Putting Spirituality to Work
Leaders can make hard decisions a matter of faith!
Spiritual faith can help leaders make difficult decisions.
The terrorist attacks of September have certainly raised questions about priorities and values in life, including life at work. People who might have been unwilling to discuss values other than “the bottom line” are now openly talking about how people treat each other and what values are most important.
Yet this is not just a post-September 11 phenomenon. As Nash and McLennan note from their recent research on the relationship of business and religion or faith, the 1990’s have seen “a sea change in the way business people are approaching the problems of business and work. Spirituality–however defined–is now a popular resource for business needs, whether for sparking creativity or for being a better person on the job.” A search for books or websites on business and spirituality will produce a seemingly endless array of titles or sites. Many of the popular business “gurus” of the 1990’s have included “spiritual” components in their seminars.
According to the well-known social analyst, Daniel Yankelovich, “The number one issue spurring the new search for spiritual growth is a declining confidence in the ethics of business leaders.” It is beyond the scope of this article to try to explain the reasons for this decline in confidence. It is, however, worth thinking about how ethics and values — and, indeed, spirituality — intersect with business management. Some recent research indicates that faith-based leadership can be supportive of an organization’s mission and values, providing wisdom for operating in demanding, competitive environments. It is therefore worth challenging business managers to explore how they integrate their faith, values, and business practices.
Managerial leadership includes responsibility for the way people are treated within the workplace and beyond. Not only do the actions of leaders have enormous impact on those directly within their circle of influence, they touch the lives of those with whom these people have significant relationships. We can conservatively multiply by three the number of people a managerial leader supervises to estimate how many other lives are directly or indirectly impacted by that one single manager.
On the positive side, this significant impact means that managerial leaders have a tremendous opportunity to spread “goodness” throughout their direct and indirect organizational network of people. This potential to model and lead “with good character” has not often been fully acknowledged or systematically addressed by top executives and their management teams But I would argue that the strengthening, modeling and sustaining of good – or virtuous – character is a cornerstone to creating and maintaining an emotionally healthy — and ultimately a productive — organizational culture.
When William Bennett published The Book of Virtues in 1993, the word “virtue” seemed old-fashioned to many people — anachronistic . . . even out-of-date for contemporary times. Yet the concept of virtue, or moral excellence, should be very much a part of the discussion about business and values, ethics, or spirituality. I use it quite deliberately. Many personal characteristics and/or qualities can be included in the concept of virtuous character. No one person will have all of the characteristics that might be considered virtuous, but each person CAN define himself or herself by a few select virtues. (At the end of this article is an exercise through which the reader can identify specific virtuous characteristics, that he or she would like to emphasize.)
Virtuous character does not come without challenges, however. Challenges can arise in any situation. For example, there may be the temptation to compromise honesty and veracity for economic gain, to not adhere to legal and moral boundaries in order to get more work out of employees, or to disavow responsibility for a mistake if it appears that no one else knows for certain who made it. At the heart of this article is a straightforward framework to help managerial leaders meet the challenge of strengthening and maintaining virtuous character even in the face of contrary temptation.
Life’s Relationship Spheres
Authentic virtuous character transcends organizational life. It is reflected in every aspect of life. Authentically virtuous character requires paying close attention to the way we interact within each of five key sets of relationships we all have in our lives. To be personally effective, we need to be competent in our relationships in all five. While anchored in concepts from the Christian faith, this article is intended to offer an approach to strengthening and maintaining virtuous character for managerial leaders with diverse religions, backgrounds and perspectives.
Relationship with God: David Myers, in his recent book, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, provides estimates indicating that as many as 95% of Americans believe in God, and as many as 82% believe in the healing power of personal prayer. Those numbers obviously encompass a wide range of theological understanding and different levels of personal commitment to one’s faith. But, from my perspective as a committed Christian, I believe that striving to become good begins with my personal commitment and relationship with God. My understanding of what constitutes virtuous behavior, therefore, goes back to my understanding of what God requires of me as expressed through scriptures.
