Course Corrections: What’s Next After the Enron and 9-11 Tragedies?

April 8, 2002
In this issue:

Editorial: Course Corrections: What’s Next After the Enron and 9-11 Tragedies?
Newsbriefs: Dalai Lama Praises Spirit in Business Event in NYC
Seven Companies to Be Honored for Spirit at Work
Next Month’s Editorial: Who Are the Real Modern Day “Tyrants”?


Nature shows us that dissonance is a means of restoring stability to natural systems. The caterpillar’s residue gives rise to the butterfly. Natural forest fires clear the way for new life to regenerate. I’ve been told that the founder of aikido believed that the goal of all conflict is to restore harmony. Systems seek stability and they may create what we humans call conflict or chaos in order to do so.

Systems are always trying to “correct” themselves – using their own innate form of immune system to ward off any “infections” that threaten their stability. We see this in natural systems, like plants and the human body, as well as in human-made systems such as the complex web of institutions we’ve created like multinational corporations, governments and telecommunications networks.

One of the most complex systems we’ve ever created has been the global economic system – clearly the most dominant and powerful human-made system in the world!

If you look at recent world events like 9-11 and the Enron scandal through the senses of a “systems thinker” you might see beyond the politics, religious fanaticism, greed, and perverse nationalism; you might see everything that’s going on from the larger perspective.

Terrorism, whether the acts of suicidal religious extremists, legally constructed armies or police squads, or Wall Street financial manipulators – is certainly dissonance. The violence of terrorism is not only tragic for the victims and their loved ones but it really disrupts the system. I’m addressing all the forms of terrorism – the activities carried out by the 9-11 hijackers, the “War Against Terrorism,” the deception by Enron executives and their confederates at Andersen, and all the other unreported acts of terrorism that haven’t yet made the headlines.

Looking at the system of market capitalism from an eagle’s point of view – detached and with “big eyes” – one might see a system attempting to make adjustments that it sees as necessary to its survival. Any system will try to make “corrections” when it perceives that it is under threat – when its stability is being undermined. These adjustments will tend to get more and more severe, until stability or harmony begins to return. As the old saying goes, “And then it hit me ‘up side’ the head, like a whack with a two by four! Then I really got it!”

What clearer signal might have been given that the economic system needs to change than to have the very “heart” of the world’s economic system – the World Trade Center – totally destroyed. The twin towers were not merely damaged; they were eliminated, eradicated, gone forever! They disappeared from our physical reality totally!

Was this not one sign that, maybe, just maybe, things weren’t quite right?

If a person has a heart attack, it is a pretty clear sign that they should change their lifestyle – that things are not going well. Usually, people get lots of warnings before they suffer a coronary arrest but many are oblivious to the early-warning signs and sometimes die as a result of their first heart attack – the most severe signal the body can muster to say “slow down” and “change your ways.”

Well, the “heart attack” on global capitalism was quite severe. For years the system has been giving signs that something needs to change but those seemingly “in charge” have continued to ignore these signals and remain oblivious to these systemic attempts to self-correct. With total arrogance, these signals have been dismissed as aberrations or mere hiccups. And those of us who don’t “seem” to be in charge, go along with it!

Most of us look at the events of 9-11 from the personal or national levels, rationalizing that the terrorists’ were motivated by perverse religious beliefs and fanaticism, coupled with economic suppression that is so rampant in the third world that people take it for granted. On the level of all humanity, however, it was a wake up call for us to change our ways.

A few months later, the second terrorists’ attack took place on investors and employees of Enron, at the time the fifth largest corporation in the U.S. This attack wasn’t carried out by Islamic extremists but it was nonetheless terrorism. Commentators had a field day, some referring to it as “capitalism gone amuck” and other characterizations that were chillingly accurate assessments. But the pundits won’t allow themselves to see the accuracy of their comments, for that would be traitorous to the system. So they think of their words as mere sarcasm and wordplay rather than seeing the truth of what they are saying.

The Enron “scandal” isn’t generally seen as related to the “other” terrorist strike. But from systems perspective it is. It is an even louder wake up call about our economic system and the darker sides of people that the system draws out. What I once heard some Latin American colleagues of mine refer to as “brutal capitalism” has now come back to our own shores – back to the creators of the “American Way” – and unleashed its fury on our own people.

It is easy for us Americans to ignore the impact our way of life has in other parts of the world. After all, we rarely hear much about it from our corporate-owned media and very few of us take the time to see ourselves as other countries perceive us. So, we may have been shocked to learn that we are resented by others, especially those who’ve been victimized and exploited by the American Way. But that naïveté was popped on September 11 as millions of Americans started to realize that we weren’t as well-liked as we may have thought.

But we did nothing except respond in kind and batten down the hatches at home and carry out our own form of terrorism away from home. There was no introspection about our way of life. Instead, we rushed to wreak vengeance on anyone who resembled the terrorists and encouraged one another to rush to the mall to continue consuming, with the rationale that if we stop they will win. This is our consumer chauvinism in action – at its darkest! There is little awareness here at home that the American Way has become a curse for much of the world which is seeing cultures ruined, traditions abandoned, environments scavenged and local values ignored. As my colleague at Stanford Business School, Professor Emeritus Michael Ray calls it, “The American Dream has become the world’s worst nightmare.”

