Book Notes: Conscious Business by Fred Kofman

Why I Read the Book

During the last two years (2014 and 2015) I made a major shift towards meditation practice which examines first person experience (subjectivity) directly, and eventually towards a “spiritual” worldview.

Some of my other interests include entrepreneurship and technology, and lately I’ve been wondering how to integrate my spiritual practice and the ethics/values that follow from it with my personal career goals and leadership style. I don’t view these areas of life as separate. Specifically, I wanted to ensure that my desire to work in business is coming from a place of creativity and serving others, and that my leadership style incorporates “body, mind, and spirit” in alignment.

Through my growth over the last two years I have already seen the sense of freedom that comes from emotional mastery and authentic communication in personal relationships and was curious how this could apply in a business context, both in terms of wider company culture and one’s personal relationship to ambition and work.

Overall Thoughts

I generally don’t read business books anymore, but Conscious Business was a joy to read in its entirety. I finished most of it in one sitting. I was impressed by the author’s synthesis of key concepts from spiritual traditions and their pragmatic application for individuals and companies. One thing I’ve noticed about some books that try to integrate eastern spiritual traditions or “New Age” thought to Western secular life is that they lack depth. Authors water down or misunderstand key concepts. On the other hand, many traditional business books are one-dimensional and ignore personal subjectivity (consciousness) altogether. Kofman draws from an impressive breadth of wisdom traditions, but clearly understands from his own personal practice the deeper message they convey.

The book not only addresses how to be a great leader within a company, but examines how business fits into the greater context of life. Kofman writes in the first chapter “we need to ponder the most fundamental questions pertaining to reality and human existence and let these insights guide our business choices”.

Though it is particularly relevant for entrepreneurial leaders, the book is great for anyone who wants to find purpose in the work they do and achieve meaningful success in their lifetime. If you are adverse to or confused by spiritual terminology, don’t let that scare you off. The book addresses personal leadership and company effectiveness from a pragmatic viewpoint that does not require what you might think of as a “spiritual” perspective. Each of the body chapters begins with a real life situation (dialogue) and ends with a revised example based on the central points of the chapter to improve communication and outcomes.

The book integrates spirituality (consciousness), philosophy (system of thought), personal and organizational psychology, and management/leadership principles from top experts. I was impressed with the breadth of sources Kofman drew upon and more importantly the depth of his insight (see the references I found notable). The author clearly went through a lot of personal growth to understand and synthesize these ideas.

While many of the examples in the book specifically focus on business culture, the communication principles apply to other areas of life such as friendships, romantic partnerships, or any sort of leadership in an organization.

The book tears down assumptions about how we need to do business and shows that being compassionate and communicating authentically does not mean “being soft”. In fact, it takes a tremendous amount of courage.

On a more personal note, the book reinforced my conviction that business can be a wonderfully creative pursuit and an opportunity to contribute and grow from challenging situations. It was also encouraging to see that personal transformational work I am doing helps to influence the collective culture of an organization. Since business is a dominant force in our society it is a good place to bring awareness.

For an individual elevated consciousness in business leads to a much deeper level of contentment. For an organization it ensures long-term sustainability and increased effectiveness as a result of clearer communication, honesty, and clarity. Furthermore, it improves communities as a whole because it reduces negative externalities like unhappy individuals interacting with their families.

References and associations which I enjoyed (people, ideas):
Pathless path, gateless gate (Zen), Success beyond success (Zen, reminded me of Shunryu Suzuki, “To realize your life beyond success and failure”), Ten Ox-Herding Pictures (Zen), Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Dalai Lama, Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Rumi, Kabir, Kahlil Gibran, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Anthony De Mello, The Talmud, Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, Carlos Castaneda, Wei Wu Wei, Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, T.S. Eliot, William Blake, Robert Frost, Hume, Pascal, Descartes, Heracleitus, Plato, Abraham Maslow, Piaget, Carl Rogers, Martin Seligman, Daniel Goleman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Marshall Rosenberg (NVC), Douglas Stone, Viktor Frankl, Peter Senge, Jim Collins, Peter Drucker, Ayn Rand

Detailed Notes

This is not intended to be an exhaustive summary or even outline, but rather a list of impactful passages, takeaways or what I personally found valuable. If a note says “Fiz:” I’ve added some additional personal annotations.

Foreword 1 by Ken Wilber:

Explains the Integral Model and how it applies to business by “taking into account body, mind, and spirit in self, culture, and nature”.

“Integral business leadership would use different categories of business management theories including individual motivation, corporate culture and values, and exterior objective systems, flow patterns, and quality control.”