While others may not share my particular faith or understanding of how one relates to God, each person who strives for a virtuous character grounds that search in some understanding of a source of values, whether consciously recognized or not. If the poll numbers are accurate about belief in God and prayer, then I would contend that for that vast majority of Americans at least, attempting to grow in their relationship with God — in whatever way understood — and modeling their own behavior on their understanding of what is required of one who takes this relationship seriously, is foundational for building a virtuous character.
Relationship with Self: Cultivating a positive relationship with oneself is also important in life. This relationship, centered on self-awareness and trust of oneself, is a prerequisite to trusting and effectively interacting with others. To be effective, managerial leaders need to know and utilize their personal values and strengths. They are then able to focus their time and efforts on utilizing those values and leveraging those strengths to achieve their goals. When a leader is not self-aware or does not fully trust himself or herself, energy is often spent in masking shortcomings and acting inconsistently. Having command of one’s self, including a high level of self-trust, better equips leaders to serve others authentically.
Intimate Relationships: Strong relationships with those within the closest circle of our lives, other than God, should be a goal for all of us. As we have become more aware lately, none of us is guaranteed a secure or long life. Those relationships that are of most value need to be nurtured and savored on a regular basis. Leaders are increasingly recognizing the need for all to balance their work-lives with the quantity and quality of time they spend with individuals in their intimate spheres. These intimate and committed relationships can give leaders positive energy to support their work in their organizations and communities. The same commitment needs to be encouraged in those they manage.
Relationships with Others: Having good relationships with those outside our intimate circle is another goal worth striving for in our lives. Strong empirical evidence supports the economic value of treating people in the workplace as assets to be developed. People are motivated to work for leaders who are perceived to be fair and caring. They want to be associated with organizations that track and maintain equity – both internally and externally. Managing relationships with others involves managing perceptions and systems of fairness. On balance, good leaders have good relationships with others.
Relationships with Communities: Relationships with our various communities remove us from isolation and offer balance to self-reflection. Work, civic organizations, special interest groups, churches, and schools are communities in which relationships can be built and sustained. These are also communities where virtuous character is needed. Being part of a community that shares your faith and values helps to reinforce them and can provide support when tough challenges arise.
These five life-relationship spheres offer a package of purpose to motivate leaders to manage them effectively. By integrating the learning and positive influences from all spheres of relationships in their lives, managerial leaders have the opportunity and challenge to make their organizations good places to be.
Connecting Purpose with Virtuous Character
The questions then become, “Which virtues of character guide you in your various relationships in life? What components of character capture your essence as you seek a life full of purpose and service? How do you prioritize these aspects of virtuous character to guide you in discharging your leadership responsibilities?” To identify qualities that reflect the kind of virtuous character you would like to develop, whether or not you are a managerial leader select the top five character virtues that you want to work on or stress from the “Virtuous Leadership Character Checklist” found at the end of this article. (Click here to go to the checklist.) This process is rich with self-confrontation and meaningful internal dialogue. You may find it useful and enlightening to discuss these choices with a confidant who knows you well in order to gain additional insight and perspective. What evolves when you do this is a handful of prioritized character qualities to guide and sustain behavior when you are interacting within the five life-relationship spheres. This checklist was compiled from scripture, social science literature, and business writings. It is not a psychometrically-rigorous measurement instrument, but it is a facilitation tool for self-reflection and collegial exchange.
Meeting the Challenge: Strengthening a Virtuous Leadership Character
In addition to the personal strengths and virtues of character that you identify to help guide your daily actions, it is important for you as a managerial leader to have frameworks to use in helping you cope with leadership challenges that test your character. These tools can help you move from thoughtful reflection to practical action. Following is a straightforward four-step approach that is designed to help you as you work through situations that challenge you to act with character.
