciences throughout the 20th century. But such assumptions can also be found, for instance, in the philosophies of the 17th century, when Thomas Hobbes, an English mathematician and influential philosopher known for having expounded social contract theory, viewed human existence as bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of every one against every one, resulting in competitiveness and mutual distrust. Today, debates across disciplines reveal new alternative approaches to the old-trodden but current paradigm of the inherently aggressive human nature. Admittedly, it is difficult to challenge this assumption, as we are used to a normed understanding of it. But perhaps, as scholars allude to, our unquestioned convictions reveal more about the condition of our societies than about human nature itself. As beings with a deep sense for comradeship, we carry the potential in us to cooperate and this has probably secured our survival. Many scholars give a discharge to the old concept of the Homo economicus in favor of an expanded understanding of human nature that embraces our ability to grow an awareness for group identity, cooperation and altruism.  

 

We are limiting our possibilities by not allowing ourselves to see beyond the firmly cemented paradigm that the human being is by nature only driven by self-interest.

We appear to have a potential for both conflict and collaboration. We decide - each one of us - which aspect of our nature we want to buoy up. But here is the Rubicon we must overcome: We need to believe that we have this vast potential slumbering in us, that we haven’t even started to exhaust. In this sense, our own assumptions about human nature are reflected in our behaviors. In our current time, I am afraid, we are limiting our possibilities by not allowing ourselves to see beyond the firmly cemented paradigm that the human being is by nature only driven by self-interest. We still have difficulties imagining more constructive models of human nature. Instead, we are caught up in a culture that sees contest as the prevailing standard at almost every level of interaction. Maybe the idea of “contest“ needs to be put into another frame, that allows for a new understanding of it. Shouldn’t we use our imagination to look at our present-day models from new perspectives? We could, for instance, be more courageous in experimenting with and adopting new concepts of collaboration, involvement and participation in organizational settings and reflect and learn from those new experiences. This is also why it is crucial for organizational leaders to grow a learning culture in their organizations and to orchestrate the development of a broadly shared vision that allows the formation of a common identity. The latter boosts mutuality and a common understanding for creating a meaningful future based on shared purpose.

As we have innate capacities for mutual relationships, and are not just selfish, we could essentially understand human nature as a dualism that is represented by a material - or immanent - dimension and a non-material - or transcendent - dimension. This appeals to our higher nature and can be seen as the source of qualities - such as trustworthiness, compassion, humility, collaboration and the motivation to sacrifice for the common good - that can transcend self-interest. Both dimensions rest in us. It is up to us to consciously decide throughout our individual lives which one we make the dominant part of our own individual reality. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl elaborates on our capacity to self-transcend and our human side. Seen from this perspective, human nature may have a dynamical aspect to it, that allows us to unearth its gems. Many scholars and practice experts argue along the line that while each person has a unique genetic endowment, our capacity to develop via individual effort and experience, training and purposeful engagement is higher than ever thought. In short, it seems our nature is also what we make of it. We are, for a good part, who we consciously decide to become. And we can learn to make use of our higher nature, the one that today, as it seems, we need most. Would not such a vantage point bring us a step further in our quest to bring forth a meaningful and viable future for all of us? Wouldn’t it be worth a serious try - given the state of the world - to invest into capital that appeals to our higher nature?

Leaving the Escape Room

Today’s challenge is leaving our „escape room“, in which our societies and organizations are trapped. If we want to break out of our current „mental space“ - basically our prevailing way of thinking - that has turned too narrow for our time, we have to be ready to allow our frame of reference to take a next leap. Only then we begin to draw new insights based on a new type of thinking, which according to Albert Einstein and many scholars and thought leaders after him, is essential for our survival and further progress. Just as in the sciences, e.g. in physics, we humans have frames of references that allow us to make sense of what we experience, view and observe. They enable us to create new meaning of things we are confronted with. As humans, we understand everything on the basis of our mental frames. If we accumulate vast amounts of knowledge on the basis of outdated frames, we step on the spot and won’t experience much progress. But a shift of our frame of reference allows us to see things in a new light and brings about a change in the way we view something. It opens the possibility of new perspectives. We should use our imagination, a distinct and precious human faculty, to think beyond our current time. If human well-being is so much dependent on a concerted effort to face our global challenges, that are many, what about envisioning in a collaborative and constructive effort what kind of future we actually want to live in? What can be the role of business and social organizations, business ecosystems and wider networks to shape - in the spirit of true pioneers - the kind of vibrant social life that lifts up hopes, revitalizes the workforce, empowers people to take on responsibility and gives them courage to serve common purpose with actionable ideas?

The „fitness for purpose“ of a certain perspective would depend on whether it is useful to solve problems.

Almost four decades ago Hans Ulrich, an eminent scholar of his time and an early pioneer of system-oriented management theory at the University of St.Gallen, described organizations as purpose-oriented social systems and as institutions of society. The „fitness for purpose“ of a certain perspective would depend on whether it is useful to solve problems. Today, what kind of problems do organizations need to solve? What are the pressing needs that call for emphasized attention? Certainly, as the world has evolved, the needs are of a different kind than in the past. In today’s age of interconnectivity and the imperative of a „permanency of transitions“, the challenges organizations are confronted with must meet, amongst others, the following requirements: building and sustaining trust, fostering collaboration, empowering human capital to grow potential, sustaining diversity to ensure the multitude of perspectives  that can spur innovation and rallying around purpose and a united vision that surpasses the business rationale to link to the idea of being of service to humanity. None of these requirements can be achieved without a more mature and humane approach (assuming - as described earlier - that humans can transcend self-interest). None can be solved purely by applying advanced technology. To avoid misunderstandings, technology will definitely be a key enabler in most instances - but cannot pitch in and replace our sincere efforts to grow those human qualities that are necessary to bring them to realization, yet alone to sustain an environment that is conducive for further development.

On a societal level, this requires a courageous open-mindedness that allows us to eventually develop a new worldview, that we can rally behind. One, that bears the hope of a new world-embracing vision of what a future we - as humankind - would like to live in.

The foundational step is for us to acknowledge the interdependence of the human species and the realization that we are part of the same human family, characterized by a collective evolution along a historical trajectory. As human beings, we carry an immense potential in ourselves to explore our social, cultural and spiritual capital to realize such a vision. For many, the bond that connects us humans is self-evident and requires building further awareness. For others it is a naive, unreflected daydream, that fails to recognize the apparent destructive energy, distrust and hatred that has enwrapped human coexistence. Yet others - and this is yet a decisive majority - fall silent and dwell in passivity. The difference to past times is that we are running out of time. The state of the world is too severe, the urgency too high and therefore waiting or ducking is not a viable option.