Does Spirituality Drive Success?

Is there a place for spirituality in the workplace? Executives from Silicon Valley to Boston tell how they twine their business leadership with religious and personal values.
by Martha Lagace, Sean Silverthorne & Wendy Guild

Executives from a wide range of industries trooped to Harvard Business School to discuss how their spirituality helps them be powerful leaders.

The stories emerged from three panel sessions at the Möbius Leadership Forum, held April 11-12. The conference explored issues of leadership, values, and spirituality in business.

Can Spirituality Drive Success? Should It?

In a session exploring how spirituality can lead to business success, panelist Tony Schwartz confessed to one distinction: he was perhaps the only person in the world who was "driven to the dharma" by Donald Trump. At a high point in his journalism career, Schwartz said, having written for such prominent publications as The New York Times, Newsweek, and New York magazine, Schwartz co-wrote what became a best-selling book, The Art of the Deal, with real estate mogul Donald Trump. The collaboration experience was financially fulfilling (for a while), but Schwartz found he was dissatisfied with his own success.

He set out to discover the "primary values" in his life, which he said include humility, service, health, and authenticity. He's since written two books: What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, and Work in Progress (co-authored with Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company). Schwartz is now president of LGE Performance Systems and co-created its Corporate Athlete training program, which aims to apply the secrets of athletic training to executives.

Success is a metric; you never have enough.But only you can define fulfillment. We as individuals are the only judges.
— Ricardo Levy,
Catalytica Energy Systems

For Robert Glassman, his spirituality at work is expressed as a commitment to social justice. As co-founder and co-chairman of Wainwright Bank & Trust Company based in Boston, Glassman (HBS MBA '69) said issues such as homelessness, women's rights and outreach to the gay and lesbian community have shaped his own life and the life of his business.

Seven years ago, for instance, Wainwright Bank had a quarter of 1 percent of the commercial banking scene in the Boston-Cambridge area, but was financing over 50 percent of AIDS housing, Glassman said. In addition to outreach and socially responsible investing, the bank offers online donation functionality to any nonprofit that is a bank customer—even if all they have is a checking account.

The "harmony" among his personal life, business life, and philanthropy, he said, "is as close as I'm going to come to being a spiritual person." He cited with pride the fact that his daughter works with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. "That there is a sense of continuity in the family [is] the most authentic thing I can say about what Wainwright Bank does."

According to Ricardo Levy, chairman of Catalytica Energy Systems, executives are trained for action—contemplation is not part of their rulebook. In his own career, however, he discovered the need for spiritual guidance in crucial decisions, especially those that affect other people such as employees, he said. Levy's guidelines are:

  • Quiet the mind.
  • Reach deep inside. Go beyond the ego to hear the inner voice.
  • Don't fear ambiguity; rest in the unknown. "This is the most difficult piece," Levy admitted. "We're not comfortable unless we see the path."
  • Stay humble in the face of temptation and power. "Being humble is a key issue. It's good for a leader to be reminded of the intoxication of power."

Asked by a member of the audience for his definition of success, Levy said, "I'd rather use the word fulfillment. Success is a metric; you never have enough. But only you can define fulfillment. We as individuals are the only judges."

HBS senior research fellow Laura Nash moderated the session.

Entrepreneurship And Values

In another panel discussion, three successful entrepreneurs discussed the role beliefs and values play in keeping grounded among the turbulence and long hours that surround new ventures.

Jim Sharpe (HBS MBA '76) , CEO of Extrusion Technologies, said he lives his values, and employees pick up on that. When a vendor offered to send a check to his house instead of work, Sharpe cut off relations with that company. And when he took over the business, he promoted existing employees to management roles rather than bring in trained managers. "My value systems said that they all had the potential to grow. It may take a little longer, but some have turned out great."

You'd be surprised at how my basic Christian principles are effective in a business setting.
— Gregory Slayton,

Gregory Slayton (HBS MBA '90), chairman of ClickAction Inc., said his beliefs are never far from his office. Literally. He reads the Bible at work, and employees will sometimes drop in on him while he is praying.

