I relate how I began to reconstruct the broken fragments of my life with the help of friends and a circle of conversation which opened a new perspective on sharing secrets and discussing deep feelings from a place of openness and trust. I connect this to the ancient Greek view of the need to balance order and chaos, allowing disruption as part of life’s natural harmony. What is not acceptable, I find, is allowing ourselves to stumble from disaster to catastrophe, never coming to terms with the natural imbalance we have created. I ask:
I found a safe space to tackle my own “missing conversations” when, a decade ago, I was invited to join the Young Presidents Organization. YPO is the largest CEO organization on the planet, with 30,000+ members representing more than 12% of the global GDP. For decades, the core of YPO has been its “Forums,” where groups of 6-10 members meet each other in the space of absolute trust and respect. These peers, all of them senior executives, convene in person at regular intervals, following a scripted conversation designed to lead them to find WHY by continually, in these closed circles, examining and discussing their own personal and professional lives.
It comes of no surprise that, in a recent survey done by YPO, 96% of their members believe their companies have a responsibility beyond shareholder value. They hold that stakeholder trust must be their top priority as leaders. Their experiences have taught them that the priority is to create and sustain a healthy balance between shareholders’ and stakeholders’ interests within their organizations, with trust as a pre-eminent value.
I’ve learned from Christoph Quarch, that the sages of Ancient Greece conceived a similar formula. In a healthy human ecosystem, feeling and thinking, the emotional and rational mind, disruption and balance, live in harmony. Nine months of the year we are under the rule of rational thinking—balance and order—(as represented by the Greek god, Apollo). Then, for three months, a constructive period of disruption reigns while passionate and wild emotions flow (represented by his brother, the god Dionysus), integrated into a harmonious balance.
Wisdom emerged from a safe space of mutual trust and respect based on a ‘WHY’ that comprised the DNA of this ancient society. The Greeks of this era were led by Apollo’s twin imperatives to humans: “Gnōthi Seauton” (Know Thyself) and “Mēden Agan” (Nothing in Excess). Together, they could be translated into something like, “Find out what it means to be human. Do not mistake yourself for being a god. Better not act in excess, or life will take its toll.” It is a clear and unambiguous order to be humble yet self-curious.
Eastern philosophy also mirrors this timeless truth: Confucius articulates the same foundation in his essay, “The Great Learning” as Otto Scharmer observes in “Eight Emerging Lessons”: “[T]o change the world, you first need to cultivate your interior condition as a human being” and focus “on harmony between the external and interior.”
In the mechanistic thought-model of the world, this natural law of internal and external harmony has been ignored for too long, especially when we have been successful, individually and as a species. For too long, we have believed that man can control and exploit without consequence. We have been conditioned to oppose disruption as an integral part of the natural order of life. We ended up believing that men are akin to gods whereas the humbling truth is otherwise. They lack respect for the infinite intelligence of existence and mistake what they have discovered for everything that is. Truly enlightened, we’d live fully in harmony with creation. Yet as puny humans pretentiously and immaturely claim total control, the real gods (or God, nature, the universe, the manifestation power of quantum physics, or whatever term one prefers) periodically show us who is the real boss, just as Apollo suggested.
These ancient myths whisper a clear message to us and bear an eternal truth: Whenever the hubris of humans ignores the sacred harmonic principle, life reminds us. Personally, when we live in dissociation from life and stubbornly try to enforce something that we want or planned against all contrary signs, we invite failure and tragedy. Collectively, we witness one and the same pattern: pandemics, Fukushima, Chernobyl, and climate change are just a few examples. Our illusion of permanence and invulnerability is suddenly ripped asunder, suddenly surprised by an iceberg, or a strand of RNA, or a tsunami, or a leak. Invariably, we fail to recognize and prepare until it is too late.
We wake up to find ourselves living a classic Greek tragedy in real-time, non-stop, still stubbornly mistaking what is happening for an abnormal or surreal phenomenon. We wait for the lights to come on again in our theatre of reality TV while watching the cold shadows flickering dimly on the screen from our social isolation. Plato would have a blast in his cave self-quarantine.
