Alfred Tolle: Cultivating and Connecting Conscious Leaders
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Apr 8, 2017
Birju: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be part of this conversation today Preetha and thank you for engaging with us as the host today. And just as a bit of context for our guest today who I'm just very excited to be in dialogue with . Today's guest has been experimenting with this question of bringing in personal practices, evolutionary practices into the workplace for quite a while. He's been involved in his own practice for decades and is bringing it into the workplace now. Alfred Tolle as Preetha mentioned has won the heart of a senior business leader in technology. He's held senior roles at Lycos and
Google among other places , but he simultaneously been developing this personal interior through thirty plus years of formal meditative practice and he's now incubating a form of organization that's geared to support the development of wisdom within the business sector. Alfred, we are so grateful that you are joining us today
Alfred: Thank you for having me today. It’s a great opportunity, I'm grateful to be here and looking forward to a good conversation.
Birju: Now where are you calling us from, just for our gratification.
Alfred: Well I'm currently in Munich. It it's a little bit after 6pm in the evening, but we have a wonderful blue sky and the Spring is coming first time to this part of the world . So it's a very nice nice evening to have this conversation.
Birju: Hmmm.... And how are you today?
Alfred: I'm doing well . We have we have one of our conferences in front of us, so there is not really a weekend for us , but I'm enjoying to have wonderful conversations, exchanging ideas with people , and and exploring ways of how we can make this event
which is in front of us are multiple events as an experience for people to dive in and experience and explore their own connectedness and interconnectedness. So yeah, now it's an exciting time currently.
Birju: So just since it's Live for you right now , maybe we can start there and then and then what I love to do is kind of back into the journey that led there. But I'm curious if you can share a bit more about what these conferences are and what is a life for you in the preparation of them at this moment.
Alfred: Mmmm...So last year, I found ed an association here in Germany called "Investment Together", it's a nonprofit association and we are we are trying to create and build an invitation, I call it like a field that we invite people to plant their plans, they are coming on to this and they're saying look we have an idea how to make this world a better place and how to do it to transform business society and solve in a substantial way. And so in order to do that and in order to show the people out that there are so many multiple thousands of wonderful initiatives out there in this world it's not only a conceptual idea or a philosophy but it's already happening this transformation. We wanted to create places where people can come together and experience and hear about these wonderful events which are happening around the world that they going to discuss and explore whether this is something which they can realize in their own place so that we create a network of local initiatives which are inspired by global conferences, connected by digital platforms, and sharing experiences and exchanging best practices. And that is more or less what we do, so the next conference will be June 13 &14th here in Munich , and it’s about Intuition and Creativity. And I came to Intuition, as an idea to bring intuition as one topic forward because I feel intuition is deep in our connection with our inner soul and with yourself . And once you have that , then you understand that you are connected to every species, every living species in this world and maybe beyond so that out of that a responsible action can happen.
Alfred: And there are different you know , different opinions on intuition. There is this part where scientists came up with intuition as a kind of unconscious understanding and experiences which happen throughout your life. And you can tap into that and then you can explore your new potential. I feel then this is true, but I think it goes beyond
that , I think there is more than just your own experience. There is an experience which is happening in this world or you can tap into this field. And Ervin László, founder of Club of Budapest has explored has described that very well with his book called "Cosmic Creativity" . And that means that your own creativity is tapping into a into a field which is connected by everybody, so you are the axis to that and then creativity really happens. And so we will have people like that , we will have people discussing from the scientific world , and also entrepreneurs who have explored this intuition coming throughout their
own practice , meditative practice and nature experience practices. We will have artists there and we will have not only speeches, but also room for experiences, and breakout sessions so that we can explore the way intuition can help everybody in this life to go forward and live a more responsible life. And that is in Munich , and in October we will have a conference in Oslo, Norway which is called "Consciousness in Business, Listen Closely". Where we also invite people to listen to their inner voice but also to the ir outer voice because Norway is a country which is very nature - connected so we will combine that with a trip to the nature , hopefully we can see and explore and experience the Northern Lights and so we hope that we can do some meditation in nature as well. Otto Scharmer will come as well to this conference and and we'll present Theory U, we will have Arawana Hayashi. He was doing social presenting theatre combining them with Mindfulness practices, so it's a kind of a blend of personal experience and scientific research so that we can bring people together and hopefully also not only bring them together and inspire them for one moment. But for two or three days , but also that we can create a network of people who can initiate local groups so that they can start to transform in their personal environment and in their life, that's what we do there .
Birju: Sorry I'm just smiling big as you share this being what it is that's alive for you knowing that in your path you've been the C.E.O. of Lycos, the famous search engine and so I just worked with him back out and talk about how this happened from the ground up. You mentioned Intuition and Creativity as a topic that you'll be focusing on at this conference. I'd love to have you reflect on your own upbringing, where were the seeds of your own intuition and creativity in your childhood that perhaps subconsciously planted the seeds for what would happen going forward.
