Many companies are attempting to integrate the triple bottom line in their strategic plans and have been spending great sums of money to promote their dedication to sustainability and solving ecological and social problems. However, dedication to the triple bottom line is often a response of political correctness, making it difficult to discern whether there is a genuine moral commitment to sustainable development or “greenwashing” whereby disinformation is disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. Regardless, there is a growing consensus that current economic business models based on unrestricted growth and consumerism are untenable. Solutions for a sustainable, even flourishing, world require a new model of leadership that fosters a sustainability mindset that places social and environmental sustainability at least on par with profitability and maximizing shareholder wealth. Such a model requires assessing the social, environmental, and economic aspects of any action so that it is as sustainable as possible, with sustainability being defined as a state of existence where social well-being and quality of life is maintained without degrading the ecological systems upon which life depends.
Such a view of sustainability also requires a model of leadership that views sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs as well as the moral obligation to serve the needs of people who are or could be affected by the corporation by recognizing that the legitimacy of powerless stakeholders is determined by the justice of their claim and not by the power they have to voice their claim. An example here would be the indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforests who are losing their land rights to deforestation and uncontrollable extraction of crude oil from conglomerates.
All this reflects an emerging call for leaders to live their lives and lead their organizations in ways that, in addition to providing for the organizations economic success, account for their impact on employees, the earth, society, and the health of local and global economies. Thus, the very definition of leadership is extended to those who seek, regardless of role or position; to build the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to inherit. For the workplace this means that everyone has the right to pursue a sense of purpose and meaning within a loving community with leaders committed to a sustainable world that insures not just continued survival but the flourishing of future generations. This is perhaps the greatest challenge facing leaders today; the need to develop new triple bottom line business models that firmly embeds social and ecological sustainability without sacrificing acceptable profitability, revenue growth, and other indicators of financial performance.
In response to this call, we offer a model of spiritual leadership that inherently embeds sustainability into the triple bottom line (see Figure 1). In doing so, we draw from the emerging field of workplace spirituality and propose that the spiritual qualities that underlie the world’s spiritual and religious traditions provide the foundation on which leaders may build to hone their skills and competencies to foster a sustainability mindset by seeking higher levels of consciousness, self-awareness, and other-centeredness, which is essential for maximizing the triple bottom line through spiritual leadership.
Figure 1: Spiritual Leadership: Embedding Sustainability in the Triple Bottom Line
Feature articles from Newsweek, Time, Fortune, and Business Week have chronicled the growing presence of spirituality in corporate America. A major change is taking place in the personal and professional lives of many CEOs and leaders as they aspire to integrate their spirituality with their work. In many cases, this has led to very positive changes in their interpersonal relationships at work and their organizations’ effectiveness. Further, there is evidence that workplace spirituality programs not only lead to beneficial personal outcomes, such as increased positive human health and psychological well-being, but that they also deliver improved employee commitment, productivity and reduced absenteeism and turnover. Companies perform better if they emphasize workplace spirituality through both people-centered values and a high-commitment model of attachment between the company and its employees. Moreover, there is mounting evidence that a more spiritual workplace is not only more productive, but also more flexible and creative as well as a source of sustainable competitive advantage.
For our purposes “spirituality” is concerned with qualities of the human spirit and that intangible reality at the core of personality, the animating life principle or life-breath that which alerts us to look for the deepest dimension of human experience. It is at the heart of the quest for self-transcendence and the attendant feeling of interconnectedness with all things in the universe. This is the inherent assumption for the spirituality that underlies the world’s spiritual and religious traditions. From this perspective a religion is concerned with a theological system of beliefs, ritual prayers, rites and ceremonies, and related formalized practices and ideas. Typically, religion is practiced in institutions which have formed and evolved over time around the spiritual experiences of one or more founding individuals that also provides the context for leadership based upon the beliefs and practices inherent in that religion. However, spirituality is not simply about developing a personal relationship with a divine presence. It is also fundamental to the most widely accepted definition of workplace spirituality, which is “A framework of organizational values evidenced in the culture that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through the work process, facilitating their sense of being connected in a way that provides feelings of compassion and joy.”
Research has shown that there is a clear consistency between spiritual values and practices, and leadership effectiveness and that values that have long been considered spiritual ideals, such as integrity, honesty, and humility, have a positive influence on leadership success. This suggests that satisfying these spiritual needs in the workplace positively influences human health and psychological well-being, and forms the foundation for both workplace spirituality and spiritual leadership.
