Cyrus the Great - yes, I really like referencing him - had a simple system of compensation. At the end of a victorious battle, the plunder would be laid out before his commanders and soldiers and each would be invited to take whatever they deemed appropriate for their own compensation. He and his closest trusted generals would take the rest. In this practice he sought to teach a bunch of lessons fueled by complex interactions between self-awareness, greed, fear and reward.
Think about it. You're a soldier who has fought hard. You are coming up to the plunder and in your head a bunch of things are vying for attention. If you're smart, your calculus goes something like this.
"I really want the gold chalice. However, I know that my companion really loves the chalice so what I can do is: a) leave it and hope he gets it; b) pick it up as my compensation and use it as a gift to cement our friendship; c) keep it and hope that through my possession of it, he and I can build some common connection; d) take the gold chain instead because it's got more gold…"
"Dude, pick something up," the guy three soldiers behind shouts out.
What I love about the compensation scheme design for the Cyrus campaigns was the fact that it was filled with subtle wisdom. Take, in full view of your colleagues, what you deem to be appropriate and suitable. Instantaneous accountability. Instantaneous evidence of future commitment to the collective. Instantaneous perception on self and collective awareness.
In the past week, I have been invited to consider how far we are from the Cyrenian accountability. For value that I delivered in three different transactions, I've seen:
- one instance where others are violating their own fraternity fighting over the spoils to which they were a party but in which they did not lead the campaign;
- one instance where a soldier is deeply struggling with the articulation of the value of his contribution in light of the entire needs of the community; and,
- one instance where something I evidenced to have value has given rise to an elaborate process of defining structure around a future battle yet to be fought.
I've often said that corruption relies on three critical elements for its maximum success. The more remote, anonymous and unverifiable the operating conditions, the more viable the ecosystem is for corruption. Cyrus solved for all three. He made his men take their compensation in front of their colleagues. Problem solved. By being in the same space, accountability was immediate. Everyone around you knew how you fought. If you did well, be handsomely rewarded. If you cowered at the back, demur from taking anything. Seeing the scale of compensation both acknowledged the effort of the day past but also set an expectation of the performance in the day ahead. Maybe you carried the day. Still being appropriate and judicious says that you realize that tomorrow you may need to rely on the valor of others. And evidencing the capacity to take what is suitable while leaving options for others is a measure of self and collective awareness.
As I engaged a call with a prospective business client this week, these thoughts came rushing in on both the macro and micro scale. And it dawned on me that central to our collective systemic challenges is our failure to clearly articulate missions. Cyrus' system worked because he and his men all knew what their end goal was. Imperial conquest which would leave many of them dead but let their version of civilization flourish. I know that my apathy for conversations about compensation up front comes from my experience of knowing the mission that I'm on. I'm also aware enough to know that the value of the endeavor is seldom fully known prior to its launching - a knowledge shared by a precious few.
We don't know what to do with reserve rates and bailouts not because we don't have the technical reflexes to spring into action. We don't know what to do because we don't have a clearly defined mission on where we're going. I nearly laughed at the February 27, 2015 Financial Times article about IMF's Christine Lagarde's interaction on the Greek debt debacle. She insists that she expects "clear commitments" from a country who has evidenced complete contempt for both words (clear and commitment). She and the Greek government all fail in taking a step back and asking about the end-game of their efforts. As a result, this scarcity-based, floundering effort is entirely incapable of effectiveness because each soldier and each commander are trying to get what they can rather than evidence alignment towards a mission that is a common purpose.
The IMF's problem (along with the EU) is the failure to contemplate a world in which economic hierarchy is less evident than it was 50 years ago. We're using multi-lateral schemes designed by arrogant elitists who always had mantras of free natural resources, cheap labor, and upper echelon consumption in their narrative. Now when many aspire to formerly exclusive level consumption and few aspire to being producers, our capacity to confront real structural issues is side-stepped in the dance of debt. What's Greece worth? Well, that depends on what world we're building. What's the EU worth? That also depends on the world we're building.
What We The People need is clearly articulated missions - not a priori expectations on how the plunder is to be divided. And I got to realize this week, my complicity in assuming that we all kind of knew this all along. We don't and I'm going to make a much more concerted commitment to explicitly stating the mission before the soldiers line up.