09/08/2013 09:31 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2013

What Comprises the Spirit of a Corporation?

The Ashaninca people of Peru have a greeting. Upon meeting a cohort they ask, "Do you exist?" The ritual response is, "I am."

This sentiment of "I am" captures perfectly the essence of spirit that must enliven employee and corporation, if a business is to flourish.

Commercial success is best achieved when each individual in a corporation experiences "I AM" -- I am what I feel, I am what I know, I am what I can become, I am a real person. I want to belong. I want to be different. And I want to be part of something bigger than me.

The experience of "I am" can come about only if affirmed in moment-to-moment corporate expression at all levels of power, whether in formal or informal meetings or when workers pass in the corridor. This is the level at which people make meaning. People are intrinsically primed to "read" straight talk, feigned smiles, a listening stance, the intention of voice tone and real feeling.

Corporate policy -- whatever it is -- is experienced against the backdrop of the behavior of corporate executives and managers. Face-to-face transactions and the behavior therein is the level that counts most if employees' and the corporation's spirit is to be uplifted. And a rising spirit is intimately related to corporate success.

Moreover, this enlivening of the spirit -- of employees and of the corporation -- can only be accomplished as a natural outflow of good management. If it is perceived as an ad hoc add-on in the name of some disembodied PR strategy it is doomed to fail. It is in our nature to know authenticity.

Spirit is not just a question of language shifting from tangible to intangible assets or of finding a symmetry between internal and external environments. Spirit is not a matter of spiritual executives, but executives who as person are spiritual by the simple fact that they are aware of things as they really are, have more than a modicum of self-insight and self-control, are collaborative and have a sense of peace, even in the midst of crisis. The motivation of such executives is not stardom. Instead, they are a beacon of inspiration and encouragement. Their goal might be profitability, but their competitive edge comes primarily from their personal essence and temperament.

Self-Transformation Through Self-Observation

Commonly, corporations are daddy-knows-best, secretive and self-referential cultures in which opaqueness is preferred over transparency. They display the rigid hierarchy and defensive sensibility of a baboon troop more than a structure designed to support human creativity. Society members -- employees -- are often related to as pawns in a highly scripted game established by thick-skinned bigwigs. This is common, but not inevitable.

The mirror image also holds true for many employees. For workers, too, must have a sense of responsibility for enhancing their own spirit and likewise need to understand the perspective of those higher in the hierarchy.

From CEO to mail room clerk, everyone must be in learning mode if an enchanting, joint vision of the future is to be secured. Each must be curious, open, sensual, and capable of dealing with complexity and paradox to create innovative ideas. All these capacities have a prerequisite: knowledge of self, an authentic "self-story."

People Are Not Objects and Corporations Are People, Too

People are sentient and emotional beings -- different from inanimate objects. They assign symbolic meaning to things, they narratize their experience, they fill in gaps and do not hesitate to draw conclusions in the face of incompleteness. People need to know what's up, so they tell themselves what's up. They don't wait for Rosetta Stones or spreadsheets to give them the answer.

The linear, rational, objectified model of life is rejected in the face of the real way lives are lead. So before business focuses on "waste management" or "sustainable abundance," it needs to attend to people on this human scale. Then it can reduce the social pollution in its own environment that chokes the experience of "I am."

For more by Bob Deutsch, click here.

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