As a middle-aged man, I can still recall when the women’s movement pointed out male chauvinism. At first, I refused to give the idea any credibility. Why? Because it was “just the way things were.” Gradually, however, I started to see my complicity in the suppression of women and realized how it felt to be a chauvinist, despite my not wanting to be labeled as such.

Now, I have similar feelings. But it isn’t about my maleness. It is about my “American-ness.” American chauvinism is being confronted right now. Our swagger and arrogance is running out of control. People in other parts of the world, even Americans living abroad, have seen this coming for years. But we (and I include myself in this “we”) didn’t want to hear anything that could possibly suggest that the American Way was flawed – that “our way” wasn’t the best and we weren’t better than any other people. National egoism breeds arrogance for “us” and hatred in “them.” Like the male chauvinism that was so rampant before the women’s movement, the “noise” will not be stilled as the rest of the world cries out for equality and justice. It will simply get louder and louder.

The system has tried to correct from both the outside and the inside, from foreign shores and from the boardrooms of Corporate America. The system doesn’t care what changes things so long as the corrections take place and the next generation is allowed to give birth. The system is smarter than we are right now. It will continue to “whack us ‘up side’ the head” until we either get it or destroy everything and everyone, including ourselves, in the process.

The most positive change we Americans can make is to stop thinking so chauvinistically – as chief exporters of the American Way and as the best damn consumers in the world. We all share one planet and acting as if we are invincible and singing “God Bless America” aren’t the actions of a nation with any real appreciation for other people’s cultures. Nationalism is great until it gets perverse and hierarchical. Consumption is necessary for survival but not as a replacement for self-esteem or gratuitous self-indulgence. Capitalism in a truly free market is fine but not when it denies basic human rights and dignities, and mutates into the darker stuff that breeds greed, disrespect, and human suffering even if they occur out of earshot or someplace far away from us.

We need to think not only as Americans who are proud of our country and the incredible strides we have made in creating one of the first and most powerful democracies in history but as responsible global citizens. Responsibility goes with power and responsibility for the whole goes with responsible leadership.

Whether or not we are aware of it, we all give legitimacy to this system that is “running amuck” as the pundits described it. If we do nothing to withdraw our endorsement, we continue to empower it. Complaining about the system that we have had a hand in creating is like crying over the pain caused by keeping your fingers pinched in the door jam. We are the cause; we are the one giving power to this system that appears to have control over us. Instead of pretending that someone else is in charge of things, lets own up to the fact that it is we who are in control of this system. The only ones who can change it are the ones feeding it power. And that’s you and me.

If there isn’t a major change in this system we capitalists all live in there will definitely be another “wake up call.” I have faith that the system will continue its attempts to correct matters until it happens. What it will look like and where it will come from I cannot say, but I am positive it will come and it will be even a bigger “whack” than 9-11 and Enron. And, it will come soon if we don’t start making changes in the direction that we are all headed for if we continue to allow this perverse form of capitalism to continue mutating. By all evidence, the system is trying desperately to self-correct but isn’t having much luck getting anyone to pay attention.

How about you? What can you do to challenge the system and shift your thinking about the American Way? How can you become a better-informed global citizen while remaining a grateful American? How can you speak out about things you don’t like in “the land of the free” without fear of being branded a traitor or non-patriotic?

This is a time for true soul-searching. As we look into our souls, we get to see what resides in the depths of our humanity. We get to see who we are – beyond the stuff we buy and the work we do, beyond the state we live in or the circle of friends we love. The collective human soul is incredibly fragmented right now and those of us who see this huge disconnect are the ones who can bring about integration, reconciliation and reunion. If we don’t make some really big changes, well…you get the idea.

John Renesch is a San Francisco-based business futurist, and social commentator. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The New Leaders business newsletter from 1990 to 1997 and has created a dozen progressive business anthologies on subjects such as consciousness, intuition and leadership. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. John is also an international keynote speaker, having addressed audiences in Tokyo, Seoul, London, Brussels, Budapest as well as many cities throughout the U.S.


NEWSBRIEFS: [More Newsbriefs can be seen in the “Press Room” at]

Dalai Lama Offers Support for Spirit in Business Event in NYC

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was originally scheduled to be in New York during the Spirit in Business conference April 21-23, cancelled his trip due to illness. However, he did send a letter to the organizers stating, “I am pleased to express my encouragement and support for the Spirit in Business Conference…..For a long time I have advocated the need for ethics or spiritual values in the world of politics and economic…we need to realize how interdependent we all are and therefore how we should take responsibility for one another.”

Seven Companies to be Honored for Spirit at Work

The Willis Harman Spirit at Work Awards will be given to seven companies in a ceremony at Spirit in Business event in New York City; the Association for Spirit at Work selected the companies to be honored during the conference on the evening of April 22.


NEXT MONTH: May’s Editorial: Who Are the Real Modern Day “Tyrants”? John looks at which professions and industries are having the greatest influence over our lives and why no one seems to be talking about them.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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