The world of business is changing. As a leader, what legacy are you leaving behind? Today’s guest is speaker, author, and coach Steven Morris. Steven is the President of Matter Consulting, helping create evolved brands and beautiful businesses. In this episode, he joins Dr. Kevin Sansberry to share insights from his latest book, The Beautiful Business: An Actionable Manifesto to Create an Unignorable Business with Love at the Core. He defines how it is to build a team and culture with love at its core. Steven prescribes leaders with valuable advice on how to be better with self-awareness and a “philia” and “agape” love. Listen in for interesting takes on leadership and putting humanity forward in the workplace.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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What is Your Business Legacy? A Conversation with Steven Morris
I’m doing awesome, Kevin. Thanks so much for hosting and for spending some time together. I’m looking forward to this.
I enjoy talking to you about building beautiful businesses and centering love at the core. I can’t wait to get into that. One of the things I want to know before we get into that, share a little bit about you and who you are and why you do the things you do.
My journey to where I am now is a little bit circuitous. Back in 1994, I founded an agency. That was a marketing branding agency. I came from the creative background that I had. What I did was, my wife and I were one year married. We spent our first anniversary in a rider truck heading cross country from Washington DC to San Diego, where we’re at. What I thought I would do was get a job out here and what I realized is that San Diego was not quite as mature a big town as some of the East Coast cities that I lived in. I started my own business at that point.
That agency I built, grew and sold in 2017, so they could go off and do this work that I do now, which is helping organizational leaders identify the heart and soul of why their business exists beyond making money. Put that into language that drives the leadership team, culture and expresses that to the outside world. What I explain to people what I do is I’m a consultant and advisor in the fusion between business, strategy, brand and culture and how those things connect.
Both inside and outside, it sounds like.
The best leaders are constantly looking to improve themselves, evolve, and lead their team in better ways.
That’s the way integrity where it started.
Yes, it is. You’re on the show and as you’ve looked through a few of the episodes and the materials that we have out, what is your experience with toxic leadership? What’s your entry point into that subject?
The first pain point that I’ll express is that there’s too much of it. Over the years of doing business, I’ve talked about many years of working with business leaders across the globe. I’ve had the honor to work with more than 3,000 business leaders and I can say that all of them are the healthiest or the most evolved people. I tell a story in my new book, The Beautiful Business. What I do is I tell from the perspective of two contracts of these stories and I call it the Monday client, Tuesday client story. The shorthand version of that is the Monday client is an environment where it’s top-down, toxic-driven, fear-based leadership.
I talked about work that I was doing with that team compared to a week later. I flew out to the East Coast to work with a very similar company. Both of these companies were in the financial industry and contrast in leadership style. On one hand, you have the Monday client who was incredibly toxic. What they did fear-based, they argued with one another. They were very driven to bring a profit of all things. They were willing to throw people under the bus to do that, contrasting with that. This other client that I was working with at that time had a culture of trust, belonging, connectedness, and open communication. That particular leader had a vulnerability at their core. They were very willing to give the microphone, the platform, give voice to everyone on the leadership team that I ended up working with. I didn’t work with their whole culture. It was 3,500 people.
My relationship with toxic leadership is part of why I got out of the agency world because some organizations out there want to do marketing branding from this fear-based perspective. I think that fear-based perspective or when it all costs mindset has been my experience of drivers behind toxic leadership. There are tons of stories out there. The thing that always stopped shored up, Kevin, is naming names and throwing actual companies under the bus because it’s out of respect and people are doing their best where they’re at. I do know about leaders that the best of them are constantly looking to improve themselves, evolve, and lead their team in ideally, hopefully, better ways.
Thank you for saying that. As you describe that company A, company B, the Monday culture and whatnot, I hear that there was high competition internally with each other. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I work with companies like that, it seems like as you compare the companies, the more negative one, probably thought that was the only way and that’s how they grew up. They get caught in this dogma of, “This how business works. It’s how it is.” If you don’t subscribe to it, you don’t belong here type of deal.
Where you as a third-party consultant, you’re seeing another business operate differently and they’re successful. I’m sure they were wildly successful. I love the notion of meeting people where they are because I do believe that behavior that people exhibit is the behavior they have. That’s the capacity they have at that moment. Talk to me about how you have these conversations with companies like the Monday culture you described. How do you get them to see something different, like something else is possible?
I don’t think it’s easy to do because I think it takes a certain willingness on the part of the leader and a leadership team to be open to learning. The beauty of the work that you do and I do is we bring this objectivity to the work because we’ve seen the landscape of the way hundreds of companies or dozens of companies operate out there. We’ve learned how the best operates or what we consider the best. Whatever that might mean from our perspective. If the invitation is there and the openness is there on the leader’s part, they can then step into an open-minded conversation to say, “How else can we do this?”
