Large corporations are sleep-walking towards disaster — will 2021 be the year in which they wake up?

There is a mythic quality to what is happening in the world today. We are players in an epic fairy tale that will be told and re-told in awe-filled tones in centuries to come. Human society faces existential threats. A global pandemic sweeps through society, and economic turmoil is coming, while looming on the horizon are the twin sisters of climate change and ecosystem collapse. Yet political leaders waste time bickering amongst themselves and society fragments. Who will save us from ourselves?

In our great myths there are often ambiguous characters who have an important role in the unfolding of the story. Seeming villains can turn out to be saviours. Bystanders may decide to get involved, changing the course of the tale. In the Wizard of Oz it is the mysterious Wizard who in the end helps Dorothy find her way home. In Star Wars, Darth Vader at the last moment rejects the dark side and saves his son. The Ents in the Lord of the Rings were reluctant to get involved in battle but, once roused, played a key role in the defeat of Saruman.

In our current human story businesses, and particularly large corporations, are playing this sort of ambiguous role. No one can doubt their ability to make positive change in the world. They have helped shape our modern world, achieving miracles in engineering, medicine, distribution, communications and other fields. What’s lacking is the will.

In general businesses like to be seen as being neutral, beyond politics. But in the situation in which we find ourselves, there is no neutral stance. You are either for the continued plundering of the earth, the continued fragmentation of society, the continued violence of man against man, or you are for regeneration, restoration and re-connection.

At present there are precious few corporations willing to sacrifice even a penny of profit to contribute to the cause of regeneration. Big oil companies continue to pollute while searching for new oilfields to exploit, large auto companies continue to sell fossil fuel burning vehicles while only slowly and reluctantly embracing electric vehicles, fast moving consumer goods companies continue to push sales of pointless products. And their scale and reach means they are increasingly beyond the law and beyond the reach of any mere government. They seem to be sleep-walking into disaster, hypnotized by the lure of infinite power and wealth, and dragging us all down with them.

This all sounds rather gloomy, doesn’t it? Yet, perhaps surprisingly, I remain hopeful. I know that, although from a distance large corporations appear strange and rather monstrous, on closer inspection they are revealed as very familiar, for they are made up of people like you and me. They employ our friends, neighbours, cousins and uncles. Our pension funds invest in them. Their customers are all of us. They are us.

The people working within these behemoths are not evil. They are just asleep. Not literally asleep of course — in fact, their corporate masters are working them harder and harder. Rather they are behaving mindlessly — too busy to stop and reflect on what they are doing and on the impact of their work. It is time these people woke up.

I am involved with an audacious enterprise called “Craigberoch business decelerator” based on the Isle of Bute in Scotland. Our mission is to awaken change-makers within large corporations and encourage a wave of breakthrough innovation that will contribute to the healing of our world. We take people out of the corporate setting and expose them to art, nature and other activities that connect them with themselves and others. The idea is not to find a few “heroes” or “heroines” but rather to connect people with what it means to be alive and human. Our belief is that ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances, are capable of extraordinary acts of courage and compassion.

This is illustrated in the ancient myth of the knight Percival (Parsifal in German) who sets off to find the Holy Grail (a symbol of transformation). At the outset of his quest, Percival is clever but rather self-centred and lacking in self-knowledge. He visits the castle of the sick Fisher King, knowing that asking the right question could save the king but for all his cleverness, fails to understand what question to ask. He is obliged to continue on his quest. Years later, after many twists and turns, an older and more mature Perceval revisits the castle and, moved by a sense of compassion, asks the King: “What ails thee?”. Expressing compassion in this way marks the end of his quest and he finds the Grail.

I like to imagine what might happen if the workers in Exxon or BP, in WalMart or British Airways, in Nike or HSBC, were to ask of society and the planet: “What’s wrong?” and “How can I help?”. I imagine it unleashing a tidal wave of creativity that would transform those companies and society, as well as the individuals involved.

Anecdotally I am hearing more and more stories these days of people within large corporations starting to lead positive change within their organisation. A powerful recent example is that of Astra Zeneca, the pharmaceutical giant, whose CEO agreed that the company would make no profit on its coronavirus vaccine, and would make it available around the world at cost price. When such stories are shared, others become emboldened to act themselves.

Of course there are huge barriers to change, not least a stock market driven by an unholy mix of greed and algorithms, where slices of ownership in companies are traded like playthings. I don’t hold out much hope of radical change coming there any day soon! But even that day will come, I feel sure. Our myths show us that even the hardest of hearts can be melted in time.

There is a huge opportunity for large corporations to contribute to the regeneration of our world, if they wake up in time. 2021 would be a good year for that to happen. After the chaos and confusion of 2020, let’s make this a year to remember!

barefoot lawyer. Co-founder of Human Organising Co. Writes about governance and the future of work and organisations. See barefootlawyer.uk

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