Soul at Work
by Margaret Benefiel
GIVING PRIORITY to nurturing the human side of the organization doesn't have to be done to the exclusion of success or profits, according to Margaret Benefiel. Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations is a wonderful compilation of short case studies that recognize the spiritual side of people and the necessity of nurturing people's creativity in the workplace, while acknowledging that there is life outside the workplace.
Organized in three parts, Soul at Work first examines the spiritual life of leaders. In “From the Outside In,” Benefiel highlights the inner lives of leaders such as Bernie Glassman, founder of Greyston Bakery, a producer of high-end baked goods. Glassman, desiring to demonstrate that spirituality and business ventures can be linked, founded his bakery in 1982 with the goal of providing job opportunities for people considered unemployable. Today Greyston Bakery and another business venture, Greyston Café, provide the financial support necessary to fund five non-profit organizations under the umbrella of the Greyston Foundation, which provides housing assistance, childcare, family support, and health care services in Yonkers, New York. A Jew and practicing Buddhist, Glassman was able to incorporate his spirituality not only into his businesses but also into these other organizations that provide not only employment but also the support services necessary to make his employees successful in life.
The leaders of all the businesses and organizations cited by Benefiel have found ways to maintain their spiritual centeredness, whether through prayer, meditation, reflection, walks, journaling, or other religious practices. Although not all these practices would be considered “Christian,” each of them reflects the importance of maintaining spiritual disciplines that help people become successful leaders who stay grounded in times of personal and organizational stress.
Second, Soul at Work asserts that an organization's purpose embraces all its members, both inside and outside the organization. The phrase “soulful leadership” is used to demonstrate how the spiritual centeredness of leaders translates into the way employees and customers are treated. Reell Precision Manufacturing of St. Paul, Minnesota, began with what could be considered a very Christ-centered mission statement—“Reell is committed to following the will of God.” In 1992, after employee input that Reell should be more inclusive, the company willingly made some changes to the statement. It now recognizes that “we are challenged to work and make decisions consistent with God's purpose for creation according to our individual understanding.” It's in hard times that a company is tested. For example, during downturn times in sales, Reell has found ways to keep all or most employees on the payroll by asking everyone, including the co-CEO's, to take pay cuts (or even go without pay). This attitude of self-sacrifice modeled from the top has resulted in a very loyal group of employees. Southwest Airlines and Document Management Group (an Irish company based in Dublin) are also presented as offering examples of “soulful leadership.”
The companies and organizations Benefiel cites are set apart from others in their fields because they utilize a variety of practices that could be viewed as overtly religious. These practices include prayer or reflection in meetings when seeking discernment, providing opportunities for meditation, and incorporating religious language (“seek inspirational wisdom”) and spiritual principles in their mission statements. In some organizations, the organizational chart includes a “mission leader” (Mercy Medical Center—North Iowa in Mason City, Iowa) or a “vice president of spiritual care” (HealthEast in Minneapolis, Minnesota). Such senior-level leaders assist organizations in remaining true to their missions while also helping to facilitate spirituality throughout the entire organization—for patients and staff alike, in the case of these medical organizations. Another example given is Shalem Institute in Washington, D. C., which seeks to integrate its contemplative programmatic approach to spirituality into its organizational life.
Finally, in the third section of her book—“Putting It All Together”—Benefiel takes a look at the motivations a company might have for nurturing the soul at work. Initially, some organizations may adopt ideas in Soul at Work with the goal of improving the organization's effectiveness as well as its bottom line—not necessarily a wrong motivation. Benefiel wonders, though:
If spirituality in the workplace is ultimately about something less tangible than a bottom line, is it appropriate to focus on profits? If there are losses or failures, or rough spots along the way, is there more harm than good done if an organization has embraced these ideas? In the end, will it create cynicism or disenchantment on the part of employees and customers?
Benefiel helps provide some answers to these and other difficult questions by using the process of individual spiritual transformation to explain the growth that takes place in an organization that is truly committed to nurturing the spirit. As individuals, we first seek out a more vibrant spiritual life because we feel a need. Then, in the process of maturing spiritually we should eventually reach a point where we realize our spiritual walk is not just about getting blessings, answered prayers, or other “goodies” from God. We have to make a choice to continue forward with the realization that our walk with God is more about our ongoing transformation and less about the tangible blessings that we can count. The same is true with an organization that first embraces spirituality because there's a need to be met. Spiritual principles applied help the organization become more effective and successful, often improving the bottom line. Inevitably, however, there will be rough spots that cause the organization to re-assess its commitment to those original principles. Then the organization will either abandon them or else seek discernment for a new vision and a revised set of goals and purposes that might move it to the place—as in the case of Reell Manufacturing—where the goal becomes “to do what's right even when it doesn't seem expedient or profitable.”
I appreciate the way Margaret Benefiel concludes her book with a reminder that even if the keys that nurture a soulful organization are missing in the place where we work, we can still have an impact within our sphere of influence. “We are all leaders. Whatever your sphere of influence, large or small, you can put soul to work in your organization.” Benefiel's comment reminds me of Stephen Covey's first step to becoming a highly effective person—being proactive and positively affecting the culture around us. As leaders we can practice three important principles that Benefiel has identified as necessary to nurture the soul at work:
- Bring your soul to work!
- Find ways to sustain that soul (inside and outside of work) in the midst of the daily pressures of the workplace.
- Bring that spiritually grounded presence into your sphere of influence (department, team, or staff group), being responsible to cultivate your own spiritual health as well as recognizing the spiritual nature and needs of your coworkers.
Margaret Benefiel has provided many examples in her book on how to accomplish these principles, along with the clear reminder that we don't need to check who we are at the door of the workplace.