In 2007, Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) proposed the “Theory U,” which explores how individuals, teams, organizations, and systems can build the leadership capabilities to address global challenges. This theory shows two primary human responses to disruptive events – a traumatizing, destructive approach and a constructive, evolutionary response (which the Greek differentiated by Titanic and Olympian). The former can be characterized as a “freeze” reaction that leads to the amplification of ignorance, hate, and fear. Meanwhile, the latter “opening” response amplifies our curiosity, compassion, and courage. It’s a choice between the egocentric ‘WHAT’ focus or ecocentric ‘WHY’ awareness. To even ask a holistic ‘WHY’ in the face of disruption or tragedy already means to experience connection with life instead of opposition and hostility. We live from a place of deep rootedness in existence, secure and feeling the abundance of life. And whatever might happen can therefore have meaning for us and invite improvement and growth. We may perceive the advantage of the latter. But how do we go about uncovering it?
As Yuval Noah Harari made clear in his book Sapiens: nations, companies, money, religions, the market — with or without an invisible hand — are concepts turned into perceived reality. Despite being rooted in certain dimensions of reality, they are likely to overvalue or undervalue many of its aspects for different historically and culturally conditioned reasons. Hence, they distort or even pervert life. Therefore, any new ‘WHY’ which allows for a different mindset calls for a different construct on every level of society and its institutions. We have to uncover distortions. For example, economic growth and money — undoubtedly important instrumental aspects of reality — have become predominant in society. Everything serves and circles around them — instead of them, in their natural position, serving as tools to attain life’s higher dimensions. We have developed a money-centric world instead of a value-centric one. We therefore need to see “through our current economic myths just as Copernicus saw through the myths of a geocentric world that constrained society in his time,” as Tomas Björkman asserts in The Market Myth. We have to realign our concepts of life and structures of society with the universal truths of existence, striving continuously and unconditionally for a more harmonious correspondence.
The coronavirus crisis is the fourth catastrophic event that I have experienced in my lifetime. The common denominator is that every time we call it a Black Swan event (at least since 2007 when Nicholas Taleb coined the term and the system behind it), something unforeseeable because it does not fit our logic-only ‘WHAT’ model of the world. With every crisis, the Black Swan looms larger and larger. We play dumb every time. We freeze. We flee. We fight among ourselves. And then, when the thing looms, and then hits, well, we never saw it coming. “Of course,” they say. It’s because “the data was withheld.” Or the “numbers were misreported.” Other times, the response is: “Who could have expected such a thing? We did better than expected!” When we operate in this mode, we fall back into a blame game with invisible enemies.
Leaders today need to be smarter than that. We had better be. And we can be. We must be. By now, we are aware that this is not a movie. This is not an accidental collision with an unforeseeable iceberg. It is our model of the world, our way of life that has unleashed the punishing Titans. The next Black Swan, or the next Titanic, floats just around the corner.
So, what will our response be: a Titanic “freeze” or an Olympian “opening”? We know where the former leads. But is the latter, however desirable, even possible now? Let us not underestimate the disruption that this seismic paradigm shift would engender. If we could pull this off, it would bring an urgently needed regeneration. A reconstruction. A renaissance of an ancient myth, happening right now:
The origin of Argonauts saga lies in the legendary pre-Hellenic legacy of ancient Greece. The myth, passed on orally across many generations, tells of a motley crew of Greek heroes – not gods but fallible human beings — who accepted the invitation of their leader Jason, and the longings of their own hearts. They set off on a daring, seafaring adventure aboard their ship, the Argo, in a quest to find the Golden Fleece in a distant land. The Golden Fleece was the ultimate destination for them, the fulfillment of their journey, the supreme object of their longings, passions, and enthusiasm. We can understand it as their ‘WHY,’ the Meaning of their bold— some would say reckless— voyage into the great unknown.
In my post-traumatic years after 2008, I found my fellow Argonauts crew within my Trust Circle. We shared our deepest doubts and toughest challenges with each other. For me, it occurred in my darkest days of turmoil and uncertainty. Yet this diverse group of peers, gathering monthly by video calls from New Zealand, the United States, and Europe, came to be my brain- and heart-trust. Looking back now, it is clear to me that, without the wisdom of this group and the deep conversational process in which we engaged, I would never have reached the insight or found the strength to make the decisions that led me out of my inner darkness. They helped me slay my dragon and keep my demons at bay. Our monthly conversations and yearly retreats laid the foundation for my road to transformation and reconstruction, rediscovering my authenticity and integrity, redefining my ‘WHY.’
