Buddhist Capitalism: Why Trust and Collaboration Outperform Competitive Selling

When we think of capitalism, we typically think of competition as a central, driving force. At a macro-level, we have enshrined the value of competition in our antitrust laws. We think of competition between providers as a way to increase innovation and reduce costs. Adam Smith is frequently (and somewhat inaccurately) cited as the prophet of competition in his concept of the “invisible hand.”

At a micro-level, we have also glorified competition. Athletic competition is seen as a metaphor, as well as a proving ground, for competition in business. Businesses line up to sponsor major athletic events and athletes. And nowhere in business is competition more revered than in sales.

The truth is much of what we think about competition is dysfunctional, suboptimal, and actually destroys value. By contrast, what I’ll whimsically call Buddhist Capitalism shows another way that adds more value. I’ll explore this theme first at the business world level, then at the sales level.

Business Competition in the Real World

In the real world, pure competition leads directly to monopoly. Competition is inherently unstable, resolving to dominance of one more powerful firm over all the others. What we call “competition” in the modern Western world is a finely tuned mix of rules and regulations, as well as a few customs, that serve to keep behavior within socially acceptable bounds.

If you doubt this, think of what the U.S. economy would look like in the absence of the FTA, the FDA, the FAA, the SEC, or the FDIC. Or just look back a few decades in the history books. Maintenance of a state of competition depends enormously on the power of the referees.

Pure competition, even where regulatory regimes are strict, rarely exists. There are imbalances of labor, education, geography, and a hundred other variables. The point is in nearly every industry, there is an imbalance of power, exploited by one party at the expense of the weaker parties. “Competition” in the real world is more or less about zero-sum games, with one party holding the stronger hand.

The definitions of “capitalism” have been hijacked by extremist theoreticians in recent years: people such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Alan Greenspan, who believe in a moral purity produced by competition. (Never mind that an ethics built on selfishness isn’t worthy of being called ethics in the first place.)

Buddhist Capitalism

By contrast: imagine an economy relatively unencumbered by laws and regulations, but where trust and custom abounded. An economy with not nearly as many lawyers, but with fewer legal battles. An economy where the frictional costs of competition (and the regulation of competition) are lower, and innovation is higher.

You get such an economy when you introduce the concept of trust and collaboration. Zero-sum games shift to 1+1=3 games. Stephen MR Covey Jr.’s book The Speed of Trust is all about this: when trust is present, speed goes up and cost goes down.

If my Buddhist friends will forgive me the crude colloquial language, I’ll call this Buddhist Capitalism. What I mean is that it focuses on collaboration, not competition; on getting along harmoniously rather than vanquishing; on letting go attachment to outcome rather than obsessing over goal achievement.

It’s far from crazy. The lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma work in game theory is that a collaborative strategy always, always beats a competitive strategy if played long term. Research shows that collaboration produces more innovation than solitary introversion. Collaboration and trust build on each other, increasing knowledge of both parties to the point where they can jointly add value, cut costs, and reduce risks.

It may sound like a Beatles song—the more you give, the more you get—but it’s true.

Buddhist Selling

What does all this have to do with sales? Selling is just the micro-version of the same thing. We as human beings have a primal desire for survival, which can easily revert to competition. But we have an equally strong desire for connection, collaboration, and cohesion.

Except for pure commodities (and not even water or electricity is a pure commodity), buyers prefer to buy from sellers they trust. Trusted sellers have their customers’ interests at heart, ahead of their own. They play the long game because they know that the best way to long-term success is through their customers’ success, and, therefore, no particular sale is worth sacrificing the long-term relationship.

Trusted sellers are also not attached to a particular outcome. They don’t keep meticulous score at a detailed level, and they are willing to let their agenda be influenced by client needs. Finally, they keep no secrets from their customers because they see their interests and their customers’ interests as one and the same, and the value of shared information to both parties exceeds the value of secret information privy to just one party.

Of course, these attitudes are hard to come by in a world that prizes competition. Sellers everywhere are taught to compete not only with their competitors, but also with their own customers. Not getting a sale is considered bad form, if not unacceptable. Metrics in sales are short-term, incentives are largely extrinsic, and motivation basically consists of war chants.