Alfred: Thank you for this for this wonderful question. In our time going back in into my childhood, I was brought up in a little village, somewhere in the countryside of Germany. And my parents died when I was pretty young so I was more or less alone with one person who took care of me, but she was not living with me. I was living more or less alone when I was thirteen. And when my father died, I experienced his death, I was with him when he died. And at that point of time I had this kind of you know moment, where you feel that everything what you have learned, and every rule, every time and space is kind of relative. And it's not really important. Of course there was mourning but there was also this kind of Wow, this is a new space where I'm in. I understood that when I'm reflecting back at that moment of time, I of course didn't have this kind of reflection. But that I feel was a moment which shifted my inner space from where I operated through my whole life. And at that time when I started, I was very young. I was always trying to to make a better life for the environment so I help people in that little town. I had a flat my parents left me, a flat there, so I or people who didn't have a place to stay, they can stay with me. So I had all this, but I felt this was normal, this is kind of the way people, people are supposed to be with each other, help each other, so when you have something then give it and you know you can share what you have and and it will come back. It was not a question, it was not shall I do that or not? It was just normal for me.
Birju: So if you are coming from this context, my understanding of what that led to in terms of your interest. It seemed like you were interested in Theater, East Asian Studies in your college life and somehow that turned into technology in business. And how did the pendulum swing in that direction?
Alfred: Hahaha... So I think, I was always interested in communicating with people. Once I was working for television and when the Internet came up, I immediately understood that the Internet & Technology, as a way of how to connect and communicate with people. And I was always interested in the intercultural exchange. So I was curious to see what people in other countries, how they live their lives. So I initiated once actually I think at Google, when I was later at Google, we did a movie at a certain point of time which is called 24 Hours and that was something. I had this idea once when I was pretty young, I said look it's interesting to understand how a carpenter in Spain having breakfast at the same time a carpenter in Japan or a carpenter in China or in America. Let's make a little video out of this to understand and this was so much possible when technology and internet hit our daily life.
Alfred: So that was and it's still is a great potential on the one hand side. Then when I was working in this technology space I recognized that it also all a big threat and it could be. So it’s nothing in life is neither good nor bad, but it's like how you're going to use it. That was taught to me when I got a scholarship to Japan and when I was studying theater. I fall at that time into a Zen monastery and because I saw people sitting in front of a wall for four or five hours and I was like wow what a waste of time. What are you doing there? I had to experience that, so I went there and I know a monastery and an abbot who gave me a good advice when I left Japan. He said only one sentence, he said "There is no good or bad in this world. There is no right or wrong." and I was like what does he mean by this
Alfred: But that's helped me a lot. You always have this moment in your life.
Birju: So I'm curious as you were integrating this inner life into what would turn into your early career. What was your inner life like during this time? I am hearing you say is that technology in business was interesting to the extent that it could connect people so that's like an external view and I'm curious what's happening inside of you knowing that you have the zen background and you're showing up to a corporate office every day.
Alfred: Hahah (laughs) ........Yeah that's a very good question and sometimes I was asking myself why I did that. Honestly speaking, I had every day in my life and it was a wonderful experience. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to live and experience this moments with other people. To give you an example, in Japan, I was once the Vice President for Bertelsmann there and responsible in South East Asia for Internet and T.V. businesses. And so I came into this office and it was a very international team there. Again, we had people from actually Koreans, from North Korea. They were working with me which was such an interesting experience, having people with that background. But also we had people from America, from Holland, from Spain, from England, and from Germany. So it was an international crowd, but also Japanese, a lot of Japanese they were running the local businesses and we were trying help them in certain areas. And then since I was kind of in Japan it's called "Chacho", the kind of boss and they said OK you got to get a company car. So I got a company car and I never showed up with a company car in the office. Sometimes, Japanese came to me and said," Alfred you're coming by train. Why did you do that?" and I said, You know what, the train takes me 20 minutes to the office, the car takes me 1 1/2hours to the office. Do you really think I should drive in a car? He said yes you should because you are the boss.
Alfred: And I think, hmmm... That's an interesting way to perceive hierarchy. But again, you know this little kind of examples and it was a wonderful conversation which came out of this. I understood that it's a different kind of perception of how you do your life and how you make decisions of your lives, and that was so interesting for me everytime I come to the office.
Birju: Was there an implicit movement toward simplicity that was a guidepost of that kind of a decision or or was it much more of a practical decision?
Alfred: No, it was really simplicity. And it was like why do we need this? The status idea which at that time was still very prominent in Japan and still to a certain extent it is. I was trying to have these conversations with my colleagues and with my friends and with other CEOs in that region. And I said, "Do we need that?" First of all, I don't think we need that for our status. And what is status at all? It was a broader conversation that came out of this little incident which lead to a broader understanding of different cultures and different ways, and also an acceptance of do we really need this kind of luxury around us? If yes, then why?
Birju: What I'm hearing is just this beginning, this nascent movement, towards integration, towards saying there is something inside of you that needs to be named outside of you. And you happen to be in the business world. What was that journey of beginning that process of naming that inner value that needs to be integrated?--of saying, "I just can't be simple in my own life. I need to be simple at work, or I need to be meditative at work."
