Courage in the Workplace: Creating a Culture of Compassion

The School of Management at the University of San Francisco promotes its role in preparing students to enter the workforce by identifying three sectors in which they are most likely to exercise their talents: as public administrators in various levels of government; as small to corporate business managers in for-profit endeavors; and finally, in a kind of combination of the two, as employees of non-profit enterprises that often fill the gaps in government services but do so by applying business practices that build in sustainability and success. 

Non-profit administration is often undertaken by those who are motivated after recognizing a social problem that needs addressing or after appreciating a common good that could be shared more widely. But these organizations are also founded by problem solvers who recognize that their special skill, acquired not by conventional education in management, may meet a social need or produce a benefit. Previously I’ve written about how one can apply skills developed in humanities courses to the workplace, but here I offer an example of a non-profit that offers a technique derived from specialized knowledge of ancient traditions to create a socially engaged contemplative organization aimed at transforming the workplace itself.

I spoke to one of the co-founders and current president of the Courage of Care Coalition (courageofcare.org), Brooke D. Lavelle, who described for me how her long study in cognitive psychology and Buddhist contemplative theory came together in a vision for the organization aimed at providing training for people in caring roles and professions (educators, health care professionals, social workers, clergy, activists, etc). What Brooke and her co-founder, John Maransky–a professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology at Boston College–recognized was that those drawn to work that requires active and engaged compassion could benefit from an approach to their work that cultivates sustainable care and compassion as derived from Buddhism and other contemplative practices. 

While some in academia may scorn their approach as lacking theological purity, Lavelle and Maransky welcome the opportunity to adapt their understanding of Buddhist practices to secular contexts and to apply contemplative resources for social change. This approach to Buddhism’s practical application is not new; twenty years ago the Dalai Lama, along with a lawyer and an entrepreneur, created Mind and Life, a non-profit committed to building a scientific understanding of the mind as a way to help reduce suffering and promote human flourishing. What distinguishes the Courage of Care Coalition from Mind and Life, however, is its front-line focus. Unlike Mind and Life, which is a grant-funding body that also hosts annual think-tank dialogues with the Dalai Lama, academic institutes, and international symposia, Courage of Care Coalition seeks to operate on the ground, meeting the needs of workers who meet needs. While they aspire to see their practices widely adapted, they operate not on a global scale but on the neighborhood level.

As Brooke explained to me, her academic training in Buddhism coincided with a growing awareness among the public of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation as techniques for improving, discerning, and replenishing humans in their daily lives. “Compassion,” Brooke observed, is “a stance, not a feeling, an encounter or a perspective” that has multiple signatures. In a relational or dialogic approach, Brooke recognizes that some of the delivery methods her organization offers, like online workshops, may not only believe this to be a fundamental principle; but also a flexible tool that adapts to the schedule of busy professionals, even an online community can resist the belief that people can act autonomously to renew their compassionate spirits. 

Care for others involves an obligation to say “you are mine” and to hold each other in a “field of care,” Brooke explained. Courage of Care rejects the notion of compensatory or redemptive suffering and resists individual tendencies towards martyrdom by stressing the collaborative aspect of compassionate care. There are many ways to “create space” for compassion, from multiple portals and levels of entry, in workshops, seminars, and retreats. The sense of community generated by Courage of Care extends beyond the formal training in workshops and seminars and is sustained as a habit of being in a nuanced idea of self-care.  

Resisting the trend towards instant gratification from applying mindfulness techniques and veering away from stress as the main stimulus to practice, Brooke describes how we can scaffold our needs to build, develop and live empathetic lives and to reclaim spirituality as a safe, scientific, public activity. Where courage becomes part of the picture is when one chooses a professional life that requires daily acts of mercy. “Courage,” Brooke observed, “is the quality of our capacity for caring.” The Courage of Care Coalition believes that we are empowered by others whom we serve and that it takes courage to recognize the ability to be compassionate. 

This understanding of courage tracks with the research of Professor Neil Walshe in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. As an organizational psychologist, Neil tries to understand the experience of courage as it applies to the organizational realm. Neil’s work has tried to move past psychology’s tendency to fixate on people’s motivations towards courage and instead, address the experience of courage for individuals. As he explains, “There is a paucity of research that deals with the human experience of moral behavior and even less that looks at its absence. We know far more about the conditions that can bring about morally motivated behavior but relatively little about whether this is a positive or negative experience once enacted.” 