But a seller who can “think Buddhist” will outperform a competitive seller over time because customers prefer to deal with sellers they trust. And they do not trust people who are in it for themselves.

The ultimate irony: by being willing to forego a sale and do the right thing, the “Buddhist seller” will end up selling more than the competitive seller.







Trust is Not Reputation

I trust my dog with my life – but not with my ham sandwich.

That is but one of dozens of humorous ways to indicate the multiple meanings we attach to the word “trust.” It’s remarkable how good we are at understanding the word in context, given its definitional complexity.

One interesting aspect of trust is its relationship to the concept of reputation. This issue is coming to the fore in the so-called “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption” movement.

Who can you trust on the Internet to deliver the goods they said they would deliver (think eBay), to leave your apartment in good shape if you lease it on Airbnb, to not be a creep if you offer someone ride-sharing?

It’s tempting to look at the concept of reputation as the scalable, digital badge of trust that we might append to all kinds of transactions between strangers, rendering them all as trustworthy as your cousin. (Well, most cousins.)

Tempting, but not exactly right.  Because trust, it turns out, is not reputation.

Greenspan’s Folly

William K. Black has written about the dire consequences of Alan Greenspan confusing trust and reputation, saying:

Alan Greenspan touted ‘reputation’ as the characteristic that made possible trust and free markets. He was dead wrong.

Greenspan believed that Wall Streeters’ regard for their own reputation meant that markets were the best guarantor of trust – because they would perceive their own self-interest as aligned with being perceived as trustworthy.

Unfortunately, Greenspan’s belief was probably based more in ideology than in history or psychology, as the passion for reputation was overwhelmed by the passion for filthy lucre, immortalized in the acronym IBGYBG (“I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone – let’s do the deal”).

Early Social Reputation Metrics

Think back, way back, to November, 2006.  A company called RapLeaf was on to something. Here’s how they described their goal:

Rapleaf is a portable ratings system for commerce. Buyers, sellers and swappers can rate one another—thereby encouraging more trust and honesty. We hope Rapleaf can make it more profitable to be ethical.

You can immediately see the appeal of a reputation-based trust rating system. And with a nano-second more of thought, you can see how such a system could be easily abused. (“Hey, Joey – let’s get on this thing, you stuff the ballot box for me, I stuff it for you, bada-boom.”)

Then there’s Edelman PR’s pioneering product, TweetLevel. It does one smart thing, which is to avoid a single definition of whatever-you-wanna-call it. Instead, it breaks your single TweetLevel score into four components: influence, popularity, engagement, and trust.

Edelman says:

having a high trust score is considered by many to be more important than any other category.  Trust can be measured by the number of times someone is happy to associate what you have said through them – in other words how often you are re-tweeted.

According to TweetLevel, here are my scores:

  •             Influence        73.4
  •             Popularity      70.1
  •             Engagement   56.4
  •             Trust               46.9

So much for my trustworthiness.

Guess who owns the number one trust score on TweetLevel: it’s Justin Bieber. Now you know who to call for – well, for something.

The KLOUT Effect

It’s easy to poke fun at metrics like TweetLevel that purport to measure trust; but in fairness, because trust is such a complex phenomenon, there really can be no one definition. What TweetLevel measures is indeed something – it’s not a random collection of data – and they have as much right to call it ‘trust’ as anyone else does. Indeed, I respect their decision to stay vague about what to call the composite metric.

KLOUT raises a more specific question: it directly claims to measure Influence, and is clear about its definition, at least at a high level:

The Klout Score measures influence [on a scale of 1 to 100] based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others. The Klout Score uses data from social networks in order to measure:

  • True Reach: How many people you influence
  • Amplification: How much you influence them
  • Network Impact: The influence of your network

I find that to be a coherent definition. If I’m a consumer marketer, I want to know who has high KLOUT scores in certain areas, because if they drive action, I want them driving my action.

