Having Three Eyes: The Price of Advocating the Impossible


“They look at me as if I had three eyes.”

The sentence came from a woman who does purpose work in organizations.  When she explains to executives that organizing to a higher purpose means the leaders at all levels become authentically committed to the common good of the organization, they look at her as if she had “three eyes.”  Why?

After writing the book, The Economics of Higher Purpose, Anjan Thakor and I concluded that the most important word in our book was the word, authentic.  If a higher purpose is not authentic, if it is not the arbiter of every decision, it actually does harm.  It makes everyone more cynical.  Many executives have difficulty imagining a higher purpose and even more have difficulty imagining an authentic higher purpose.

Authentic means true, genuine, real, original, trustworthy, honest, reliable, dependable, and not fake.  While the word seems straight-forward, some, have difficulty comprehending the application.  Every day, their experiences teach them that there is no place for authenticity in organizations.

The first assumption of economics is that humans are self-interested, rational actors.  From this perspective organizational life is a competitive game.  The private objective of each person is to win.  The key is to be clever and outsmart the people around us (competitors), while we continually acquire increased power.  This means an organization is a network of self-interested conversations in which each of us is always at risk.  In this context of danger, we believe it is important to cover our vulnerabilities and use our strengths to advance our agenda.  In every interaction we need to see the self-interested agenda of the other, argue rationally, and create a victorious outcome.

In this competitive game, the word authenticity means factual, telling the truth – a narrow definition.  The perspective Anjan and I take is more all-encompassing.  It not only means telling the truth, it also means becoming true to the conscience.  It means presenting a self that is genuine, real, original, honest, reliable, dependable, and not fake.

An authentic person is someone who has a higher purpose, an internalized set of values.  She constantly examines her own integrity.  She is not perfect, in fact she often fails.  Everyone is a hypocrite, including the authentic person, but the authentic person is searching out their own hypocrisy and struggling to live their purpose and values.  She seeks to master the moral development of the self.

When we meet an authentic person, we recognize that she is not fake.  The person is true, genuine, real, original, honest, reliable, and dependable.  We interact and we decide that they are trustworthy.

Now let’s shift from people to organizations.   What is an authentic organizational culture?  The leaders of the organization are committed to the highest purpose, to the common good.  They have internalized values.  The higher purpose is the arbiter of all decisions.  In hard times the leaders do not do what is convenient.  Instead they operate according to the higher purpose and values.  They try to make decisions consistent with the purpose and values.

This means they often take the path less traveled.  They are positive deviants.  They operate outside the norm.  They are moving in an honorable but new direction.  In doing this the culture evolves.  The organization develops positive attributes and stakeholders are attracted to the organization.

Executives admire organizations that have these attractive attributes.  Yet when someone like my friend tells them how to do it, they look at her as if she had three eyes.


  • Who is the most authentic leader you know?
  • What unit is your organization has the most authentic or positive culture?
  • As you ponder the answers to the above two questions, what insights come to you?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?