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strategy and business
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


Fernando Flores Wants to Make You an Offer

Flores adds that by using language deliberately, a person can consciously shape his or her future — not in some fuzzy New Age sense, but on the more pragmatic level of constructing possibilities by giving voice to them. “Will you marry me?” opens up a potential life together, and “Write a marketing plan by Tuesday” might lead to a new business, even a new industry.

More controversially, Flores argues that there is no objective reality: that the human nervous system cannot distinguish between reality and perceptions. In practical terms, to Flores, this means that individuals and organizations are never fully trapped in any situation, even one as drastic as imprisonment — if they remain willing to change the way they think and talk about it.

“We human beings are linguistic, social, emotional animals that co-invent a world through language,” says Flores. “That means that reality is not formed by objects. That opens a different world of possibilities.”

Statements like that sound gruff and matter-of-fact when Flores pronounces them. He speaks heavily accented, highly idiosyncratic English, and has an imposing, even hulking, physical presence (the Wall Street Journal once compared him to British actor Sydney Greenstreet). At heart, his unique selling proposition is a simple one. By training people to consciously use words to articulate commitments and invoke better coordination, corporate leaders can reduce the misunderstandings and missteps that prevent so many corporations — and governments, for that matter — from realizing their potential.

Cybernetic Dreams

As the cabinet minister in charge of computer technology for Allende’s Marxist government in the early 1970s, Flores dreamed of using data processing to improve the whole Chilean government, from the top down and the bottom up. He retained Stafford Beer, a British management consultant and cybernetics expert, to develop a real-time computerized system called Cybersyn to run the entire Chilean economy. After the coup, the computers were mothballed by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and nothing like Cybersyn has been implemented anywhere since.

“We were doing politics in a Marxist government and he was reading cybernetics,” recalls Mario Valdivia, who reported to Flores as chief economist during the Allende administration. “We were in the business of nationalizing big companies, and he was focused on putting in the business practices to put them to work.”

In retrospect, Flores never was a doctrinaire Marxist, says Valdivia. He was a pragmatic moderate. “He knew that if the government kept moving to the left, the coup was inevitable. Fernando tried to get negotiations going, between the left and the right, the military and the church, but the left were too left and the right were too right.” On the last day of the coup, Flores went to La Moneda, the Spanish colonial palace bombed by the junta’s fighter jets, “[believing] they were going to kill him,” Valdivia says.

The junta did not kill Flores, or anyone at the minister level, but independent reports document that some 3,000 people were murdered under Pinochet’s rule; at least 80,000 were incarcerated without trials and 30,000 subjected to torture. Another 200,000 people went into exile, mostly to Argentina or Peru, but also to Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Flores was passed from one prison to another, often at night, blindfolded; his family heard nothing from him or about him for the first nine months of his imprisonment.

Flores volunteers little about those times. Stories circulate that he survived three walks to the firing squad, only to be returned to his cell without explanation, that he was brutally tortured, and that a high-ranking military official intervened to keep him alive in hopes that he would ultimately serve the new government. “He was not tortured, not physically,” responds his wife, Gloria. “But, really, every day of that confinement was a torture, for him and for us.”

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  1. Chalmers Brothers, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness (New Possibilities Press, 2004): An accessible guide to using speech acts in the workplace and elsewhere.
  2. Lawrence M. Fisher, “The Ambassador from the Next Economy,” s+b, Autumn 2006: A Creative Mind profile of Joichi Ito, the Japanese “venture activist” who sees World of Warcraft as a model of organizational design.
  3. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Shambhala, 1987): Underlying Flores’s work, and that of many others, is an emerging understanding of cognition as evolutionary and behavior as plastic.
  4. John R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge University Press, 2008): Scholarly, seminal essays representing 40 years of research and insight.
  5. Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life (Oxford University Press, 2001): Flores’s most recent book, coauthored with philosopher Robert Solomon, on the role of trust in modern society.
  6. Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity (MIT Press, 1997): Guide for cultivating strategies and skills to be a more effective participant in larger systems, like businesses and societies.
  7. Abriendo Juego, Abriendo Mundos, Fernando Flores’s blog, posted entirely in Spanish.
  8. For more thought leaders, see the s+b website at:
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