Note that Klout doesn’t mention reputation at all – just influence. Where does trust come in?  Klout says, “Your customers don’t trust advertising, they trust their peers and influencers.”

Well, I wouldn’t go there. On TweetLevel, the top three influencers are Justin Bieber, Wyclef Jean, and Bella Thorne. Influencers – definitely. People to be trusted? What does that even mean?

Trust Metrics

One problem with linking trust to reputation is that it can be gamed. One problem with linking trust to influence is that notoriety and fame are cross-implicated. Bonny and Clyde were notorious, so was Bernie Madoff and the Notorious B.I.G. – that doesn’t make them trusted.

Take Kim Kardashian. Is she influential? You betcha: her Klout score is a whopping 92. Does she have a reputation? I bet her name recognition is higher than the President’s.

But – do you trust Kim Kardashian? Well, to do what? (By the way, TweetLevel gives her a 70.1 trust score – way higher than mine. Now you know who to ask when you need a trustworthy answer; I’m referring all queries to her).

So here are a few headlines on trust metrics.

  1. They’re contextual. You can’t say you trust someone without saying what you trust them for. I trust an eBay seller to sell me books, but I’m not going to trust him with my daughter’s phone number.
  2. They’re multi-layered. Both Klout and TweetLevel correctly recognize that social metrics can’t be monotonic – a single headline number is useful, but it had better have nuances and deconstructive capability.
  3. Behavior trumps reputation. You can get lots of people to stuff the ballot boxes for you; it’s a lot harder to fake your own  behavioral history. Trust metrics based more on what you did, rather than just on what people say about you, are more solid.
  4. Good definitions are key. When people say ‘trust’ and don’t distinguish between trusting and being trusted, they’re not being clear. There’s social trust, transactional trust – it goes on and on. Good metrics start by being very clear.

So what’s the link between reputation, influence, and trust? There is no final arbiter of that question. Language is an evolving anthropological thing, and as Humpty Dumpty said, words mean what we choose to say they mean. So job one is to be clear about our intended meanings.


Full disclosure: I have a small interest in a sharing economy company, TrustCloud. I have written more about the sharing economy and collaborative consumption in a White Paper: Trust and the Sharing Economy, a New Business Model.

Is Capitalism 2.0 a Mirage? (Part 2 of 2)

Yesterday, in Part 1 of 2 of this blogpost, I noted that Capitalism 1.X is under attack for its very legitimacy. One approach to fixing the problem is to change the dogma and the ideology—what I called the approach of Capitalism 2.0. An approach like this is taken in two new writings by major strategic thinkers.

I quoted Umair Haque on his approach to Capitalism 2.0:

The outlines of an updated economic paradigm…include two fundamental axioms:

…first…through the act of exchange, an organization cannot, by action or inaction, allow people, communities, society, the natural world, or future generations to come to economic harm. [italics are Haque’s]

And I quoted Porter/Kramer from Shared Value:

The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se.

These are exciting, heady statements. They are directionally right, and very inspiring to most of us. I believe each work makes a very positive contribution to business thinking.

There’s only one problem. The authors are still using the language of ideology.

Beware of Closed Systems

Haque wants an axiom. Unfortunately for Haque, I don’t know of any organization for whom it is axiomatic that they cannot do any of the things he lists. Calling something “axiomatic” simply doesn’t make it so.

Porter and Kramer, in their treatment of Shared Value, use the word ‘must’ in a similar way (“The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se”). But the result is the same. Nobody ‘must’ do anything, as the human race perversely insists on proving time and again.

Karl Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, declared communism inevitable. Capitalism 1.5 had the same flavor. Haque’s ironic use of “Manifesto” and the language of ‘axioms’ suggest the same pull of logical necessity. But axioms are abstract, not empirical–they don’t drive action, unless someone chooses to act on them. And Porter’s ‘must’ has no causal force; it is exhortation dressed up in the words of logical necessity.

There is a beauty in such simple, powerful idea systems, a beauty well-loved by economists, mathematicians, physicists and strategists. The problem is–they are closed systems. That’s OK for math and physics. But for most other fields, once you get outside a closed system, things eventually degrade.

