Integrating Business and Spirituality? Lessons from Leaders’ Enlightening Journeys from Head to Heart
By Claire Harbour and Antoine Tirard
Defining “Leadership” is no easy task. McKinsey recently described it as a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization. Good leadership also happens when a leader’s values are aligned with the work they do and they are able to create trust. But DDI’s 2023 Global Leadership Forecast reveals that only 46% of employees trust their direct manager to do what is right. Even worse, only 32% say they trust senior leaders in their organization.
This question of building trust and “doing what is right” quickly connects to the question of morals, ethics, and whether leaders lead with some sort of compass by which to navigate their decisions and actions. Until recently, the business world has largely discouraged people from making their personal values – including their religious beliefs – visible in any way. There has been a separation between the whole self of any employee and the persona with which s/he is expected to present at work. And, despite Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in many organizations, it is not always easy in reality to “bring your whole self to work”. And so it remains a challenge for a leader to choose to show up with their deeper personal values and beliefs or their spirituality visible and in action.
Within this context, and inspired by several encounters with people living their leadership differently, we wanted to understand more about how spiritual values, alignment, and authenticity could play out in the business world. What better place to seek this than in the leaders who are actively, visibly and genuinely putting these at the forefront of their being? We wondered if those leaders who are following some sort of spiritual way of life might hold some clues for us. Do they perceive business as separate from or complementary to their spirituality? Can they bring their whole selves – business and spiritual – to work? We also wanted to understand the journeys of discovery they had been on, as well as the stages of integration of their enlightenment into their work lives. Ultimately, we wish that investigating these questions might lead to more of us feeling confident in developing our connection to the rest of the world, and thus contributing to the greater good.
Bridging Worlds: Subhanu’s Cultural, Business and Spiritual Odyssey
Subhanu was born in India, into a family of classically trained musicians and dancers. His family moved to the UK when he was three, and always ensured he remained connected with the traditions of his home country. His first “guru” was his maternal grandfather. Subhanu loved memorizing the verses of Sufi poetry and philosophy and was told, “Son, you will find God in this poetry”. And so he engaged with even more energy into the games and recitations involved in memorizing and understanding the words and meanings.
This early immersion in spiritual and artistic practices that were radically different from those of his classmates in London made Subhanu feel even more like an outsider, but as he grew up, he began to enjoy the sense of difference, to revel in it. In his teens, he discovered a love of languages, from French to German and Latin too. His natural taste would have led him to study languages at university, but Indian tradition and family pressure saw him gravitate towards Engineering. Duty won out over predilection, but Subhanu found a way to continue to learn languages in his spare time.
Friends at Oxford would question him about Hinduism, and he answered glibly: “One God, don’t hurt anybody”. But when he became involved with the Hare Krishna movement, he was confused because their way was different from his upbringing, and what is more, they threw verses at him to which he could not respond. He felt compelled to learn more. Books were passed to him to satisfy this thirst for enlightenment, and his graduation gift was a year of Sanskrit studies. He shares: “I was lost to it by the very first class”. His luck continued as all the other students dropped out, so Subhanu found himself with a private trainer.
Name: Subhanu Saxena
Business career: Banking, consulting, general management in healthcare, private equity
Spiritual practice: Hinduism, lecturer and teacher of Sanskrit and ancient Indian philosophy (Advaita Vedanta)
To learn more: Subhanu’s profile – https://www.linkedin.com/in/subhanu-saxena-20bb56157/
His career began at Citibank, and he was as busy as most graduate bankers, so his wishes of being able to help teach Sanskrit, or to study the ancient Vedas, seemed unlikely to be granted. But again, serendipity led to him meeting a Vedic scholar through a friend. For the next two months, every evening, Subhanu would go and study with the scholar, working towards up to 48 hours of recitations. Having applied and been accepted to do an MBA in France, he went off to India before the start of the program to study with other gurus, and was formally initiated into the sacred heritage of his people. Unusual brain power and capacity allowed Subhanu to continue to study the texts while doing his MBA, and he continued to teach the traditions widely. One challenge was how to bring the ancient messages into modern life; this was especially important since a tenet of the tradition is that once you have learnt, you become a custodian and it is your duty to serve and pass this on to others.
So, as Subhanu moved from role to role, at PepsiCo, in strategy consulting, and into Big Pharma, he remained conscious of this need to serve and spread, working with groups of others: mindfulness practitioners, purpose seekers and so on; writing chapters and articles; conducting ceremonies and more. As he says “you make times for things you love”. And he jokes that with the “Swiss time management” he enjoyed at Novartis, he could “get a lot done with the time I had, and there is always more to do”.