While the assumption has long been that being courageous is a positive experience, Neil, like Brooke, asks “positive for whom?” In the organizational context, while it is morally admirable that organizations might encourage courage among employees, they are exposed to little if any risk in the course of doing so. Ultimately, as Neil observes, “it is the individual who expends the moral and physical capital that comes with being courageous, yet it is the organization that ultimately benefits through an increase in their moral perception by employees and outsiders alike.”

Motivated by the sharp rise in academic research in the realm of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship (2000 onwards) Neil has tried to understand what it feels like to be courageous as part of one’s work role and similarly, what the experience of cowardice is like. 

Despite the volume of research present on courage as an abstract construct, little if any attention has been paid to the experience of courage among those who perform moral and virtuous acts as part of paid employment. While organizational psychology has had quite the preoccupation with courage in the past two decades most of its attention has been directed at attempts to quantify or measure people’s capacity for courageous action (http://psycnet.apa.org/books/12168/012; http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/cpb/59/2/135 ; http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760903435224). These often exclude the role of context and circumstance from the act of courage itself. Indeed, Neil has observed that organizations have begun to use and screen employees for the construct of Moral Potential without really understanding the complexity not only of morality but of its application to workplace behaviors. 

Institutional efforts cited by Neil support of the work of Courage of Care Coalition, including the University of Michigan’s Centre for Positive Psychology and the influential CompassionLab, a research initiative that aimed to give voice to the potential that empathy and compassion could play, not just in understanding the challenges of contemporary employment and organizational membership but also to address the potential benefits that organizations might realize by way of efficiency, decreased absenteeism, reduced turnover and the simple possibility that people might enjoy their work more if the workplace was a touch more human. 

 

Corporate Social Responsibility: Being People Through Other People 

Those of us in the Bay Area who are concerned about the effects of gentrification on San Francisco communities often turn to a Facebook page titled “VanishingSF,” a collection of stories, events, and not-so-random facts started in 2013 by a thirty-year resident of the city, Julie Rae Levak. She began her first post with a quote from Hope in the Dark, a book by revered local writer, Rebecca Solnit:

“To live entirely for oneself in private is a huge luxury, a luxury countless aspects of this society encourage, but like a diet of pure foie gras, it clogs and narrows the arteries of the heart.”

Much of the ire of the blog is aimed at the tech industry and its workers, the biggest influence and easiest target in the class war erupting all over the city.

I am a regular reader of “VanishingSF” and welcome the perspective and reporting it offers in support of those most impacted by the wealth disparity in the city, particularly its Mission neighborhood. It is here where I volunteer weekly at 826 Valencia, a writing center established in the Mission in 2002 precisely because it was located where underserved students could benefit from our help. But as Google buses started taking over Mission streets and yet another independent bookstore turned into a high-end home furnishing mart, I found myself easily sneering at the tech workers and wondered if it wasn’t silicon, rather than foie gras, that was clogging their hearts.

826 Valencia is ever conscious of its goal to close the academic achievement gap for under-served youth in the Bay Area by providing the tools and resources necessary for success in school and beyond. In 2014 they opened an additional center in the Tenderloin, a struggling neighborhood not far from City Hall where some 3,000 underserved school-age children now live. As I participated in supporting the new center, I was chagrined to find out that much of the support for the project came from the tech community I had comfortably come to criticize. The support was not just monetary donations but also time, talent, and energy, with folks taking the best practices that made their start-ups successful and applying them to the planning, building, and marketing of the new center.

While support for the new center came from many places—including loyal volunteers and staff and partner organizations—826 Valencia’s staff described for me the role played by young adults who work at Pinterest, Dropbox, Goodreads, Spotify, Google and other tech companies I had come to demonize. They offered another perspective on some of the people who work there and how they have caught the community spirit generated by 826 Valencia’s goodwill. From the most recent annual data collected by the organization, corporate volunteer events are up by over 60% and include the participation of 19 corporations whose 151 employees have served over 454 hours. In addition to this “people power”, substantial grants have come from Google, Twitter, Dolby, and other corporations. Included among the volunteers are former 826ers, workers who as maturing students benefited from the programs offered by the writing center and now want to give back. 