Alfred: I think through meditation practices, in my case, I felt that at a certain point, I was able to take a different perspective. I was able to put myself out of myself or out of the situation where I was acting and looking at what I was doing. And then to really connect myself with my inner soul and having an understanding of the right way to do it. So I wouldn't say that you should live a complete simple life because some people maybe at the level where they have a reason that they do that.
And I wouldn't judge it. But I would say, "Let's understand why we do the things we do, and let's reflect on this." And while we reflect on this, I think, especially through meditative practices which I experience, that you get to an understanding of what is really important in your life.
For instance, I had a good theater teacher. And he came from Italy. And he was from Commedia Dell'Arte, and he said to me once, "Alfred, the stage is life and life is the stage." So when I was on the board of some companies, and I remember I had to present the numbers for a shareholder meeting at a company in Korea, I was always looking at it as a game and a concept that we are playing. It is not really connected to your inner soul and to your inner life. That understanding then again brought me to a lot of conversations with people.
For example, when I was at Google they did a big re-organization that affected a lot of people. And then they brought the managers in the room together because they were supposed to execute that.
They said, "we want to do this."
And there were 50 people in the room, and I said, "Why?"
And they said, "Because we want to become a 100 billion dollar company."
And I said, "Why?"
That was the first question that irritated them.
And then I said, "Look, you can tell me 100 billion, 200 billion, one trillion 10 million, whatever the number is. It is just a number with a lot of zeros. But it is never really inspiring and it is not connected to us. Tell me what you want to do with that money. And tell me where it makes sense for the contribution to our society and to others. And then I can tell you whether I am inspired."
I think that is a way to see things which comes through putting yourself in a different spot and looking at it. And seeing that this might only be a stage and a game, and if it is a game, let's change it so that we can contribute to everybody.
I recently held a speech here in Germany last week, because currently through technology a lot of people feel threatened and there is a lot of fear. There are a lot of speeches from politicians saying, "who does our economy need in the future?" Because they are seeing artificial intelligence and robots will probably take the position from a lot of people. So people feel anxious and threatened.
And I reframed this question. I said, "This is the wrong question. What we need to ask is which economy do we need in the future?" That puts the humans again in the center and that means that technology is not a good or bad. But the question is how conscious can we deal with the technology and are we the one which are creating the system and the environment which we want to live?
Birju: So I'm curious about this because my experience has been these kinds of conversations are not easy to bring up in the business world. It is not easy to go to one's boss and say, "Why did we want to hit our numbers this year?" Or even, more to the point, it is not easy to engage in practices of inner development in the workplace. So how was that experience for you, not just at the level of what was done, but what was your own inner journey? What does it feel like to have that sort of conversation? Were you numb to it? Was it something that felt very vulnerable to you? What were the stumbling blocks? Where did you find resonance?
Alfred: It was not easy to do that because, like you said, you are in an environment where people are looking at the bottom line, at the numbers, and saying, "Ok, what does it mean for our business? What kind of effect do you have?" But I felt that in this world and also in the business area you have a lot of people who understand and have this inner feeling that something is not right here.
If you use the right wording--I don't think that spirituality is the right word; that is why in Munich I used intuition and creativity and not spirituality and creativity--but if you use this wording and you connect that with scientific research and said, "Look, there is a lot of things done in this area," you can bring a lot of people to your side or at least open for the conversation.
For me, it was sometimes, in the beginning, hard, and I sometimes didn't dare to do it or I said, "Look, it is too hard to convert people." And I was sitting there shaking my head. I was exhausted. Sitting in meeting conferences and I thought, "this really takes the energy away from me and we could do that in a much better way." But I learned that you sometimes need to be brave and say, "Look, what are we doing here? And why are we doing it? Shall we ask these questions first before we continue?"
At Google, for instance, I asked these folks in my apartment when I had conversations and meeting with other executives, then I invented to start these meetings with one minute or two minute pause before we started. And it took me a while to do that, because I felt that they don't want to do that. Why should I?
But then I felt it was so exhausting for everybody. Then I spoke with people one to one, and I said, "Don't you feel the same way? Don't you think we should try to do something else?"
Then people said, "Yes, do you have an idea?"
And I said, "Yes, let's just make a minute or two minute pause before we start and try to align our breath with each other and try to leave the things which happened before out. Let's start fresh in this conversation."
And then when we did that, some people said after, "Wow, Alfred, we really had the experience that this is fresher." But it takes some time, and sometimes you feel alone, but my experience is that you are not alone in most of the cases. When you dare to do that, it is a question of how you frame it, how you mention it, and how you approach people. But if you leave the door open and do it with love and not with "Look how great I am" or "Look how much experience I have," but just to say, "Look, here is love in this room and I understand and we understand each other on a deeper level, so let's try to connect on that level." And I think a lot of people are more and more open for that. Some people not or it takes longer.
Birju: So here you were actually being able to find traction and find that courage within yourself, and yet I see you here articulating this "wisdom together" concept that you are mentioning. So what lead to your choice to exit the conventional business paradigm despite this ability to still find some traction, but may be not to the level that you were looking for?