Inevitability Isn’t

Marx was wrong about communism’s inevitability. Greenspan was wrong about large companies’ inclination to self-regulate based on reputation. Friedman was wrong about the gyroscopic capabilities of the Invisible Hand.

If Porter and Haque believe that they have discovered an ideology as attractive, powerful and self-sustaining as those were, then we’re probably just looking at another shiny-object, perpetual-motion, too-good-to-be-true closed system.

In fact, it was our unquestioned belief in the closed-system aspect of Capitalism 1.X that helped cause Capitalism 1.X to fail. It all sounded so good that we wanted to believe it–until long after the writing was on the wall. Not for the first time, the charm of dogma blinded us to facts on the ground until it became not just overwhelming, but undeniable. We’re left thinking, “What were we thinking?” and the answer is, we weren’t. We were just believing.

The search for another compelling but unrealistic logic is likely to be equally misguided.

Both Porter-Kramer and Haque argue that systemic adoption of Capitalism 2.0 will lead to higher systemic profitability. This is certainly true. But the heart of the matter is not a systemic issue—it is whether individual companies will make decisions that are not profitable to themselves in the short term. And this is where ideology gets in the way:

What should, and will, a company do if an initiative is profitable in Capitalism 2.0 terms–but not profitable in Capitalism 1.X terms? Not every business problem is simply a failure of imagination, even if many–even if most–are. The problem of the commons remains unsolved.

I’m not optimistic that Porter can find a profit that is “imbued with a social purpose…that arises…out of a deeper understanding of competition and economic value creation.” I think that’s a circle that can’t be squared.

But it is also not necessary. The answer lies in sober thinking about how social change happens; not in a new Idea System.

Haque is most productive not when he’s offering ringing phrases, but when he’s offering examples of new business opportunities that are not only holistically profitable, but profitable as well in today’s simple quarterly income statement terms–examples like Threadless and Nike’s Considered Design.

Porter is today more famous for his early Five Forces model than for his value chain model, but the latter has probably had more impact. Similarly, his solid thinking today on clusters and the proper role of regulation may end up having more impact than his heroic effort to cognitively re-conceive competition.

There is richness in both works, worthy of a lot of thoughtful reading.

The Other Solution: Dial Back the Dogma

Ironically, it was Marx who said, “The point is not to understand the world, but to transform it.” Ideologues and dogmatists insist on the primacy of theory. Change agents are more pragmatic.

Parts of our society are addicted to dogma and ideology. Business, under Capitalism 1.X, is one; others are politics, academia and particularly economics. But it’s not the norm.

The legal profession isn’t dogmatic, apart from a general belief in advocacy. Education has many sub-currents but not one unifying theory. The practice of medicine, other than the Hippocratic Oath, is more practical than ideological.

If ideology is ultimately empty calories, then what is to be done? How else can we get to the alternate vision of business that both Porter and Haque so clearly, and rightly, envision?

First, we need to give up our addiction to ideology. What’s needed is not another intellectual home run, but a dogged effort to get better at getting along—on all social dimensions, not just those of business.

What can you do? Here are a few examples:

1. People with visible responsibility can start talking about civic and moral virtues, instead of the virtues of an abstract system which magically does the heavy lifting for us.

2. Porter, Kramer and Haque as writers–and all of us as readers–can use the rich and stimulating examples they have uncovered as a challenge to our imaginations, and a spur to creative thinking. The power of what they’ve written lies more in their examples and simple models than in the attempt at a Unifying Theory.

3. Measurements are powerful in business; many managers believe that management requires it. We can all support global attempts at Integrated Reporting accounting, combining traditional financial accounting with other socially-relevant measures. New vocabularies seriously drive new dialogues.

4. Trade associations can shift emphasis from narrow sectarian lobbying to offering education and perspective on increasing the long-term viability of their industries.

5. Business strategists and economists can look to outside functional arenas; negotiation and bargaining experts know how to integrate zero-sum oppositional positions with shared interests;

6. Politicians can rediscover bi-partisanship and compromise, rather than scorched-earth zero-sum competitive games; citizens can hold them accountable by re-discovering the same.

