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Who Stole My Soul?
When asked what motivated or excited him, a well-known Silicon Valley corporate leader claimed to be "coin-operated." For decades, CEOs and other senior leaders in corporations have been motivated by financial incentives of various sorts - huge salaries, bonuses, vested stock and options, and many other creative perks.
The "coin operated" metaphor identifies the traditional mindset of the "incentivized" leader who can be bought by external rewards. This mindset assumes that people can be motivated like Pavlov's dogs. As several executives in the Valley have been heard to say when asked about enduring all kinds of stress, pressures, invalidations and other negative conditions, "Hell, I can hold my breath that long" - meaning that they can put up with unsustainable conditions for a short time in order to reap the financial rewards they are expecting to come their way. Their rationale is "the short term pain is worth the long term gain."
As we have seen recently in the headlines, people can even compromise basic human values and violate the rules of common decency using the same rationale - it's all about the money.
To be sure, profit is essential to any business enterprise. There's no doubt about this. Businesses are not charities and no one is suggesting that corporations should not make money for its owners and employees. But profit is only one of the reasons that companies exist. When everyone's focus is on maximizing profits or personal wealth, myopia occurs that can lead to incredibly dysfunctional behavior that becomes endemic to the corporate culture. To put all the focus on maximizing profits and wealth-building, even falsifying records so the stock value is maximized so certain people can make huge profits, violates the very fabric of true capitalism.
"What?" you say? Isn't capitalism about making as much money as you can? Well that wasn't how it all began. The "father of modern capitalism" - Adam Smith - was an 18th Century moral philosopher who assumed a certain morality at play in his "invisible hand" comparison of the so-called "free market." He could not have imagined how the free market has turned out to be so "un-free" since he wrote The Wealth of Nations - the capitalist's bible. He could not have imagined how much consumer manipulation occurs today and how addicted we've become to consuming "stuff." The greedy, brutal, everything-for-short-term-gains mindset that runs rampant today has Smith rolling over in his grave I'm sure. The distorted version of capitalism that we've seen so much of lately in the news is a mutant - morphing from a service-focused system to a greed-focused glutton over the years.
A couple of hundred years ago, ethics was a matter of conscience. Now there are codes of conduct, laws, regulations, statutes, and other codifications that professionals and executives need to conform to unless they wish to risk censure or disciplinary repercussions. Being ethical now seems to mean that anything is "ethical" as long as it doesn't violate some code or isn't illegal.
This is very different from Smith's days in the 1700s. Capitalism had a moral aspect to it as he envisioned in his writings. After all, he was a moral philosopher. Defenders of unrestrained capitalism cite Smith's invisible hand theory incessantly but few of them seem to mention that he was also famous for another book - The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this second book he writes, "The rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants."
Now, Corporate Compliance Officers are retained by publicly-traded companies to make sure they don't violate SEC rules and the corporate conscience (and usually the consciences of its leaders) lies dormant in some abandoned warehouse. The human conscience - that muscle in our psyche that tells us the difference between right and wrong - has been atrophying in the business community since so much attention has been placed on the financial bottom line.
Thinking that the corporation's sole purpose is to maximize profits is akin to thinking that the human being's sole purpose is to breathe. Our bodies need oxygen to remain alive, but oxygen isn't our sole purpose for living! The same is true for companies. While they need "oxygen" to live, they also have a greater calling than simply inhaling and exhaling currency. They offer society some value - some product or service that benefits some segment of our population while providing their employees and vendors with that sense of contributing to something of greater value that sitting home and watching Jerry Springer on TV.
I often hear people complaining about their "soulless" workplaces as if someone has stolen their souls - at least when they are at work. It is easy and convenient to blame others for creating environments where we feel spiritually dead, or emotionally drained. It is convenient to point one's finger at "them" and villain-ize others for the soul disconnect that one feels in these situations.
But souls aren't stolen. Soul burglars don't sneak into your home while you are asleep and steal away with your umbilical connection to God. You cannot take anyone's soul from them without their permission. Souls can only be given away freely and willfully. In other words, you can sell your soul but it can't be stolen.
I doubt if many people consciously choose to sell their souls. The scenario of making deals with the devil is reserved for science fiction movies or TV episodes of the "Twilight Zone." Most people lose their soul over time, one small compromise after another - a gradual process that can become pretty exaggerated unless something serves to wake up the person and remind him or her of the disconnect.
I'm reminded of the parable of the boiled frog which I cite in my latest book - Getting to the Better Future. Put a frog in a pan of tepid water and gradually raise the heat; the frog will get sleepier and sleepier, eventually boiling to death. Drop a frog in a pan of pre-heated water and it will jump out immediately, sensing the huge difference in temperature and fleeing for it's life. While this parable makes the point of how people become lulled into states of unconsciousness, it misses one very important point. People are not frogs!