However, for a long time, he compartmentalized the “spiritual Subhanu” and the “intellectual Subhanu”. It was not until a leadership coach challenged him on this, suggesting he might be surprised by what could happen “if he brought his whole self to work”, that he dared to be more authentic. Indeed, this was when he began to encourage his team members to do the same, regardless of their own particular gaps. In his current role at the helm of a private equity firm, Subhanu spends most time and energy on leading “with purpose” and encouraging his portfolio company leaders to consider how to lead their lives as a sacred offering to a higher purpose. He quotes Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, and so that is how he has built organizations, again and again.
Since that moment of liberation with the coach, Subhanu has been much more uninhibited in bringing his spiritual practices to work. While at the Gates Foundation, he would run mindfulness sessions and yoga classes. He also works hard at encouraging people to collect great experiences, as opposed to seeking out stepping stones – put simply “being in the moment”.
What is next for Subhanu? “At some point you will see more of me in robes… it will always be in me”. Subhanu’s commitment to these traditions does sometimes still surprise colleagues and those who “did not know”, but, he shares that the robes are just external clothing, and he prefers to focus anyway on the inner clothing.
In his family as well as his business life, Subhanu remains steadfastly intent on the question of “Am I allowing them all to bring what they have to offer?”. It’s a question that brings close relationships and beautiful outcomes. Why would he ever “retire” from that?
Balancing Belief and Business: Derek’s Journey of Service and Leadership
Derek grew up in Scotland, the son of a nurse and a salesman. His mother took him to church with her from when he was a tiny baby, and as he grew up, he was part of the “Boys’ Brigade”, a Christian youth organization, where he learned to serve others, and felt comradeship, benefitting from mentorship and inspiration through multiple strong, influential male role models.
With zero tradition and awareness of the possibility of university studies in the family, and under pressure to “get a job”, Derek embarked on an almost 24-year long career at the Scottish insurance company Standard Life. His first role was as an “office junior”, at 17. He identified strongly with the founding principles of the century-old mutual insurance company, owned entirely by its policyholders, which had set out from the beginning to help people to protect their property, and provide life assurance. It was no coincidence that Derek found himself growing and succeeding in the Customer Service part of the organization. Serving clients directly himself, and subsequently leading hundreds who did the same. He rose to become a member of the Global Group Executive, holding a number of senior and executive leadership roles, before, during and after the company de-mutualized and then floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2006.
Around this time, Derek sensed a growing disconnect between what mattered to him and what mattered to Standard Life. As he considered what to do, his faith allowed him to find freedom in making the choice to step away. It “liberated” him to leave, with confidence and certainty that there would be something else for him.
A former colleague, now working as an independent coach and facilitator had previously encouraged Derek to do likewise and utilize the skills they had learned together at Standard Life. And so that is what Derek did, having prayed for direction and sought advice of family, church leaders and trusted friends. Several years of work in the field of leadership advisory ensued, working with prominent organizations, and highly prestigious clients. Derek was “serving” these clients with what they needed to grow, and in alignment with his vision of what is important. His progress culminated in his appointment as a Partner at Pivot Leadership.
However, as the founding partner began to ready the firm for sale, Derek realized that he was “more of a farmer than a hunter” and found himself challenged around whether he was playing to his strengths and fulfilling the plans that he believed God had for him.
Name: Derek Thomson
Business career: Financial services, leadership development consulting and executive coaching
Spiritual practice: Episcopal Church executive director, preaching and praying
To learn more:Derek’s website – https://sonusleadership.com/
In late 2014, two significant events came about: Derek’s brother-in law’s brain tumor returned with a vengeance, and his own daughters had some tough but fair and true words with him about how much time he was (or was not) spending with them. Whilst he loved helping others all over the world, he was needed at home. From there, a series of “god-incidences”, as he calls them, began to fall into his life. A job as Executive Director opened up at his church, and, after praying for enlightenment on the matter, he took up the role (equivalent to that of Chief of Staff), with a team of 20 direct reports and 700 volunteer members of the church. Whilst this meant significant material and financial sacrifices for the family, Derek and his wife were convinced this was God’s plan. Within a year, Derek’s role evolved further, including preaching, and he was able to draw upon many of the skills and experiences from his professional past – he saw this as “God at Work”. Derek spent six years in this environment, serving alongside the charismatic senior pastor. Derek felt in full alignment with himself.
