Journey to the Soul of Business: An Interview with Blaine Bartlett

“The primary focus of my work is on what I’ve come to call Compassionate Capitalism. How to ensure that the workplace of today and tomorrow enables individuals, society and the planet the opportunity to thrive? The answer to this question is rooted in compassion.”

—Blaine Bartlett

Blaine Bartlett—best selling author, executive and leadership coach, and president and CEO of Avatar Resources, Inc., with affiliate offices in four nations—is coming to Whidbey next month with a simple message: business is a spiritual undertaking.

Blaine and I spoke last week about what “the soul of business” really means, about how and why we should put mission at the center of corporate and non-profit work, and what people might experience when they attend Journey to the Soul of Business at the Whidbey Institute October 29—30 (new dates!). Here’s that conversation.

—Marnie Jackson


Marnie: Can you summarize what you mean when you refer to “business as a spiritual undertaking”?

Blaine: Inherent to any spiritual undertaking, or any spiritual approach to life, is a discipline or rigor. By that, I mean a discipline around practices, and a rigor in selecting practices that get me to where I want to go. To access the soul of business, we can pay attention to what we can refer to as the “founding” mission of the company and tap into metrics and practices that keep us connected to this mission. In the hubbub of business activity, we must have discipline to keep ourselves focused on what’s truly important.

There is a seductive allure to paying attention to ROI, shareholder return, and profit. There’s nothing wrong with profit—in fact, there’s inherent good in it, in having a viable business—but when those things become the primary objective of business then we lose our connection to its mission and soul.


Does a business person have to choose between profit and morality, or between doing the smart thing and doing the right thing? How can a business both “make it” financially and keep its soul?

The framing I work with is that the secondary purpose of business is to make a profit. The primary purpose is to uplift the experience of all life on the planet. If I’m satisfying this primary purpose in a way that is significant and meaningful—if I’m actually uplifting the quality of life on the planet through my service or product—people will want to buy it. Then, success becomes a matter of doing business effectively so I can provide this service or product in a way that’s economically viable.

Soul or profit? It’s not an either/or question. It’s an “and” question. Our businesses can profit and make a positive impact on lives when we have the discipline to keep our purpose at the forefront.


Did this clarity about the purpose of business come from personal experience for you?

I founded Avatar Resources in 1987. The times when I’ve gotten sideways have been when business was at the forefront and mission took the back seat. That’s when I began to become dispirited, when my experience of the business was almost rote. There was no juice in it. It felt like a traditional consulting business with no vim, vigor, or vitality. We had to bring mission back into focus.

I’ve run other organizations where I wasn’t the founder and had similar experiences . . . organizations suffer when they take their eye off of what makes them who they are, and instead make decisions based solely on finances. You could extrapolate that out to whole markets—health care in this country, as an example. There is no justifiable reason in the world why healthcare should be focused primarily on profit. It needs to make a profit to be a viable enterprise, but in order to function well the healthcare industry must have purpose—the improvement of human life quality—at its core.


What are some of your sources of inspiration?

An innate curiosity is what keeps me going. I’m genuinely curious about how people function in relationships. That’s all an organization is—a network of people in relationships.

I’m pretty eclectic in my learning strategies. I read business books, but most of my work is drawn from the arts, physics, psychology, and philosophy.

I have morning and evening rituals. I’ve been meditating since the 1970s. I still meditate each morning, and I have a reading practice that involves studying a book for years. I will literally read a chapter or even just a paragraph over and over and over again, looking at how it applies to what I’m doing each day. I don’t just read literature—I study it. My wife Cynthia and I share this practice, reading select passages to each other daily until we feel we have a deep and thorough understanding of their application in our lives.


What symptoms might you see when a business is operating without purpose at its heart?

You’ll see a fixation on short term results, and you’ll see a qualitative difference in conversations. People start talking about lacking employee engagement. Employee engagement is never missing in a startup! You’ll see that imagination, creativity, and innovation start to wane.

Imagination lives at the threshold of the soul. When we start moving away from the soul, imagination starts to deteriorate as a consequence. You’ll see less creative solution-seeking, more linear thinking and fewer “quantum jumps.” When organizations set only goals they know how to achieve, they are moving away from the soul of business. They should be setting goals that they have no idea how to manifest, but which they know are essential to who they are. Peter Diamandis at Singularity University, Elon Musk at Tesla—these people are setting goals in places where people can define and nurture the souls of their enterprises.

With today’s unicorn companies—startups valued at over $1 billion, such as Uber or Snapchat—it takes an average of 18 months to reach a billion dollar market cap. These businesses are consistently connected to “massively transformational purpose”, a phrase coined by Peter Diamandis. In contrast, it used to be typical for a Fortune 500 firm to reach its first billion dollar market cap in about 27 years.


Are there any risks in terms of the pace of change in today’s business atmosphere?

It’s not the pace of change that challenges us. Change has always been present. The problem with change is the disruption to relationships that it causes. When we’re in business, we’re in relationship with people, with goals and processes, with our environment.

The human organism seeks stability and predictability. If I have a stable and dysfunctional relationship, I’m going to be far more comfortable than if I have an unstable and potentially productive relationship. Comfort is the analog to stability and predictability.

When the rate of change is rapid, two questions are always present: who am I, and where do I belong? Am I leader? A follower? A founder? A manager? Disruption to relationship is the hidden disruptor in change, and it’s when relationships are altered that people move away from the soul of business.


Who stands to benefit the most from participating in your upcoming Soul of Business program at the Whidbey Institute?

A leader—any leader—in an organization, any manager in an organization, folks running startups, people in organizations in transition. Those would be the ones that would be most ideal. Entrepreneurs in general, and millennials. I actually find it’s far easier to work with a millennial group. They remind me of me back in the day. Hungry, curious, willing to explore, not hidebound by tradition. Willing to take risks, willing to explore! Finally, I also think that the other people in organizations that want to get out of a rut would benefit greatly. That casts a broad net.


Would this program be appropriate for people working in the nonprofit sector?

Absolutely! There’s a conversation to be had around the nature of nonprofit. That’s a paradigm, and it can be a limiting one. Nonprofits need to be treating themselves exactly the same as a for-profit business would. You need to have both mission and viable business. I see it as two horses pulling a wagon, I need to have both the mission and the business pulling the wagon forward.

When a nonprofit is led with intentionality and awareness, people are inspired, engaged, and connected to the mission. That’s when donors want to give you their money in support of what you’re up to.


Join Blaine for a Journey to the Soul of Business, Monday, October 29, 2018 at 9 am through Tuesday, October 30, 2018 at 3 pm.

Learn more or register

What kind of experience should a potential participant in this program expect?

One reason I’m excited about doing this program at the Institute is the availability of nature for introspection and conversation. There will be a didactic portion, including some theory, but I recognize that adults learn best the same way children do . . . when they’re engaged, when they’re active, when they’re doing something. We’ll have work groups and some interactive games, using games theory as a metaphor to back into some of the things I’m talking about. We’ll move through small group sessions, large group sessions, and breakouts with functional intent. We’ll have deeply purposeful conversations.


February 26, 2018

People & Partners