Review

Can corporations possess spiritual qualities?

Spiritual Enterprise: Building Your Business in the Spirit of Service
By Lawrence Miller
George Ronald
Oxford

Lawrence Miller’s client list reads like a page from the Fortune 500 directory. In 30 years of management consulting, Mr. Miller has worked with companies like Exxon USA, MetLife, Coca-Cola, American Express, Honeywell, Eastman Kodak, and McDonald’s.

As an author of business books, too, Mr. Miller is well recognized, with six previous titles to his name. American Spirit: Visions of A New Corporate Culture, for example, was the text for Honda of America’s course on their values and culture. And Barbarians to Bureaucrats: Corporate Life Cycle Strategies explored the rise and fall of civilizations to illustrate the patterns of leadership and evolution in corporate cultures.

What makes Mr. Miller’s latest work so significant is the degree to which he has directly connected his personal religious beliefs to his insights about the corporate world.

Spiritual Enterprise: Building Your Business in the Spirit of Service draws explicitly on Mr. Miller’s Bahá’í belief and practice, outlining how the spiritual principles of the Bahá’í Faith offer “new principles of management for a new age.”

Mr. Miller starts off by stressing the importance of making a direct correlation between religious principles and business practices.

“Religion is on the march in both the East and the West,” writes Mr. Miller in the introduction. “The pendulum has swung from a time when religion guided all of our affairs, to a time when religion and faith were presumed to be an illegitimate topic for consideration in public institutions. It is now swinging back to a time when we are seeking an integration of personal faith and public life.”

In the first half of the book, Mr. Miller shows how the basic moral and spiritual principles of the Bahá’í Faith can be applied to the corporate sphere. Specifically, he identifies honesty and trustworthiness, the spirit of service, justice, consultation, unity, moderation, world citizenship, and universal education, as core values that can inform and improve almost any business.

He spends a chapter on each principle, weaving together a discussion of ethics, economic theory, and the latest research into management science, explaining how such principles stand at the foundation of successful corporate practices.

“Honesty and trustworthiness are not only the foundation of virtue but of economic activity as well,” he writes in the first chapter, outlining how honesty and trust are essential for wealth creation, innovation, and leadership.

He gives a number of examples. The modern system of “lean manufacturing” is built on long-term and intricately close relationships between suppliers and manufacturers. Suppliers, he explains, must invest huge sums to build manufacturing plants next to their customers’ plants to provide “just-in-time” parts and materials.

“No legal agreement, no matter how well constructed, is adequate to assure the close communications and relationships that are required to make this process work,” he writes. The “realities of today’s business environment require long-term relationships built on trust.”

Honesty and trust are essential in the process of innovation, as well, since most new ideas and inventions today emerge from collaboration “instead of one creative genius sitting in her office with lights going on over her head.”

“If I fear that you are going to take an idea that I share with you and claim credit for yourself, I am less likely to share that idea,” he writes, saying that any kind of distrust shuts down the “dance of creativity” as surely “as a train wreck shuts down the railroad line.”

His chapter on the process of “consultation,” as the non-adversarial decision-making process used by Bahá’ís is known, is especially instructive. The principles of Bahá’í consultation include detaching individual ego from an idea, gathering information from diverse sources and viewpoints, and a commitment to frank and open dialogue — and Mr. Miller shows how these same ideas are being discovered and incorporated into the decision-making processes of modern corporations.

“Businesses succeed by making better decisions than their competitors,” Mr. Miller writes. “In business and in academia a great deal of work is being done to discover processes to achieve deep understanding, thorough analysis of problems and solutions, and methods for reaching a collective decision.”

“Members of the Bahá’í community must be at the forefront of integrating this knowledge and experience from both academic and applied sources with their principle of consultation and the writings of their Faith.”

In the second half of Spiritual Enterprise, Mr. Miller discusses how Bahá’í spiritual principles can be directly applied to specific business concerns, such as issues of capital and finance, organizational structure, leadership, and even information systems.

On the issue of capital and finance, for example, he notes that “[t]here has always been a strained relationship between religion and money. In previous religious dispensations the lending of money was viewed with either condemnation or at least suspicion.”

In the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, however, “there is no question that there is recognition of the legitimate need for the creation, investment, lending and profit on private capital.”

While carefully noting that no one has yet defined or derived an official Bahá’í understanding of economics, he offers that “a careful reading of the Bahá’í teachings” on the question of capitalism emphasizes “a complete balance and recognition of legitimate interests of all parties and the interdependence, the common benefit for all of humanity that is derived from a just and equitable system.

“Members of western society must overcome their adversarial assumptions that have so long dominated any discussion of capital, capitalism and profit,” he writes. “The focus must shift from who is a winner and loser in the game of business to how the benefits are best shared in service to humanity.”

The idea of profit sharing, which is highly encouraged in the Bahá’í writings, is one such antidote to the excesses of capitalism, he writes. “Profit sharing is not only a moral good,” he writes, continuing his emphasis on the practical application of Bahá’í principles in business. “Several studies have demonstrated that profit sharing and employee ownership result in improved business performance over companies that do not share or provide for employee ownership.”

One of the most interesting sections of the book is in the first chapter where Mr. Miller asks whether an organization can possess “spiritual” qualities. He suggests that it can, by promoting a harmony between the demands of the material world and the moral ideals engendered by “our higher spiritual selves.” He offers, also, that “[t]rue spirituality is selfless, rather than self-centered.”

In an organization guided by spirituality, he writes, “we would experience an energizing harmony like that between two perfectly tuned instruments. The absence of dissonance conserves energy. Harmony creates energy. A spiritual enterprise would, therefore, be energizing and contribute to the development of the capacities of its members.”

All in all, Bahá’í readers will certainly find the book quite interesting for the degree to which it demonstrates how Bahá’í spiritual, social and economic principles are being rediscovered in the corporate world — and indeed, how thinking in the corporate world is already moving in directions outlined by the Bahá’í Faith.

Business leaders with no background in the Bahá’í Faith, likewise, will find it interesting and perhaps surprising the degree to which a religion, albeit one founded less than 170 years ago, has so much to say about topics related to economics, business, and the kinds of cooperative endeavors that define the successful modern corporation.

Spiritual Enterprise can be purchased from George Ronald via their Web site: http://grbooks.com

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