Alfred: Well, when I was at Google, I was responsible for marketing and sales for Scandinavia and Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). Actually, it took me a long time to decide to go to Google. I came back from Boston where I was working for Lycos, then Google approached me and I said, "Should I really do that again, this kind of treadmill?" So I did a vision quest. I went into the forest and I experienced four or five days alone in the forest reflecting on my inner journey there with the group. The question for me was should I go to Google or not? But the answer was more sophisticated. It came back to me to say, "It really doesn't matter what you do. It is a question of your attitude."
And then I said, "Ok, then I'm trying to use Google as a platform to make the world a better place." So I accepted that offer. But I always had four to six working groups working on different interesting things. I always said, "Look, I'm spending 60% of my time in marketing and sales, and the rest I'm doing meaningful stuff."
So I worked with Otto Scharmer trying to bring an institute inside of Google, challenging the board on their own mission--"Don't be evil." So we wanted to convert that to "be good." Again, long story, long discussion.
We brought G-pause mindfulness session into Dublin, the European headquarter, which resulted in 500 people there. I did a lot of speeches there about this. We did a mindfulness conference there. I brought a Tibetan Buddhist teacher once a month into Dublin. And he was booked out immediately.
So I tried to use this platform, but at a certain point of time, I still had this split. I did have to bring certain numbers, and Google was requesting 20% year over year growth which I was never comfortable with. Not because of the 20%, but because of the why shall we grow? Shouldn't we then ask ourselves when we want to grow, what is meaningful growth? And do we need to grow at all? What does it mean?
So we had this conversation, and at a certain point of time, I felt, after four and half years at Google, like there was this inner calling. I don't know if some of you guys might have experienced this as well. At a certain point of time, you are so sure you have to do that. For me it was I have to quit. I have to go out and build this "wisdom together" platform. I have to try to find a way how to bring this wonderful initiatives to a place so that people come to know from each other. So that we have more impact while knowing from each other, while working towards a broader kind of understanding. And that is why I did it.
And of course, I had this feeling of "uuugh" because people came to me and said, "Alfred, you are 53 and you will never find a job with free food like Google and with the money you get. Have you thought about your retirement?"
Birju: And you could have focused on this part-time or on the side, but whatever was gnawing at you was just clear to focus full-time it seems like.
Alfred: Yeah. You cannot live with a split for a long time. I think psychology calls it psychological disconnection, and that sometimes happens when you are doing something where you are convinced that this is not the right way to do it. You can do that for a certain period of time, but if you do it too long, then you either get depressed or sick because your soul asks for something else. So if you feel that, you have to do it.
Birju: I want to ask about this soul piece. It sounds to me like for as much as you were interested in supporting the journey of others as a guidepost for your next stage in life. It was as much as about what your soul was calling for you. I'm curious if you were to reflect a bit more on that, at this stage of life, what is that you are looking to grow in that lead you to exiting Google and being involved in this "wisdom related" work?
Alfred: Well, I came at a certain point of time to the understanding or to the belief that we are able as humans--we are very powerful actually--because we can create the reality of our own lives and of other's lives together if we understand that every thought, every decision, and every behavior that we do is manifested and manifesting the reality outside. Once you understand that you cannot make compromises anymore. Once you understand that every thought in the morning when you are getting up and you are thinking a positive thought, this positive thought will create, as Nipun always says, this ripple. And that is true. It creates the ripples even though you might not see it.
Just a thought, an emotion, a moment, a reflection, everything creates these ripples. And the stronger you become aware of your own kind of consciousness, your own inner voice, and your soul, and the more you can create this connection which is by default positive, by default happy, by default open and compassionate, if you understand that, then you create a different reality. You create a different world. I felt that this path which I'm going right now, brings me not only every moment of my life into this reflection by myself, but also together with so wonderful people who have the same kind of understanding and together, even with the differences--the different culture, the different thought, the different behaviors, the different techniques they have--brings us to the understanding that together, we can really help this world to become a better place and create that.
And I think currently that is strongly I believe that we are living in times where we decide right now, and I don't think this happened quite often, how we are going to live as humans or whether we are going to live as humans in a hundred or two hundred years from now on this planet because I fear technology becomes so strong and I don't know whether you guys have heard about the latest. The latest announcement from Elon Musk where he said that he's going into biohacking and trying to create this kind of interface between technology means the chip in your brain or not. I see that in a lot of areas here in Germany close to Munich, there is a scientific center where they're working also on bringing the electromagnetic impulses between cells and technology together and trying to connect them in a way so that goes into the same direction. So once you do that, that means that you first of all focus on the outside and no longer on inside and I see that with a lot of people that they are saying or technology will help us here so it's not about us it's about the technology which is in the outside world which we develop. So for me I believe that we have so much potential in ourselves that we can create our own reality and technology is a supporter. Technology can help us in certain way but is not the solution. The solution is our own consciousness and our own understanding of the world and how it functions. That means a deeper understanding and not the cognitive, not the left brain ones. It's the right brain which helps us to understand.