"That shouldn't bother anyone," Slayton said. "It's how I stay in balance."

He said the value he most often uses at work is the Golden Rule, the principle that people should do unto others as they would have others do unto them. For example, when layoffs were necessary, he was upfront and honest with employees about what was happening and why.

Left to right: Gregory Slayton, Zia Chishti, Jim Sharpe
Left to right: Gregory Slayton,
Zia Chishti, Jim Sharpe

"You'd be surprised at how my basic Christian principles are effective in a business setting," Slayton said. Honesty, for example, is important for any leader, although it can get you in trouble. "Sometimes you'll pay the price [because] some people don't want to hear it."

On the other hand, Zia Chishti, chairman and CEO of Align Technology, said he tries to keep his religious faith as far from the office as possible, fearing it would alienate some employees. But that doesn't mean his spiritual values have no place at work. He said he distills his Muslim beliefs into a set of ethics that help him guide the business.

Chishti added that one of the downsides of leadership, isolation, can also be a benefit. "Isolation is not all that bad," he said, because it forces introspection into your basic beliefs.

Kent Bowen, professor of business administration at HBS, moderated the panel.

Leadership Without Easy Answers

Two CEOs of different faiths, Christian and Muslim, discussed how their spirituality helped them evolve as leaders.

"There are so many pressures on you as a leader to lose your compassion and develop a thick skin, to lose your capacity for doubt and curiosity," said Dr. Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center of Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who moderated the discussion. He invited the panelists to discuss how they have the courage to maintain their openness or naiveté when so many people around them look to them to be answer machines, rather than evolving creatures.

I began by wondering what would happenif employees were given extended lunch hours to go mentor children.
— C. William Pollard,
The ServiceMaster Company

"I am a follower of Jesus Christ," began C. William Pollard, Chairman of The ServiceMaster Company, based in Chicago, Illinois. In order to lead his company in the right way, he often asks himself these questions: Who are people and why do they work? How does the community of work affect the person I'm becoming? How can we better address the spiritual side of a person and be faith-friendly and diverse? How are we treating people? Are we dealing with the whole person?

In a service industry, where most jobs can be described as "menial" and entry-level, he retains employees and maintains morale by embodying his belief that "every person is created in God's image and deserves dignity in their work." To this end, every single person at the company is required to spend at least one day a year providing their services in the field.

To foster community relations, Pollard said, he "began by wondering what would happen if employees were given extended lunch hours to go mentor children." That program has since reached 1,500 children, and is still growing. "It's a simple process," said Pollard. "It's an adult sitting with a child and saying, 'You're important.'" Firoz Rasul, chairman and CEO of Ballard Power Systems, said his Muslim faith and its emphasis on dignity shapes his leadership.

photo of Firoz Rasul
Firoz Rasul

"Religious practice without a social conscience is deceit," he said. The heart of social vision is providing care for the weak and vulnerable but "charity" that takes away someone's dignity is not acceptable. It is important to ask what you have done to empower other people, he said. Providing charity with dignity is "giving them a hand up, rather than a handout."

Rasul wanted Ballard to contribute to the community, and for employees to become involved as well. But when a partnership with United Way failed to elicit much employee support, Rasul sat down with each manager and learned the root of the problem. Workers were waiting for the company to make a large donation, a show of corporate support. But Rasul knew that, since Ballard is a publicly traded company, shareholders may not be willing to be so generous. So, he and his executives led by personal example. "The turnaround was remarkable," he said.

When asked about the how leaders could resolve the conflict in the Middle East, Rasul said, despite his being an "armchair quarterback," he would recommend that the leaders of those countries keep three principles in mind:

  • Human dignity. Have economic hope, see a future, look forward, not back.
  • Diversity. Understand the pluralism within a society. "More than just [wanting] peace, more than 'we won't kill or hurt each other anymore,' but 'how will we work together?'"
  • Stand for something. The rhetoric of the Middle East is always against. "People are always talking about what they are against rather than what they stand for." Be for something.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.