Spiritual Disciplines at Work

There are many times when I make a presentation with an emphasis on the science of development and someone afterwards carefully approaches me. As we talk, they look for signals to see if it is OK to discuss spiritual dimensions of development. When I sense this I try to help them by opening the topic. These people often come from religious traditions and many are thoughtful practitioners of meditation or prayer. Often they have stories worthy of examination.  Here are three illustrations of prayer and enlightenment in professional contexts.
A blue collar person told of rebuilding an automobile engine over and over.   It simply would not work. At home, his wife suggested that he pray. One day he reached total frustration so he gave it a try. An image came to him, he went to the engine, turned a single screw and it started.
A car designer told me of reaching his mid-forties and feeling a very real fear that he could no longer keep up with the creativity of his younger colleagues. The fear became so intense that one night he prayed for help. That night he had a nightmare in which a young colleague approached him with the most impressive car design he had ever seen.   When he woke up he realized that the image in his dream came from his own brain. He went in that day and began working on the design.
A senior vice-president faced an IT problem that was unsolvable. After days of working on it, he sat in his office, at 3 A.M. and prayed. Nothing happened. So he sat in his chair and waited for an answer. It eventually came. In a matter of minutes he resolved the unsolvable issue.
There is a pattern to these stories. Deep frustration leads to surrender and a sincere cry for help.   The cry or expression of real intent leads to an experience of spiritual enlightenment. In this pattern reaching the state of real intent seems particularly important. Here intent is the determination or desire to accomplish an outcome. Real is genuine, actual, authentic, true, unquestionable. To live in real intent is to live in authentic purpose.
There is another pattern of prayer and enlightenment that also involves real intent. It is rare but can be found in a few spiritually mature professionals. Instead of showing real intent at times of frustration, this more evolved discipline includes living from real intent on a regular basis.
There is a man I have known for 35 years.   Today he is recognized for leading an extraordinary organization. As a leader he does things that do not make sense to the conventional mindset. Yet in a shrinking industry his unconventional, purpose driven company prospers.
Recently we reminisced about his early career. His first job was in a small company led by a tyrant. The CEO would do things like open everyone’s mail, put directions on how to respond, and then have the mail delivered to the original, intended recipients. He would hold meetings and use foul language to attack his employees in front of all the others, and so on. Everyone was terrified of the man.
There was one exception.   My friend, a new employee and a quiet English major, would regularly meet with the boss or write to him, pointing out why his behavior was self-defeating and unacceptable. He never did this to be rebellious. He did it because he was committed to the common good of the company. His feedback to the boss was respectful but completely honest.
What was the outcome? The tyrant began to respect, rely on, and invest in the quiet English major. He gave him more and more responsibility. When it was time to retire, the tyrant made the English major the new CEO.
From where did my friend’s strength and capacity come? Thirty-five years ago I visited him in his office one day. He showed me a door that led to an unused staircase.   He said, “This is my prayer closet, I use it many times each day.”
I have never forgotten that long ago moment. I recently reminded him of it. He told me that in creating his current company he designed things so he could do much of his work from home. The reason is that he wanted to make it easier to pray many times a day.
This personal, spiritual discipline may explain the fact that he has always had an internal locus of control. He has been always willing to leave the conventional mindset so as to march to a different drummer. He has always been inclined to courageously but peacefully moved forward in service of the common good. This orientation requires courage because many times pursuing the common good is contrary to the prevailing political interests. Once, during a corporate merger he was fired because of his commitment to the common good. He would not cave to corporate political pressures.
He looks back on that firing as one of his most important life moments. It had much to do with how he designed his present, highly successful company.
This kind of courageous forward movement has implications for leadership development.   Disciplined believers, who struggle to continually live in connection with the divine, experience real intent on a more frequent basis. Rather than only reaching real intent in the deep valleys of life, they also obtain it in their regular prayer experiences.
Because they feel inspired to do what they do, they have a sense of calling.   They spend less time questioning their challenging purpose and more time trying to figure out how to obtain it. In moving forward towards the common good they have the courage to do the unconventional. So they have extreme experiences that require deep reflection. In this process of personal learning they come to internalize moral power. Scientists call this moral power “idealized influence” and find that wielding it is essential to transformational leadership. People of moral power learn to live in selfless purpose. This allows them to attract others to do unconventional things in service of selfless purpose.
How would you teach someone to effectively challenge a tyrannical boss?
What does it take for a normally negative life experience like a firing to be developmental?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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