By Perry Pascarella, former Editor-in-Chief, Industry Week magazine
A businessman all his adult life—promoting bikers, car drivers, and real-estate investments—John Renesch formed Sterling & Stone in San Francisco in 1989 as a merchant-banking company to help businesses that were trying to bring about a new awareness in the business world. When a friend with the capital didn’t come through, he turned to producing the The New Leaders newsletter. He later added the imprint New Leaders Press to publish such books as The New Entrepreneurs, Leadership in a New Era, and Rediscovering the Soul of Business, and one now in production: The New Bottom Line. Renesch flips through his mental Rolodex to line up authors around the world for these compilations on leadership issues. During 1990-92 he also served as managing director of the World Business Academy, whose mission is to provide opportunities for people in business to engage in meaningful conversation about business’ leadership role in society. Sterling & Stone promises in its mission statement that it will “encourage the human spirit in the workplace and the emerging of a new consciousness in business.”
WITH THE MOTOR-SPORTS business a distant part of his varied past, John Renesch now runs in the biggest race of all. He is convinced we have to break through to a higher consciousness—to the next step in human evolution—before our system collapses. And he believes that business bears most of the responsibility for leading that change. A shift in consciousness is beginning, he believes. “The honeymoon is over for the industrial age. There is growing disenchantment with the industrial paradigm. We are seeing the price we pay for having industrialized the human being. I think the business community has become very good at doing one thing, but very dysfunctional from a holistic perspective. Business organizations have made survival an art form, but look at the trail of blood they leave behind: people demeaned, people asked to do things that go against their conscience, people overworked, people stressed out.” In addition, many are questioning old assumptions about our major addiction to consuming. “We buy things we don’t need, and we have more choices of product than we need. If this country is consuming half the resources of the planet, and the rest of the world is aspiring to be as consumptive as we are, it ain’t going to work. If they get what they want, there’s going to be total taxation of our resources. We, as the most consumptive society in the world, are going to have to change drastically our pattern of consumption.
“It could sound like I’m anti-business, but I’ve been in business since I was 18. Most of the time I had to make something happen. I was the entrepreneur.
“A lot of companies are going to have to get even smaller. A lot of companies are going to die, and some of them know it.
There are companies that shouldn’t be in business anymore. They’ve done their thing. They need a total redefinition of their mission. They should take all their talent and do something else with it.” Smiling as he considers a breakthrough possibility, he asks, “What if we took all of our capital, all of our resources, all of our people and put them into something else that society really needs?”
More and more people are sensing the system’s failure to satisfy them, Renesch believes. “Every system that was designed to provide security for the American individual is in collapse. You cannot be assured of a job. You aren’t going to be guaranteed health care. The legal system is on its head. Every system that we set up to provide positive reinforcement and security is in dysfunction.
“The pain and anguish of the late ’80s and early ’90s prompted people to ask deeper questions. As a nation, we got as opulent as you could get, but there was still a hollow spot. It’s like the song: ‘Is that all there is?’ ” Renesch himself was part of the money craze of the ’80s. In the mid-’70s he experienced what he calls a mid-life crisis. “I decided I wanted to make some real money. I formed a real-estate-investment company as a partner. Raising money became a big part of my life. We were getting fabulous returns. But by 1983 I felt it was time to get started on doing something really good for the world.”
For Renesch, the world crisis is more than a matter of conserving resources. He aims way beyond preserving physical resources to engaging the human spirit. “The spirit is that spark that tells us we’re alive. When work is meaningful, when one’s passion is being involved in his or her work, there’s a sense of aliveness, a sense of the human spirit thriving,” he says.
Environmentalists work to postpone the limits to consumption, but Renesch strives to hasten a shift in consciousness—a major transformation. “Too many of us are spending our time paying the mortgage, feeling the need to numb out in some way—watching TV, drawing away from people, substance abuse—just putting in our time. The American Dream has gotten really distorted,” Renesch says. “It’s a consumer-based dream. The American Dream of the founding fathers was very spiritually based. Somewhere after World War II, the American Dream changed.
“I think it’s appropriate that this country be the source of a renaissance of responsible business, because we are the first ones to see the downside of the dream,” he explains. Business is in the best position to lead a transformation, he is convinced, because it has a “disproportionate share of influence on society. With that much control over people’s lives it’s inherent—a kind of natural law—that you’ve got responsibility for it. In the days of Adam Smith in the 1700s you had a presumption that you had a moral society. You had a presumption that there was a conscience at work. Over the years, we have done so much in the way of legislation and the rule of law that we’ve unconsciously evolved to a state where everything is O.K. unless it’s illegal. So there’s no longer an inner moral code. The moral compass went out the window, and it became a game of exploiting loopholes. Our conscience has atrophied.”
The next steps in the revolution
A MAJOR SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION AND AN awakening to a higher consciousness has begun, Renesch believes. “Society is changing its mindset from competition, scarcity, short-term [goals], and exploitation to sustainability, connectedness, cooperation, and responsibility of the haves for the have-nots. People are feeling an interconnectedness with the world.”