7. Elections and legislation are heavily controlled by corporate interests in the United States today. This is not long-term healthy even for business. Business organizations can collaborate with other groups to pursue campaign finance reform, thus putting stakeholder collaboration into serious practice.

8. Business education, mainly MBAs, can start emphasizing long-term sustainable collaboration, rather than Capitalism 1.X. Ethics courses are no good if they’re contradicted by 1.X courses in competitive strategy down the hall.

9. News media can try to stay sober, serious, thoughtful and responsible, not giving in to pure entertainment; business can play a role along with consumers in helping media resist the pull in that direction.

There is no unifying ideology; if Santa Claus can’t pull it off, why should we expect strategists and economists to do so?

But there are still guidelines.

  • “Be the change you want in the world.”
  • “The best way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them.”
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “Don’t argue over who gets the slice of the pie, focus on making the pie bigger.”
  • Maybe even, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”

When Gerstner took over IBM he said, “The last thing IBM needs is a vision.” The last thing capitalism needs right now is a new ideology. Business needs simply to take its seat among other social and political institutions, and to play nicely in the sandbox alongside them.

Is Capitalism 2.0 a Mirage? (Part 1 of 2)

PART 1 of 2

When Lou Gerstner took over IBM at a time of corporate crisis, he was asked if he would chart a radically new direction for the firm. His memorable response was, “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.”

For the past several decades, business has had a vision; one so dogmatically defined that we might even call it an ideology—the ideology of Capitalism 1.0. Now that vision has turned toxic. Many agree with Michael Porter that business is now facing a crisis of social legitimacy.

The question is–what to do about it? Does capitalism need a fundamental reframing? Or is the issue more one of execution, about getting along in broader society?

In this two-part blogpost, I’ll examine the case for radical reframing–let’s call it the search for Capitalism 2.0. Part 1 provides background and two approaches to Capitalism 2.0. Part 2 evaluates the results.


One answer to the problem of business legitimacy is to re-frame Capitalism. Re-thinking capitalism is as tempting to capitalist ideologues as rethinking Marxism was to generations of socialist ideologues. ‘If “shareholder value maximization” isn’t working, then let’s come up with another encompassing business theory that is even broader than the old one, but that works. Let’s call it Capitalism 2.0.’

Two of our leading thinkers—Michael Porter, with Mark Kramer, and new kid on the block Umair Haque—are attempting an intellectual rebooting of the capitalist operating system. Porter’s concept, contained most recently in an HBR article, is Shared Value. Haque’s new book is called The Capitalist Manifesto.

Can capitalism truly be re-visioned from within? Or is it a closed system whose solutions must come from without? If anyone can square the circle, these authors can. Let’s start by understanding what they’re reacting to.

Capitalism 1.0

The full name of Harvard Business School used to be “The Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration.” In the 1950s, that name was apt. Adam Smith was rarely mentioned—Schumpeter and Hayek, even less.

It was pragmatic, non-ideological. Peter Drucker had just begun to conceive of management as distinct from administration; ‘strategy’ was an occasional term, borrowed loosely from military theorists.

In the 70s and 80s strategy went quantitative, bringing us portfolio management theory, the growth/share matrix and log-scale experience curves.

MBA consultants flooded boardrooms with models in lieu of gray hair. Consulting firms seized thought leadership from the business schools. An ideology was being born.

Capitalism 1.0, circa 1980

Around 1980, the core business ideology saw business as a corporate competitive struggle for dominance and survival. All players—producers, their customers, their suppliers, government and regulators—competed. Winning was defined financially, driven by market share, in turn driven by competitive strategy.

Economists and financial theorists joined the mix in the 1980s. One result was greater emphasis on debt, which led to junk bonds, LBOs, private equity and the S&L crisis. Another was the reign of Alan Greenspan and the Chicago School of Economics, whose contribution to dogma was the idea that markets are largely self-correcting.

As tech boomed, the public caught the bug as well. Wall Street created day trading, hedge funds and IPOs, and the public bought it.