I/We/It paradigm

Forward 2 by Peter Senge:

“We then must choose what matters more to each of us — knowing or learning. Real learning opens us to the fear of uncertainty and the embarrassment of incompetence, as well as the vulnerability of needing one another.”

Chapter 1 Conscious Business:

People are not molecules

Jim Collins says that Level 5 leaders who channel their ambition away from their ego take companies from good to great, however he doesn’t answer how to develop those skills, hence this book.

“We need to ponder the most fundamental questions pertaining to reality and human existence and let these insights guide our business choices”

Colleagues are human beings, not human resources (Fiz: Hence job titles like “People Development”)

How do we look at business from the I/We/It perspectives?
We make the mistake of focusing on results instead of the process and more importantly the platform (being)

“The highest leverage comes from becoming the person or organization capable of behaving in the way that produces the desired results”

“The blindness of the selfish individual is that her attachment to success it the ultimate source of her suffering.” Allusion to hungry ghosts in Buddhism

Communication challenge: Consider how you would tell a colleague, in a way that helps both of you work together, that you think his proposal is a terrible idea

Decision making challenge: “How would you go from wanting to do “A” and your colleague wanting to do “B” to the two of you freely deciding (and committing) to doing “X” in a way that build self-esteem, connection, and excellence.”

Coordination challenge: “How would you honor your word, enhance trust in your relationships, and accomplish your (and the organization’s) goals when you make promises that are subject to risk.”

“Those who communicate manipulatively seek to pursue their personal agenda… they hide data that does not support their arguments and fabricate information”

Hafiz: If you have a specific agenda or narrative and approach communication from a narrow angle you can also lie to yourself about what data means, or ignore its significance. In other words you can also fool yourself if you aren’t coming from a place of clarity/centeredness.

“When people communicate manipulatively, there is a wide gap between public speech and private thoughts”

Hafiz: Level of honesty in communication could be a heuristic to assess corporate culture

“[In narcissistic negotiation] People see each other as enemies competing for scarce resources… there is covert competition for what appears to the opponents as a fixed and limited amount of self-esteem”

Chapter 2 Unconditional Responsibility:

How we can confront challenges with responsibility, adopting the self-empowering attitude of the player”

Focuses on how we view ourselves as the player or the victim and how we have the ability to respond to situations, to view them as challenges/opportunities instead of judging them as good or bad.

When we come into conflict the explanation we give can either damage the relationship or the way we communicate can resolve issues. Distinction between responsible and response-able

Player mentality is unconditional freedom, not freedom from

As a victim e.g. minority group, do you want to remain that way or do you want more personal power? This is not to say that it’s an excuse for not making societal/systemic change (powerful anecdote from a session with Fred and an individual from a minority group)

Taking the view of unconditional responsibility is a choice. It is empowering.

“If you are the one who is suffering, you are the one who has the problem”

“Freedom does not mean doing what you want without consequences; it means the capacity to choose, in the face of a situation, the response that is most consistent with your values”

Contribution to the problem is not “blaming the victim”

“Pity is an empty form of support. Nurturing the victim’s feelings of helplessness, resignation, and moral outrage is a cheap way to be friendly.”

Hafiz: It’s important to have empathy but that doesn’t mean buying into other people’s stories. It means helping them go beyond or drop the story and holding space for them. This is true compassion.

When you issue a loving challenge, love comes first and poignant inquiry second

“Ultimately you don’t take the player role because it is convenient or because others will appreciate you; you take it because it is the way you choose to live”

Hafiz: Reminds me of Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings on unconditional blamelessness and fearlessness and the way of the warrior

“True success is not accomplishing your goals, but feeling happy and at peace. Beyond success lies the serene joy of integrity. That is why essential integrity is the heart of success beyond success.”

Hafiz: My takeaway from the dialogues is to view your actions as elements that contributed to the situation. You see those objectively so you can respond in a way that helps the total situation and make changes accordingly. This could all be summarized as you don’t need to take it “personally”, as in an attack on your identity, which would be a purely egoic perspective. Focusing on outcomes not who is right and getting the the other person’s world helps with that. I also think that once one does inner work these principles are no longer techniques one needs to actively employ, but rather flow easily from one’s personal “being”/foundation.

The final dialogue is effective — the level of honesty and understanding of each other’s’ world is very pragmatic for a favorable outcome. What stood out for me is that in order to communicate effectively emotional awareness and equanimity are paramount, otherwise you feel blamed, react, and close off rather than remaining aware of your feelings and operating from a space where they don’t control you. The final Sufi anecdote shows authentic power, but this openness and freedom comes from letting go, not from the personal ego pretending to be powerful.

