In “In Search of Meaning” I wrote how important it was for a company to define itself by a shared ethos. Stewardship Trusts seek to place the focus on collective contribution, on everybody putting in, on a “dedication to a cause greater than oneself” (Victor E. Frankl). I expanded on this in “Forming the Stewardship Council” when I wrote that a shared ethos is pivotal to achieving governance by consensus. It can even allow for unanimous consent to become the norm. That begs two questions which I hope to answer today. Why is unanimous consent a worthy goal, and how does a shared ethos help us achieve it?
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”Winston Churchill, 11 November 1947
As Churchill famous quipped, democracy is far from perfect. Indeed, it is fundamentally divisive. At its core, it discriminates against minority views and can quickly lead to the tyranny of the majority. In business terms, this can cripple innovation and limit flexibility. Moreover, it can disenfranchise staff and cripple productivity.
“Diversity in the world is a basic characteristic of human society, and also the key condition for a lively and dynamic world as we see today.”Jinato Hu
People are beautifully diverse, representing a rainbow palette of culture, beliefs and core drives. A country collects people based mainly on an accident of birth. In most democracies, there is rightly little attempt to force citizens towards a prevailing ethos; beyond basic standards of morality, citizenship and criminal justice. In such groupings of diverse individuals, unanimous consent inevitably becomes difficult, if not impossible. Indeed, unanimity often seems the exclusive achievement of authoritarian regimes. Unity can often appear synonymous with totalitarianism. It is easy to see why democracy is preferable, despite its increasingly inherent divisiveness.
Yet, Companies are not Countries, and this post is not arguing for any particular form of governance for Countries (though I am personally democratic in such matters). As I have already stated, Companies are at their best when they collect together diverse individuals with a shared ethos. No one seriously defines a Company based on an accident of birth. A Company’s ethos must encompass only that required to fulfil the Company’s purpose. It must not be a totalitarian ethos, controlling every aspect of the decision-making process and suppressing innovation. Notwithstanding, it should be clear about why the Company exists and how to make decisions regarding it. It is not wrong for a Company to be selective; after all, a Company should define itself as that group of people with whom it shares an ethos.
“A Company’s ethos must encompass only that required to fulfil the Company’s purpose.”
It is the common purpose of a Company and its shared ethos that means all those involved should already be pre-disposed to reaching consensus. It doesn’t necessitate the ‘brainwashing’ of individuals or the suppression of minority views. Diversity flourishes within Companies in the freedom inherent in the limited scope of the ethos; and between Companies based on the liberty of differing ethea.
For example, at my last Company, we agreed on a shared ethos that included the concept of long-termism. One way this manifested was a focus on always doing what we believed was in the best interest of our customers in the long term. It meant we didn’t believe in cutting corners; or releasing broken code to meet a deadline. It also meant pricing all work at its fair value, and never offering sales or discounts. Because we understood our ethos, it was much easier to make tough decisions together as we could always refer back to those central pillars. It didn’t make us morally superior to others or make our decisions of greater worth than our competitors. It did make us consistent and, most importantly, allowed us to live with our decisions collectively.
That doesn’t make unanimous consent easy. It still requires individuals to focus on the good of the collective; to understand the validity of decisions based on the shared ethos, without the colouration of personal beliefs. It forces proponents to take the time to explain objectives clearly and to demonstrate their alignment with the shared ethos. It demands patience, flexibility and compassion. Nonetheless, it remains achievable; and unanimity without tyranny is a worthy goal.