One of the things that I see, Kevin, is and maybe this is unique to my personality. I tend to want us to see the best in people. The one thing that leaders have taught me, even leaders who maybe start out as toxic or are more fear-driven because they don’t know the difference. They don’t know that there’s another way. They want to improve, become better people and one thing that I’m trying to always look for is a, what is their willingness to want to improve and be a better person? I think better people make better leaders and do their own work, which is a leader’s journey is a healer.
If we think about leaders as healers, they have to heal themselves first to then take that healing into their culture. I will want to see the best in them, the best in themselves. Sometimes it’s showing them simply, “Here’s another way.” Also, the quote that I love and I love presenting to leaders is a Carl Jung quote that goes, “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will direct our life and we will call it fate.” We all operate with blind spots. Any leader, to manage from where they’re at, to manage the reality of their business, they have to know the truth.
They have to uncover some of these blind spots, the unconscious elements. Not only that, they carry around but potentially that their team carries around. The more that we can discover those things and put them into truth-sane situations where we air the things out that need to be said, say them in a way that people can hear them. The more the organization and the leaders within that organization can evolve.
I appreciate the Carl Jung quote. I’m curious about one of the things after learning more about your work through our conversations and looking at your work. Talk to me about that concept of a beautiful business. What is that? I want to hear more about how does this beauty in business and brands, how does it become ignorable as we think about centering love? I want to hear more.
If we think about the leader as healer, they have to heal themselves first in order to then take that healing into their culture.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s first take the attribute of what do I mean by beauty and by that, I want to be clear. I don’t mean the Western definition of beauty, which centered on how things look, our fashion, our cosmetics, and things like that. In the book, I talk about I borrow from the Japanese aesthetic principles of beauty, which have to do with symmetry, harmony, things that are in line with the laws of nature and integrity.
I believe when an organization operates, they don’t even have to call them those things but let’s talk about integrity, for instance. It’s when they operate from a place of integrity, which is the alignment between what we believe internally. Also how it aligns with our actions and behaviors, including how we treat one another in a cultural environment or even how we as an organization present ourselves to the outside world.
If there’s a congruent element to that. When people discover that organization, their help desk, their service centers and things like that are aligned with the brand or the marketing language that they put out in the world. All of a sudden, we have this beautiful thing called trust that begins to happen. Trust is the emotional currency that all businesses deal within. A few attributes of The Beautiful Business, once we understand what beauty is and now we talk about first and foremost, integrity. Integrity is the high say-do ratio of the alignment as I talked about between our beliefs, behaviors, actions and how we affect other people.
The second attribute of The Beautiful Business is this thing called magnetism. When we operate with integrity because our world isn’t full of integrity all the time, we become a magnetic peak. Even in the laws of physics, people understand a value system of a particular company or the leadership team. When they feel drawn to that and have a similar value system, they’re going to raise their hand all of a sudden. They’re going to step forward and join the purpose or the cause of that organization. Now, that can happen either on the employee journey, as employees are recruited inside the organization or it can also happen on the customer side of things. That second attribute of magnetism certainly takes place.
The other thing that I think is important in the world of The Beautiful Business is these attributes that I call evolved leadership. Evolve leadership is this form where the leadership team within the organization, regardless of where that leadership team exists. By leader, I mean not only the C-Suite, the VPs, the directors but every manager. Frankly, anyone who’s in charge of a project could be an intern with a project that’s on their desk, which includes setting up the next party for the offsite, that’s a leader as well. Evolve leadership is one that takes a 360 perspective and an introspective perspective on this thing called self-awareness.
There are two sides to self-awareness. One of which is internal self-awareness, which is to the extent that I understand as a leader what my motivations are, what my behaviors are, what my driving value and purpose are. The second side to self-awareness is, to what extent do I understand how I show up in the world and affect those people around me? It’s very interesting when you break it down like that. Some people have a high degree of that internal self-awareness, but they don’t have a particularly high degree of external self-awareness. Sometimes it’s the other way around when folks get into a pleaser mode. They’re very aware of how they affect the people around them, but they might not be super clear about their internal motivations.
Now let’s shift into this last portion of The Beautiful Business, which is love at the core. By love, I certainly don’t meet arrows. I’m not talking about arrows. There’s the Greek side of like 6 or 8 definitions of love. I’m talking about Philia and Agape. As we all know from the City of Philadelphia, Philia is the city of brotherly love. It is the love for humankind, our peers, our coworkers, the people we spend our time with, and the appreciation that we have for the sense of shared humanity that we have. Agape is the love for something higher than ourselves. We can call that God or some mystical force that animates all human beings. It is an appreciation that is an attribute of the human experience.
