From Reboot to Reunion
Jerry Colonna asks hard questions. In his earlier book, Reboot, he asks leaders how we have been complicit in creating the conditions we say we don't want. It is a kind, generous, and loving question that invites us to use tools of radical self-inquiry to become better leaders.
Now, in Reunion, he broadens the question. How have we been complicit in and benefitted from systems of oppression? How are we situated in a multi-generational history of exclusion, Othering, and violence? He offers a practical guide for radical self-inquiry at the scale of family histories and social dynamics.
What I love most about Reunion is its call for us to imagine better. "Let's imagine a world where businesses take up the mantle of Belonging, fulfilling the obligation of that bond to each other, to overcome the walls, even the ramparts, that separate us from one another," Colonna says
The basic premise depends on the idea that businesses have become society's primary institutional framework. This dominance places a moral responsibility on leaders to create systemic change. Businesses can be worthwhile, humane, and life-giving when leaders emphasize community and Belonging.
Beyond Leadership to Operational Compassion
In large part, I agree with the ethos and the responsibility it entails. It goes beyond the confines of leadership, however. A leader can have all the best utopian intentions in the world, but still lead an organization that violates decency, that instrumentalizes humans and the planet as resources to extract and exploit.
Reunion doesn't focus on the operational impact of leading that emphasizes compassion. Of course, a business that mirrored such leadership would be a very different entity. It would change how it hires, fires, and promotes. It would rethink its inputs and outputs. Following Colonna's logic would fill volumes.
Marketing for Belonging
My thoughts naturally went to marketing. Can marketing also foster systemic Belonging, focusing on well-being, radically grounded in principles of a felt sense of inclusion? I think it can. As soon as we marketers stop targeting and start listening, as soon as we begin to think in terms of interdependence and interconnectedness, we play our part in creating a better world by changing how we treat people.
I don't mean more representation of various groups in ad creative. I mean that we, as marketers, are an interface between the business and the outside world. We hold it in our hands to prey on others or connect with them. We can speak to people as humans who make decisions using reason and emotion. From hooks to helping. From tactics to tact.
Why Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership, however awkward or overused a term, represents one such possibility. It provides decision-makers with meaningful insights, helps them understand what's broken and what's possible, and respects their integrity as feeling, reasonable people.
Thought leadership treats attention as too valuable to cheat with cheap tricks and too precious to subject to informational strip-mining. It stands on an ethos of sharing and mutual trust and treats attention, sharing, and trust as renewable over time. The way a business talks to its potential counterparties needs to evolve just as much as the way leaders wield leadership internally, as Colonna describes it.
An Even Wider-Eyed Utopia
Reunion comes back again and again to the concepts of Belonging (safety and inclusion) and Othering (violence, exclusion, and dehumanization). I see the way Colonna uses them to be in good faith. Leadership would create better outcomes the way he advocates for it. At the same time, I hesitate.
Belonging can have a dark side—not just feeling safe and loved, but owned. People also belong to cults. In history, countless millions of people have often belonged to other people. Even in a softer sense of the word, Belonging presumes a certain amount of emotional labor on the part of the belonger—adaptations in behaviors and even feelings. What happens when someone simply doesn't want or doesn't choose to belong?
I envision a world where people can feel safe even when not belonging. And that safety comes from rethinking Otherness. Otherness is not an inherently negative state. On one level, de-othering others by including them seems to repair the breach. But again, what if they choose to be Other? Why can we not rethink Otherness as equally entitled to love and respect as Belongingness without homogenizing others into Belonging?
A world where all sentient beings can be safe in their autonomy appeals to my moral sensibilities more than a world where everyone has to be accepted and included. There's always a certain amount of breaking and reshaping in conformity, even within an otherwise compassionate community.
Thanksgiving Myths and Truths
Reunion also calls for us to reunite with our ancestors, hear their stories, contemplate their myths, and recognize how their longing to belong shapes us as their descendants. My family history shows some of the tensions between community, belonging, exile, and exclusion that concern me.
Many of my ancestors sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as colonizers with Winthrop's Fleet in 1630. A group of them followed Thomas Hooker to found the Connecticut Colony, separatists from separatists. Colonizers after colonizers. They became part of a gauzy, mythical history that haunted our Thanksgiving tables through my generation and beyond.
I like to pretend to be unlike those ancestors. It's a false separation. So much of the way I think and feel is recognizable in a Protestant theology fueled by reading and interior experience, a longing for autonomy, and an undercurrent of severity and exclusion.
Suffice it to say that my ancestors were no friends to out-groups or even outsiders not conforming within their midst. The seeds of conscience were planted in tainted, stolen ground. But they also blossomed into my tendency to take principled stands based on my suspicion of the dark side of Belonging.
While many later groups came to this continent as immigrants longing to Belong, my ancestors created the very dynamic of Belonging and Exclusion in which later immigrants struggled. That's the problem with in-groups. They always require an out-group to not-belong to them.
Three Grace Notes
"What if the purpose of our businesses, our enterprises—indeed, all our endeavors—was to leave the world better than we found it and to leave the people with whom we lived and worked feeling loved, safe, and that they belong?" — Jerry Colonna, Reunion
"When leaders allow their hearts to stay broken open, they're able to recognize that the suffering they encounter every day among their employees, colleagues, and investors is universal." — Jerry Colonna, Reboot
"Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear—against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect—to find ourselves in the other." — bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
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