Capitalism 1.5

By around 2006 capitalism’s dogma had become more sharply stated—something like:

Business is the value-creating engine of all society. It works best when left alone. Through creative destruction and the Darwinian efficiency of self-correcting markets, it creates value and wealth for all. All business transactions can and should be expressed in present value cash flows terms. The social purpose of a corporation is to earn a profit, and its proper goal is the maximization of shareholder value.

The dogma had held despite Michael Milken, Marc Rich, the S&L and Long-Term Capital crises, Enron and WorldCom. But then came the financial crisis of 2008.

Several items are striking. Alan Greenspan recanted his belief in Capitalism 1.X. Nearly every Chicago economist (notably excepting Eugene Fama) shifted back in the direction of Keynesian economics; Paul Samuelson says Milton Friedman himself would have done so.

The MBA Oath was created at Harvard in 2008. One of the group’s faculty advisors, Nitin Nohria, became the next Dean of HBS. He believes business needs to be more socially attuned–away from shareholder value maximization, toward broader social responsibilities.

In other words, Capitalism 1.X is under attack as a belief system. What will take its place?

The Search for Capitalism 2.0

Business strategists and economists love elegantly simple models. Many past successes have come via idea home runs—redefining paradigms, thinking outside boxes, changing game rules. Porter and Haque have made powerful attempts to do so, as follows:

Shared Value and the Capitalist Manifesto

Both approaches describe Capitalism 1.X’s failures sweepingly. They indict zero-sum thinking, short-termism run amok, and a systemic inability to link corporate benefits to social costs. If anyone needs a comprehensive statement of what’s wrong, look no further than these two works.

Each work also describes a better end-state; longer time horizons, broader collaboration, comprehensive calculations. Yet the solution, both Porter and Haque seem clearly to say, lies in ideology: in re-framing the tenets of capitalism.

Here is Haque’s version:

The industrial age’s dilemma is unsolvable if we’re still confined to thinking in yesterday’s terms…Escaping the capitalists’ dilemma requires a paradigm shift.

The outlines of an updated economic paradigm…include two fundamental axioms:

…first…through the act of exchange, an organization cannot, by action or inaction, allow people, communities, society, the natural world, or future generations to come to economic harm. [Italics are Haque’s]

Porter is equally didactic:

The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se.

The concept of shared value resets the boundaries of capitalism.

Not all profit is equal—an idea that has been lost in the narrow, short-term focus of financial markets and in much management thinking. Profits involving a social purpose represent a higher form of capitalism—one that will enable society to advance more rapidly while allowing companies to grow even more.

We need a more sophisticated form of capitalism, one imbued with a social purpose. But that purpose should arise not out of charity but out of a deeper understanding of competition and economic value creation…It is not philanthropy but self-interested behavior to create economic value by creating social value.

This all begs some pretty big questions: what exactly do we get with a new definition, a new paradigm, an axiom? Do the authors mean that the single biggest, most critical issue is to fix our thinking? Is it really necessary to have a new paradigm in order to get on with matters?

And even if it is necessary to re-think capitalism–is the re-thinking a sufficient condition for getting the job done? For that matter—can it even be done at all? Can we really stretch “capitalism” so far as to equate social good with corporate self-interest? Or is Capitalism 2.0 really a mirage, a distraction from more mundane but critical ways of changing business?

Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2: Capitalism’s Search for the Holy Grail.

Buddhist Capitalism

Stones in a Zen Garden iStock_000009090365SHere’s what’s wrong with current business education, indeed current business thinking—in a nutshell.

The current issue of the MIT-Sloan Management Review trumpets the main feature: "Sustainability as Competitive Advantage."

You really don’t have to go any further. The clear implication is in the syntax: do this (little) thing, and you’ll get this (big) thing. Do this (responsibility) thing and you’ll get this (profitability) thing.

Turn the hands over this way, you’ll correct your hook. Sell this way, you’ll make more money. Practice sustainability, you’ll beat your competitors.  Use these means, and you’ll get those ends.