As the senior pastor approached his retirement, having grown the church from 60 to 800 parishioners, Derek knew that his job too was almost done. All that remained was once again to draw upon his leadership development experiences to support the Church in choosing and preparing the new Senior Pastor. And then to move on. And so, fueled by an encouraging note that a former leadership development colleague had sent to him when he had entered his pastor role, Derek returned to the field of leadership advisory, remarkably starting his first assignment literally the day after he stepped down from his church role – further underlining a sense that he was still in step with God’s plans. Though, this time, with the purpose of not working so much as to neglect what really matters – faith, family and friends. He now enjoys a mix of consulting to organizations, mentoring for the church, and spending time more intentionally with those he loves.
How, then, to bring or allow one’s spirituality or convictions into one’s career? Derek recommends being true to whatever we believe, consistent in this, having the courage to honor and follow your values and convictions and serving with purpose and an open mind. And alongside this, remaining sensitive to other views and beliefs. “Never push your faith on others, but never ignore it in any setting. As the bible says, “God works in all things”. I consequently believe I work for God in all things”. A further recommendation is to seek out like-minded colleagues who share similar values even if not the same beliefs, with whom to journey. Derek’s predominant value today is “kindness”, which he makes sure to distinguish from “just being nice”. It serves him well as he nurtures and challenges people, wherever he is.
Roxy’s Path to Self-Awareness and Connection: Bridging the Gap Between Heart and Mind
Polish-born Roxy became a typical immigrant to the U.S. at 10, with her single mother, leaving most of her family and father behind at home in Poland. Smart and highly motivated, not to mention pushed along by the parental and societal energy that tends to fuel immigrant children, Roxy quickly learned English and was, before long, winning prizes and scholarships. She describes those early years as ones which “turned her into a wanderer”, as there was always just enough for her to travel and explore. While she was raised a Catholic, with many rules and dogmas, it was not this religion which fueled her spiritual journey.
Even before emigrating, Roxy had loved travel, especially the part that involved observing other people, wondering how they lived and what made them tick. Her first university choice was interior design, under pressure to choose a “suit job”, and be visibly successful to society. She quickly switched to hospitality management and event planning which allowed her to bring together her taste for people and aesthetics. Although she was very successful, rising fast and constantly praised, she did not love it. After a few years of feeling “like a caged soul” she took time off to travel.
On return, Roxy found herself a role at Wharton, in their Leadership and then Executive Education departments, coordinating programs for top level clients across the globe. She was getting closer to her preferred subject matter of understanding people and helping them to grow, and was also thrilled to continue her own learning by obtaining a master’s in organizational dynamics. As she delved into coaching and assessment tools, she began contemplating the possibility that there was a great deal more behind the profiles and the definitions, and she wanted to explore coherence between the mind and the heart.
After a few years, with her career growth at Wharton constrained by the succession chain above, and a desire to step faster and deeper into her own gifts of connection, she decided it was time to change radically. “I felt stale, and my soul was dimming and dying. I wanted to spread the light but I was constricted”. As she stepped further into her flow and her “inner” world, she took more time to travel and explore deeper healing and began to be happy again. With further travel to places that attracted her and her desire to grow, she expanded far beyond her original menu of yoga, meditation, affirmations and so on, into a broader and deeper range of methods.
Name: Roxy Rusek
Business career: Former: Sales and Operations Management; Current: Holistic Coaching and Energy Healing
Spiritual practice: Energy healing: Biofield Tuning, Reiki, breathwork and meditations
To learn more:Roxy’s website – https://www.wanderess.me
A long and ongoing period of exploration of her inner and outer world began a few years ago and involved significant trial and error. Much work was done “stepping into deep shadow work”, and unlearning what no longer made sense for her, such as the degrees and the accolades, or the external validation. Her work now consists of helping people to tap into their own gifts, discovering what they want from life, and most particularly how they want to feel. An understanding has emerged that, although Roxy has always “been able to read people”, this is not a universal gift, and indeed it is one that makes her very special. She tunes in to people’s energies as easily as an accountant tunes into the processes and methods of bookkeeping. She describes it as “we all listen to the same music, but we all hear different things. I am now in this gateway to another language, the language of love, energy and heart.”
