The Search for the Corporate Soul by David Ring


We live in exciting times it seems. In the recent Queens speech debate, Tony Blair claimed that a new Industrial Revolution is currently taking place; one which will take not two hundred years to transform our way of life, but twenty.

This revolution is being both enabled by and driven via the Internet. The ramifications are immense in terms of the nature and structure of work and the way we conduct our lives. The implications for managers and leaders of organizations are no less profound.

My own work centers around helping people and organizations to change, but more specifically to enable people to find more meaning and purpose in their work and hopefully their lives. Most organizations with whom I work are finding it harder and harder to cope with the overwhelming demands placed upon them both to change and to demonstrate continuous improvement along the way.

There is in my view a fundamental crisis developing in much of British industry and the public sector. This crisis is often vocalized by management as a morale problem or a demotivated workforce, whilst others describe it as the product of work-stress and overload. What most people do not express however, and what most senior managers will never admit, is that they have absolutely no idea as to what to do about it.

If Tony Blair is right, those people aged thirty-five to forty who currently occupy middle or senior management positions are, in the course of their own careers, going to have to manage the historical equivalent of two hundred years of change in working practices. Furthermore, they will have to do so in a climate in which a substantial percentage of their staff feel overworked and bewildered by the pace of recent change. Under pressure to become ever more efficient, managers are running out (at least in the private sector) of fads and quality schemes with which to improve productivity and commitment. It has finally sunk in that the quick fixes simply do not work. The quality programmes have run out of steam, by which people mean: “The results, after an initial burst of success have not resulted in the kind of sustained improvement we had hoped for.”

Not that there is anything inherently wrong in the quality systems, but the central tenet of the quality movement points out that 95% of the problems are the fault of the system. Whereas typical organizational improvement programmes are aimed at changing the people, not the system. It is also in my view a failure by the leadership of organizations to realise that if the organization is going to have to change then they themselves are going to have to change.

All too often, culture change and employee development is something senior managers view as being something those that work for them are in need of. They need only manage the process. Managing change is recognized as the most important skill requirement of modern managers. Personal growth and change is not usually even on the agenda.

The search is now on for a new system of managing that is congruent with our times and the new values and mission statements so popular in the eighties and nineties. Whilst we are on the verge of a technological revolution (if recent business titles are any indicator), we are also on the verge of a spiritual revolution. It would seem that the search is now on for the corporate soul.

With intellectual heavyweights like Charles Handy trumpeting the call for us to question our corporate “reason for being,” it is evident that the business world has begun to take notice. With companies like Boeing Corporation hiring the poet David Whyte as part of a programme to uplift the spirits and creativity of its managers, we can be assured that spirituality has finally arrived in the corporate boardroom.

And so, the search for the corporate spirit is on. The major question in my mind however, and one that remains to be answered, is why? What exactly is driving this shift toward the sublime? One thing that seems clear is that it has become fashionable in recent years to talk about the softer issues in management, to consider people as whole human beings with emotional and spiritual needs which cannot be ignored.

One only has to look at the proliferation of Employee Assistance Programs, Stress Reduction Schemes, and Staff Counselling and Welfare provisions to find evidence for this. We appear to be living in, or at least moving towards, a culture in which the well-being of staff is seen as a priority within organizations. But as we become a more litigacious society and, given recent test cases requiring employers to observe a duty of care to not only employees physical but also mental well being, one can be forgiven for suspecting motives.

Much is being written on this subject, and many people are beginning to question the role of business and the assumption that the sole purpose of business is to make a profit. “Profit for what?” is the question asked by Charles Handy in a recent work interestingly titled The Hungry Spirit. People are questioning the fundamental structure, power relationships and ownership of our institutions.

Talk of devolution of power, empowered organizations, spirituality in the workplace, etc. is being driven by something. But we are faced with an apparent paradox: big businesses, in their current structure, simply do not work as enterprises which serve the spiritual needs of their employees. This is hardly surprising, since they were never designed to do so. At the risk of stating the exceedingly obvious, the bottom line of business is to make a profit.

I must confess to a certain amount of ambivalence. The cynic within me might argue that the real reason that business has begun to embrace spirituality is born out of financial and economic desperation rather than compassion. If all else fails, why not seek divine inspiration as a last resort. But nonetheless, I remain cautiously optimistic.

The search for the corporate soul is on – and with it the need to find an authentic spirituality, one that is congruent with both spiritual traditions and the profit motive. Can western capitalist models of “for profit” organizations ever be reconciled with either eastern or western forms of spirituality, with their eschewing of material values (surely this is anathema)? Can one reconcile “awakening corporate soul” with the maximization of return to shareholders? Can the interests of the owners and other stakeholders be balanced? These are the pressing issues facing leaders of business today. My answer is an emphatic yes! But to explore this apparent paradox we must first define our terms.

