Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands

Fred Kofman, a leading organizational theorist, argues that the essential spirit of business is not greed and self-advancement but compassion, even love.

Fred Kofman
1 July 2002

Fred Kofman, a leading organizational theorist, argues that the essential spirit of business is not greed and self-advancement but compassion, even love.

“The one who has finally awoken to the truth of being appears as a
jolly rustic that wanders from village to village, from mundane situation
to mundane situation. His body is over-flowing with life-energy. His being
is full of compassionate love. His open hands express perfect emptiness.”
–Lex Hixon, in Coming Home

The tenth ox-herding picture shows the herder who has finally awakened
“entering the marketplace with helping hands.” But we don’t have to be
enlightened to enter the marketplace this way. In fact, it is the only way
to enter it.

The voluntary exchange of goods and services rewards those who are
ready to serve their fellow women and men. Contrary to some
pseudo-spiritual, socialist and fascist arguments, the marketplace is a
space of freedom where human beings can cooperate in a spirit of

Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, argued that there
are two forces guiding human actions: benevolence towards others and
self-interest. Smith claimed that with the development of the market
economy and with the separation of individuals from their communities of
origin, self-interest becomes the primary factor-but it can never fully
replace benevolence as a necessary condition for attaining “universal

As Smith said, “The most apt to prevail [in the marketplace] are those
who can draw others” self-interest in their favor.”Give me what I want,
and you will have what you want” is the meaning of every offer.” So every
act of commerce is an act of mutual service. Even though it can be
motivated by self-interest, the market system channels selfish energy
towards helping others.

This is not, however, the way business is portrayed in our culture. We
are constantly told that the business world is essentially evil. Though
there are indeed many examples of human and environmental disasters caused
by business, these examples contradict rather than reflect the spirit of a
free market. This spirit is essentially virtuous and oriented towards the
attainment of the highest human values.

The marketplace is a realm of voluntary transactions. Unlike a
battlefield or a prison, in a free market nobody is forced to do something
he or she doesn’t want to do—as long as every person respects the right of
every other participant to do only what they want to do, that is, to
choose their behavior without coercion. The market is an alchemical
process that transforms self-interest into service, pettiness into
greatness, greed into the desire to satisfy others’ interests.

Concern for, and commitment to, others’ well-being is the essence of
compassionate love. In twelve years of teaching and consulting, I have
found this love in most of the business leaders I’ve met. Perhaps I’ve
been blessed. Perhaps, just by coincidence, I’ve only worked with
enlightened organizations. I don’t think so. Most people would not
consider General Motors, Chrysler, Electronic Data Systems, Microsoft,
Royal Dutch Shell, Citibank and American Express to be particularly
“spiritual” organizations. However, the business executives I’ve worked
with in these organizations seek meaning in their life as passionately as
my fellow students of Ken Wilber’s Integral Philosophy. The executives I
work with all feel a calling to make this world a better place. Every
person who has tasted the bittersweet emptiness of fulfilling petty
desires knows there is a deeper thirst that transcends them, a happiness
that cannot be achieved through any object. That is true happiness, of
which ordinary pleasure is but a pale reflection.

Business is a field of possibilities. The market is a stage on which
every human being manifests his or her consciousness. When this
manifestation is guided by transcendent values, business becomes a work of
art. When this manifestation is guided by vice and unconsciousness, work
turns into hell, a swamp of suffering and bondage.

If we look deeply into our experience, we find two basic attitudes or
frames of mind: love and fear. The first is based on a sense of fullness,
an overflowing inner richness that wants to express itself. The second is
based on a sense of emptiness, a feeling of lack that wants to be filled
by external objects, whether material, psychological or even spiritual.

Any activity can be performed out of love or out of fear. Love and fear
are features of the performer, not of the activity. It is possible, for
example, to play a game a tennis out of fear, trying to prove that one is
better than the other, resorting to distracting or hurting the other
player to get an advantage. It is also possible to play the game out of
love, seeking to express one’s precious worth, which would still involve
putting your heart and soul into the game, playing to win.
Business activities can also stem from either fear or love. Fear-based
competition is the game of hungry ghosts. In desperation, people turn the
natural hierarchy of means and ends upside down, sacrificing the higher to
the lower. There are no limits to the strategies people motivated by fear
may use to make money.

Love-based players keep their priorities straight, taking the lower as
a path to the higher. Those who transcend their fears, through
accomplishment or realization, find that love is the most powerful engine
for playing and working in the world.