Chapter 3: Essential Integrity

How we can remain grounded in integrity when dealing with forces beyond our control

Why do you want what you want? Ultimately you want to feel fullness, but you think you want “success” so you confuse the means and ends

There are Ultimate ends such as truth, happiness, freedom, peace, love (vs. illusions of what we think will get us there)

Hafiz: Until I experienced these ultimate ends through meditation practice I did not realize how confused my basic assumptions and approach to life was. Now I can see this confusion in other people (and I have my fair share of it too!)

Outside-in living, vs. inside-out living — radical shift in perspective

Hafiz: I think of this as living from first principles rather than living under the illusion that something else will make you happy. It is a big shock when you realize you’ve been doing things to get what and where you already are!

Happiness is for its own sake

“… compare these traits with the typical success markers of our culture, the kind of traits featured in People magazine. After doing this exercise with thousands of people, I have yet to find anyone who selected characters whose qualities were power, wealth, youth, beauty, pleasure, or fame. It is fascinating how we gravitate unconsciously and instinctively to things that mean very little to us, and how we sacrifice unconsciously the very values that ultimately motivate our behaviour”

Hafiz: If you get the qualities mentioned above you realize they are conditional, transient, and ultimately unfulfilling, yet people still remain convinced that they might satiate their desires

In the same way that wisdom traditions have said to go beyond ego-centered cravings, systems thinking optimization can do same thing in an organization

“The alignment between your behavior and your values is the measure of integrity, or success beyond success”

“The more important question is whether acting with essential integrity in pursuit of success beyond success increases your ability to achieve ordinary success. The answer depends on your time span: in the short term, not necessarily; in the long term, absolutely.”

“Integrity is immediate and unconditional”

“In the midst of a crisis or a phenomenal business opportunity, an organization without discipline operates unconsciously, guided by fear or greed.”

“The only lasting safety I have found is a total commitment to essential values such as respect, honesty, freedom, and love.”

“I am not advocating that success is unimportant… what I am asserting is that if you want to live a “good life” you must subordinate success to integrity, not vice versa.”

“Reality is complex and ever-changing. It is impossible to “manage” such a system through logical models. There are too many variables. You can use technical tools to get some intuition on the behavior of the system, but you can never comprehend the full implications of external events and your own behavior. That is why integrity, with its simple set of practical principles, is so valuable. Since the beginning of humankind, people have been struggling to find rules of behavior that foster higher and higher levels of success. Integrity represents a summary of human wisdom accumulated over thousands of years.”

Hafiz: (on anecdote about company that didn’t hire Fred): It’s possible to manipulate situations to accomplish your goal (e.g. landing a client) but if you compromise your integrity it’s not a good fit for your mission and will lead to problems down the road anyway

“Once you relax your attachment to success and commit to success beyond success, you cannot be swayed by external conditions”

Chapter 4: Ontological Humility

How to create alignment, trust, and mutual understanding when people hold different perspectives.

What to do when people disagree

View everything as a learner

Your perspective is the truth for you (which is conditioned), but not objective or privileged e.g. the way different parties interpret financials

People have different mental models

The problem comes when I think my truth is the truth

Example of different perspectives e.g. aesthetics, cost, function in automotive industry

Benefits and drawbacks of culture (monkey + banana example)

Controllers prove they are right as a matter of self-worth, not just of accuracy

There is no such thing as a problem

I am Okay, You are Okay – mutual learning model (Fiz: reminds me of Byron Katie) instead of I am Okay and You’re Not, which isn’t helpful

“People keep secret, self-validating theories based on private arguments rather than share them publicly”

“One of the basic premises of unilateral control is that you must act as though you are not trying to unilaterally control others”.

The shift to honesty goes against social conventions

Example dialogue:

“Have you shared your concerns with Sally?” I asked Mark.

“That would be like telling her I don’t trust her! It would be disrespectful,” he replied.

I asked the natural follow up question: “Is it more respectful to fire her without giving her a chance to correct her behavior?”

Hafiz: Often keeping our concerns private doesn’t allow us to see the other person’s perspective and understand their world. It allows each party to create a story in their head which is not true, and then when we don’t communicate we keep fabricating and extending the story.

Humor is the road to ontological humility

“Objectively San Francisco is the best place to live” Is that really true? What would my mental model have to be to make that true?

“Some people like to think there’s value in being brutally honest, but toxic opinions always turn out to be more “brutal” than “honest”. Sharing these opinions destroys efficiency, hurts relationships, and creates animosity.”

Effective opinions (vs. toxic) lead to better outcomes and better understanding of the other’s perspective

Chapter 5: Authentic Communication

It is precisely at the time when communication is most vital that our conversations break down most dramatically.