Spiritual leadership can be viewed as an emerging paradigm within the broader field of workplace spirituality. It is seen as necessary for creating vision and value congruence across the individual, empowered team and organization levels and can be applied in both religious and secular organizations. Spiritual leadership intrinsically motivates and inspires workers through hope/faith in a transcendent vision and a corporate culture based on altruistic values to satisfy universal needs for spiritual well-being through calling and membership and, ultimately, maximize the triple bottom line.
Figure 2 illustrates the model of spiritual leadership in action.
Figure 2: Personal and Organizational Spiritual Leadership Model
Essential to spiritual leadership is:
- Creating a vision wherein leaders and followers experience a sense of calling so that their lives have purpose, meaning, and make a difference;
- Establishing an organizational culture based on the values of altruistic love whereby leaders and followers have a sense of membership, belonging, and feel understood and appreciated.
While there are innumerable theological and scholarly definitions of love, we focus here on a definition based on the golden rule. Altruistic love in spiritual leadership is defined as a sense of wholeness harmony and well-being produced through care, concern, and appreciation of both self and others.
The source of spiritual leadership is an inner life or spiritual practice that enables one to be more mindful, conscious and self-aware, transcend egoic self-interests, and be able to connect with and serve something greater that promotes the common good. This connection to something greater can include a pantheist orientation toward nature, humanist social or ethical system, or spiritual and religious practices to draw on an ultimate, sacred, and divine Nondual force, Higher Power, Being, or God. All provide people with purpose and meaning, altruistic values, rules to live by, and a source of strength and comfort during experiences of adversity. Underlying all these approaches is the assumption of the dignity of every human being and that people are never to be used solely as means to an (economic) end.
Results of spiritual leadership and related research to date reveal that it predicts a number of individual and organizational outcomes across various countries and cultures. These include being positively related to organizational commitment, job satisfaction, altruism, conscientiousness, self-career management, sales growth, job involvement, identification, retention, organizational citizenship behavior, attachment, loyalty, and work unit productivity and negatively related to interrole conflict, frustration, earning manipulation, and instrumental commitment.
Personal Spiritual Leadership
It is important in spiritual leadership to distinguish between leading and leadership. Leading and leader development focus on the individual to develop individual-based knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with a formal leadership role. This often centers on intrapersonal skills and abilities such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-motivation. Leadership typically concentrates on the influence the leader has among their followers with a primary focus on the social influence process that engages everyone and enables groups of people to work together in meaningful ways. This involves building the capacity for better individual and collective well-being, adaptability, and performance across a wide range of situations.
Personal leadership is the self-confident ability to crystallize your thinking and establish an exact direction for your life, to commit yourself to moving in that direction and then to take determined action to acquire, accomplish or become whatever you identify as the ultimate goal for your life. Personal leadership is a process of developing a positive self-image that gives one the courage and self-confidence necessary to consciously choose actions that satisfy one’s needs, to persevere, and accept responsibility for the outcome.
Personal spiritual leadership requires hope/faith in a vision of service to others through altruistic love. Referencing Figure 2, the source of personal spiritual leadership springs from an inner life, mindful or reflective practice based on spiritual principles rooted in the golden rule. By being committed to a vision of service to key stakeholders leaders have a personal sense of calling, making a difference in other peoples’ lives, and assure that their life has meaning and purpose. By living the values of altruistic love they have a sense of membership and of being understood and appreciated. The combined experiences of calling and membership form the foundation for spiritual well-being, which is the source of the individual outcomes of personal spiritual leadership—personal commitment and productivity, positive human health, psychological well-being, life satisfaction, and a sustainability mindset.
Through this process leaders become more conscious, mindful, self-aware, and other-centered. Self-awareness is an expression of being present from moment-to-moment and conscious of one’s experiences, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. From this state of being leaders realize that their view of the world is one of many alternative interpretations of reality and begin to realize they are interconnected and must care and take personal responsibility for the shared well-being of their fellow humans, key stakeholders, and the ecological systems that must be preserved to insure we pass to a future generation a flourishing world that is better than the one we inherited.
