[First published January 6, 2010] My colleagues and I have had an ongoing debate about whether we should use the phrase “spirit of life” when we talk about the integrative property or force that animates living systems, including ourselves and our organizations. Of course, we mean it in a non-religious sense, referring to it in the context ofS a model grounded in biology, complexity science, quantum physics and the vast literature on organizational success. To me, “spirit” seems the most accurate term, with its dictionary definition as the “breath of life” as well as its hint at the underlying integrality and creativity of all living systems. Still, the word makes some people squirm. And so we’ve tended to skate around it, using watered-down euphemisms or just skipping quickly past that part of the model.
But a recent conversation with a friend (a former CEO, now private equity investor) strengthened my conviction about the importance of naming it unabashedly. His comment was that it still just seemed strange to talk about “the spirit of life” in the context of business, and maybe another word would be better. When I asked him why, he said: “Well, it just doesn’t seem to belong. Business is about numbers and profit and production. You know: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Can you imagine the annual report, with the letter from the CEO in the beginning: ‘Our numbers are down…. We see these trends in the market and here’s what we’re going to be doing to capitalize on them…. We expect to see a profit again in Q3…. And our spirit is really good.’ It just seems weird. I don’t know why society is so focused on money and accumulating things, but it is. I mean, you wouldn’t talk about spirit in accounting, right?”
To me, this is the best evidence yet that we need to talk about spirit directly. Everything he said is true … in simple situations where human connection, responsiveness and innovation are not required. But these days, we see that business success is more and more reliant on exactly those intangible drivers. And those intangibles are made possible only by engaging whatever it is that makes us living, creative, interconnected beings rather than isolated, measurable machines. So if it still seems strange to talk about spirit in business, then what must be needed is a redefinition of business in which the integrative, creative spark of life has its proper place.
Maybe the word itself isn’t important. Theory U’s Otto Scharmer and The Fifth Discipline’s Peter Senge talk about Source. Politician and playwright Vaclav Havel talks about Being. Maybe we should just talk about Life and move away from Spirit, with its religious baggage. Maybe. But those terms have their limitations, too. And my sense is that we actually need to get past our discomfort with the concept, whatever label we attach to it. The heart of the matter is the need for conversation about what makes us alive, creative and connected, particularly in our organizations and in our economic lives. If the 1960s brought us the sexual revolution, in which people intentionally overcame the awkwardness of talking about taboo subjects, maybe now is the time for a spiritual revolution, in which we move past the limiting definitions attributed by past religions and claim our own meanings for the concept of spirit.
My hope is that we will come to see all situations of purposeful human interaction (like organizations) as complex opportunities to innovate, respond, adapt and most of all to care. It is in these ways that we feel most fully alive, when the spark or spirit of life flows through us most vibrantly. For situations where caring, responsiveness and creativity are not possible or desirable, I hope that automation will come to be seen as the only appropriate solution.
To these ends, there seems to be the need to establish that:
- Not everything that is important in business can be measured…or managed.
- It is not human nature to value “money and accumulating things” above all else. It is simply the current belief set. There are alternative belief sets that will serve our full interests better.
- The numbers are one possible indication of how well you’re engaging the spirit of life, whether you realize that’s what you’re doing or not. Ancient Chinese wisdom says, “Only a fool looks at a finger pointing at the moon and mistakes the finger for the moon.” We’re overemphasizing numbers and under-emphasizing the living spirit that drives them, and our businesses will remain limited (at best) as long as we continue in this way.
- Though there are mechanistic (tangible, measurable) aspects of our working interactions, these are not the most interesting and powerful aspects, just as the mechanistic aspects of our bodies are not the most interesting and powerful aspects of who we are.
In the end, I’m not sure that “spirit” is the right word. But what I am sure about is the need for an open, ongoing conversation about what makes our organizations alive and, therefore, resilient, creative and adaptive…because it is in conversation that all revolutions begin.