Also among the corporate volunteers is a student from the Master’s in Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco that I teach in. I joined her and many supporters at the opening of the new 826 Valencia center in the Tenderloin. Although I was there as a volunteer supporter, my student and several others were there in their roles promoting community relations as part of their companies’ enactment of corporate social responsibility (CSR)– a business practice that involves participating in initiatives that create shared value for business and society. The University of San Francisco hosted a Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Conference that brought together more than 200 tech leaders, community members, and business students to discuss how technology can improve everything from health care to education. CSR is a rapidly growing field for professionals who are looking for impactful careers in sustainability, focusing on the balance between financial, social, and environmental benefits for both nonprofit and profit-seeking firms. Working adult students, professionals who recognize daily how companies and their employees can collaborate to redress social inequities, organized the event at USF.  

Promoting and providing employees with meaningful volunteer opportunities helps companies to attract top talent and further engage, develop and retain workers who demonstrate heightened productivity and skill development. While CSR boosts their public image externally, it also helps to develop pride in the company and build relationships among its employees. As a consequence CSR improves the bottom line for everyone involved. According to a 2012 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 88% of recent college graduates have gravitated toward companies that prioritized CSR programs. CSR Central, an organization dedicated to showcasing the best in CSR in Ireland, is currently studying the benefits of employee volunteer initiatives. Their preliminary conclusions can be found here: http://csrcentral.com/employee-volunteering-the-benefits-for-companies-and-their-csr-programmes/. Among their findings is that it is not just the companies and the nonprofits that gain in tangible ways but individuals too report greater life satisfaction and better physical and mental health.

Whether employees participate in an organized CSR event hosted by 826 Valencia at their original location in the Mission, in schools, and now in the Tenderloin, or simply take their own initiative to become involved in the development of young people’s writing skills; everyone benefits. The reward of volunteering reaffirms the wisdom of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who recognized that:

“A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”

That is the moral of the story told by the students, staff, and the volunteers—CSR folk and regulars like me—at 826 Valencia.

 

Civil Actions: Creating A Culture of Kindness at Work

In Christine Porath’s essay titled Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, found in Harvard Business Review she makes an obvious but often neglected observation: manners matter. Porath demonstrates how a study that documented “how incivility diminishes collaboration and performance in medical settings,” echoes results from her own research (https://hbr.org/2017/01/how-rudeness-stops-people-from-working-together). 

Supporting her contention that “people who lack a sense of psychological safety—the feeling that the team environment is a trusting, respectful, and a safe place to take risks—shut down, often without realizing it.”  Porath describes the outcomes: people are less likely to seek or accept feedback, experiment, discuss errors or speak up on any number of issues. This behavior generates “a cloud of negativity” that translates into negative conduct and continues as a miserable cycle of bad performance and poor outcomes. Recognizing that many lack the perspective or experience to acknowledge and adjust their comportment accordingly, Porath recommends that organizations take time to develop collective norms and agreed-upon standards for civil conduct. 

Another way of describing what Porath wishes to create in organizations is culture. While she suggests training and workshops to help employees develop “listening and feedback skills,” Jerry Wagner, founder of the Academy of Culture Ambassadors (Academy), takes another approach: look to role models—at work and afield. Then become a role model yourself. Jerry’s career has spanned academia and industry.  A prolific software entrepreneur, Jerry has served as head of research statistics with a Fortune 50 company and as a Gallup Senior Scientist and has held positions at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska in Omaha and Bellevue University.

 As Jerry recounted to me in a conversation, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements from Gallup was the inspiration for the Academy. He also recounted the deep impression left when he provided a staff psychologist to support employee’s well being at this first software company in Austin in the early 80s.  What became the Academy first began at Bellevue University where Jerry started the Institute for Employee Wellbeing. While there he consulted with several organizations and paid attention when he noticed businesses with exceptional workplace culture. Imagining a way for others to be introduced to these organizations for admiration and imitation, he started producing the monthly online publication that became Culture ROLE MODELS and eventually progressed to include others in spreading the word to become the Academy. 

