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.