When a tree grows, its branches extend and widen, the tree becomes taller and its trunk thicker. When our children grow they become taller and stronger. When a river grows its boundaries swell.
When a business grows it takes on more employees and customers. It produces more products, acquires more facilities and generates more profit.
When we grow personally, we say we've learned and discovered more about ourselves, we've overcome challenges and let go of old habits that no longer serve us.
The indigenous elders encourage us to learn from nature, and that everything we need to know about life can be learned from observing how nature works. And so if we look to nature for a deeper understanding of growth we might initially discern that growth is about expansion--as a tree grows it gets bigger, as the corn grows it produces food, and so on.
And yet this observance of nature is just a scratching of the surface. Yes, trees and plants grow, populations of animals expand, and even mountains grow slowly as tectonic forces push them higher over many millions of years.
Trees also die after a certain period of time. They eventually fall to the Earth, decay and become food for a multitude of life. Forests grow and eventually are trimmed and culled through fire and infestations. Any species of animal that grow their numbers too fast eventually exhaust their resources and experience sudden and dramatic reduction in population.
Everything in nature grows within a finite space, and balance exists when diversity is high and each species of plant, animal, insect and microbe fill a certain role within their given boundaries.
There is a massive pink elephant in our modern culture, which is the assumption that business growth is always good. It's good when a company with a new product or service that makes our lives better expands. It's not so good when a company with a product line that is no longer serving our best interest continues to grow through manipulative marketing and sales tactics or political influence.
Even more importantly, when we measure our economic health by how much the economy itself grows, we are tricking ourselves to believe that continual growth is possible. If an economy grows consistently at just 5% per year, it doubles in size every fourteen years. That means that every fourteen years we're producing twice as many products, shipping twice as much, and consuming twice as much energy.
Successful companies are said to be those who achieve market domination, or increase market saturation, or whose stock price rises, or hire more employees.
We don't tend to measure the strength or nature of a company by how much it continues to discover itself, or its ability to delve more deeply into what it's about, what its purpose is, how it can contribute in a more positive way to society, how it can transcend habits that no longer serve it, or how it can enrich the lives of its customers and employees.
And yet the companies that grow in this way are consistently more profitable and financially stable.*
When we grow personally, we say we've learned and healed those things that previously caused us suffering. How about we begin defining business growth as companies engaging in a healing process: creating more harmony, developing their products in such a way that enriches lives, or at least to not bring some form of harm to people, animals, or planet.
There are a number of famous CEO's who have been quoted saying that their only objective is profit. This culture of profit centricity exists because we have a financial industry, a political system, and a collective belief system that continuously reinforces that more revenue and profit is always a good thing.
Continuous economic growth is physically not possible. Continuous growth requires us to continually clear more forests, dig up more natural resources, build more homes and buildings, extract more fish, pave more roads, and generate more of everything. The pink elephant in the room is that as smart as we are, we are ignoring the most basic math equation, one discovered by Euclid some 2,300 years ago, the math of exponentiation, that continuous growth continually doubles and doubles again and again.
If we turn to the wisdom of the indigenous elders and the metaphors of nature, we learn that growth is followed by decay, a dying off, and rebirth again. We learn that each time something dies, it creates a space for something new to be created in its place. We learn that balance occurs when there is diversity of life, and that innovation takes place in a climate of harmony, whereas stress brings fight or flight.
We also learn that everything has a purpose, not just its physical role in the eco system, but a deeper meaning and reason for being.
These simple life-lessons that come from nature, together with a willingness to consider that there might just be something inaccurate in our collective belief system related to business growth, can bring us to a new culture, one in which we continuously grow business, as defined by depth of purpose, meaningfulness of products and services, and harmony with costumers and employees.
Glenn Geffcken is the co-founder of Balanced Is, a company with a focus on culture and identity, working at the intersection of purpose, connection and innovation, to help companies and individuals realize their greatest potential. Glenn is the author of Shift: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change and writes a bi-weekly blog, Heart & Mind about bridging the gap between the heart and the mind in work and life.