Birju: I do want to come back to this because there is a curiosity on how technology play that kind of a role. That being said, I feel like the the inner journey aspect is is very curious to me because it relates to making concrete changes that you can touch. So at one level there is the work that you do in the world and you mention “Wisdom Together”, you also mentioned that it is an association and I find that word to be curious. I am based in the USA, we talk about things like corporation or L.L.C. Can you share more about how you structured, what you're doing both legally and financially as you think about how to embody the kind of hard to inspirit that you have in a way that actually makes a difference at the level of governance?
Alfred: Yeah. I try to find a structure which is close to the understanding of that there is no or very few hierarchy. And there is an openness and an invitation to everybody to join and here in Germany, we have I think you have that in the States but I'm not sure what legal concept that is but here in Germany after the concept of an association which means in the association, every member everybody can become a member and every member has the same right and there is an assembly once a year and then in this assembly everything will be decided or not everything but most of the things will. We decide on the framework, the direction, the strategy of what we want to do and I also applied for the status of nonprofit here which again gives you limitations on the one hand side but on the other hand it it shows you the clear dedication of what we want to do. So the idea is to first of all create a constructive where everybody can become a member. Secondly, we are limited in the salaries so due to the nonprofit status you can only have very low salaries. Currently everybody is working for free anyway, because we don't have any income yet but but we are intending to generate certain income but not because we are focusing on making money but we are focusing on making impact and when the result is also making money my intention is to use that for building, for investing or supporting or helping other initiatives in this direction. So the idea is that people will be able to to work in this environment without having, without fearing that or thinking about how they can support their life and their families and stuff like this on the one side but on the other end using the resources which we have whether it is time, whether it is network, whether it is knowledge, whether it is money, or whether it is whatever it comes for increasing this movement and supporting whatever comes. I have a different understanding of brand. A lot of people came to me and said, “Oh you are creating a wonderful brand”, and I said, “No, I'm not creating a brand a brand is first of all hurting”. Can you imagine to put this hot steel in the flesh of a cow, that's where the name brand came from and I don't think that's appropriate and it’s status is ownership and this is not what we want to do. We would like to have a name for something which invites others to come and create a project and connect with each other and to help other people in the transformation process of people and organizations. That's what we want to do and that's why I choose this association.
Birju: I'm really intrigued by this and it goes to your earlier point about naming this question of growth and why do we want to grow? Are numbers the only way to grow? I'm curious how you think about this concept of growth now when there are so many good quote, unquote movements in business. I'm sure you've heard of things like conscious capitalism and what Whole Foods is leading for instance or Benefit Corporations in the U.S. sounds somewhat akin to the associations that you're mentioning in Germany and Europe. How do you feel about supporting businesses in continuing to grow beyond these frames that are legally possible now, when so many others are still operating when they haven't even gotten to this stage. There's still that business as usual profits in dollars come first, why do we care about anything else. Like there is such a huge spectrum, so how how you think about bridging that?
Alfred: Well, I think the bridge goes from everything a person by him or herself. It's like, everybody probably know this from Gandhi -- “You have to be the change you want to see in the world” and I think I'm not judging on people and saying you're doing something wrong or so but what I feel is if you just question sometimes then people feel irritated which is a good momentum where you can learn on an emotional basis. I give you an example yesterday for instance and I'm not sure whether I' answered completely to your question now but I'm jumping back afterwards but yesterday or the day before yesterday I don't know whether you guys have heard that the Americans have bombed in Syria. I saw our Chancellor Merkel and the President of France Hollande, just a couple of hours after this attack from America, going on stage and saying oh yeah we understand and support this because it was a horrible, horrible attack from Assad and this needed to be punished. And I was speechless. Because my question to these people would be, “why do you judge things from different angles and position?” I would ask our chancellor to say we have created in our world an instrument and a procedure how to handle certain situations and I'm hundred percent sure that these structures are not functioning really good right now but you cannot on the one hand say, “This is wrong”, if some countries which you don't like to do that and on the other and jump on the side of country in this case America and saying, “We understand that and we support that”, even though they are breaking all international laws and so what I'm often doing is not saying this is wrong or this is right. I'm just questioning, I'm just asking how can you do that ? Tell me why? Maybe I don't understand the reason, maybe there is a reason for this but let me understand this and I fear if you don't do this with the intention of blaming people and then people kind of connected with themselves. Sometimes they just don't see that and this is also in the business world. So if I'm going to do business here in Germany or in Scandinavia or Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) or Japan or wherever I was working with them. And I asked them, “Look, you guys know that we are currently using fifty percent more resources in the world than the world is able to regenerate but you're still looking for in Germany for thirty five percent year over year growth.
So I’m asking them, “Why do you think this is necessary? And do you really think you contribute to the world and in which way?” And that is also what I see in this so called shared economies and also sometimes conscious capitalism companies. Yes they are open for understanding that they want to contribute. They want to help also. But I think you cannot just put that in the corporate social responsibility or CSR department. You need to have a more holistic view on this.