Organizational Spiritual Leadership
Organizational spiritual leadership focuses on group relations between leader-follower, follower-leader, and peer-peer as being dynamic and reciprocal over time. It is well known that leaders through role modeling, behaviors, and other means can alter the self-concepts, attitudes, goals, and beliefs of followers. Through group member interactions an emergent process occurs whereby individual perceptions over time form group and, ultimately, organizational perceptions of spiritual leadership. As this process unfolds, leaders and followers in the organization begin to form compatible mental models of hope/faith in a vision of service to key stakeholders through altruistic love. As group members high in spiritual leadership interact, they continually bolster the level of spiritual leadership of each other and the group. In turn, this increases the group’s sense of calling and membership, ultimately supporting and influencing each other toward a sustainability mindset and a commitment to do their part to maximize the triple bottom line.
A challenge when implementing spiritual leadership at the organizational level is the negative connotation associated with the term spiritual. Secular organizations may desire a neutral term for the leadership model to avoid negative reactions from those who may associate the word spiritual with religion. Concerns arise regarding employee and employer’s expression of belief without judgment while balancing respective parties’ legal rights has proven challenging. In particular, fostering voluntary programs that legitimate and nurture employees’ inner life are seen as essential for implementing organizational spiritual leadership across the organization and include management practices such as:
- A brief moment of silence before meetings
- A room for silence; spiritual support groups
- Corporate chaplains/spiritual directors for confidential inner spiritual guidance and support
- Providing employees with coaching and mentoring opportunities from technical and leadership development and formation to personal vision statements
- Supporting a context for conversations among workers about sound needs, personal fulfilment, and spiritual aspirations
- A library that loans spiritual and religious materials
The Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model
A business model is a description of the value a company offers. It encompasses the architecture of the firm and the network of partners/stakeholders and includes developing and adopting strategies that have a positive impact on key environmental stakeholders. To do so in today’s chaotic global, Internet age requires an explicit set of moral values and criteria for measuring success coupled with a need to institute triple bottom line assessment and reporting. The Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model (see Figure 3) , which draws from the balanced scorecard approach to performance excellence pioneered by Kaplan and Norton, emphasizes stakeholder satisfaction and spiritual leadership as key to maximizing the Triple Bottom Line with particular emphasis on sustainability. In doing so it utilizes a vision and values-driven stakeholder approach to achieve congruence across the individual, team, and organizational levels to foster high levels of employee well-being, social and ecological sustainability, and acceptable financial performance.
Figure 3: Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model
As shown, the strategic management process begins with the development of a vision, purpose, and mission, followed by an internal and external stakeholder analysis that forms the foundation for relating to and meeting or exceeding the expectations of key stakeholders. This analysis forms the basis for developing organizational objectives, strategies, and action plans for implementation. These comprise the quality, stakeholder satisfaction, and financial measures found in the Balanced Scorecard performance categories.
Employee learning and growth is the central balanced scorecard performance category because it is a leading indicator that drives the other performance categories. The Learning and Growth category is primarily driven through the spiritual leadership process whereby both leaders and followers are more likely to cultivate a sustainability mindset, be more committed to the organization, and have higher levels of life satisfaction and psychological well-being. This yields employees dedicated to continuous process improvement, resulting in higher quality products and services that, in turn, satisfy key customers and other stakeholders, including those committed to sustainability. This ultimately leads to better financial performance which, when taken together, maximizes the triple bottom Line. Finally, the Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model facilitates the integration of individuals and teams with the organization’s vision and values. Through this integration, empowered teams emerge, allowing workers to utilize their talents and abilities to effectively deal with important stakeholder issues.
Examples of the Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model in Action
As mentioned earlier, the starting point for organizations committing to engage all stakeholders from a Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Perspective is the recognition of the innate dignity of all human beings. Moreover, a sustainability mindset becomes critical for leaders who are consciously engaged in caring for, respecting, and serving all stakeholders, especially those focused on the environment and those in need. Following are three examples of CEOs and their organizations that, although they might not describe their experience in terms of spiritual leadership, have discovered a way to connect with and serve something greater than themselves to embed sustainability into their triple bottom line.
