Ten Things You're Not Allowed to Say at Davos
Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 28, 2011 10:13 AM
Consider me gagged and muffled. I confess: I wrote a long-winded, thoroughly boring, hopelessly cliched critique of Davos this year, like anyone under the age of 35 facing a future bleaker than the dark side of Pluto, probably should. And then I junked it. Why? Well, this year, Davos is back with a bang — and it's simply not in good taste to call it a vulgar, loutish spectacle of Ponziconomics.
Hence, instead, I'll humbly submit for your perusal a quick and dirty list of ten things you're probably not allowed to say at Davos — but that if rebooting prosperity is what really care about, you should be.
Talk is cheap (and the more talk there is, the cheaper it gets). Corporations booking record profits as cities, states, and countries go broke have little (read: zero) incentive to actually do much get people, communities, and society out of this mess. The most powerful and influential folks at Davos — the titans of the global economy — probably won't do anything to heal the world, for the simple reason that because, as things stand, they "profit" most from its suffering. Want fries with that unsafe drinking water, bottom billion?
You can't solve a problem on the level it was created (as Einstein's reputed to have said). This great crisis is in our economy — and so it might be of our society, culture, and polity. It might require not just financial and economic jiggery-pokery, but deeply rooted social, cultural, and political reimagination. Davos, of course, is far from a forum for the latter.
Apart from the togas, a forum is not a frat party. If an organization was built for one purpose, but finds itself advancing the polar opposite, the total inverse, might it be it fair to say it's not just lost its way — but that it's been subverted, commandeered, pirated? I only ask because Davos was set up for the advancement of stakeholder capitalism, but it was financial hypercapitalism that drove a stake through the heart of the global economy. That model of global growth, of course, was the one made prominent by none other than the WEF throughout the noughties.
You don't find a lot of depth in a hot tub. As mercilessly mocked by Bruce Nussbaum, "Davos Man" is ultimately a supine creature who endlessly, comfortably debates the "what" of business, trade, commerce, enterprise — but rarely has the deeper courage to question the deeper "why," the purpose, the point.
Insiders rarely topple the status quo. By the time you're invited — or can afford to go — you're probably already an insider, by definition a member of the global super-elite. Hence, your incentives are largely just the same as everybody else at Davos: to perpetuate stale concepts like "profit," "product," and "output," the tired, toxic practices of "strategy," "finance," and "marketing." Hence, the atmosphere of groupthink.
Your Mom tends to tell you what you want to hear. Davos loves diversity — as long as said diversity doesn't carry the terrifying prospect of actually generating perspectives that question the primacy of the obsolete, crumbling paradigm known as industrial age capitalism. But here's the thing: especially in a time when your fundamental assumptions are breaking, it's probably your fiercest critics — not your compatriots — who have the sharpest, most resonant insights.
Moral vacuums tend to empower the amoral. Self-explanatory: take a look at these accounts of bankers vigorously defending what at this point my pet hamster knows is basically indefensible. It's like a self-parody — except it's not. Economists aren't exactly renowned for having a moral compass, yet without one, it's impossible to take on the fundamentally ethical challenge of rebooting prosperity.
You need a whole brain to be a human. 21st century intelligence is not just analytical — it's ethical, emotional, and creative. It's about the left-brained stuff. So why is it relegated to novelty panels (a handful of artists and photographers)? Probably because the idea of holistic thinking might cause overquantified, hyperanalytical Davos Man, whose most lethal weapon is his copy of Excel, to glitch and twitch right into a nervous breakdown.
If power corrupts, concentrations of power corrode. Let's just be frank and admit it: the global economy's got a corruption problem. That revolving door between government and the boardroom, that leads ineluctably to regulatory capture? Its doorman looks a lot like Davos. It's at venues like Davos that a mindset (not to mention a contact list) just a little bit too convenient to both parties is born, nurtured, and sustained, rather than questioned, debated, and deconstructed.
If you want the world to care about you, show some caring to the world. See how many views these Davos YouTube videos have (scroll down)? Not many. Davos might just be an exercise in irrelevance: the world just might care a lot less about Davos a lot less than journalists, PR flacks, and pundits do.Perhaps that's because there's a tiny hint of a feeling that Davos isn't exactly fighting to tooth and nail to right the ship — but to hoard the food, and puncture the lifeboats. It's easy to say you care — but people can sense whether you actually, really mean it, how much sweat you've really poured into it, your underlying attitude — not just your platitudes.
Maybe, then, it's worth asking whether we've got to get serious about the stuff that's timeless, instead: passion, justice, connection, transcendence, discernment, to take on with a sense of reckless abandon not just the immediate questions of "competitiveness," "business," and "trade," but the harder questions of what a rich, meaningful, productive life — for all — really consists of.
Perhaps, to time's unblinking eye, this great crisis isn't really about financial debt — perhaps that's just a representation of a deeper set of truths. Perhaps it's really about the deeper debts we owe to one another, and how failing to honor them has led us to a deeper bankruptcy: an insolvency of character, spirit, ethic, purpose, and above all, wisdom. Hence, perhaps* the idea of a "World Economic Forum," like the ideas it champions, of "corporations," "profit," "jobs," "GDP," "shareholder value," is an anachronism, an artifact that belongs to the past, a concept whose time has come — and gone.
Our best chance to heal our broken world might just be a series of revolutions — economic, industrial, social, political — that each starts with tinier awakenings — personal, professional, ethical, intellectual.
Hence, here's my hunch: creating a better future's going to take what it's always taken. And that's not powwows concerned with "winning," because the future isn't a game.
It's going to take small steps towards rediscovering the timeless lessons of mattering; whose value isn't just denominated in today's dollars and cents — but whose worth is measured in meaning.
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