Birju: I’d like to ask you a question on this. If the modern social scientists are to be believed, they are putting together corporate structures with human psychology. As you know at least in America corporations are treated a people. And one of the researchers on this topic has said “That may be fine but if a corporation was a person, these by laws, the structural responsibilities that are inherent with being a corporation, no matter how good you want to be within the corporation, but the corporation itself is bound to structures and rules that if the corporation were a person, that would be a sociopathic or a pathological person.” So I am curious how you think about that. That no matter how good the people in the company want to be, how does being a part of a corporation limit the capacity of what the inherent goodness is that can come out?
Alfred: Absolutely. I really have had this experience. I was with companies and spoke with a lot of people doing mindfulness and meditation sessions, but still this company I was at, an investment bank in NY and Tokyo investment bank with very very good people there doing meditation sessions. But still this company is investing into nuclear power plants, and you know trying to grow in areas where obviously due to their investments and engagement you see that they are manifesting the destruction of our planet.
Birju: Despite the wisdom practices.
Alfred: Yes despite that. Sometimes I felt that there is a systemic energy inside of companies and organizations, and it’s very hard for a single person to change that if you don’t have a certain number of people and create a certain momentum to change this systemic energy and systematic way how they think, and how things have to go. And that is why a lot of people when they do go intensively into themselves, a lot of people quit then and do something else. And I see this tendency more and more. So when I speak to young people at university level or when they are leaving universities and discuss this topic, they say, “We don’t want to start in such a corporation any more. We want to create something completely different.” And different means, let us really think about whether we need this kind of growth expectation, whether we need these kind of structures. These kind of structures which are very hierarchical. And there are a lot of these companies right now which are trying to establish something new. Not focusing on making money, but focusing on contribution, but still making money with it, but the focus is something else -- is really “how can I help? What is meaningful? And I think I had a lot of these conversations with Chade Meng Tan the guy from Google who wrote the book “Search Inside Yourself”. He said, “Look we are establishing by bringing mindfulness practices into companies a different course.” And I said, “Yes, but only when you hit a certain number of people can you change the energy which is in this company.” And if I might I will give you one example from Google, once in awhile we brought our CEOs and companies working with Google to Mountain View, and we had a extensive program in Stanford and Singularity university and also with Astro Teller from Google X, the organization in Google where these moonshot ideas come out of. And he was telling a story last time I was there, he told a story and said, “Look we have an energy wheel which we are shooting up in the stratosphere and it is connected to the ground and it is creating more energy than it needs to bring it up there and keep it up there. So the people were excited and they were clapping and they said, “Wonderful! But why are you at Google doing that because you won’t make any money with it?” And then Astro said “Because Google wants to make the world a better place.” So I grabbed Astro afterwards and I said to him, “Astro I have one question for you, which I don’t understand. So I’m in the sales department and we are requested to have 20% year over year growth, and how we do that is that we are pushing companies into producing more products, not asking ourselves whether this is meaningful in a broader sense to the world and to the society. But just because 20% year over year growth is required for a listed company at the stock exchange. So we are pushing people to consume more energy, not asking ourselves whether it’s meaningful, and you on the other side, inside the same company are producing a product which is obviously trying to solve the energy problem. So you do think that makes sense? Or shouldn’t we see that from a more holistic perspective, that if we really meant to make the world a better place then don’t let the split go inside the company, let’s try to find out how we can really do that.” And that is I think what we need to ask. The systemic view of what we do has an effect wherever it goes broader and beyond our own kind of environment and beyond our companies, but if we understand that, and it goes straight again to yourself, to your inner connection to yourself, that you honestly say to yourself, “Does this make sense?” And if you have enough people inside a corporation doing that then you can change. I’m 100% convinced that if companies like Google for instance, would spend one day in a week or half a day in a week on the topic “What can we really do to make the world a better place? And how can we solve this kind of framework where we are operating and change that because everything is a concept. How can we change this concept?” Then we would have a chance and we would probably have certain answers and certain ideas. And I see that this is happening currently and that is why it’s so exciting to be at this moment of time in this position. To meet so many amazing people like you guys, and be grateful that I can be of service and help a little bit here and there to communicate what you’re doing to others.
Birju: How have you grown on aninternal level because of walking this path?
Alfred: I feel that I have more freedom in my life, and more peace in myself. Through my meditation practices on the one hand but on the other hand if you are inside a structure or corporation or an organisation you sometimes have blind spots where you think certain procedures have to be that way and not asking yourself why? It’s sometimes hard sometimes hard even if you do reflect and you're very disciplined and you're doing your meditation practices but I feel from the outside, I feel more free to do things. I'm not connected and bound to certain systems and structures and procedures. That is again what you mentioned it’s the same in Europe we consider corporations as persons. I feel I feel that a corporation is not a person a corporation is a concept which we once established for certain purposes. We as humans are always free and able to change that. But we have to remind ourselves and we have to understand that we are powerful enough to do that. We can do that.
Preeta: Picking up on that last point this idea that people can change this notion that corporations are people. Are those going to be people within corporations that bring about that change, or people from the outside? I'm curious because in your life you’ve made this shift away from the corporate world in setting up this nonprofit. I am just curious, as you talk about Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, who is the audience for that kind of transformation, that you think is ripe for helping to bring some of that about?
