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CEO of LRN: Let's build a 'human operating system'

Creating a more sustainable economy hinges around relationships and behavior, says Dov Seidman.

This is an excerpt of a June keynote address by Dov Seidman, CEO of ethics and compliance management firm LRN, in the United Nations General Assembly Hall celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the U.N. Global Compact.

I share the belief that ethics lie at the heart of all sustainable human endeavor. Your leadership is an inspiration to me and countless others.

We live in a fast-paced, always-on world facing the blaring assault of never-ending information. Everything is faster — communication, commerce, innovation. I stand before you today with a counter-intuitive message: The faster things get, the more we need to pause. Why?

Quite simply, when you hit the pause button on a machine, it stops. When a human being hits their pause button, they start. They start to reflect, to reconnect with their deepest beliefs. We pause to make sense, to rethink fundamentals such as the nature of capitalism and the relationship of business to society and to the natural world. And we reimagine an even more sustainable path. 

It has never been more urgent to pause in this deep way. The world is not just rapidly changing, it is being dramatically reshaped, faster than we have — yet — been able to reshape ourselves.

Today, we live in a world of no distance. So few can affect so many others so far away in ways they never could before. A single banker can cause the market to lose billions from his desk in minutes. A vegetable vendor and a cell phone can spark a revolution towards freedom.

Mobile apps are disrupting entire industries, and bringing strangers into intimate proximity, into our homes and cars. Companies were once fortresses, protecting our privacy and their secrets. Today, one hacker, continents away, can expose both — enabling people to see deep into organizations and into the attitudes of the people who run them. 

Three hundred years ago, the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that the moral imagination diminishes with distance. It would follow that as distance decreases, the moral imagination increases.

We live in a world where moral imagination is activated. For you, as leaders, it must. That’s because our world has gone from connected to inter-connected to globally interdependent. More than ever, today we rise and fall together. What each of us feels, aspires to and imagines matters more than ever to everyone else.

So therefore, the only viable strategy for winning and creating value in the interdependent world is to forge healthy, sustainable interdependencies so that we rise, and do not fall, together. This is not easy. But it’s also not complicated. It comes down to human behavior and the values that sustain human relationships. 

My friends, we’ve gone from an Industrial Economy — where we hired hands — to a Knowledge Economy — where we hired heads — to what is now a Human Economy — where we hire hearts.

In this world where machines can out-think, out-process and out-perform us, it’s the things machines cannot do, the things that come from the heart where our values reside — character, creativity, compassion, humility — that are uniquely valuable and will never be automated or commoditized. But it is one thing to proclaim human values, it is yet another to scale them. That’s the work that urgently remains to be done. 

To do anything at scale, you need a system. No one is better than business at building systems: CRM, TQM, ERP, HRIS. When Microsoft Word was fighting Word Perfect, Bill Gates’ genius was to build the Windows Operating System so that apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Email could work together to increase productivity. By analogy, in the Human Economy, the apps we need are elevated human behaviors. Now business must build the operating system that can run them. I call this a Human Operating System.

A Human Operating System is one where purpose lies at its heart. It is a system in which governance that maximizes short-term, commercial interests and only measures "how much" business gets done is replaced with governance that embraces responsibility to society, long-term goals, and also measures how business gets done. It is a system where a culture of carrots and sticks, applied against rules and policies that drive what people can and can’t do is replaced with a culture of shared values and principles that guide what people should and should not do.

We used to live in a world where few directed many: where one coach told his players to run this play; where a military general commanded a battalion to take that hill; where a CEO told his team to make those numbers. In that world everybody else’s job, quite simply, was to do the next thing right, in other words, to do it correctly. 

In the human economy, where everybody is called upon to contribute their full character and creativity, everybody’s job is no longer to do the next thing right, but to do the next right thing. A machine can be programmed to do the former, but only a human being can do the latter.

To build a Human Operating System, we need a fundamentally different mindset of leadership. Young people will make up 75 percent of the global workforce in the next five years. They are showing us the way. A 17-year-old Pakistani girl won the Nobel Peace Prize. A 15-year-old American successfully petitioned beverage companies to remove carcinogens from sports drinks. A 9-year-old Scottish girl challenged her school to serve nutritious food and inspired children all over the world to do the same.

These young people know what works best in the Human Economy. Formal authority, the power to command and control, is decaying and dissipating. Moral authority, which connects and collaborates around shared values, is gaining potency and currency.

At its core, leadership is about how we get people to act and to join us. There are only three ways to do this. You can Coerce, Motivate or Inspire. Coercion and motivation come from without and happen to you. Inspiration comes from within and happens in you. 

Imagine any one of us, telling two colleagues from different cultures to go in a room and not emerge until they have figured out a way to collaborate respectfully. Would that work? And, imagine telling others that you will triple their salary once they’ve developed compassion and empathy overnight. Would that work? We all know that there is no amount of carrots and sticks that will get us these precious things.

The human economy demands inspirational leadership and it demands it now. There’s a Talmudic expression: Things that come from the heart enter the heart. If we are going to enlist peoples’ hearts, leaders need to change their playbooks. 

Inspirational leaders — like so many who we’ve heard from today and so many of you, who through your courageous moral example have inspired me and given me hope — create the context for long-term thinking. They shape culture. They trust people with the truth. They engage in two-way conversations. They take stands on social issues. They create high-trust environments where people feel free to lean-in. They make themselves small so that others can do big things. Above all, inspirational leaders see the path ahead as a journey. 

We all know life is a journey. It goes up and down. It zigs and zags. There is an ethic to being on a journey  striving to make progress. Journeys challenge us to be resilient and hopeful at once. For a long time, business stopped journeying. We know that. We came to believe that through planning and control, we could impose linearity and emphasize the bottom line over progress. But human progress is not linear. It’s messy. It’s hard. It’s uncertain. Business needs to get back to journeying, because nothing inspires people more than being on a journey worthy of their commitment and dedication.

The U.N. Global Compact’s entire history is one of not just trying to shift business from one zero-sum strategy to another, but one that aspires as a journey to elevate it through a shared purpose of creating a sustainable world. That is what the 10 Principles demand of us, so that we can rise together in this reshaped world.

Thank you for pausing. Now, let us together press the start button on a journey that will elevate us all.

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