A striking illustration of this type of play can be found in the
Bhagavad Gita
. Prince Arjuna is besieged by doubts as he faces members
of his own family in a battlefield. Torn between the desire to do his duty
(fight) and to not harm his relatives (leave), he turns to his charioteer,
none other than Lord Krishna, for advice. In one of the most beautiful
pieces of mystical poetry ever written, Krishna tells Arjuna, in no
uncertain terms, to go to battle and fight with all his might, focusing on
the process and releasing the outcome. In blazing words, Krishna explains
that virtuous behavior is more important than life and death itself. If
Arjuna were about to play a tennis match with his brother or develop a
marketing campaign for Windows XP instead of fighting a civil war, I
suspect Krishna’s advice would be no different.

Many a tennis player and businessperson has faced Arjuna’s dilemma. The
regard for the other can get in the way of playing as best one can. In
order for me to win, the other must lose (at least in the small zero-sum
game), and that offends a certain sense of fairness or a wish that
everybody could win together. The problem with that wish is that it
co-opts any competitive game and therefore forecloses a set of
opportunities for the expression of our human possibilities. It also
subtly patronizes the opponent, assuming that “he couldn’t take it”; that
is, that he couldn’t metabolize the loss as nourishment for his physical,
mental, emotional and spiritual development. In the larger game, the logic
is not zero-sum: everybody can win. A full-out game ennobles all players
equally: there is no difference between the winner and the loser.
This illustrates a common deep misunderstanding of the developmental
process. Psychologists have found that the best environment to foster
growth is one that combines support and challenge in the right
proportions. A world in which nobody ever loses or suffers a reversal of
fortune might be extremely comfortable, but could leave the inhabitants
stuck. To grow, the baby needs to exit the womb and face the drama of life
on Earth.

There is a Japanese saying that “a defect is a treasure.” Those who
adopt the Total Quality Management philosophy assert that a problem in the
product is always a symptom of a deeper problem in the process. By
addressing the root cause, they aim to improve the whole system at a
fundamental level. They want to solve not only this specific
defect, but many others that could potentially be produced by an
out-of-control process. We could say that suffering is a life defect. When
we experience suffering, we need to perform a root-cause analysis. We need
to investigate the assumption that it stems from unfulfilled desires, and
that we need to fulfill those desires by attaining more and more things.
Perhaps we might find out that our suffering stems from ignorance and
attachment and strive to transcend these causes.

At the lower levels, a competitive activity affords the opportunity to
prove one’s worth by beating the opponent. Less mature people play to
assuage their fears of worthlessness, to show that they are somebody.
Their belief is that by establishing their worth, they will be able to
experience the higher pleasures of life-even though this very search for
worth subtly reinforces their belief that they are inherently unworthy.
At the highest levels, business affords the opportunity for one’s
humanity to show up in the particular role of a businessperson. Like a
diamond with infinite facets, human nature manifests in infinite ways.
Business is one way in which self-aware radiance can shine forth. Business
is a stage on which the unfathomable mystery that underlies it all
expresses itself. Business is a space in which emptiness coalesces and
does business with, against, through and for the sake of itself. This is
the highest purpose of business: to be a field in which the absolute
recognizes and manifests itself within the relative. The ultimate point of
business is to fully develop the wisdom and compassion of the human being
who engages in it.

Most of us spend most of our time in work-related activities. Work
occupies more time than all other wakeful activities combined. If
work-time is wasted time, dead time or unconscious time, the great
majority of our life ends up wasted, dead or unconscious. If we conduct
our professional activities in a space of pusillanimity (from the
Latin, meaning “small soul”) life becomes petty. That is why it is
crucial to go beyond business-as-usual and recognize that business is an
essential component of conscious life, a gesture of human magnanimity
(great soul).

The larger purpose of business-or sport, or anything for that matter-is
not to win or make money, but to serve as an arena for enlightenment. Of
course, to preserve the arena the players must still attempt to score
points and win. But now the desire of winning in business is subordinated
to the desire of winning in life. That is, of attaining enlightening
liberation for oneself and all sentient beings. Trying to win stops being
the end. It becomes a strategy, a conditional means to pursue an
unconditional goal.

Fred Kofman

Fred Kofman is a consultant in organizational learning for a number of large companies and is the founder of Leading Learning Communities, based in Boulder, Colorado.