He feels a calling to support this emerging new paradigm and accelerate it to avoid a world crisis. “The species for the first time in its history can annihilate itself or transcend. It is either going to kill itself off or go to the next step of evolution, which is this divine consciousness, becoming connected holistically with everybody.
We’re on the brink of an evolutionary shift. What could be more exciting than human beings leaving their skin of separateness?” In this rise to a oneness, Renesch sees modern computer/communications technology as a gap filler. “At some point we may not even need the hardware,” he muses.
“You can’t tell when a shift is going to happen. It may take millions of years getting ready, and suddenly it happens. This consciousness shift is already happening in many
places, in many stages.
“There’s a lot of transformation going on very privately within people as they meditate, pray, and engage in relationships that influence them. I believe there will be a series of out-of-the-closetness, where, once a certain amount of mass of agreement is formed within individuals, somebody will say something and everybody is going to be talking about it as if they have been there all along. All of a sudden, something that was very private and dear will come out like it has always been out because it has been within people for so long.
“There’s a more spiritual side to the human spirit, too— the relationship that we humans have with the divine. People are plugging in to universal life, the divine, the sacred.
But the popularity of literature on soul and spirituality in business will pass soon,” Renesch warns. The term “spiritual” gets muddied and confused with spiritualism and spiritualists. He prefers to use the term “consciousness” to include “awareness beyond the little self to the entire species and beyond, an awareness, responsibility, and the divine dimension.”
Everyone a leader
THE NEW PARADIGM INCLUDES THE CONCEPT that we are all leaders. By leadership, Renesch means we all have stewardship for the organization. “When you see something that needs to be done you ascend to leadership in that incident. When that’s done you go back to being not a follower, necessarily, but one of. It’s a matter of being responsible. If you’re responsible as a forklift operator, you’re a leader when you see that there’s a way to be more efficient. Typically, what happens is we say, ‘It’s not my job.’
“It’s still a mistake to think of leadership coming from the top. The system is set up to recognize people at the top. We still have this star, guru, celebrity thing about people.” As a result, there are huge numbers of people below the top who say, “If only we could get them to change,” referring to the established leaders. And, at the same time, people at the top lament that they can’t get people below to change. “People at the bottom have historically thought of themselves as the disempowered. ‘We’re only the workers,’ they assume.
“I’m not convinced you can empower anybody. People have to empower themselves, and there has to be a climate or texture or context of allowing for that. When people say, ‘We’re going to empower our employees,’ it’s the same hierarchy; it’s just talking a different language. That’s saying, ‘I want to empower them because I want to get more out of them.’ ” Renesch believes, however, that an increasing number of managers are actually walking the talk, and, in the lower ranks, more people are taking more responsible roles. In fact, the idea of taking personal responsibility for one’s life, work, and the planet started in the ’60s and ’70s, he points out.
“I don’t think we’ll ever end up with a CEO-less organization,” he admits. “There’ll still be somebody at the top. For them to stay empowered, however, they are going to have to recognize there’s leadership throughout the organization, and they will have to honor leadership from wherever it comes. Leadership must emerge from all levels of our organizations if they are going to survive.
“Transformative leaders are getting the job done, given their position in the organization, but there’s a transformative quality about the way they are doing it so that other people working with them feel empowered without management empowering them.”
OUT ON THE LEADING EDGE, CALLING FOR “outrageous leaders of change,” Renesch is dedicated to building a critical mass of people who can cause a revolution in what we can be. “The advocates of transformation in the business world for the most part are very demure,” he is sorry to say. “They are very scholarly, very quiet, soft spoken.
They are not cheerleaders. If we had more people speaking more courageously on what they think is right, there might be far more agreement for that rightness than they ever imagined. It might be that everybody is waiting for somebody to stick their neck out. I think what we have is a huge conspiracy of silence in the business community, just as we do in most systems that are dysfunctional.”
Renesch sees his mission as providing products that speak up—that inform, inspire, and connect people who have a new awareness in the business world. Reading about leaders shows them they are not alone. “In the business world there’s a yearning for connecting with like-minded kindred spirits who are as concerned with the way things are going—the quality of life, the pressures, the pace of life,” he explains.
“The whole quality of one’s humanness seems to be getting quashed.” He wants to provide reinforcement material so that people can be advocates of change in their organizations. But Renesch is not Pollyanna-ish about the future we can build. The world doesn’t have to be full of struggle and pain with occasional acts of goodness. While it will never be perfect, we could make it “a world of goodness with random acts of violence.”
He suspects, “If most of us were in a state of consciousness, really in touch with our passion, there’s some divine plan out there that says that if everybody follows their passion, there would be just enough carpenters, just enough publishers, just enough policemen, it would all work out.”
Who knows how much we can improve our lot and realize who we are? “Everything we have done up to now in history has been a projection of the past. The future has always been related to the past. But,” says Renesch, “we are leaving that paradigm, and the future is going to be the future we envision—the future we create for ourselves.”