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Social Consciousness in Business

Why “More” isn’t Always Better

In our culture, success is often associated with money and power. Wielding power is an important yet highly delicate aspect of leadership. In the worst cases, power can be abused or avoided, and in the best cases it can be used judiciously and for worthy goals.

In the Western world, the word brahmacharya has often been interpreted literally as celibacy, but it actually means “living in divine consciousness.” Brahma literally means the “divine consciousness” and charya, in this context, means “living” or “one who is established in.” That may sound lofty and perhaps unattainable, but it simply means control of the senses or living in moderation. Brahmacharya means having control over our impulses of excess. As a society we continually strive for more in our lives. Our Western culture is materialistic and consumerist. When I practice brahmacharya, I do so from a perception of moderation and control over my impulses of excess, whether that’s in shopping, dining out, travel—really anything. I limit my indulgences. (Well, most of the time.)

We’re constantly waiting for our lives to be complete with more and striving for a day that will never come. Because we are in a state of deferred living—what we have now is not enough—we miss living in the moment.

A few years ago I wanted to take a bike trip to Ireland. I looked through lots of outdoors journals and trips guides and saw that the countryside was beautiful and the landscape serene. I was excited to see green hills and quaint villages and to immerse myself in the Irish culture for a week. After discussion with my partner, however, we decided that the trip was too costly that year and that we would go instead on a bicycle trip through southern Vermont. Well, we had been to Vermont several times, and I found myself lacking enthusiasm prior to and during the trip. Here’s the problem: I failed to fully appreciate the Vermont countryside—Vermont also has green hills, quaint villages, and a unique culture. By wishing I was in Ireland, I missed the full experience of Southern Vermont.

In the work world, we often seek power or position. Leaders must understand the power they hold—the positive effects of using it properly and the ill effects when used negatively. Those who use their power appropriately can motivate staff, inspire loyalty and commitment, and push employees to aspire to greater achievement. In contrast, those who abuse their power bring down morale, create turnover, incur grievances, and cost the company money in lost productivity. A third dynamic—leaders who avoid the use of the power they are entrusted with—can create confusion, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness in staff.

Leaders are most effective when they understand they are in positions of authority—and they influence, inspire, and mentor their way to success. In a broader sense, leaders may balance this power dynamic by fostering wide-ranging organizational impact that extends to the community and connects to social causes. Some businesses are offering a percentage of their profits or matching purchases. Blake Mycoskie created Toms Shoes after witnessing the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. Toms Shoes donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair they sell. With their “One for One” campaign, Tom’s has given away more than 60 million pairs of shoes and has now expanded into bags, eyewear, and coffee.

The “Buy One Give One” model is attractive to consumers and is consequently a potentially powerful method to bolster social change. There is power of the “one,” as consumers understand that their purchase will benefit “a child in need”—a premise that encourages consumers to use the power of their dollars for the greater good. As seen in their bottom lines, these companies have taken advantage of the nature of people to exert great effort to rescue “the one” whose needy plight comes to their attention. Although critics have pointed out that sporadic influxes of goods will not address the issues underlying poverty or limited access to education and healthcare in developing nations, such efforts focus consumer awareness on the need for social change and a better balance of power and authority across all lines.

Toms’ corporate culture is bound to its social mission. For example, once a month the company holds a “Happy Helping Hour” in which members of a charitable organization visit Toms to engage with employees in an activity, such as preparing care packages for women in domestic abuse shelters. Toms chooses employees who care about the company’s social mission and will work hard to integrate sustainable and responsible practices into all they do.

The benefits of the integration of such social consciousness are plentiful. Employees get the satisfaction of making a change in the world, leading to greater happiness. Working together on such an endeavor builds teamwork and improves communication. By making charitable work a priority, the core values of the company are solidified and communicated to the wider world, improving relationships with customers. All of this is, of course, in addition to making a real impact on the world. And there are some things that perhaps even more valuable than the bottom line.

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