Unilever. An example of a CEO and an organization that seeks to serve all stakeholders from a humanistic ethical system based in altruistic values that exemplifies the Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model in action is Paul Poleman, CEO of Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company with 176,000 employees, 76,000 suppliers in 190 countries, and 300 factories worldwide. Unilever Offers more than 400 brands—Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Dove soap, Lipton tea, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise—to over 2.5 billion customers. At Unilever, environmental risks and poverty are major problems for almost every part of business operations from manufacturing laundry detergent to growing tea. Fundamental to Poleman’s leadership philosophy is his view that the real purpose of business is to come up with solutions that are relevant to society and help make society better. He also believes that customers will abandon companies that fail to grasp that, while businesses that embrace the triple bottom line will inevitably become more profitable.
Poleman’s embrace of sustainability is not without his detractors however and reflects the balancing act all leaders face who commit their organizations to the triple bottom line. Most significant is the challenge from shareholders, for whom Unilever’s good intentions count for little weight compared to their voracious desire for revenue growth and profits. In response Poleman has remained steadfast to his philosophy. Knowing that it will take years for the company’s sustainability plan to show concrete results he scrapped quarterly earning guidance for investors. In doing so he sided with those who argue that the intense pressure to meet quarterly targets traps companies in a vicious cycle of pressure to maximize share price for investors to the detriment of long-term growth and execution of complicated strategies, like improving working conditions, improving the environment, and sustainability ambitions.
Poleman believes that success is not defined by a title or position but rather by having a purpose in life and setting out to achieve it. He also takes the time to interview entry-level candidates as well as have small focus groups, dinners, or lunches with people in the company at all levels (there are only five levels at Unilever). He views this as one of his most important jobs, to create a supportive culture to facilitate their career journey. Poleman says that the main thing he has discovered in life is that it is not about yourself, it is about investing in others. Above all he believes the chief quality of a leader is to be a moral, ethical human being. No one is more special because of their job title or responsibilities. The best advice he says he got from his father is to not forget where you came from (a family of modest means) and keep your feet on the ground. His best piece of advice to others is to always remember that it is not about yourself and to be grateful.
Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah Winfrey’s brand, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), and other global initiatives certainly qualify her as a leader who follows the Spiritual Leadership Triple Bottom Line Business Model. An example of a CEO that seeks to serve all stakeholders by drawing on a force or Higher Power greater than herself, Oprah is one of the most powerful women in the world whose net worth exceeds $3 billion. A woman of great talent and gifts, Oprah has produced and acted in movies, given commencement speeches, launched products, appeared on talk shows, and been awarded the U.S.’s highest civilian honor: The Presidential Medal of Freedom for meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
Oprah considers one of her big productivity secrets is being “fully present” and living life moment-to-moment with a level of intensity and truth. From this place of conscious awareness also comes a space of humility and the realization that she does not have all the answers and must rely on a leadership team she can delegate to. This is reflected in conversations with trusted executives who use words like disciples, sacred, moral compass, and spiritual leadership when speaking of her.
At her spiritual core is her belief and understanding that there is a force she calls God that is a presence, a divine entity that loved her into being that helps her stay grounded, centered, and strong. She feels called to inspire people, to get them to look at themselves—to do better and be better to everybody. What mattered most to her about creating OWN was having a platform where she could connect ideas that let people see the best of themselves through the lives of other people.
Oprah’s Angel Network, a public charity formed in 1998, was established to encourage people around the world to make a difference in the lives of others. Her vision is to inspire individuals to create opportunities that enable underserved women and children to rise to their potential. Her network built the Seven Fountains Primary School in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Opened in 2007, the school serves more than 1,000 boys and girls and is a model for teaching and learning throughout Africa. She also initiates and supports charitable projects and provides grants to not-for-profit organizations around the globe committed to sustainability, such as the World Food Programme, Mpilonhle, and Heifer International that share in this vision.
Aflac. Aflac is a Fortune 500 company that insures more than 50 million people worldwide. The company was founded in 1955 in Columbus, Georgia, by three brothers from Enterprise, Alabama. They were raised in the Methodist Church, and they applied the Christian principles they learned there in starting and building their company. They knew that doing the right thing would be critically important to their success in business. Dan Amos is chairman and chief executive officer of Aflac Incorporated. During Mr. Amos’ tenure as CEO revenues have grown from $2.7 billion to $21 billion as of December 31, 2015. He also is responsible for launching the company’s national advertising program featuring the popular Aflac Duck. Today, Aflac is the leading provider of individual insurance policies offered at the worksite in the United States and is the largest life insurer in Japan in terms of individual policies in force. Aflac was named by Fortune magazine in 2016 as one of America’s Most Admired Companies for the 15th year.