As outlined in their mission statement:

“The Academy of Culture Ambassadors is a community of socially-minded workplace culture ambassadors that have an exemplary reputation for sharing innovative practices for superior workplace joy, productivity, and innovation. The Academy supports workplace cultures where there is a relentless passion for kindness, empathy, dignity, trust, transparency, sharing, happiness, compassion, and love.”

Wagner seeks out organizational theorists, human resource professionals, management gurus, and role models from a variety of settings who “celebrate kindness, joy, and love as a business priority” and offer “spiritual leadership” shaped by a conscious capitalist model. 

The Academy sets forth the proposition that the essential elements that generate healthy and sustainable workplace cultures are known and measurable, as Porath’s research demonstrates. Jerry’s schema clarifies individual and corporate roles and responsibilities, implicitly suggesting that culture is what unites them. Each plays a role in promoting a place where employees want to come to work and collectively solve problems and advance their goals. 

Recognizing that an online presence was inadequate, Jerry began developing the concept of local grassroots organizations that could support professionals interested in organizational culture modeled on the essential elements. Fifteen months after starting, there are seven city chapters of Culture Ambassadors across the mid and southwest. Jerry describes the local chapters as the pillars of the Academy. Each chapter has a lead person with a planning team that operates as a self-managed team. 

With chapters thriving and plans for new sites expanding, Jerry raised his ambitions and in October 2017 offered a 2-day conference in Santa Fe on workplace culture and well-being: Wisdom for Modern Workplaces. Jerry intended for the conference to address the kinds of concerns raised by a registered conference attendee: “Our company has great aspirations for creating a workplace culture in which people look forward to coming in each day and are passionate about what they do.  We want an environment that develops and rewards high performers who are fueled by their accomplishments and contributions to the team.  We want to create a deep sense of collaboration and team spirit.  At the same time, we have some deep issues and challenges. I hope to gain insights, inspiration, and tools to fundamentally change our workplace.”

The foundation for the conference, the Academy, and the publications, which Jerry–who does not run his organization as a 501c3 non-profit but also does not accept donations and does not pursue grant monies—makes freely available, include the charming Ancient Wisdom for Modern Workplaces, by Graham Williams. Mr. Williams and others, like Marcella Bremer—who as a consultant in Europe promote positive leadership, inclusive change, and cultures of kindness and have developed an online instrument to assess organizational culture—are lending their support. All share Jerry Wagner’s hope that while creating civility is a necessary first step in changing the climate of a workplace, to build a sustainable and respectful culture requires more. Mark Twain recognized what does work long ago when he observed: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Emojis and Implicit Assumptions: Paying Attention

As you can easily see from my USF Blog profile, I am an average-looking, middle-aged, white female academic, teaching aspiring capitalists in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. What you can’t tell is that I am the author of a body of scholarship on African American religions and literature, have curated several shows of African American art, edited books on and taught courses on African American topics. Just as folks are bewildered when my rosy-cheeked Canadian friend orders dinner in impeccable Mandarin, also do they demonstrate an implicit assumption about my lack of knowledge about or interest in African American culture. But when the subject of the ethnicity of emojis came up in a recent conversation, I wondered if I was prepared to defend my choice to use a brown emoji thumbs-up and to explain why it mattered. Just because I possessed an informed rationale did not imply that others were excluded from having their informed rationale. Each can be interpreted as a considerate choice or a careless one depending on how you frame the argument and support your position.

As observed in a recent New York Times article, emojis are not morally neutral symbols (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/arts/design/hands-off-my-smiley-face-emoji-become-corporate-tools.html?_r=0). Unicode, the organization responsible for approving emojis, are making cultural, and sometimes political, choices in determining which new emojis will make the cut. “Emojis have emerged as cultural forces in and of themselves,” the author writes. “The crisp, candy-colored glyphs form a modern emotional palette,” which “soon took on new meanings as they made their way to new countries and subcultures.” These observations support the genially contentious conversation with my friend, also white, who declined to use any “emoji of color” out of “respect” for the ethnicity of others and also out of an acceptance that any attempt to portray ethnicity is bound to lead to imprecision and controversy. But what my friend didn’t recognize is that there is no morally neutral skin color. Even the default choice of Crayola “nude” or “skin tone” prioritizes a skin color and assumes that white indicates the presence of raceless monoculture that does not exist anywhere except in our unexamined minds. Lost in conversation was a recognition of how cultural choices and privileges are made for white people without their even knowing it, a point made by Peggy McIntosh in her extensive career arguing against the exercise, even unconscious, of white privilege.