This means-end confusion isn’t just in the headline. One article makes it crystal clear in the opening three sentences:

Many companies are taking the first incremental steps toward sustainability, such as energy conservation and recycling. That’s a good start — but going further can yield significant competitive advantage. The growing movement toward sustainability in business offers companies a powerful lever for creating competitive advantage.

Get the picture?  The ultimate reason to do this ‘good’ stuff is because it’s profitable at the individual company level.   Interesting: it suggests high profitability is the measure of social responsiblity.

MIT Sloan is hardly alone. I’ve taken flak lately for supposedly singling out Harvard. Neither school is unique.

Capitalism-as-competition always implies an end goal–typically shareholder value, or sustainable competitive advantage.  Led by a variety of influences ranging from Milton Friedman to Ayn Rand, the idea of capitalism-as-competition has been transmuted and transmitted by business gurus like Michael Porter, government gurus like Alan Greenspan, and business superstars like Jack Welch.

Note: it hasn’t worked too well. Business has gotten so co-opted by the competitive paradigm that we’ve lost all sense of even the possibility of another view. 

Yet there is another view, and a very obvious one at that. It’s right under our noses. Let’s call it Buddhist Capitalism.

Buddhist Capitalism

I don’t mean this too literally. I am no expert in Buddhist teachings, and not all Buddhist precepts track easily to business.

But one difference between capitalism-as-we’ve-come-to-know it and Buddhism is instructive. One is about vanquishing one’s foes; one is about getting along harmoniously in the world. And we all know which is which.

Business-as-competition is all about linearity: if you do this, you’ll get that. And the more you tighten those links, the more you control them.

Buddhism, on the other hand, embraces paradox. If you let go your attachment to X, you’re more likely to get it. But only if you give it up. The outcome cannot be sought successfully, it can only be received if you stop seeking it.

It isn’t all that alien a concept.  The best salespeople know that success comes to those who give selflessly to their customers. From Dale Carnegie to Zig Ziglar, people have known that you succeed best by getting others what they want.

What I mean by Buddhist Capitalism comes down to doing two things: help others, and stop focusing on  your own immediate ends.

Capitalism-as-competition negates the oncept of ethics, since it subordinates even ‘ethical’ ideas like sustainability to the overarching goal of profits and competitive advantage.  A business school can’t feasibly teach ethics when, down the hall, the strategy course teaches that your ultimate goal is to win battles against your supply chain, customers, unions and employees.  Who’s left to behave ethically towards?

Is Buddhism Profitable? It’s the Wrong Question to Ask

Business (some of it) is more and more focusing on things like ethics, social responsibility, and sustainability. And that is a good thing. But it’s doomed as long as we can’t get past the question: “Can I gain sustainable competitive advantage by doing it?”

Believing that the purpose of business is to make profits is like believing the purpose of living is to eat. The purpose of sustainability is sustainability—not the competitive advantage of those who practice it. As long as we limit our definitions of ‘good,’ ‘social benefit,’ and ‘business ethics’ to definitions couched in competitive advantage, we subordinate them.

We need to make profit a byproduct, not a goal. While it is true, very true, that ethical and customer-focused business focusing on the long-term really are more profitable, that is Not. The. Point.

The point is to make business a full partner in society, not a mad dog following an ‘invisible hand’ that responds only to heavily enforced legal mandates. If business wants a seat at the social family table, it needs to act like it’s a member of the family—not an outsider following its own rules.

In an increasingly interconnected world, it’s Buddhist Capitalism, not Competitive Capitalism, that we need more of.  The fact that it’s also more profitable is a lovely byproduct.  But not a goal.

The Cancer of Short-term Thinking

Western capitalism is fighting a form of business cancer. And the most virulent form of it is short-termism.

In physical cancer, some cells go haywire and turn viciously against the body. This is also what happens when certain core beliefs are perverted or taken to extremes. Some examples—the beliefs that:

• greed is good (Hollywood simplification)
• individual pursuit of selfish aims yields public good (mis-translated Adam Smith)
• pursuit of short-term corporate goals ends in long-term social success (what’s good for General Motors hasn’t been good for America for some time now).

