Book Review: Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values

Matthew Kalman

Kalman’s Kosmos

Kalman photoFred Kofman, Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values. Boulder, Colorado, US A: Sounds True, 2006.

I knew precious little about Fred Kofman’s work before reading his new book, Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values. But I was impressed by what I did know: he was a colleague of management guru Peter Senge at MIT and helped him bring the ideas of the ‘Learning Organisation’, systems thinking and so on to the attention of leaders everywhere. (Kofman appears a few times within Senge et al’s influential ‘Fifth Discipline’ series of books). Kofman’s own particular emotionally-aware approach to leadership has gone down very well indeed on Integral Institute trainings, I believe.

Kofman promises at the beginning of the book that he will solve for us the mystery of how exactly the humble yet tenacious – and highly successful – ‘Level 5’ leaders (as described in Jim Collins’ management bestseller Good to Great) can be developed.

“The inner development of a person remains a ‘black box’, which this book aims to unlock”, he writes.

He’s pretty clear about the key role of the leader: “The most important function of a leader is to see him- or herself as a member of the larger system, pursuing a common vision, holding common values, and cooperating with each other in an environment of mutual support and respect”.

‘Conscious leadership’ itself is vital because it is “the strongest determinant of an effective, healthy culture” – and a focus on culture is what offers the “highest leverage” when it comes to improving an organisation.

It turns out that the book itself is very much focused on undertaking various experiential practices detailed within it. And we are warned that this task will be “no easier than running a marathon”. Illustrative experiences from Kofman’s own consulting work— workshops, seminars etc.—are regularly described too.

These exercises include choosing your three heroes, role play, a left-hand column exercise to bring out the unspoken elements from difficult conversations, imagining retirement celebratory dinner speeches about one’s life, how $120m would change your life and also conflict resolution exercises at the personal, interpersonal and operational levels.

Another exercise looks at an episode where one faced unfair treatment (one may compare this with Byron Katie’s ‘Judge-Your -Neighbour’ Inquiry worksheet, the Integral Institute’s 3-2-1 Shadow exercise and Kegan and Lahey’s seven languages for transformation work).

In a slightly more exotic vein Kofman also suggests an exercise to imagine everyone we meet is the Messiah, another to pray Namaste to everyone like Nepalis do, along with one for conscious breathing.

The exercises come replete with a lot of PowerPoint-friendly wisdom, which includes the seven qualities of conscious employees; the four goals of a productive complaint; the three attitudes of unconscious organisations; the seven steps for apologising effectively; the three assumptions of mutual learning, the five strategies for mutual learning; the three assumptions and five strategies of the unilateral control model, etc.

‘Unconditional responsibility’ is a foundation for Kofman’s approach—being a ‘Player’ rather than a victim. Chapters on topics including essential integrity, ontological humility, authentic communication, constructive negotiation, impeccable coordination and emotional mastery illustrate his other key themes.

Kofman is certainly a great evangelist for his ‘authentic’ and conscious approach to leadership development: “The ultimate consequences of the mutual learning model are every leader’s dream: effectiveness, flexibility, innovation, high quality and profitability, low costs and employee rotation, competitiveness, continuous improvement, and personal and organisational growth.”

So he’s certainly succeeded in offering us an engagingly passionate account of personal growth practices for use in an organisational setting. And provided a vision of workplace culture based around mutual learning and self-responsibility, which I’m sure most of us will find highly attractive.

He’s also succeeded in gently slipping in a few of the ideas from great organisational development theorists like Chris Argyris, in an easy-to-digest form. All in all, it’s a valuable look at the human side of business, the cultural side, or what Wilber would call the ‘left-hand Quadrants’. I’ve not yet undertaken the marathon-like effort of following all his various exercises to end my self-deceptions and follow my higher purpose etc.— which would no doubt provide much more food for thought.

However, Kofman also leaves quite a number of important questions unanswered and sundry loose ends (at least from my Enneagram 5-ish point of view, which may of course be viewed as nit-picking by others).

For a start, where is the evidence for his numerous assertions?

Kofman proclaims, for example:

“I believe that a culture of responsibility, integrity, humility…yields exceptional results”. (But he does also warn that keeping one’s integrity might get one fired and offers no guaranteed rewards other than feeling proud when you look in the mirror).