Her ground-breaking 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” helped establish the language by which we can analyze these conditions and steered us towards recognizing implicit assumptions that shape our choices, including what crayon to use while coloring. Long before the color of an emoji was a topic, Peggy McIntosh, as she described in an Examining Ethics podcast (http://examiningethics.org/2016/01/6-burden-whiteness/), observed that realizing that she had a white advantage wasn’t enough for her.  She took action by writing to companies, including Crayola, demanding that they produce more variety among their skin-toned crayons, recognizing the embedded form of oppression that limited choice because of a systemic order that prioritized whiteness. 

Although I don’t have McIntosh’s perch to preach from, I realized that I could enact my own form of spending down my unearned bank account of white privilege (another metaphor McIntosh employs in her writings) by building into my MBA and MPA ethics and social responsibility course a component that asked students to undertake an experience of confronting their implicit assumptions that get repeated and played out in their professions in the private and public sectors. To do so I ask my students to participate in Harvard University’s Project Implicit, (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) which began simply focused on external traits of skin color and gender but which now “tests” participants for a variety of implicit assumptions. Founded in 1998, ten years after McIntosh’s essay, Project Implicit describes itself as “a nonprofit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts, and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control.” The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data. 

After taking multiple tests students return to class reporting dismay at their outcomes which register an appalling vulnerability to a variety of implicit assumptions. So I ask the students to read McIntosh’s essay and also an essay from Slate titled “Can You Train Business School Students to Be Ethical?” so that they can appreciate the relevance of examining implicit assumptions and white and other forms of privilege, especially as they apply to their workplace conduct and decisions. (https://slate.com/business/2012/09/business-school-and-ethics-can-we-train-mbas-to-do-the-right-thing.html)

Among the conclusions the authors of the article arrive at, that is persuasive to my students, is that we should be paying attention, not to the spectacular examples of malfeasance and bad corporate behavior like Enron or Volkswagen but the “moral blind spots” and unintentional ways people commit ethical failings. Most people fall prey to a self-serving bias and discriminate unconsciously not because we lack the capacity for moral reasoning but because we make moral choices only using what is called “System 1 Thinking”—the thinking that is driven by emotion and intuition.

It is “System 2 Thinking,” however—the part of our brain that reasons logically through decisions, with a full appreciation of the many biases that plague our intuitions and instincts, that is most useful in moral decision-making and is appropriate for workplace management. 

Whether we use colored emojis or not, we are making a choice that carries with it a variety of implicit assumptions that vary depending on where we stand. While I cannot guarantee that any of my pedagogical efforts are successful in preparing my students to check themselves against unconscious bias, I live in hope that as they practice the art of moral persuasion in their workplaces, they will do so remembering the words of the entertainer RuPaul: “Life is about using the whole box of crayons.”

 

Keynote Address at Annual Meeting of the Northwest Pacific Region of the American Academy of Religion

In May 2019, I gave this keynote address at the annual meeting of the Northwest Pacific Region of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). I was fulfilling one of my obligations as a member of the Board of Directors of the AAR and to address our newly adopted charge to promote the public understanding of religions. I offer it here because in my reflections I speak directly to my experience as one trained in the humanities now providing instruction in a school of management. It draws on themes from other writings but also highlights a different audience for the same message that educators across disciplines need to work together to sustain our relevance.

I’m grateful to have been invited by the leadership of the Pacific Northwest Region to represent the Board and the Executive Committee of the AAR. The theme of this year’s regional meeting, Religion in the Public Eye: Possibilities and Responsibilities, aligns well with the AAR’s recent decision to emphasize the public understanding of religion in its mission statement, which now reads: “The American Academy of Religion’s mission is to foster excellence in the academic study of religion and enhance the public understanding of religion.”

In many respects, this move was an implicit recognition of the possibilities inherent in the roles we already play as citizens, neighbors, and educators who have been formed by our training in religious studies. To borrow a concept from Flannery O’Connor, seeing the world through the lens of religious studies is our “habit of being.”