Alfred: So I think first of all everybody is able to do transformation process for him/herself and also for his/her environment. But in our conferences and with our “target group” is the wrong word, but the people we work together with, we call it “leaders” but leaders are not necessarily leaders in terms of having a position as a leader. Leaders are people who are open, curious and who could be models or are already models for others. It could be teachers, it could be people who are in organizations who are leading teams. Everybody has probably experienced people coming into a room and you feel, “Wow this person is in some ways bringing a different energy into the room!” These people we are trying to bring together to understand what that means and what this responsibility means for bringing compassion and empathy into the work for others. To use their services and their understanding and their reflections and their privileges in certain ways, to help others and bring that energy back to the whole species. And that’s why outside or inside of corporations or organizations, I think it could be both, however I feel that currently we are at a stage that I think it needs a broad movement outside of an organization working together with certain people and groups inside an organization but I think the initiation comes from outside. I'm not sure whether I’m right or not but that’s the feeling I have. And in the 60s and 70s we had the student revolution and you can have different opinions on that about what they achieved, but certainly in the education area certain very conservative structures were broken up at that time, and there was an impulse for a new way of education, schools and universities and I think at that time that was also needed from outside and not from inside, it was not possible to do that from inside, even though a lot of people from inside picked that up and then it became a movement.
Preeta: To follow up on that, when I think of how broad social movements or broad change movements have come about, it’s often come from very hyper local situations that weren’t necessarily individuals or situations one could pick from the outside to be part of a conversation for example. Just like the US civil rights movement, you had Rosa Parks sitting down at the front of a bus, you had Dr. Martin Luther King who was a brand new pastor in this small church in Alabama, at the time that a lot of these activities would have happened neither one of those individuals would have been at the top of anyone’s list to have a conversation. So I’m curious as to the way you structure Wisdom Together, you have a set of conferences and local groups and then networks and connections among the groups. I’m curious because it sounds like a top down structures where you have these gatherings and go local and then connect the local and I’m curious about that structure versus supporting the local to emerge organically.
Alfred: Maybe. I described it in the wrong way but this is exactly what we're trying to do to support what is already happening, what is emerging already. What we see though is there are so many things happening but these folks don't know each other and what we're trying to do is offering and building places of connection and that could be conferences where we are creating places and everybody is invited to come and bring his or her own ideas, projects, emotions and experience to that. And out of that I can relate and then something new will emerge. So we don't know what comes out of it but we're trying to build a kind of safe space or a space where we offer people to come together. It could be a person to person but it could also be on the Internet of course and it's not that we are saying oh look these are the people you need to see or these are the content which is important to know but we just offer the place and the association. When I'm asking people to join, I'm always saying this is an association which means -- I'm not the one who would tell you what I think is the right thing to do but I'm expecting from everybody of these members to come and bring his or her own ideas in and then we discuss and say, “Hey what can we? How can we bring all this idea to a broader audience? And not to say this is what we need to do but more or less to inspire them to bring their ideas in as well and out of that the movement comes and lot of new things emerge. I don't know what really should be the concept and the world in the future but I know that here and there, I have an idea and my friends and people have an idea and they necessarily doesn't need to be also a member of to work them together but they could also become partners and I think service space is a partner as well in terms of, we would support everything what you guys are doing because I think we have the same intention and so if we have the ability to support you in a way and it makes sense and we would do that and vice versa. So it's not about saying, “Work them together; it's the way”, it's more about work them together trying to create places and other organisations and people to come in create also places and then all these places together connected to each other will become a movement and this movement has the power to change
Preeta: Thank you so much. I am going to a caller.
Aryae: Hi this is Aryae from Half Moon Bay, California.Thank you for a fascinating conversation. There is this sort of inherent paradox that I heard stated in several ways. Alfred, you were talking about in Google how the main company is really in the business of stimulating the use of more energy and yet there's this one little piece that's trying to create a world where less energy is needed and Birju you were really articulating the concept of a corporation as a person but not a person and how do you do good within the bylaws of what people in the corporation are supposed to do? Alfred, I'm thinking about the question you asked at that point in your story, “What can we really do to make the world a better place?”. My question for you is, “Is there a corporation where that you're aware of a large corporation where the corporation of people or the majority of the corporation itself is aligned with this and doing this in their business or is that impossible and is it always going to be just a group of people inside a corporation who are aligned with that value?”.