“I believe that the highest leverage can be gained by focusing on culture”, he also claims.

Elsewhere he states that a culture based on love, integrity, meaning and wisdom, “produces extraordinary long-term business results”.

Similarly “the virtuous pursuit of excellence achieves more real success than the unbridled pursuit of success.” And “unilateral control never yields good results in the long term”.

As he neglects to show us evidence for such clear and inspiring opinions, it is as mere personal opinions that they sadly must remain.

Kofman says that companies need individuals with high levels of consciousness, but how can we assess these levels?

I can’t help wondering why Jim Collins and his team of 22 research associates—who investigated the results of 1435 companies over three decades—could not identify these various clear causes of “exceptional” and “extraordinary” business results that Kofman perceives.

We may not be encouraged to measure levels of consciousness in any objective manner, but Kofman does outline an exercise for uncovering our favourite character traits in others. Not one person doing the exercises has ever chosen the qualities of power, wealth, youth, beauty, pleasure or fame, he advises us.

Another exercise seeks to uncover what our ultimate wants are. Helpfully, Kofman tells us the answer is always truth, happiness, fullness, freedom, peace and love. Strangely, when I read the latest public opinion poll (of 1,200 people) in a London newspaper, having lots of money comes top, at 77 per cent, while 35 per cent want to be more attractive [Metro 2006, pg 15.]

Kofman may well be on to something here, yet I still think there’s a lot to be said for those empirically based models and assessment tools which can discern a person’s or an organisation’s current and desired values or level of consciousness, and can perhaps indicate whether an intervention is appropriate and has made any positive difference or not (e.g., see my review of Richard Barrett’s Building a Values-Driven Organisation in theOctober 2006 issue of Integral Leadership Review .

The fact that the book contains plenty of quotes from ‘transformative’ luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Rumi, Teilhard de Chardin, Einstein, Margaret Mead, Gandhi and Castaneda also detracts from it, for me at least. Others, of course, love this kind of packaging. Kofman even tells us the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes at one point.

To support his assertions, occasional interesting social psychology, brain science or monkey examples are dropped in – do you want one marshmallow now or two later, for example. And Kofman does refer to Wilber’s Integral Psychology as the source for his figure that less than .5 per cent of the world’s population are at a ‘Spirit-centric’ level of consciousness. (I think he’s referring to Wilber’s use of a Spiral Dynamics guesstimate that .1 per cent of the world population think with Turquoise values.)

Somewhat linked to the evidence issue is Kofman’s penchant for using what I see as rather simplistic, dichotomising and dualistic language to illustrate his explanations.

We’re all either “controllers” or “learners” and we all either ‘live from the outside in’, or ‘live from the inside out’, which is the inner-directed approach that Kofman prefers. Organisational cultures are based on mutual learning or on unilateral control. Early on in the book, Kofman includes two columns contrasting the nine attitudes of “Unconscious versus Conscious Business”. And “the only worthwhile businesses…are conscious businesses: those that tackle their work as a spiritual activity”, he tells us.

For me, such a black-and-white approach misses the opportunity for inspiring syntheses—for instance of Argyris’ work on organisations with a ‘levels of consciousness’ model (both of which Kofman talks about). Argyris has described, for example, how people in typical organisations usually exhibit ‘Model I’ strategies around seeking to be in unilateral control, winning, and not upsetting people. ‘Model II’ strategies—commonly espoused but rarely realised—include maximising inquiry and valid information, informed choice etc. Bill Torbert (2006) has sought to show how these concerns of ‘Model I’ map over well on to the least complex of his four leadership ‘action logic’ levels, and ‘Model II’ concerns map onto the most complex. I wish Kofman had pursued this kind of novel and worthwhile integration. For that matter Kofman might also have engaged with Torbert’s claim that Collins’ ‘Level 5’ leaders “sound developmentally like Strategists”, one of Torbert’s most complex levels of leadership consciousness (2004, page 115).

One integration that Kofman does seek I found surprisingly jarring. Whilst the book predominantly focuses around communication, emotional intelligence, conflict-resolution and suchlike, Kofman’s final chapter suddenly leaps to the possibility of achieving ‘Enlightenment’: “Those who work for the sake of a transcendent vision, honouring their values through virtuous conduct, achieve a personal transcendence similar to what is called “enlightenment” in the East – but through a path much more in line with Western Culture”.