But the AAR’s decision to describe itself as a learned society that accepts explicit responsibility for religion scholars to speak up in the public square, while it positions us to take on new responsibilities, does so in a context where possibilities are limited. The AAR membership is filled with PhDs who are struggling to find stable work in academic settings that could legitimize their public influence and validate their scholarly excellence. The membership also includes professors who have taken on the mission of public engagement, not always by choice, but who now face insult, threat, intimidation, and are prevented from participating in their guild.

To plan strategically for how to promote its newly declared mission, the AAR recently mapped institutions, foundations, centers, and organizations across the globe that they identified were actively involved in promoting the public understanding of religion. They number about sixty and offer a variety of possibilities for the AAR and its membership to engage and expand their work. While that number may not account for all or even most of the relevant sites where academics in religion might find a place to apply their work in the public square, even adding work in the for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors, alternate career paths are dwarfed by the number of unemployed PhDs, in religious studies in particular, and the humanities in general.

Although Audre Lorde advised against signifying or using the master’s tools to take down the master’s house as a long-term strategy for structural change, I’ve found that the technique of signifying can create interesting possibilities. Signifying, as Charles Long has recognized, has a long tradition in religious studies discourse and it is a potent form of influence, especially among those who are unaware of its power, those with the tools whose house needs to be brought down.

What we in the humanities are beginning to recognize, however, is that we have not been using our tools to, if not bring down the house, at least make room for the liberal arts. Howard Gray, the Jesuit theologian, observed that “In looking for the more beyond us, we lose the more that lies deeply within what we already do.” In the language of the school of management where I teach, we’ve lost our “value proposition.” Jobs in the humanities are disappearing in large part because we have neglected to make a case for our relevance, to demonstrate how what we offer in a liberal arts education benefits the rising numbers of students seeking professional and technical educations. Only 6% of US students now elect to major in the humanities so our opportunities to teach in departments of religious studies are not likely to increase. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop fostering the public understanding of religion or promoting academic excellence in the study of religions. Let me offer my own experience as an example of how I am signifying.

Trained in religion and literature with a specialty in African American topics, I wasn’t a desirable candidate in the early 90s; it took me a decade to land a tenure-track position. What sustained me and developed my signifying skills during that decade of temporary and erratic academic work was my ability to teach broadly across literary and religious studies and my commitment to sustaining my professional identity through publication and service to the guild, the AAR, no matter how humiliating some of those Annual Meetings turned out!

Eventually tenured as the director of a humanities program for an applied business bachelor’s degree completion program, my faculty role changed due to administrative restructuring and I became part of a School of Management faculty. I was asked to teach ethics for the MBA program. When I saw what instructors had done in the past, I was bereft. There was no way I could slog through regulatory material and legal-ese and teach ethics as a way to avoid getting caught. If I wanted to teach ethics as I understood it from my religious studies orientation, ethics would be training in moral decision-making, a rational, evidence-based exercise inspired by our experiences of the good, the true, and the beautiful. To support my pedagogy, I looked for a body of evidence that recognized the role a humanistic perspective could bring to a management education.

For about five years I have kept track of articles that argued that business schools were due for an infusion of liberal arts. The value of coming to the practice or study of management with a liberal arts education has been enthusiastically endorsed by recognized sources in the field, academic and popular. From a variety of viewpoints, including former cabinet members and university presidents, representing everything from STEM to Tech to Fortune 500 positions, in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, or The Chronical of Higher Education, I read articles that affirmed what I intuited: that those of us trained in the humanities had essential skills to share with that 94% of students who were not majoring in the humanities.

But what I found in addition to articles promoting the merit of providing liberal arts content in professional educational settings were broader arguments that recognized universities were reorganizing around strategic problem-solving in ways that may not align the liberal arts with traditional departments. To stay active in academia, those of us trained in the humanities would need to deploy our skills in the world of applied and practical education, a choice I was compelled to make but whose merits I have come to appreciate.

