Jeroen Smit about Discomfort and 'Herd Capitalism'

Jeroen Smit about Discomfort and 'Herd Capitalism'
An increasing number of board members experience a disconnect between their ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ integrity. Let us put the discomfort in words and initiate a systemic change. Because we have to get rid of ‘herd capitalism.’

There is a growing sense of unease that sweeps through the boardroom. More and more executives and managers understand that we need to transition from fossil to sustainable, from elitist to inclusive, and from linear to circular. As parents, individuals, friends, and citizens, they understand that things are rapidly heading south, while at work, they conform to the system. The divide between ‘personal integrity’ and ‘professional integrity’ grows increasingly uneasy. Our leaders are consciously incompetent, and that hurts.

In the market, the primary focus remains on profit. And: there are no long-term results without short-term gains. Provided it is allowed – no matter the harm to people and/or the environment – and there is money to be made, why should we not pursue it? Otherwise, the competition will do it, with all the resultant consequences.
And so, we trudge on. Insead professor Subramanian Rangan succinctly encapsulates the tragedy of managers: the current system ensures they are preoccupied with competencies rather than character. It ensures they make decisions all day long but fail to make real choices.
In my own words: at work, most board members and managers behave like well-trained sheep. By excelling within the lines, they advance their careers, yet they remain within the herd. While the world yearns for a sustainable transformation, they perpetuate the folly of ‘herd capitalism.’
It is essential to confront the discomfort head-on, embrace the growing discomfort, and explore what happens when, as a leader, you decide to be guided primarily by authentic personal integrity, concerns, and fantasies. True innovation and systemic change by definition begin with that abrasive discomfort. Leaders must dare to acknowledge that the current system is flawed, then, as pioneers with ambitious goals, create actionable perspectives and thus make the world a little better. It requires courage to embark on new trails and tread uncharted territory, especially for those who have succeeded in the realm of market and competition, who have always appeared in control. Courage to nourish our imagination of what is needed in 2035 and beyond. What do people need? What does society need? What does the world need?New paths are discovered by stepping out of the herd, relinquishing the desire for control, and displaying vulnerability. The courage to do this is found by learning from each other openly when interacting with fellow board members and managers and honestly sharing challenges that arise in practice. Holding onto each other as the integrity muscle is trained. In this way the ‘discomfort in the boardroom’ can be the driving force for an innovative, creative force, even if only with small steps or occasionally, then a world has already been won.

Jeroen Smit is investigative journalist and author. This column is a shortened version of the column with which he opened the ‘Discomfort in the Boardroom’ sessions at Nyenrode Business University, aimed at assisting board members in finding the balance between their own ideals and business interests. ‘Discomfort in the Boardroom’ has since been succeeded by the ‘Enhanced Governance’ project, in which executives and board members, scientists, and educators collaboratively embark on a journey toward a ‘humane’ governance practice. Jeroen Smit is also involved in the ‘Enhanced Governance’ project.