In the book, I talk about bringing soul into the business. I’m not talking about spirituality or religion, but I’m talking about the attribute of using the human imagination, which is one of the beautiful things that we use human beings to tap into these unseen resources and align with what’s possible. When you think about the plight, an entrepreneur’s opportunity, they live in a world of possibilities. We’re conjuring these things up that we imagined this business can be and when we’re making those things manifest by our actions and behaviors.
One of the things that resonate with me is the fact that you’re opening the gates for people to bring their humanity to work in a way because you’re creating an environment where like, we can talk about that. People do inner work, but it doesn’t go deep enough to stay surface level still. I hear you’re going very deep into the core of who we are and that’s awesome. How do people respond to you when you bring this up in the business world? We have a hard time even talking about emotional intelligence sometimes in the business world. I’m sitting here connecting as I hear you, but how did people respond to you?
I guess the way I’ll say this is like anything else, any brand, it’s not for everybody. There are certain people out there that are going to roll their eyes at this stuff. These are mostly the data-driven people that would want to make a profit at all costs and stuff like that. It’s so interesting. I get surprised on a near-daily basis on how positively people respond to this. I’ll drop a word or a term like human artistry, for instance. One of my clients is a big university and I’m doing a big program. In fact, as soon as we’re done, I’m going to go do a presentation with them. Doing a big program with this university and the Dean that I’m working with there, drop this term human artistry in a meeting.
Trust is the emotional currency that all businesses deal with.
He said, “Human artistry? I’ve never heard a term like that.” This is a scientist responding, and I believe language like that taps into the shared humanity that we all have. That is all there. Frankly, we see these people who are extraordinary leaders, extraordinary business people, out into their lives and they’re going to their churches or synagogues. They have a 30 or 50-year marriage and a beautiful family. You can see them animate and get emotional when they talk about those things, but when they’re talking about the data of their business, they tend to segregate that side of their world. How do people tend to respond? It depends on the person, but for the most part, I am positively surprised when I begin to speak like that, using terms like human artistry because it silently gives them permission to your point to bring their humanity forward.
I think the more that we bring our whole and best self to work, the more we perform at the highest version of ourselves. People are yearning for that. People are yearning for much more wholeness and this lack of separation between, “There’s the personal Steve and there’s the business Steve.” None of the two shall meet, and the world of business is changing.
I hope and my hope is that the changes we see go beyond our reaction to COVID. I’ve seen a lot of change that has occurred through mitigating COVID and trying to stay productive and things like that. To your point, some people want to do that profit at all cost so they’re doing things they know are profitable or they can see a direct ROI, where a lot of the stuff that you’re discussing as we talk about inner work and bringing your whole self. That ROI won’t be as apparent and it won’t be as immediate either because it takes time to build trust, as you know.
One of the things I’m curious about further is when we talk about the notion of organizational culture. Leaders play a huge role in setting these boundaries and in that. One of the things that you talk about is how no business wherever out evolves the leader. Tell me about that and also tell me about what can leaders do to remedy that?
It goes a little bit back to the idea of the business leader as a healer. I’m going to use that in a very general term, but I think a lot of people have a very positive response to that here and now because as we come out of COVID or we’re dealing with the long tail of COVID now. This idea of healing, healing themselves, the business culture, even making sure that there’s this sense of health within the business culture begins with the individuals.
In the spirit of, we can’t give what we don’t have. When a leader understands where they have some shortcomings, some blind spots, or haven’t discovered all the unconscious things in their world, going back to the Jung quote. When they begin that journey of healing themselves, they step up and become a better leader because they’re a better person by the attribute of doing so.
With the attribute of no business will ever out of all the leaders on the team, this happens again at every level of the organization. I do believe it begins with the journey of the individual. The more an individual, regardless of leader’s role within the organization. The more work they do on themselves, the more they understand who they are and their motivations. Self-awareness is a big part of that but also doing even spiritual work on themselves. What matters most to them in their lives? What is it all for at the end of the day? A lot of the leaders that I work with have made it to the top and they’ve made millions or billions of dollars. They’re all of a sudden now asking themselves, “What’s it all for?”
When they come to that point and begin to ask themselves, “What’s it all for?” They begin to change their leadership style to a much more open, vulnerable, listening stance and ability to live with a little bit of color chaos, but it’s the uncomfortability or the comfortability with a little bit of messiness. In that, you simply have to trust your team.
One of the leaders that I work with has this beautiful ability to allow his team members much latitude because he knows he’s hired great people around him. He’s trusting them to show up as their best self, make great decisions. He knows when to guide them, control them and inspire them. I think one of his massive gifts is his ability to be comfortable with enough chaos to allow these human beings that work alongside them to bring their best self into the work and he trusts in their ability to do that.
