Everything I Know About Business I Learned
in the Monastery

by Kenny Moore

When I lived in the monastery as a Catholic priest, 40% of my superiors thought they were Divinely inspired. Now that I'm working in Corporate America, the number's up to 80%. In my company, I'm one of the few who have a core competency for dealing with executives who believe themselves to be infallible. My CEO has even recognized this skill and has me reporting directly to him to assist in changing the company's culture. Oddly enough, my years in the Church gave me some decent skills for succeeding in the business world. I often feel that the jobs have proven to be quite similar, except the pay is now a lot better. Much of my work continues to remain priestly: building community, repairing trust, offering hope and trying to heal an inherently flawed human system.

Morale continues to remain dismal in most companies and employee surveys reveal three disturbing trends: nobody trusts, workers don't believe senior management and employees are too stressed out to care. Problems with trust, belief and caring. When I lived behind the cloistered walls, we referred to these dynamics as a crisis of Faith, Hope and Charity. Corporate America is facing a spiritual problem as much as a fiscal one. Napoleon once said that leaders are dealers in hope. That sounds like a sacred quality to me. So, maybe it's not all that surprising that the job of today's executive is as much spiritual as it is managerial.

Commitment vs. Compliance

Even though prayer cards now outnumber Dilbert cartoons in employees' cubicles, talking about what is holy in the workplace leaves most corporate managers somewhat in a quandary. How do engineers and accountants become both astute business leaders as well as proficient spiritual guides? Addressing this predicament is a bit trickier than streamlining business processes or outsourcing operations overseas. Engaging the heart and soul of employees to gain business success is no easy task. While throwing money and corporate perks at workers garnishes their compliance, it does little to guarantee their commitment. And as we're increasingly coming to discover: if you don't get commitment from employees, the business falters.

Commitment is not something that can be coerced or conscribed, it can only be invited. It comes as much from the heart as from the head. Employees won't bestow it if they mistrust their leaders. Monks seem to understand what's required for soliciting people's commitment; many business leaders don't. It's probably because much of their education was spent on measuring, managing and marketing. Not inviting. Courses in business school seldom explore the sacred component of leadership's responsibility. I wonder if that's partly responsible for the high turnover in the executive suite? Today's corporate leaders may have lost their godly compass, and consequently the loyalty of their workers. Some form of Divine Retribution may be underway for those residing in the corner offices.

The good news is that there's a host of employees out there yearning to throw their commitment behind a leader who is making even small progress in mastering the art of invitation. The ancient Greeks used to say that in the land of the blind, the Cyclops rule. It is such a rare business skill that it seems leaders don't even need to do it well. Merely making the effort to abandon coercion in favor of invitation appears sufficient. Employees seem to be instinctively drawn to officers who are giving it a try. To separate the authentic leaders from those approaching it as just another management fad, discriminating workers are applying the same criteria as Supreme Court Judge Potter Stewart used in identifying pornography: I know it when I see it. Like plants drawn to light, workers are inherently attracted to leaders who are sincerely implementing this refreshing skill. These executives represent a type of heliotropic leadership in the rugged jungle of business life. They radiate a hallowed luminescence that employees gravitate towards and are nurtured by. With this type of leadership, corporate toxicity is kept to a minimum and a form of workplace photosynthesis takes place.

Work: A Sacred Endeavor

Thomas Aquinas, the medieval monk and scholar, once said: "Without work, it is impossible to have fun." Urging employees to contribute their God-given talents in the workplace is liberating for the worker and an enhancement to the business. It also injects a needed flair of enjoyment into the workplace. A small but growing number of executives are learning to engage the spiritual side of business. It entails recognizing the inherent sacral qualities that employees bring to work and making demonstrated efforts to use them to satisfy customers. Spirituality at work isn't about hosting prayer groups or Bible study sessions. I don't think the business world is ready for that, and I'm not sure it should be. The separation of church and state continues to be a viable model in such a diverse world. Championing religious practices in the office sounds to me like the makings of another Holy War. Alas, in a global economy, it's not even clear whose version of God we'd need to direct our prayers to. I believe that the Divine is more interested in having us acknowledge our talents and use them for the betterment of others as well as ourselves. There's something inherently holy about embarking upon that effort.

I've spent numerous years working in large hierarchical institutions, twenty of them corporate and fifteen religious. Whenever you're dealing with large numbers of people joined together around a singular effort, many of the operating principles seem to feel oddly similar. The media once asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked at the Vatican. "About half of them," was his reply. It is amusing how the challenges confronting leaders, religious and secular alike, have some universal qualities.

The journalist Eric Sevareid once said that he was a pessimist about tomorrow but an optimist about the day after tomorrow. I've come to feel the same way about business. I don't expect corporate malfeasance to end anytime in the near future. The workplace is a mirror of life. Like it or not, evil is part of the human condition and will always be with us. Besides, if immorality were to suddenly come to an abrupt halt, much of life's drama would be lost and organized religion would be out of a job. And as Alan Greenspan keeps reminding us: losing jobs is never good for the economy.

The Divine's invitation to us is to get in there and be a player as the ancient drama of good and evil unfolds. Using our hands, heads and hearts in service of something beyond myopic self-interest is what's required. Business has tremendous potential to be a force for good in the world. While it hasn't always lived up to this challenge, the opportunity remains ever present. We who labor there have direct influence on the outcome, and our impact has the potential to be significant.

Working on the Impossible

Some might balk at the impossibility of effectively nurturing the spiritual within the confines of the commercial. And for these people I have a compassionate understanding of this challenge. However, one of the things I learned in the monastery was just because something is impossible, that doesn't mean you don't need to work on it. Why else would I have been required to take the vow of chastity for so many years? Some of what we are required to work on will not be accomplished in our lifetimes. That's what vision, brilliance and legacy is about. To those needing encouragement, I give you the words of Father Theodore, my revered monastic confessor: if you think you're too small to be effective, then you've never been in bed with a mosquito. We all can have an impact, even if it's a small one. The poet Theodore Roethke said it well: "What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible." The challenges are formidable, yet the need is great. Life invites us daily to take the risk and act on making the impossible happen. It's at the heart of what makes showing up for work so exciting.

Spirituality, both within and outside the workplace, will only increase as we move further into this century. There's a vast horde of aging baby-boomers growing older by the day and being uncomfortably confronted with their own mortality. The monks used to say that religion is the aphrodisiac of the elderly. I expect that the boomers will want to die as well as they've lived, and they'll be looking for some Divine assistance to make it all work out successfully.

Who knows, spirituality in the workplace might do for the economy what Viagra did for the male libido? But I don't think Bob Dole will be its spokesman. As a former monk who's learned some sharp business skills, I'd look elsewhere for endorsements. Perhaps I'd start with the Dalai Lama.

P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please E-mail me at kennythemonk@yahoo.com.

Kenny Moore is co-author of "The CEO and the Monk: One Company's Journey to Profit and Purpose" (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the Top Ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 energy company. Reporting to the C.E.O., he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. Kenny has over 20 years experience with change management, leadership development and healing the corporate community. He's been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning News, and interviewed by Tom Peters, The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine regarding his unique leadership style. Kenny can be reached at kennythemonk@yahoo.com or (973) 956-8210.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher


Copyright 2005 by Kenny Moore. All rights reserved.

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