Much of the argument in this debate will no doubt center around what we mean by spirituality, spirit, soul, religion, dogma, etc… we all know this old chestnut, and no doubt we will hear it again and again as spirituality takes hold as the preoccupation in every field, from science to art to sport to politics. We should be careful, however, not to mistake a growing interest in spirituality with a growing openness to explore its meaning.

As recent events show, Glenn Hoddle has been made a martyr for saying simply what a large proportion of the people on this planet believe, namely that our birth circumstances are determined a priori either as a result of karma or choice. No, the establishment, it seems, is far from ready to take an enlightened look at what other wisdom traditions may offer. For the moment anyway, political correctness is still much more important than the notion that there might be more to our physical life circumstances than the purely material, biological or genetic factors.

If commercial organizations are to fare any better at the hands of shareholders and the establishment, then they had better watch what they say, and to whom they say it. And herein lies the first great barrier to liberation of “corporate soul”: they lay themselves open to ridicule, but this is precisely what an authentic spirituality calls for. We can see clearly how the city treats the “romantic” notions of its leaders, with just one recent example: witness the treatment of Rocco Forte in the battle for control of his hotel group in the hostile takeover bid by Granada.

If the recent TV programme is a fair reflection it would seem stating your desire to put employees before short term profit is enough to condemn you as incompetent and out of touch. No, we must be more realistic, we should welcome the current trend as evidence of corporations recognizing the need to address spiritual issues, but settle ourselves in for a long and tough ride – which is, of course, just how it should be. Any individual who has experienced personal growth, especially into the higher realms (above the emotional and into the transpersonal), will bear witness that this is always an excruciatingly painful process and one which takes a lifetime. Why should corporations have it any easier?

So here we see the emergence of the second barrier to organizational growth: the timeframe involved. The arguments and problems of short-termism in our economy are well known. This factor alone will mitigate against organizations’ attempts at liberating soul. Ignoring the fact that growth can be slow and often involves periods of pain, the rewards are very often not what was expected or sought. Convincing organizations to undertake a perilous, long journey with no guarantees as to even the destination, expecting stormy weather and certainly encountering despair, this is a seemingly impossible task. And yet this is precisely what will need to be done, and what an authentic spirituality calls for. The path of the spiritual adventurer is a lonely one; few have the courage to take it.

But (and perhaps here lies our most optimistic prospect), there there is no longer any choice. It is inevitable that we recognise the only long term strategy offering any enduring hope is to open oneself to the possibility that there may be another way.

I started this article by saying that it is possible to integrate an authentic spirituality with business, that this integration is indeed possible. Why my emphatic yes? Well, in fact, the argument does not even arise once we correctly define spirit and stop confusing it with soul or corporate soul. What do the great wisdom traditions tell us about God, Spirit, the ultimate ground of being, Atman, Gaia, Ati, Nirvana, Enlightenment, however you personally wish to recognize it. All of them point to the fact that spirit is all embracing, all encompassing, everywhere and everything. In eastern traditions particularly, you are already enlightened spirit, the act of grasping or trying to attain it is simply to deny Spirit.

Spirit pervades, includes, and composes every realm – material, emotional, mental, social, cultural – it is all manifestation of Spirit. Carl Jung supposedly had a sign over his study saying, “Invited or not, God is present.” In the act of attempting to grasp spirit or soul, to liberate what is already present, organizations fall prey (just as individuals do) to the Buddhist notion of samsara, and thus perpetuate and exacerbate the problem.

Even logically, if the management of an organization sets out to awaken its corporate soul, then it means that they must recognize its presence. But it was there all along; it did not manifest only after being acknowledged and added to the corporate mission statement. Organizations can indeed liberate the soul, if by that they mean make the workplace a fit and worthy place for the soul to shine in. They can liberate and engage the submerged iceberg of skill, talent and energy that lies both fallow and neglected in most organizations. But they are guilty of the worst form of spiritual materialism and reductionism if they believe that they can appropriate, or buy, peoples’ souls in the pursuit of material gain.

Workplace communities, fluid project teams and networks, these are indeed the way of the future. They are the template for future organizational structures. Indeed business organizations are realizing that to retain their life force they will need to cater to employees higher needs, lest they end up as sinking ships, with nothing more than hydrophobic rodents as crewmates. In attempting to incorporate spiritual values into a new ethical business structure, however, leaders must also be mindful, to render unto Caesar only that which is rightfully his.

David Ring is the owner of The Personal Development Partnership of Manchester, England, whose purpose is to help organizations recognize the need to raise their heads from the numbers and integrate an authentic and sincere spirituality in their workplace. He has run workshops entitled Managing Change in the Workplace for The British Association for Counselling and The Association for Counselling at Work. he can be contacted by email at david@thepdp.co.uk and on the web at http://www.integral-business.com

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