11/10/2010 01:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Business Be Enlightened?

A half-century ago, few would have suggested that the world's companies might have a bigger impact on the planet than would the various governments of the world. But, today, there's no doubt that business -- for better or often worse -- impacts our lives in more and more profound ways, whether it's how we communicate with each other in the digital age, whether we are surrounded by pollution, or how we look for global solutions to an ever more connected world. Consciousness and commerce need to feel less and less like an oxymoron.

Recently, I had the good fortune of leading a five-day global teleconference with nearly 14,000 registered listeners from more than 100 countries as 40 different worldwide business leaders and academics talked about how an enlightened business community can make a difference in the world. If you're interested in learning more, all of the audio is free if you register here. This blog is meant to be a guide to the four key themes that arose from the varied speakers: Great companies have great purposes; Be conscious about your culture; Harvest leaders; and Think bigger than your company.

Someone once said, "our purpose in life is a life of purpose," and this applies to companies also. One of our esteemed speakers said that the best companies think of themselves as "purpose maximizers" rather than "profit maximizers," as with a noble and magnetic purpose you are more likely to create sustainable profits. Another suggested some great legacy companies like Hewlett-Packard became truly transformative when they moved from a place of thinking of how they can be the best in the world to being the best for the world. All of this brought me back to Peter Drucker's profound management question, "What business are you in?" That's a question that every leader should ask their people. The first time you answer it, your answer will be obvious, but by the fifth time you repeat the question, it is likely that you will have uncovered your purpose or corporate essence and this is far more important than coming up with a catchy marketing slogan (which is how most companies try to prove to themselves and the world that they have a purpose).

Secondly, a common theme that many speakers suggested was that corporate culture is an essential part of company vitality. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh surmised that a company's culture is its brand in today's more transparent world. And Monika Broecker, who founded the School of Personal Growth at Google, suggested that the best companies know that corporate training is just a disguise for personal development. An enlightened business recognizes that their internal eco-system is like a pond. Stagnant ponds smell and it's hard for anything to live there. Healthy ponds have a flow of new water coming in and they create an environment where things grow. Ponds are also an apt metaphor for the ripples that are created when a stone is thrown. The most prevalent and contagious ripple in most companies today is the emotion of fear, yet a healthy culture dispels fear. So, if you want to inoculate your company against the debilitating effects of fear, invest in your culture.

Thirdly, everyone agreed that the leaders we breed today are different than the command and control generals of the past. We're looking for conductors today who are more adept at the nuances of bringing out the best in an orchestra. If the most neglected fact in business is that we're all human, it's not surprising that emotional intelligence was outlined as the most important quality of leadership today. The ability to empathize and understand the other is progressively more important in this small world we live in. Authenticity, transparency, and humility were also qualities that emerging as more important for leadership in this century than the last. Anne Mulcahy's rein as CEO of Xerox, which she took over when it was very troubled, and her succession planning to help make Ursula Burns the new CEO a few years later shows the importance of healthy and effective leadership when a leader realizes their most essential task is to create the next round of leaders in their organization.

Finally, Richard Barrett suggested that companies are starting to realize that "a business is a wholly owned subsidiary of society, and society is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment." Social responsibility needs to be intrinsic within the mission of a truly conscious business and reflected in everything it does, rather than just grafted on for marketing purposes (which sometimes can be the case with Corporate Social Responsibility programs). Companies and leaders are role models -- not just with the business community -- but in the broader world. And, when any of us thinks of ourselves as a role model -- whether that's as a parent being observed by their kids or a leader under the microscope of their followers -- it creates a natural stepping up of how we carry ourselves and what we expect from ourselves. If individual business leaders are willing to approach their work with this level of consciousness, we may actually experience a more enlightened business community with great collateral benefits to the world.