Practicum and the Spiritual Side of Business


“There’s a spiritual aspect to business, just as there is to the lives of individuals. You give, you receive; you help others, you’re helped in return.” – Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s Fame)

I think that Ben was on to something. As I am wrapping up my second year at Antioch’s MBA in Organizational and Environmental Sustainability, (Home Stretch!) I have been thinking about where “sustainable” businesses are headed, and the fact that the terms “sustainable” and “green” have become little more than buzzwords.  I am also smack in the middle of my Practicum project, in which I am researching how to design and deliver effective presentations which resonate with people and can lead to change.  As I completed the research phase of the project, I had a need to find something that I am interested in to test these new presentations methods!  I think that we may see an increase in discussion about the spiritual side of business when discussing this new way of operating that puts people and the environment above (or at least on equal footing with) the purely financial bottom line.  It almost looks to be a natural progression.  Researching, designing, and delivering a presentation on this will be how I spend my last two months on the practicum.

We certainly do not readily and openly talk about spirituality in the biz world, just as we do not usually readily and openly talk about it in society at large.  We definitely use terminology and principles that are similar to spiritual principles when we discuss business, but we don’t overtly talk about the spiritual side of business.  I think that this is about to change.    To be sure, religion is, and will continue to be, a hot-button topic that most don’t willingly discuss.  But spiritual practice is not as difficult to discuss – even in groups of people that practice vastly different versions of a spiritual life, there is an ability to seek common ground and identify similarities rather than differences.

Just to be clear, in this discussion, I am not talking about personal spirituality specifically.  I am talking about the business itself, the collection of values, purpose, impact, and meaning that emerges from the organization, and, when taken collectively, forms a single entity.  I do believe that the personal spirituality of the people that are a part of the organization are a part of this emergent entity, but I am looking to investigate how businesses themselves, as individuals, may have an inherent spiritual side. Infusing spirituality could even lead to greater profits!  Ben & Jerry thought that it did.  We have certainly seen that operating entirely on greed may be great for quarterly profits, but is not sustainable over the long term.  Also, I am glad to have finally found an instance that I can use the government’s view of the corporation as having the rights of an individual in a way that is productive.  I didn’t see that coming!

I believe that we are seeing an integration of spiritual principles in businesses that are concerned with the “Triple Bottom Line” of People, Planet, and Profit.  As these “TBL” business practices have become more widely accepted as smart business, rather than the practices of a fringe element of hippies trying to save the world, so might we see an increase in the amount of discussion, and integration, of spiritual principles in business.

These are just a few of the common threads that I see between spiritual practice and a new way of doing business:

  • Right Livelihood
  • Connecting individuals to something bigger
  • Coincidences that have meaning
  • Karma
  • Lightbulb moments of enlightenment
  • Giving it away to keep it
  • Abundance
  • Repetition & Ritual
  • Symbolism
  • Celebration
  • Enthusiasm
  • Nurturing those around you
  • Peaks & Valleys
  • Using values to guide decision-making
  • The moral compass
  • Crucible moments
  • Perseverance to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds
  • Kindness
  • Intuition

I am presenting more of my thoughts and research on this topic at Burlington, VT’s Pecha Kucha night on February 10th. I hope to see you there!

Beginning to talk about these principles more openly in  could lead to some powerful insights about how you run your business and connect with your customers.

What do you think about the “spiritual side” of business?  Do these concepts have a place in the business world?  Is right livelihood becoming more and more important?  Can it lead to increased profitability?

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3 Responses to Practicum and the Spiritual Side of Business

  1. Richard Lawton says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Zack. “Right livelihood” has been something I’ve grappled with for most of my career. While I regard it as a deeply spiritual and personal question, I have mixed emotions about using the word “spirituality” too freely in a business context. Maybe it’s because people define spirituality in so many different ways. Maybe it’s due to a concern that the word (like love) will be co-opted or its meaning diluted as a way of furthering what is still primarily a self-centered purpose (even if it’s long-term vs. short term). I’m especially skeptical if the company is publicly traded. However, privately owned businesses and especially “B” corporations may have traits and design features which better enable them to function in ways that spiritual aspects could be more openly nurtured and authentically espoused while optimizing scale and profits (rather than maximizing them)

    Whether speaking of an individual is a person or a business, the illusion of separateness (self/other)is a root spiritual problem. I agree that the triple bottom line approach is a heartening development indicating a softening of that sense of separateness and extreme self-centeredness so that empathy and compassion can more freely function in all of the “nested systems” in our world.

    It’s an important thing to find a way to talk about though,so I really appreciate your taking it up. Business has a tremendous impact, and as such is a fertile ground for spiritual practice.

  2. Polly says:

    Looking at the spiritual side of business has often been a loaded topic. However, the way you’ve framed it here makes it more approachable. As a culture, we shy away from the word “spirituality” in the business climate. However, framing it as an opportunity to think about future, vision, responsibility and service resonate for me. I often frame spirituality in business as what gives me hope about what I am doing. It takes me out of the trenches and puts my work in a bigger context. Thanks for posting this. I think it’s a topic worth exploring more and more as our world becomes more complex and we focused on the trees instead of the forest.

  3. antiochzack says:

    Richard – There is no question that it is challenging to talk about spirituality in the business context. There are many potential minefields that you need to successfully navigate to have a worthwhile discussion. I think that talking about connecting to a greater purpose, serving the common good, and treating everyone and everything with dignity and respect (which I would say are spiritual values) has the significant potential to have a positive impact within a business. Some publicly traded companies that espouse these values may surprise you: UPS and Southwest Airlines are two that Marc Gunther discusses in his excellent “Faith and Fortune.”

    Polly – I think this topic is all about the framing. A conversation on spiritual matters just has such potential to go horribly astray at any moment.

    I wouldn’t recommend anyone go into work tomorrow morning and ask “what is the spiritual element of what we are doing here?” But asking “What are we trying to create here?” “What difference are we trying to make?” “How does what we do serve the common good?” may have a different impact.

    Good stuff!

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