Travel between numerous exotic, spiritually charged locales, allows constant learning of new approaches, as well as work with an increasing number of clients who wish to be more spiritually connected, and to lead their own worlds from the coherent heart and mind, rather than conditioned beliefs or unbalanced ego.
This is not just about creating a “typical corporate health and wellness program, which is only a bandaid” but aspiring to a world in which human connection is the bottom line, attending to and taking care of people, planet, passion and purpose, as opposed to just profits. It is seeing things through a very different lens than before.
What does this heart and mind coherence work look like? Her focus is on creating a space for people to look into their inner worlds, to change their beliefs about themselves, connecting to a higher consciousness, self and purpose. Every journey of work with Roxy starts with a deep connection and needs assessment of both person and situation, followed by work that might include embodiment techniques, such as tuning fork sound therapy, or even just holding time and space in silence, for healing. People often think they know what they need, but rarely surrender to vulnerability in healing and emotional catharsis. “People are beautifully complex and simple simultaneously; we just need to surrender into healing and step out of our own old un-serving stories.” Her vision is that more humans become increasingly self-aware and conscious, which in turn would create better love, connection, service, support, energy and so much more.
So what can we learn from Roxy about how to integrate spirituality in our work life? “Embrace your inner work: the most important work you will ever do, where you get to heal and find depth in your wholeness, beyond any box or title ». Roxy believes that there should be early education programs around self-awareness and connection. “If we are not guided towards ourselves how do we become more deeply aware of who we truly are? What about our feelings, our thoughts, our emotions, our energy and soul?” Roxy aspires for all humans to be able to tune into not only what they do and for how much, but also why they are here, and who and where they want to be in the world.
Integrating Spirituality and Embracing Higher Leadership Purpose in the Workplace
These stories reveal to us that if and when we decide to tune into a higher purpose, we can do extraordinary things, as well as finding more fulfillment in everything we do. Indeed, academic research, particularly that done by Nadav, in the second referenced paper, finds that helping and serving others leads to and . Whether the purpose we follow is inborn, sought-after or found by coincidence, it leads to the attitudes and behaviors of the servant leader, and in turn supports making the world a better place.
Since, in most western or western-influenced organizations, despite the more or less well-intentioned DEI initiatives it is still not the norm to bring this spiritual aspect to work, what is perhaps the most challenging, then, is to find the courage and the way to integrate the two. Subhanu with his robes, Derek with his discernment and fundamental commitment to service, and Roxy with her conviction that humanity can be healed through deeper connection, are all now comfortable in their visible roles as spiritual people. What the world now needs to encourage, perhaps, is more leaders (and followers) who are willing and able to bring their full selves, in integrity, and in service. We definitely do not need any more dogmatics or extremists, but we would certainly benefit from more alignment with values, greater sense of service, and an overall feeling of inclusion that would bring out the best in all people at work.
8 Tips for Spiritual Inspiration in Leadership
1 – Embrace your authentic self: Discover and connect with your spiritual beliefs and values; don’t shy away from integrating them into your leadership style.
2 – Seek out the help of others (coaches, books, friends, etc) in ascertaining what is important to you; use your “darker” moments of doubt to generate questions and ideas, not just to sink downwards.
3 – Find alignment: Strive to align your personal convictions with your professional endeavors, creating a harmonious balance between belief and business.
4 – Seek like-minded colleagues: Surround yourself with colleagues or clients who share your values and beliefs, creating a supportive and spiritually aligned work environment.
5- Stay open-minded: While staying true to your faith or convictions, remain open-minded and respectful of different views and beliefs, fostering a culture of inclusivity.
6 – Be mindful and present: Practice mindfulness and being fully present in your work, allowing you to make more intuitive and impactful decisions in your leadership role.
7 – Serve with purpose: Lead with a clear sense of purpose and a commitment to serving others, whether it’s your team, organization, or a higher cause.
8 – Lead by example: Set a strong example of kindness and integrity in your leadership, emphasizing the importance of serving others and making a positive impact.
What Religion Teaches Us About Great Leadership
What can guiding figures and best practices in Judaism, Islam or Catholicism reveal to us about leadership? Even if you are not religious, or believe that religion and business should not mix, understanding how religious and spiritual beliefs might influence and inform leadership and organizational values can provide invaluable insight for work and business.
In an article by INSEAD’s Elizabeth Florent Treacy, graduates of INSEAD’s Executive Master in Change (EMC) delved into Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism to uncover religious teachings and role models that have had the greatest impact or the greatest potential for impact on executives and organizations.
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