The greatest advantage that a chief executive can attain is a condition of Expanded Awareness (EA). A recent Fortune magazine cover bears the image of legacy leaders whose unique vantage point and prescient insights were not only demonstrated in stellar shareholder returns, but in altering human behavior as well. These great EA visionaries created a linear innovation—a combination of things that already existed but bundled in a manner that added new value in a new way—and in the process shifted industrial patterns and consumer behavior. This exclusive hall of fame includes technical giants, financial oracles, and legendary inventors and creators. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” The same can be said for the boardroom.
At the risk of stating the obvious, EA is a different state of consciousness. It is the vantage point of expanded consciousness; a place beyond current beliefs, limitations and constraints, where Jeff Bezos envisioned a world of online retailing, and Steve Jobs a world with a thousand songs in your pocket. It was from this place that Walt Disney had visions of EPCOT, and Nikola Tesla the alternating current motor dancing in their minds eye.
Although it is has been said that knowledge is power, EA is not knowledge. Knowledge of facts, information and conditions is useful, but incomplete as it only allows a leader to be aware of an opportunity or disturbance before the event occurs. EA, on the other hand, is the solution—the application of knowledge coupled with intuitive or gut instincts, inspirations that open the eyes to a world that others do not see. When a chief executive taps into this realm, he or she is able to achieve a unique competitive advantage where, to quote Sun Tzu from the Art of War, “Winning without fighting is ideal.”
It sounds tantalizing; create a unique competitive advantage and achieve superior returns, all while leaving a legacy. How does one do it?
Achieving a condition of EA begins by clearing the mind and trusting deep instincts. It requires total confidence, courage and faith. Taking action from a position of EA is not for the meek at heart. It is the secret that helped most executives achieve their status in the first place. It also requires a degree of detachment, the ability to step above and view the macro situation where the executive instantly recognizes patterns that legendary heroes well understand. The first pattern is contrary to popular belief; the nature by which great inventions, companies and societies evolve is not a series of small linear developments, rather a series of incremental changes followed by radical shifts. The second pattern is that artificially sustaining a nation, industry, company or product is a sinkhole that eventually collapses. Today’s macro condition is where many are now trapped.
The executive who has achieved the detached EA vantage point recognizes the macro conditions and patterns, and the current radical shift as well. This radical shift is a shift in global consciousness catalyzed by the necessity of the majority to survive: the rock upon which we stand is crumbling.
Fifty million Americans are living in poverty, 47 million on food stamps, our nation has more than $124 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the actual underemployed figure is estimated to be double the official unemployed numbers, and finally, the Consumer Price Index might be hovering around two percent, but that is not reflective of the increased cost of living. Beyond economic conditions is the deterioration in trust and integrity. Back in 1940, only 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number has increased to a range of 75-98 percent. What’s worse, these employees don’t think they are doing anything wrong, and why should they when school superintendents hold pizza parties to change the grades. In any given week we can read about financial fraud, failure of fiduciary responsibility, gross ethical misconduct, or yet another peoples movement. According to Stephen M.R. Covey, the # 1 WSJ best-selling author of The Speed of Trust, we have a crisis in trust. These economic and social leading indicators are reflected in a corporate outcome indicator, employee engagement. A recent Towers Perrin Global Workforce study showed barely 21 percent of employees are engaged in their job.
What might not be obvious to the boardroom is not lost on the millennial generation. At 80 million strong, any executive who ignores this demographic does so at high risk. While the cost of a college education has increased more than 100 percent in 10 years, the Pew Economic Mobility Project report infers it is getting harder to pay that off. Only 42 percent of recent college grads are working at jobs that require college degrees, 10 percent of recent university graduates are unemployed, while another 26 percent are underemployed in high-school-level jobs. Even though they believe in God, more than 30 percent don’t go to church, saying they are spiritual, non religious. According to Time Magazine, they will average seven jobs before age 26 and they are not into materialism, rather experiences. During recent speeches to more than 1,200 of these college graduates, 80 percent said their top concerns were saving the air, water and food.
This up-and-coming wave of citizens, formerly known as consumers, are socially active, in debt, and under employed with more living at home than ever before. They are consciously aware that we share 99.99 percent the same DNA and are not nearly as concerned about the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin as mom or dad.
The next wave of EA visionary executives who create eco-friendly, socially responsible businesses serving a noble purpose will have a customer base of 80 million posters and tweeters with a consciousness so expanded the Hubble Telescope has difficulty estimating the trajectory. Executives who fail to explore the global shift in consciousness risk sharing the same fate as the corporate titans that ignored technological shifts. We knew them as Blockbuster, Polaroid and Borders.
JD Messinger ([email protected], www.JDMessinger.com) is the former CEO of Ernst & Young Consulting, Singapore, an Annapolis graduate, and the Exxon executive who helped supervise the Valdez Oil spill cleanup. Nominated for the CNBC Asian CEO of the year, he was the Channel News Asia IT Person of the Week, and a senior advisor to the Singapore Prime Minister, members of parliament in Great Britain, China, Brunei, Australia and Malaysia. He is the author of 11 Days in May: The Conversation That Will Change Your Life.