We need to accept that we can only know the impact that others’ actions have had on us, but we cannot know what intentions they had when they acted the way they did. The converse also applies.

Find out what impact your actions had on them, and let others know the impact of what they said to us and find out what led them to act the way the did.

“We feel hurt; therefore they intended to hurt us” – The conclusion doesn’t follow.

Exercise of what we think vs. what we say. What we think has lots of harsh opinions and broad generalizations and intense negative emotions. Other people have these too.

On the flip side there are also gratitude and positive feelings which are difficult to express vulnerably – how to find a balance between dumping toxic mind waste and swallowing?

Writing it down brings awareness

Accept that you are not perfect and take response-ability for how you show up to the conversation. Your identity does not have to depend on the illusion of perfection.

(1) Learn their story/narrative
(2) Express your views and feelings (sharing your story)
(3) Address the situation together
(4) Create a respectful context/container for the conversation

You are not trying to convince anyone that you are right; you are helping others to understand why you think the way you do

You must love the truth more than you love saving face

Use self statements to own your experience

Productive inquiry requires a profound openness and receptivity… this can only come from a strong desire to understand the other person, to discover her world with appreciation and respect.

The ability to pay attention is inversely proportional to the need to be right

“I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care”

“When we act skillfully, others simply feel we are having a good conversation, not suspecting that we are using any technique. In some situations, however, it may be beneficial to tip our hand and explain the principles of productive expression and inquiry. This is safe because expression and inquiry are not tools to use on but with others. That is the essential difference between a collaboration tool and a manipulation tool.”

Chapter 6: Constructive Negotiation

coming soon

Chapter 7: Impeccable Coordination

coming soon

Chapter 8: Emotional Mastery

coming soon

Chapter 9: Entering the Marketplace

Many of us believe that it is necessary to sell out in order to succeed in business, or to drop out in order to pursue a spiritual life. This is a false polarity. When business is conducted with a high level of consciousness, there is no tension between material and spiritual wealth. Conscious leadership can create a conscious business, one that integrates compassion in support of human development. In a conscious business, ancient wisdom and modern economics come together.

False belief: “if you are a mystic you can’t handle logistics”

“Business is not typically seen as a spiritual activity. It is supposed to pursue money-oriented goals devoid of any deeper significance. The only worthwhile businesses, however, are conscious businesses: those that tackle their work as a spiritual activity.

“I was stunned by the realization that it is impossible to suffer a loss when you love your opponent”

“The inclusion of the other in our circle of care and concern requires the development of consciousness. Only at the higher stages of maturity can we embrace our competitors as “neighbors” to love.”

At the lower level people compete to “be someone”

If you are already full, competition is a spiritual practice

Self-actualization through work vs. enlightenment in cave dichotomy

We spend so much time at work, why be unconscious?

To work in competition for excellence/giving of gifts to the world requires that you realize that you are already full as described in Chapter 3, and perfectly imperfect. Being full means you accept yourself and aren’t coming from a place of fear or needing to be good enough, which means that you can operate consciously not from unconsciousness. Conscious leaders will enable conscious culture which helps bring everyone up.

Love (not personal love) but agape is the foundation. Agape is not a sentiment or feeling. It’s a principle beyond personal egoic preferences. Bodhisattva vow.

When business is “guided by success beyond success, business becomes a work of art, a work of love and freedom.”

Retirement party and deathbed exercise

“To enjoy the game you need to let it matter and not matter simultaneously. Then you can go all out, knowing that even if you lose you are ultimately okay, that the ultimate point of the game is to succeed beyond success.”

”Success beyond success focuses on essential rather than surface values, on unconditional rather than conditional goals, on process integrity rather than outcome achievement. Even though you cannot guarantee that you will win, it is possible to play any game as a full expression of your values. You will still bear the sorrow of loss, the disappointment of defeat, and the consequences of failure, but you will bear them with poise.”

The seven qualities of conscious business are “based on a shift in consciousness”


“Challenges will seem insurmountable at times; failure, unavoidable. In those moments, you will need a community to help you expose yourself over and over again to annihilation, so that what is indestructible can arise within you.”

“I sometimes wish I could go back: Blame others, feel like a victim, indulge in unconscious patterns. But there is no return. Awareness is irreversible. Once you start seeing, you can’t pretend to be blind. You might fool others, but you cannot fool yourself.” Fiz: Hugely resonated with me. It’s tough but it’s worth it.

“the highest freedom is choiceless discipline”

In Sanskrit “Namaste” means “I bow to you” — not to the small “you” but to the vase expression of Consciousness that “You” are. You can use this greeting without saying “namaste”.

The End