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Monday, December 9, 2013

Constructive Capitalism and Dr. Bronner

Dr. Emanuel Bronner 1908 - 1997
      I can't remember the first place where I came across Dr. Bronner's liquid soap (you know, the one with the peculiarly verbose label with references to Spaceship Earth, Halley's Comet and All One God Faith!) - it was many years ago - but I do remember my reaction. I thought, "Wow, this guy is a wacko," but I bought the soap anyways. I figured if he was honest enough to rant like a lunatic on his label, then his soap must be honest and pure as stated in the simple ingredients list. Sure enough, the soap was very good.

      Dr. Bronner was a third generation soap maker descended from Orthodox Jewish soap manufacturers in Germany. The first part of his life was marked by tragedy - his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and later, he was committed to an insane asylum where he endured barbaric electroshock treatments for his bizarre (but at least peaceful) views. He managed to escape from the institution to California where he founded his soap company in 1948. Fortunately, his latter days were marked by blessing. He reconciled with his abandoned children (so committed was he to his cause of uniting Spaceship Earth, they spent much of their childhood in foster homes) who in turn helped run the company. In spite of a sadly complicated and imperfect past, Dr. Bronner, in his geriatric years, enjoyed helming a successful family enterprise as well as an Eden-like existence of nude sunbathing and eating fresh guacamole, his favorite health food, on a regular basis.

      His soap continues in the same excellent tradition despite Dr. Bronner having passed away in 1997. The company is run by his relatives who hold to the same purity standards espoused by Dr. Bronner and have taken them to another level. The company's product is completely organic and fair trade certified, and they're especially proud of an organic, fair trade olive oil project in the Holy Land. The company has always donated a percentage of their net profits to charity. In recent years, the percentage donated has increased to over 70% of net profits. The relatives have also capped their salaries so that they are never grotesquely out of proportion to the lowest paid employees in the company. And they give generous bonuses to all of their employees, not just the top management. (As anyone knows, this is so unfortunately not true in many American companies and corporations where a sense of entitlement prevails in upper management to the long-term detriment of the companys' morale and financial health.)

Dr. Bronner's line of soaps
      More and more business people are considering the sustainable and socially responsible business model just as more and more people have jumped on the organic and fair trade bandwagon. Some claim that a business that creates an excellent product, reimburses all workers fairly, is socially and environmentally responsible, gives generously, and is also economically viable all at the same time is not possible. Dr. Bronner's company is a practical example of how this "constructive capitalism" is in fact very possible.

      Many people are unaware that it was Dr. Bronner who first conceived and used the term "constructive capitalism." Increasingly, financial and economic pundits are trying to take credit for the term. Dr. Bronner was truly a pioneer, well ahead of his time, and his work has helped pave the way for contemporary offshoots such as "conscious capitalism" (the Whole Foods business model.) While generosity is nothing new in American capitalism - industrialists Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their twilight years, were big givers from their, some argue, ill-gotten wealth - Dr. Bronner's business was one of the first to marry the concept of social responsibility with profit in a very practical way.

      I have been a consumer of Dr. Bronner's soap for years - it's great for everything, including stinky, dander-infested pets. (Caution must be exercised in using the peppermint soap on private areas since the high quality peppermint has a surprising "zing" to it.) Over time, the kooky labels with excessive exclamation points have become more and more endearing, like the rantings of a favorite, eccentric, old fart relative. Apparently, Dr. Bronner's family feels likewise. Even though a number of Dr. Bronner's relatives are born-again Christians and don't quite agree with everything on the labels (e.g. the Halley's Comet connection to the Messiah), they have left them unchanged out of respect for their founding patriarch. The family states on each label, "No one agrees with everything on the label, but everyone finds something which inspires and touches them." So true. The labels contain a random assortment of original quotes by Dr. Bronner from his "moral ABC" and quotes by famous people. Here is a sampling:

"To love, to live!
to see to it that I give and grow
and give and give!"
Dr. Bronner

"God must have loved the common people of the earth...he made so many of them."
Abraham Lincoln

"Our technology has outstripped our humanity!"
Albert Einstein

"We're ALL-ONE or NONE!"
Dr. Bronner

      And did I mention that Dr. Bronner was blind? His ever diminishing eyesight, which he attributed to the early electroshock treatments, eclipsed into total blindness by his old age, but he had more vision and foresight than most people with perfect eyesight. And perhaps his most radical, daring, and for many people, annoying practice - he brings up the subject of God in a place where no one else would dare to for fear of losing customers: the marketplace. His soap labels are peppered with references to God. You may find his theology to be strange or flawed, but you have to at least admire his brazenness for giving homage to God in a place where the term "God" is practically a dirty word. On something as ordinary and mundane as a soap bottle sitting on a store shelf, of all places. The nerve of that Dr. Bronner!

(Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I touch on the subject of God in the topic "God" which is part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.)






Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Problem? of Emotions

      The master actor and storyteller Charlie Chaplin once observed: the mark of an idiot is all feeling and no intellect, and the mark of an arch-criminal (or sociopath) is all intellect and no feeling.
      The two extremes - all feeling or no feeling - present problems, no one can argue. Some balance of emotions is needed along with emotions themselves - life (and for that matter storytelling) would fall flat without them. So why are emotions so often judged and feared? And have we become increasingly numbed and deadened to feeling? Some argue that one of the reasons actors, storytellers, and especially moviemakers are so highly paid and respected in our society today (people in the dramatic arts used to be considered low-lifes) is because of their skill in conveying and creating emotional response. The argument essentially goes - we have become so deadened and deprived of emotional expression in the grind, rat race, and busyness of modern times, that the only time we feel alive is when we watch movies. Whether you agree with this or not, it's certainly something to think about.
      So are emotions (or a lack of emotions) a problem in modern times?

(Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss the issue of emotions in the business world in the topics: "The Mystery of the Automobile Company Widget" and "The Engineer Who Claimed, 'There is no such thing as emotions'." These topics are part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.)

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Symptoms Versus Causes

      The word heal in English comes from an old Saxon word which means "to make whole." The words wholesome and holistic come from the same root, and the definition of holistic describes nature as a unity, made up of wholes which are more than a mere sum of its disparate parts. (Interestingly, the English word holy comes from the same base that is seen in heal and health - 'hail', 'halig', and 'hali' which means "whole, entire, unimpaired" and in a religious context, "unsullied.")
      Terms such as whole and holistic are in vogue now, maybe in response to one of the most unfortunate ironies of our times - in spite of all of our progress, a lack of wholeness predominates. Dysfunction, disease, and ailments continue to hold sway and cancer is epidemic. Modern medicine is impressive in its advancements but often criticized for its lack of understanding of whole systems especially in the area of preventive health care. And the main emphasis seems to be on the elimination of symptoms rather than the healing of root causes. Symptoms are treated as problems in and of themselves - pharmaceutical drugs are readily prescribed and purchased, and often the connection of symptoms to causes is not thoroughly examined or even made.
      In spite of all of our accumulation of knowledge in the information age and our so-called advancements, we remain blind or seem to become more blind to the whole truth of how things are caused or connected. In the industrial age, specialization and compartmentalization is the norm, and the ability and desire to see the whole picture, regard things holistically, is considered kooky.

(This blindness is also prevalent in the mundane day-to-day operations of the business world. Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss this in the topic "Symptoms Versus Causes" which is part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Are We Truly Productive?

     "Beware the barrenness of a busy life," quipped Socrates over 2,400 years ago, but sadly, barren busyness seems to be the norm of our times. In our industrial, technological age, we idolize productivity and we're in a constant state of doing and busyness, but are we truly productive? Or are we living wasteful, reactive lives full of unquestioned habit and routine (an observation of many old people when they reflect on their lives)? Business people are especially lauded for being practical and productive, but are they any better? Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody personally worked with hundreds of managers, top executives, and presidents over a course of fifty years. In his long career, he found otherwise. Julian and I discuss this in the topic "No Concept of Priorities" which is part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

What is the Essence of Leadership?

      Upward mobility, the American Dream, and ambition in the form of seeking the highest title and position are taken for granted in our culture. Given this, the meaning of leadership has become muddled, tainted, and confused. A common assumption is that leadership is something that one strives for and achieves, but is leadership about advancement and a position? Is it about various agendas for promotion? Or is it something altogether different? And what distinguishes a great leader from a good leader?
      Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody personally worked with hundreds of managers, top executives, and presidents. Julian and I discuss leadership in the topic "What is the Essence of Leadership?" as part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Ugly Face, Beautiful Mind

      In Lord Byron's play The Deformed Transformed, two characters immortalize Socrates:

ARNOLD: What! that low, swarthy, short-nosed, round-eyed satyr,
With the wide nostrils and Silenus' aspect,
The splay feet and low stature! I had better
Remain that which I am.

STRANGER: And yet he was
The earth's perfection of all mental beauty,
And personification of all virtue.

      Socrates also has the unusual privilege of being one of the few figures in history, flawed and human as he was, to be often likened to or mentioned in the same context as Jesus. Percy Bysshe Shelley refers to Socrates as the Jesus Christ of Greece and John Keats, in writing on the heroic spirit, wrote "I can remember but two - Jesus and Socrates." Benjamin Franklin, who famously compiled a list of virtues to aspire to, wrote, "Imitate Jesus and Socrates," for the virtue of humility.
      Socrates didn't write anything himself so to get a completely accurate and definitive handle on him and his methods is difficult - even his contemporaries disagreed and argued on who he truly was. But despite this impossibility to neatly pin him down, the legacy of his powerful personality and unique mind remains mysteriously far-reaching to this day.

      Consider just a few of his many sayings:

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life."

"The comic and the tragic lie inseparably close, like light and shadow." (This quote is often attributed to one of the ancient Greek playwrights or Shakespeare.)

      And more famously:

"An unexamined life is not worth living."

"And as for me, all I know is that I know nothing."

      What is known for certain is that he mixed with people at all levels of society - high class, low class, educated, uneducated, male, female, military, civil, slave, and free - and engaged with anyone in the process of inquiry. Anyone was worthy of a sincere search for the truth which he was careful to distinguish from mere accumulation of knowledge. And he tended to humiliate the self-satisfied and self-congratulating experts and intelligentsia of Greek society which eventually helped get him into serious trouble with the state. (He was ultimately executed for "corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens" and "not believing in the gods of the state.") An oracle proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest of all men. Socrates clarified that he was wiser than all men only because he professed ignorance, while others claimed to have knowledge. Perhaps this is best put in his words: "but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing."
      Curiously, one of the titans of the information age, Steve Jobs, once remarked,

"I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates."

(Socrates was a huge influence in the work of management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody. Julian reflects on this in "A “Dumb” Truck Driver Reads the Socratic Dialogues." This topic is part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What is the Essence of Teamwork?

      "Teamwork", "being a teamplayer" are commonplace expressions used in everyday life and work, and sports analogies abound in their description, but as anyone knows, real life is more complicated than sports. Combine that with our culture's emphasis on individual achievement and self-reliance, and it's no wonder that there's a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and ambivalence over what is meant by "teamwork" or "being a team player." Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I explore this in the topic "What Does the Overused Term “Teamwork” Really Mean?." This topic is part of our project On Life, Business, Education, and Other Things: Dialogues with Julian Moody.