Alfred: Well it's a very good question and it it's also a very hard question. Thank you for asking that because we have established world and financial systems which gives you a really only a few places or ecological niches to try something else but there are some corporations which I'm aware of who are trying to do something, going in a different direction and so even though they are still abundant in certain areas like the company of Eileen Fisher for instance -- it's in America this women fashion company. Eileen is trying in the fashion area really to transform it into a way which is not only recyclable but compostable product and that's from the product side and from the structure side to convert her company into something where everybody has a part who is working on this in the company and also not really focusing on the money piece but focusing on creating value for the society which means that they have departments who are thinking about what does it mean to produce new products, new fashion, how do we deal with the leftovers which we cannot sell? They developed machines which put the remnants out of the clothes and to give it back to students so that they can use it again. So there are a lot of these initiatives but is there a perfect company out there? I'm not sure but I see that there are a lot of directions like you're in California and in Oakland where Mr. Birju is involved in that is Michelle Long established this BALLE (Business Alliance of Local Living Economies) for instance. We are trying also to find a way how to do and build an environment of business which is not growth oriented, which is not competitive oriented, which is collaborative oriented and sustainable and connected with the environment. There is a company here in Northern Spain called Mondragon was built in the fifties with one aspect of creating jobs for people and they never fired people. When I was there and asked them, “Why, what did you do in the crisis?”. They said that we paid the people through or we shifted them if that was possible in other areas but our direction is we never fire people which means they were not focusing on margin and shareholder value and growth per se. They were focusing on giving people jobs in that area. So I see here and there are locally different but there are some initiatives also quite big. Mondragon is the seventh biggest company in Spain, with seventy thousand people or so. So there are initiatives and I see a lot of community is currently building around certain beliefs like Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical Society of something in Sweden; they did something in Austria. So I see that there is something happening but again I feel that we have created for some time I wouldn't say a long time but for some time we have created a system which is quite strong actually. And I think what is needed is to connect all these wonderful initiatives in a way that we can create an alternative for young people so that they don't have to say we have to go to Goldman Sachs or somewhere else to make money in order then afterwards to do something good. I think the connection and collaboration we are entering into this time of collaboration and that is so important. Thank you for that question.
Aryae: Do you think in order for there to be corporations which really are aligned with making the world a better place that there would be some kind of change needed in the legal structure of what is a corporation?
Alfred: I believe that there will be. What is needed is a change in the mindset of the financial structure. The financial that is supported by the legal structure so I personally don't believe that it makes sense for instance to have companies and I call them Companies like FED (Federal Exchange) for instance or in you have the Central Bank and in Europe the World Bank which is a private entity and presidents like John F. Kennedy in the States and also I think Nixon at a certain point of time wanted to bring it back and to the regulation of the state. Very hard for them to do that, impossible nearly. And we saw in two thousand and eight when we had this big crisis we saw that the result would be a long discussion but I personally believe that you know this financial structure which we have created in this world and the focus on money and building of various system based on how much people have and what they are worth is really the reason why we are not free enough to establish something else which is originally the thing we are supposed to do because money shouldn't be the goal or should it?.
Birju: I love the inquiry as we head towards our final time here together on this call today. I'm curious Alfred as you think about your own next stage of growth, not just at the level of what you're doing in the world but the qualities that you're looking to develop into yourselves at this next stage, can you share more about what is life for you in your own inner development?
Alfred: So what I try to do is to be really disciplined is a sort of bad word here because it means that it's no fun but it actually to be disciplined is sometimes fun so to take my time in the morning, to do my meditation practice, to look at what I'm doing from my body. What is my eating practice, while I do some yoga or and doing some Tai Chi but doing something for your body as well and integrating that into your life and and while doing so and growing your inner soul and your connection to your inner soul. I saw that what's happening is that it will have an effect on the growth of the outside but it is often destructive. I'm often not in that way disciplined enough that I'm saying, “Ok, I have to do this and this and this and this so I have to do so many things” and then when I'm getting back I said, “No you should have taken your time. You know nothing and looking into yourself and seeing always the reflection. I think Jodi Spencer [?] I don't know whether you guys heard about him, he is an American chap but became very popular here in Europe. He's a […? ]and he's also doing meditation practice and he once said, “I never do something when I'm not really connected with myself and others”. So I'm trying to sit down and sometimes it takes an hour sometimes it takes two hours but if I'm sitting and if I'm standing up and then I know now I'm ready to go and I would like to come to that place to have this inner connection every time and every moment and the sensitivity. That would be a nice next step of evolution for myself and hopefully that will also help me to be of even more of service to the outside world and to others.
Birju: Thank you so much Alfred.
Preeta: All right well Alfred thank you so much for this beautiful conversation. I'm so taken by the fact that you've had such impact in the world of big corporations but yet you ultimately remain very grounded in your personal practices. Your last response, it's really beautiful to hear. The last question we have for you is how can we as the larger service based community support your work?
Alfred: Well, we working together, I would love to be more connected and becoming to know more of what you guys are doing and let's find a way. Because you're doing such wonderful work of which is happening around in a lot of countries with service space and how can we be from service there and how can we offer that like Karma Kitchen for instance the concept. How can we do that and how can you offer that to the young community which is happening here with Wisdom Together and say, “Look here is our partner Service Space and let's do something together”. Because with Wisdom Together let's try to find out what we can do together and also if you would communicate what we are doing this year in Munich, Oslo and in Sarajevo would be wonderful and helpful for more people would come to know what we are doing and likewise.
Preeta: As you were speaking, a live web comment, “Thank you for your wisdom this afternoon! I will most probably become a member of Wisdom Together”.
Alfred: Wonderful thank you.
Preeta: Thank you Alfred. Thank you so much for your wisdom and our wisdom together.
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