“The spirit-centric individual loves his neighbour as himself effortlessly, because he realizes that this neighbour is indeed, a radiant expression of his True Self.”

If you follow the exercises outlined in the book you will in fact be embarking on a Zen-like “Ox-herding quest…taking you away from ingrained habits into a higher level of consciousness.” I’m just unsure how worthwhile it is to parachute in—with little explanation—esoteric concepts like “radiant expression of his True Self” for the first time in the final chapter.

Kofman’s dichotomising approach appears again when he describes his view that a sport like tennis when played “out of lack” rather than in “the spirit of excellence” is “a game of scoundrels” with “no scruples” and is “the typical behaviour of…[the] Mafia”. I guess it’s nice to know who the bad guys are. Surprisingly Kofman does later on tell us “I like winning, just like anyone else”. (Perhaps I should report him to an Italian special prosecutor?)

Kofman’s work on conflict resolution leans a bit too heavily for my liking on the idea that there are legions of narcissistic “ex-school bullies” out there who have grown up and entered our workplaces.

Though high levels of consciousness are mentioned by Kofman as vital to business, I’ve a nagging feeling that he’s not really using a full spectrum developmental approach, and not explicitly seeking the ‘the health of the whole Spiral’, to use Spiral Dynamics language. For instance, Kofman writes that “The larger purpose of business—or sports, or any competitive activity, for that matter—is not to succeed but to serve as a theater for self-knowledge, self-actualisation, and self-transcendence”. But what about the majority of people who are not inner-directed and post-conventional? What about the ‘Diplomat’, ‘Expert’ and ‘Achiever’ leaders that Bill Torbert and David Rooke (2005) talk about? Kofman leaves it sounding as if the purpose that 85 per cent of leaders find in their work is simply somehow invalid.

Kofman also claims that we’re all “equally blind” to our “mental models”, which surely turns on its head the finding that ‘Second Tier’ levels make a quantum leap in awareness of their own thinking systems, or that post-conventional leadership ‘action logics’ are far more keen to understand the ‘frames’ of other people than are less complex ‘action logics’.

Kofman also writes that “As a human being, you are an autonomous (from the Gre“self-ruling”) being”. This might give the impression that autonomy is a ubiquitious, rather than a relatively rare, complex characteristic that emerges at the later stages of adult development.

A refrain throughout the book is the need for everyone to seek “success beyond success”. Beyond success lies “the serene joy of integrity” he tells us, once again seemingly denying that much of the world (the Expert, the Diplomat and the Achiever, for example) possesses its own integrity. Kofman is perhaps falling into the same trap that Jack Mezirow’s ‘Transformative Learning’ movement does: failing to focus on the whole range of transformations in levels of consciousness. Adult development theorist Robert Kegan has warned, “Much of the literature on transformational learning really constitutes an exploration of what constructive-developmental theory and research identifies as but one of several gradual, epochal transformations in knowing [i.e., the shift to Self-Authoring Mind] of which persons are shown to be capable throughout life” (Mezirow 2000, p. 59).

Overall I’d say that Kofman’s book may well succeed as a handbook of personal development work (though I’d need to go through the marathon of using all the exercises to know for sure). But when it comes to unlocking the black box of inner development, it offers rather little—other than the exercises (and even makes what it does offer needlessly hard to refer back to, as it has no index). Maybe the reason that Wilber’s foreword barely mentions Kofman is because Kofman barely mentions anything ‘integral’ (other than the occasional mention of I, We and It dimensions)—despite his talk of a “shared map” to “unify multiple perspectives”. Wilber perhaps tries to make up for this lack by packing in as much as he can about his shared integral map?

Metro (2006), “Why we’d all like to make music”. London, December 21.
Mezirow, J et al (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Torbert, W. (2006).“Generating Simultaneous Personal and Organisational Development” in Organization Development: A Jossey-Bass Reader, Edgar H. Schein and Joan V. Gallos, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Torbert, W. et al (2004). Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishers.
Torbert, W. and Rooke, D. (2005). Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, April.