Those and other beliefs have resulted in rampant short-termism. A few examples, “ripped from the headlines:”

1. The trend in private equity toward front-end deal fees. Gretchen Morgensen’s NYTimes article quotes Michael Jensen, emeritus of Harvard Business School and the “father of private equity:”
“…these fees are going to end up reducing the productivity of the model… People are doing this out of some short-run focus on increasing revenues."
In other words, private equity is good when it subjects bureaucratic managers to the pressure of markets, with say a 3-5 year timeframe. But when the privateers themselves succumb to the lure of instant front-end fees, the greed snake is eating its own tail.

2. The trend in the mortgage industry to convert relationships to transactions—from integrated loan-making and loan-holding, to separating the entire process into various stakeholders—most of whom get their money up front, now. Short term.

3. The IBGYBG mentality in investment banking during several market crashes detailed by Richard Bookstaber in his book A Demon of Our Own Design, that resulted in people making fast deals that would explode on investors down the road, but that paid off nicely up front for the dealmakers, who said not to worry, because—"I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone," it’ll be someone else’s problem then.

4. Young financiers opting out of an MBA because the opportunity exists to make so much more money in the short term:
“With the growth of hedge funds, you’re getting a lot of really smart people who are getting paid a lot very young,” says Arjuna Rajasingham, 29, an analyst and a trader at a hedge fund in London. “I know it’s a bit of a short-term view, but it’s hard to walk away from something that’s going really well.” Yup on both counts.

5. The current residential real estate recession, driven heavily by speculative buyers betting well beyond their means on continued high prices—“I’ll pay off the loan when I flip it.”

6. The longer term trend in business toward “alignment” of processes—which often assumes the only way to long-term profit is to ensure that every short-term measure is itself profitable.

7. Quarterly earnings pressure, which was one of the original drivers of private equity, back when PE was doing some good.

8. Private equity firms selling equity to the public: “a non sequitur in both language and economics,” according to Gretchen Morgensen’s paraphrase of Michael Jensen .
The private equity movement initially shook up stodgy companies that were permanently-funded by stock, where inefficient managers could hang out draining away value for decades. Private equity would buy them and insist on returns in 3-5 years; it left managers no place to hide, and produced real value returns. But when the 3-5 year people themselves start selling permanent stock to investors, they have become what they started out to fight. Which means they’re either stupid or venal. And while I usually opt for stupidity in explaining conspiracy cases, in this one I’d put money on venal.

Is there any relief? Or is this just another case of cheap hustlers exploiting weak human nature that goes with every business cycle?

Three antidotes can work against short-termism. One is pain. Suffering may not be a sufficient condition for social change, but it’s usually a necessary one.

Second is education. Awareness creation can help.

The third is leading thinkers, and there are some hopeful signs. Martha Rogers has begun talking about a lifetime financial perspective on customers:

"Creating maximum value from your customers involves optimization — balancing current-period profits against decreases or increases in customer lifetime values, to maximize your “Return on Customer.”

This isn’t new in finance, accustomed to present-value thinking in pricing financial assets. But it’s new to management thinking, accustomed to quarterly EPS. Robbing future customers robs enterprise value, says Martha. And she’s right.

The aforementioned Michael Jensen announced last month a paper he wrote with Werner Erhard (the controversial founding father of EST training, and more recently of Landmark Forum) on the subject of—get this—integrity.

Here’s a tasty quote from the abstract:

We demonstrate that the application of cost-benefit analysis to one’s integrity guarantees you will not be a trustworthy person (thereby reducing the workability of relationships), and with the exception of some minor qualifications ensures also that you will not be a person of integrity (thereby reducing the workability of your life). Therefore your performance will suffer. The virtually automatic application of cost-benefit analysis to honoring one’s word (an inherent tendency in most of us) lies at the heart of much out-of-integrity and untrustworthy behavior in modern life.

They are right too. You can’t fake trust; trust is a paradox; motives matter. The act of justifying trust by its economic value destroys not only trust, but its economic value. The best economic results come as byproducts, not goals.

Can clearer business thinking beat short-termism? It can’t hurt.