I designed a syllabus that required students to read philosophical, religious, and literary texts as a way to prompt their thoughts around moral conduct and to discover creative ways to approach problem-solving. I wanted them to learn how to tolerate ambiguity and welcome multiple and diverse points of view; to face a world of contingencies and competing discourses; to reflect on their implicit assumptions and analyze their cognitive biases;  to understand that to be moral agents in the world, proceeding with this kind of interpretive posture is crucial for facing murky economic futures and challenging problems in the workplace.

After teaching the course for 4 years, I see evidence for how exposure to the humanities provides my MBA students with the skills necessary to succeed in managerial settings:

  • How to hone powers of observation and to reflect—to study and analyze events, objects, and people;
  • How to explore and manipulate big concepts and complex contexts but not get lost in the abstract;
  • How to apply new ways of thinking to address difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways;
  • How to communicate with diverse constituencies with persuasive and cogent arguments.

In the journal, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Christopher Michaelson supports my narrative pedagogy, arguing that those teaching ethics in business schools should use novels as required reading. He bases his recommendation on the premise that narrative pedagogy cultivates business people who have not only improved their social skills and emotional intelligence but become employees who operate with more “enduring ethical effectiveness.” Michaelson characterizes the narrative approach to teaching ethics as shifting the primary question asked from “What should I do?” to “How should one live?” The question changes not just in direction and quantity but by scope and quality, from the immediate and individualistic request for a specific answer to a more general human consideration of moral conduct. It asks the question scholars of religion are uniquely positioned to address before students of all disciplines.

How should one live? is what poets and prophets have been asking for centuries. We text and experience-based scholars of religious studies understand that reading great works in the humanities can promote one’s ability to imagine a different way of being in the world. Reading can lead to deeper, more empathetic engagement with others that does not simply avoid the awkward (in the way that obeying the external control of the law is the mere minimum for moral conduct), but actively seeks to understand people. In a recent survey, business executives rated empathy and intellectual curiosity as among the five most important skills for success in a digitized and global economy. “In order to serve the needs of clients and colleagues around the world,” the author writes, “we must be adept at understanding their feelings, thoughts, and points of view that is promoted by reading the humanities.”

Taking a cue from the poet Mary Oliver who observed, “Attention without feeling is only a report,” let me walk you through a reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” as part of a management curriculum. I hope it demonstrates how I learned to signify.

This simple but potent tale illustrates how a community uses imagination to resolve a potentially fearful mystery and the multiple ways those imaginative responses manifest in their lives. What is undeniable in the plot trajectory is how the characters’ capacity for moral conduct grows as they exercise the ability to tolerate the truth of the mystery, to choose the good, and to create beauty while explaining an actual event and imagining a better life.

“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” tells the tale of a small, coastal fishing village interrupted by the arrival of an over-sized dead body washed up by the waves. This drowned man has a huge impact on the village; it is changed forever by his arrival. Characters move from a resigned complacency to an irritated curiosity and eventually to a creative vision inspired by this exotic corpse. As we watch the transformation in the townspeople, we are led to consider our own communities and how we lead our lives, who inspires us, and how we handle the challenges brought by the forces of nature and society.

“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” opens with a group of children playing on the beach of a small fishing village. In the waves a “dark and slinky” bulge is approaching, creating a tone of doom. It turns out to be a drowned man, covered in seaweed, stones, and dead marine creatures. The men head to neighboring villages to see if the dead man belongs to one of them, while the women clean off the body and prepare it for a funeral. Because they lived so remotely, “They didn’t have to clean his face to know that he was from elsewhere.” The coastal, cliff-side town was a “desert-like cape”, “with no flowers,” and so little land that the inhabitants have to throw their dead over the cliffs and into the sea rather than bury them in the ground. Their curiosity arises more out of the identity of the body than its presence. While the women work on the drowned man’s body, they imagine the “far-off seas and deep waters,” from which he came, they quickly assert, breathlessly, that he is the biggest, strongest-looking, most virile, and handsomest man they have ever seen in their lives – so remarkable “he didn’t even fit in their imaginations.” His arrival triggers their creative capacity and they conclude that he died a “death with dignity,” is named Esteban, and when the men return with the news that no neighboring towns can claim him, the women weep with joy that he is now “theirs.”