When one chooses to compromise one's values and rationalize unethical, immoral and even criminal behavior, one begins the process of selling one's soul. Rationalizing these compromises is a form of denial and denial is what smothers one's soul. "I only need to do this for a short time," is one of these rationalizations. "It must be okay since everyone else is doing it," is another. And how about, "If it isn't illegal, it must be okay?"
Sacrificing one's principles and compromising one's integrity is like putting one's soul on the supermarket shelf. It screams, "Here I am, take me. I only ask that I be rewarded with lots of cash or adulation." It is the equivalent of committing spiritual suicide. Once this choice has been made, one is disconnected from one's Self - estranged at one's very core. These people are now spiritual zombies, walking about, breathing air, taking up space, maybe even seeming happy much of the time - but they are spiritually hollow. Connecting to anything larger than their petty neuroses or their manufactured personas is impossible. So they relate with these as best they can, missing out on all that comes with being vitally connected with a sense of higher purpose, personal destiny and spiritual fulfillment. In a soulless state, people get most of their good feelings from acquiring "stuff" and living from one artificial high to another. They require bigger and bigger highs from the world so they feel somewhat alive.
Medication, drugs, addiction to all sorts of things and activities, including work, busy-ness, accumulating stuff and TV-watching are a few of the ways people cope with this lost soul state. Without these distracting consolations, people would see how they have betrayed themselves. They would experience this "great disconnect" and be forced to feel the emotions that they've been avoiding.
"Well, John," you might say, "This all sounds pretty hopeless. Are we destined to continue devolving into this bottomless disconnect?" Well, not quite. There is hope! People can reclaim their souls and resurrect their right to joyous lives and meaningful work. They can stop numbing themselves out and feel what's there to be felt. Human beings are emotional creatures. All emotions are natural, even the ones like anger, fear and hurt. The only "bad" feeling is an unexpressed one that goes underground and rots - creating disease in one's body and requiring lots of psychological excavation to resolve someday.
Once one's ability to fully feel is restored, one can get on with creating situations that feed the soul instead of starving it. Unlike physical suicide, one can come back to life after spiritual suicide. The emotions are the portal through which one enters a relationship with Spirit and reclaims one's connection with one's Self again.
Recent scandals like WorldCom, Enron, Andersen et al have been God-sends. They have brought the dark, shadowy behavior which has been festering in corporate backrooms for decades out into the limelight. These scandalous acts are so offensive to the masses - so shocking - that they provide us all with another opportunity to correct the system and change the trends of what is called "brutal capitalism" in many parts of the world. Like a whack on the side of the head, these events serve to jolt us out of our malaise - our numbed-out state of complacency.
In stark contrast to President Bush's "few bad apples" comparison, millions of us are complicit in this morphing of capitalism. Either by our actions or our inactions we have allowed and condoned this mutation to occur. Certainly some of us have had bigger roles than others, but millions bear responsibility for what has been happening. Through our complacency we have become complicit and have given legitimacy to this system-gone-amuck.
The Wall Street scandals are forcing us all to look at where our moral compass has gone. Perhaps we can venture out to those abandoned warehouses and find all those withering and dusty consciences and breathe new life into them. Perhaps we can reawaken our inner sense of right and wrong and repossess our souls.
If you can't accept that you've "sold" your soul, perhaps you can accept that you might have at least "mortgaged" it a little - making small compromises here and there without actually giving up custody. If this rationale suits you better, okay. But you still need to pay off the mortgage if you wish to regain complete possession of your soul.
Please do not read this as a conceptual treatise about what "they" must do to reclaim their souls. By "our" I mean us - you and me. That's each one of us. Not "them" but me and you. Take this personally, please.
We have to repossess our own souls. No one is going to show up and offer to give them back to us. We have to take them back as a conscious act of will. This requires us to take a stand for our own self-respect as human beings who have a higher calling in this game called life. Clearly we have a ways to go if we are to fulfill our destiny as spiritual beings having a physical experience. Besides, now that we've had some time without our souls, we can see that the deal we made wasn't a very good one anyway.
To recap, a way to repossess one's soul is 1. take a firm stand to do so and make it your explicit intention; 2. stop numbing yourself out and start feeling true emotions, even if means giving up some of your pet consolations or addictions; 3. responsibly process the emotions that come up so you are no longer repressing them, and 4. begin doing things that feed your soul - either doing different things or doing the same things differently.
Spiritual suicide isn't permanent. You can restore life and spiritual vitality by reclaiming your connection to your Self and committing yourself to sticking to your principles and values. If you can't change your circumstances, then perhaps you should remove yourself from them. But at least try! Stand up for what you believe. Take stands that reflect who you are. Speak out against things you don't think are right. Ask questions when you aren't clear if something is okay. You'll find that your soul and your personality will get along as if you never parted company.
Many more articles in Insight & Commentary in The CEO Refresher Archives