Although Aflac is not a religious company or trying to bring religion into the workplace, faith plays an important role in the company as it was founded and built upon principles rooted in Christianity. Paul S. Amos, a former board of directors member who resigned in June 2017 to join a private equity firm, believes that the teachings of Jesus absolutely create the right principles for the right way to treat other people and that you bring people into the culture and emphasize these principles from day one on how they provide guidance for how you behave in meetings and how you behave both inwardly and outwardly. However, company leaders can make those types of decisions without expressly saying that it’s about a Biblical principle, but knowing it is those foundations that have generated that decision. And when leaders are doing the right things they are also teaching their people how to do the right things. It is not expressly in your face, but it is about doing the things that are going to generate the best return for Aflac’s shareholders, the best return for policyholders and the best way to take care of people.
As the market leader in the supplemental insurance industry, Aflac leaders are committed to making business decisions that balance the needs of their policyholders, employees, sales force, and shareholders, while recognizing the obligation they have to the global community. As such, they have embedded a commitment to sustainability into their triple bottom line by striving to balance effective and efficient management of operations with caring for their people and responsible environmental stewardship, including promoting awareness among their employees and interested stakeholders of their shared responsibility towards protection of the environment.
Aflac also carefully considers the impact of their actions—not only today, but in the years to come. As a large, publicly-traded company, Aflac recognizes its responsibility for leading the way in eco-friendly business initiatives. The company became the first insurance company in the United States to be ISO 50001 Energy Management System registered, which represents the latest best-practice thinking in energy management. Key to this is the Aflac SmartGreen® philosophy and goal of environmental stewardship, which has led to the implementation of policies and procedures that guide their actions with respect to buildings, procurement, purchasing, and waste prevention.
Discussion and Conclusion
For several reasons, the path for embedding sustainability in the triple bottom line is not easy, nor is it a given that all leaders have the capacity to perceive or walk it. First, leadership that emphasizes sustainability reflects an emerging consensus for leaders to live their lives and lead their organizations in ways that account for their impact on the earth, society, and the health of local and global economies. Thus, the very definition of leadership is extended to those who seek sustainable change, regardless of role or position; to build the kind of world that we want to live in and that we want our children and grandchildren to inherit. Second, this requires leaders with extraordinary abilities, as sustainability and sustainable development call for organizations to operate within complex interconnected and dynamic environmental, economic, and social systems that require conscious moral decision-making and complex problem solving. Third, leaders must engage in an inward journey of discovery whereby innate human selfishness is transformed or becomes centered in deeper empathy, compassion, understanding of oneself as well as colleagues, organizations, communities, the environment, and how all these factors interrelate.
Finally, four interrelated objectives must be realized in order to embed sustainability in the triple bottom line through spiritual leadership:
- Build the organization—Develop the organization’s capacity to support other organizations as well as become more sustainable itself.
- Build leadership—Support the development of leader knowledge, skills, and competencies, and the organization’s capacity for embedding sustainability into the triple bottom line.
- Build partnership—Actively contribute to policy and stakeholder development and practice in sustainable development at the industry, national and global levels.
- Build practice—Lead, support, and contribute to debate, discussion, and improvement of leader competencies for effective leadership for sustainability.
The basic assumption underlying these objectives is that, although building the organization is desirable in itself, its main purpose for sustainable development is to make it better equipped to meet the other three objectives. Building leadership requires the development of core competencies to be able to understand and demonstrate leadership for sustainability, which is often described as sustainability literacy. By building practice, organizations committed to sustainability would build leadership for sustainability with spiritual leadership as its foundation. Building partnerships would improve the quality and impact of a sustainable development within the organization’s stakeholder ecosystem. Leaders, organizations, and their partners could then work to implement sustainable strategies that influence learning, learners, leaders, organizations, and the communities they serve to nurture sustainable development.
In conclusion, we have proposed that the personal and organizational spiritual leadership models can be used for embedding sustainability into the triple bottom line. This is a leadership paradigm within which we can all experience meaning and purpose connected to something greater than ourselves, a world in which we can flourish today as well as provide for the generations of those to come. And most important of all this raises at least two questions for those of us who are committed to this quest, we must ask ourselves, “How will I participate in a sustainable future? Will I make the moral commitment and choose to accept the challenge of co-creating a conscious, sustainable world that works for everyone through spiritual leadership?”