As you describe it, it’s making me think like The Beautiful Business is messy because people are messy. To make that connection about how you can have humans in a human workplace, we have to be able to embrace the fact that nobody’s perfect. The fact that the business is not perfect and the fact that as long as we are operating together as a collective, we can see something better than we can ever imagine. I love hearing that.
It also gives the team permission to make decisions, even knowing that not every one of those decisions is going to be perfect. By the way, no business leader that I’ve ever known has always made a perfect decision, but they’re making the decision based on what they know at that point and sharing that with the team then we collectively, as a team, live with that decision and figure out what to do next. I love that and its messiness because you think about the creative process, which in the world of business, we call the innovative process. It is full of messiness. It’s the world of experimentation that says, “This might not work but let’s try it and let’s push it forward.”
One thing I wish occurred. You described in your example the leader who makes millions and billions of dollars, then they get to that question point like, “What is it all for?” They start being open and trying to do it. I wish they did that before and I wish they did that on the journey also. I want to say that because I think we’re missing out on a lot of untapped success or different success that we sometimes don’t know of in the business world because we try this best practice mentality where we try to stick to the tried and true.
We don’t look at the beauty of having a blank canvas and saying like, “What if we did it differently? What if we looked at what else is possible?” That, to me, is beauty, so I want to see more of that. I appreciate having this discussion with you. Give us some words of wisdom that would help people as we look at trying to build these beautiful businesses all across the world.
There are two, one of which I already shared. I talked about this a lot. The Carl Jung quote, “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will direct our life and we’ll call it fate.” I’ve seen over and over again the power of that particular statement because what it does is, for instance, I ran an offsite leadership retreat. We are in Q4. I post that particular statement at the beginning of this offsite, which then probes a set of questions which had to do with, “What is it that we’re not aware of that we need to make conscious? How do we then change the fate of our organization or the future trajectory or vision of it?” That word of wisdom is powerful within organizations, leaders, cultures and teams.
The second one is the driving mantra that I have for my business which, there’s nothing more powerful than a united group of souls ignited in a common cause with love at the core. We can break that particular statement down and say, “What does it mean to be united as a team? What does it mean to be ignited in the cause that we have at the center of our business? What does it mean for us as an organization to put love inside the business, so we see the humanity of other people around us and activate that humanity on a day in and day out basis?”
The one thing that’s sticking to me is even the word ignite. It’s creating that notion of a fire and how it spreads to other people. The way you’re even saying that to me is showing me like, “You’re not on this journey alone. You’re with other people.” I love that and it talks more about collective work and how we can do this together again. Thank you for sharing that because I think there’s a lot of lessons learned. As you know, a lot of people in businesses prop up individual success and we get into that notion a lot of times in the business world. The way you talk makes me think about how we, the collective, the group, the tribe, or how you want to describe that collection of people. That, to me, is beautiful. I love that, so thank you for sharing.
The more that we bring our whole and best self to work, the more we perform at the highest version of ourselves.
It’s a pleasure to be here. The work you do in the world is amazing, the conversations around toxic leadership and how do we diminish that. How do we live the opposite of that, whatever people might define the opposite of that. I applaud the work that you’re doing, and thanks so much for the conversation, Kevin. I appreciate it.
Thank you. Before we go, how can people reach you because I want to make sure we get The Beautiful Business out there. Your new book came out, so I’m very excited about that.
There are two ways that people can reach me. The first way would be if they want to find out about the book, The-Beautiful-Business.com, a whole bunch of information about the book there. You can order it. There are some free downloads and stuff like that if you order the book that comes with the book. If you want to find it about my consulting work, it’s MatterCo.co. My name is Steven Morris and you can find me all over the place on social media.
Steven, thank you for the conversation. I appreciate meeting you and I can’t wait to see what more you do in this world.
Thank you, Kevin. I appreciate you.
Thank you all for reading the show. I’m signing off.
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About Steven Morris
Steven Morris, Brand & Culture Building Expert, Author, Speaker, CEO, Matter Consulting, Inc. Steven Morris helps business leaders build unignorable brands, cultures, and businesses through his work as an advisor, author, and speaker. Over his 27 years as an entrepreneur, he’s served more than 3,000 global business leaders. His new book is entitled The Beautiful Business: An Actionable Manifesto to Create an Unignorable Business with Love at the Core (Conscious Capitalism Press). When he is not supporting leaders in building beautiful brands and businesses, Steven explores his wholehearted participation with life as an artist, surfer, motorcyclist, and beekeeper.