Step 1: The Situation. Describe very specifically, in one to three sentences, the current situation in which a challenge is presented.
Step 2: The Test or Temptation. Describe how you are being challenged and your character tested. What virtues are involved? Both the apparent path to virtue and the alternate course of action are delineated.
Step 3: The Search for a Basis of Decision. The teachings and principles that form the basis for your spiritual life provide guidance for your daily life, and for actions at a time of testing. Whether this is the Bible, the Koran, or some other teaching, this spiritual grounding will help direct thought and align behavior with virtuous character as difficult situations arise. Leaders can find relevant scripture and teaching to provide insight and guidance for action when faced with difficult situations or temptations, especially if they are familiar with the teachings through regular study, discussion and reflection before being faced with the challenging situation.
Step 4: Taking Action. The spiritual guidance found in Step 3 is implemented here. This step separates behavior from quiet reflection.
A Brief Application or Illustration
Step 1: The Situation. As the Senior Vice President of Sales, this executive recently learned that his most productive salesperson was caught for the second time in six months falsifying his expense report. This salesperson is aware of the corporate mission and the value it places on displaying honesty in all actions, both inside and outside the organization. In fact, the virtue of honesty was firmly stressed by this executive to the salesperson after the first infraction.
Step 2: The Test or Temptation. The challenge for this executive was that he was not meeting his agreed-upon sales targets, and this particular salesperson was one of only two salespeople who were meeting or exceeding their targets. Since the Senior V.P. of Sales was not explicit about the consequences if this salesperson did something like this again, he is tempted to rationalize a way to keep him. Acting in full alignment with his values and the corporate mission of honesty, however, he should fire him for dishonesty. (This test is not uncommon for executives to express to a confidant. While virtuous leaders act with virtue, it is not always without self-reflection and self-confrontation. They are human too!)
Step 3: Search for the Basis of Decision: After reflection and review of the virtue of honesty throughout the scriptures, this executive realized that there was a consistent message set down for him. Deuteronomy 25: 13, 16 encapsulated this teaching and became a guide or reminder of how he should act.
Do not have two differing weights in your bag – a large and a small …. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Step 4: Taking Action. With Deuteronomy 25: 13, 16 as spiritual guidance, the executive terminated this salesperson. He met with him one-on-one and again explained how his behavior was misaligned with the virtue of honesty. The salesperson was surprised because his performance was outstanding in terms of reaching revenue targets, and he hinted that he thought this gave him more degrees of freedom to “misbehave.” This executive’s actions met the virtuous challenge and avoided the vice of overlooking dishonest behavior for personal gain and self-interest.
Putting It All Together for Virtuous Leadership Character
Leading with virtuous character is not an automatic process. It involves exercising one’s spiritual muscle. Specifically, a close look at one’s purpose as revealed through life’s five relationship spheres is important. A leader’s life purpose, for congruency, needs to be aligned with a personally meaningful set of virtuous character qualities. These virtues of character serve as anchors and guideposts for managerial leadership action during challenging times. They begin with an awareness of what one’s true values are and where they are grounded. One of the benefits of an online journal is the opportunity to create interactive experiences for the reader.
 Nash, L. and McLennan, S. (2001) Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Nash and McLennan, page 31
Banks, R. and Powell, K. (eds.) (2000) Faith in Leadership: How Leaders Live Out their Faith in their Work and Why It Matters, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
 Bennett, W. J. (ed) (1993) The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, NY: Simon and Schuster
 Myers, D. and Martin, M. (2001) The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
 See, for example, Pfeffer, J. (1998) The Human Equation: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Boston: Harvard Business School Press; Buckingham, M., and Coffman, C. (1999) First Break All the Rules: Building Profits by PuttingPeople First, NY:Simon and Schuster.
Please place a check mark by the five qualities of virtuous character that best describe how you are and how you would like to be. Check only 5!
About the Author(s)
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.