What makes us Human?

I wonder if there is an acceptable answer to this question?  It can’t be just one simple thing … it certainly doesn’t come down to just our physical and evolutionary characteristics, nor is it only about our DNA.  I recently sat down and thought through a list of words and characteristics that make us human – “collaborate, co-create, imagine, weep, create, write, beauty, believe, understand, give, pray, sing, mortality, struggle, become, rituals, altruistic, responsibility, consciousness, empathy, chin, brain …” The list is infinite of course, but this could be a start.  Perhaps we should run a series of articles on this topic in the future?

Let me start with collaboration – possibly a strange place to begin, but an important one I think. Why, you may ask?  Well, over time I have come to realise that executives and leaders can only solve complex or “wicked” problems through collaboration. How do you solve “crime in South Africa” or “world hunger” or “global skills shortages” if not through collaboration?  We need to work together, involve numerous and diverse stakeholders. We need to collaborate across industries, countries and even across religions if we are serious about finding sustainable solutions.

Of late the term ‘benevolent capitalism’ has been used more and more frequently. I think it is true to say that money does make the world work. Modern society works because capitalism exists, and capitalism is starting to get its act together when it comes to solving the world’s wicked problems.  Individual contributions from people like Gates and Buffet are well recognised. Our efforts to use capitalism for the greater good are being increasingly met with success.

There is a powerful instinct present in most of us – competition!  People love to judge what is ‘best’.  Look at medals given out at competitions, at TV shows where we vote on who is best and who is worst, at how massive the business of professional sport has become.  We revere the rich and the famous and so often try to emulate them.

So what does it take to rise above the instinct for competition … to collaborate as a first instinct?  Perhaps you remember your coach saying that there is no “I” in the word team.  And of course it is true that a winning team is usually the one where the players co-operate the best.  We’ve watched the business sector evolve into larger and larger entities where people have to cooperate to make them work.  Maybe it is an awareness of the bigger picture and of the interrelatedness of things that leads us to be able to achieve so much more when we work together instead of against one another.  Being cooperative is not easy. We like having our own way, not having to compromise with others. Everyone says they are in favour of open innovation and co-creation. We have all heard about the wisdom of crowds, bringing the outside in, and have bought the t-shirt which states that “none of us is as smart as all of us.

It’s easy for the C-suite to sign up to collaboration and co-creation. But it often goes against the grain of how they built their careers initially, and it usually does not come naturally. So where to start?  Collaboration is a skill and I firmly believe that we can teach it.  We have started doing this at Bioss SA and I am strongly convinced that it will take centre stage in every Leadership Development programme in the future.