I felt what Swedish songwriter Fia Forsström beautifully paraphrased in her song “Shedding Skins”: “Oh, the moment we stop running from the demons in our heads | And instead we choose to love them | When saying yes to life both shadow and light | Oh, our suffering is done and we come alive.”
Today, twelve years on, The Argonauts, as an organization and a worldwide community, is tackling the challenges we have been discussing here. Distinguished and energetic leaders from all around the world, from every discipline and domain, are engaged in ongoing conversations with each other, finding new and authentic meaning in their lives and forming long-lasting and significant relationships. Together we are impacting the world with social and financial investments. We meet regularly in Trust Circles and external forums, formulating and disseminating this disruptive, yet ultimately constructive, philosophy and methodology on the ‘WHY’ level. We empower and encourage members and friends with the knowledge, tools, and human connections they need to achieve self-transcendence: something beyond themselves.
The Argonauts community builds on what organizations like YPO have started, taking it to the next step of evolution. Under an overarching common methodology, the community guides its members along the path of the principles outlined in the Integral Theory of Susanne Cook-Greuter and Ken Wilber, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics, Ichak Adizes’ Managing Corporate Lifecycles, and many others. All these support us in our quest to transcend the crippling constraints of our society ́s achiever state and ascend to higher states of enlightened individual and organizational development, following Ken Wilber`s conclusion: “You cannot have exterior development without interior development to hold it.“
The Argonauts’ methodology provides a constitutional framework for this new thinking. It offers a basis for a new mindset that adds the long-neglected ‘WHO’ to the ‘WHY’: whom do we truly serve? We are on this planet to enter into a vibrant conversation with life itself, answering an imperative “Yes!” and by this become fully alive. We seek to live by life’s universal principles, its intrinsic wisdom of abundance and diversity. This is the ultimate ‘WHY.’ It is an imperative that unconditionally addresses every human being. With this awareness, we can reach what Scharmer calls the “transformational ecosystem-based learning and leadership” that eventually manifests in a “universal social field of co-creation.”
As a global leadership network, The Argonauts aims to mutually evolve to that next level through an ongoing conversation among members and friends. By cultivating a new model based on the metaphor of the “flourishing ecosystem of a garden,” as Quarch puts it, the leaders of any organization, regardless of its size, for-profit or non-profit, can become conscious stewards of continued organic growth. These leaders evolve from being egocentric officers of a technocratic machine to become ecocentric gardeners of a living organism: natural-born leaders spreading the affirmation of being fully alive in abundance.
We aim to manifest literacy on the three levels, outlined by German researcher and author Maja Goepel in her groundbreaking work The Great Mindshift. Even economically, this framework constitutes a “triple win” for the planet, entrepreneurs and investors, bringing consciousness to capitalism: “Meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet,” the formula wonderfully crystallized by British researcher and author Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economy” model.
The conclusion is clear: We are steadily moving away from René Descartes’ mid-seventeenth century proposal that humans should be “masters and owners” of the planet, which has been our society’s underlying paradigm. We strive for harmonious cultivation of life itself. With this new value proposition, the new wave of leaders moves from serving shareholders slavishly and thinking quarterly to encouraging and empowering stakeholders to aspire to a higher and holistic purpose, with the ‘WHAT’ and ‘HOW’ not neglected but consciously integrated by the ‘WHY.’
Transactionalism is not to be rejected but integrated within the context of a transformation. Human doing serves human being. Achievement is not devalued but revalued to the extent that it contributes to humanity, to our coexistence and collaboration to survive and thrive on this planet.
This transformative and disruptive paradigm is how The Argonauts community breathes new life into aging structures and mindsets. The new conversational methodology develops and represents a vital revival of consciousness for leaders and their organizations. It is a socially responsible vision of capitalism and democracy that calls for all leaders to devise a people-first business strategy that respects the impact of their behavior and operations on our society and environment.
In Part Four, I come full circle to detail the significance of The Argonauts as a leader-driven force for transformation in the world, starting with changing myself.
Initiator of The Argonauts, Stefan Beiten, is on a mission of connecting with people for the sake of taking responsibility in the world, today. Alongside his perspective as an entrepreneur, lawyer, film producer, and public speaker, he adds a social mission to his biography as a „from-Idea-to-Vision-to-Strategy-to-Execution Guy“. He had structured and placed over US$1bn investments, founded 20+ companies, raised 3 kids and produced 3 global media classics.
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