The men don’t understand what all the fuss is about until the women show them the drowned man’s face. Then they, too, are in awe at his handsomeness, his masculinity, and his size. While they admire the drowned man, they think that he must have been ashamed of his size in life and must have felt awkward on account of it.“Fascinated by his disproportion and beauty,” the men respect him; but more than that, they become empathetic to his challenges and join the women and care for Esteban, an attention that triggers care for each other as “the first cracks of tears opened in their hearts.” As Esteban comes alive to the villagers, so do they come alive to each other.

Together, the villagers prepare a splendid funeral for the drowned man. When they finally let his body go over the cliff and back to the waves below, they all know that their lives have been permanently changed and that they “were not complete, nor would they ever be again,” with Esteban gone. As they “shuddered to the marrow with the sincerity of Esteban,” his spirit remains an inspiration to expand their vision and improve their lives. The villagers know that they will build their houses stronger and bigger, to be big enough for a man like Esteban. They will paint their walls brighter and plant flowers, so that someday, when the ships pass by their town, they will look at the bright, beautiful, fragrant town and say, “yes, there, is the village of Esteban.”

This story resonates with those of us trained in religious studies because it exhibits so much of what we value in religious experience—ritual acts and symbolic performances, articulations of faith and demonstrations of morality, approaches to the imminent and the transcendent. But it also has value for MBA students who might read the story this way:  When the villagers set their vision on a higher purpose and start creating a conscious culture of values supported by a mission; when they change their orientation away from their smallness and dreariness and embrace possibility, recognizing multiple stakeholders and responding to the unavoidable contingencies of the external world, they enact an embodied citizenship that changes the community.

Teaching MBA students is one way, at least, that I can demonstrate excellence in the academic study of religion and enhance the public understanding of religion.

Thank you very much.

Conscious Capitalism: Leadership as a Verb, Not a Noun

Teaching ethics and social responsibility in a school of management at a faith-based institution as I do provides opportunities for discerning leadership qualities not always found in secular settings. Providing spiritual growth opportunities for not just students but also faculty and staff, these experiences benefit students in ways that support the kind of instruction I provide at a Catholic university that is neighbor to Silicon Valley. As described a year ago in an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Catholic colleges are increasingly attracting not just cradle believers but students who are from unchurched backgrounds (http://chronicle.com/article/Catholic-Colleges-Greet-an/149327/). 

Students with little or no religious background are drawn to the religious mission of Catholic colleges as they articulate it into topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice. Substituting “good” for “God,” students can apply the fruits of their spiritual inquiry to many aspects of their life and learning. Furthermore, because schools with religiously articulated missions explicitly encourage conversations about values, they implicitly promote a “conscious capitalism” model for doing business that supports my efforts to teach ethics to aspiring entrepreneurs and managers (http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/246478).

Conscious capitalism is rooted in four principles: conscious leadership, stakeholder orientation, conscious culture, and higher purpose.

Recently my university provided me with the chance to learn from someone who practices conscious capitalism, a man who built and guides an organizational structure of multiple social enterprises. His businesses apply commercial strategies to improve the well being of individuals while also making a self-sustaining profit. This authentic and inspirational leader also happens to be a priest who is known not by his corporate title but by his gang-conferred moniker: G-Dog. Greg Boyle, a priest in the Society of Jesus, was motivated by his faith to answer the need for employment and educational opportunities among youth in gang-controlled East L.A. and did so by building a complex and wide-ranging business model that also met an equally broad array of social needs; he recognized all the stakeholders. His supply chain of commerce is really a human circle of compassion that runs businesses that serve the communities while also transforming the lives of those who work for Homeboy Industries while also sustaining a values-based culture to continually support the work of the stakeholders. (http://www.homeboyindustries.org)  While Homeboy Industries makes a profit, its higher purpose contributes to affirming the true value of the citizens of Boyle Heights.

Although we were gathered at a religious retreat center and arrived primarily to share spiritual experiences with Father Boyle, I also came away with a deeper appreciation for what is required of a conscious leader. Most important and often repeated by Father Boyle was his insistence on the need for humility, a concept not typically associated with leadership in business circles. Father Boyle’s experience, however, illustrates the power of humility as an agent of growth. Or as he puts it, “If you are humble you never stumble.” Father Boyle suggests that those that find themselves in leadership roles “push the deflate button” and not shy away from humility. Humility helps us be disciplined in generosity towards ideas we don’t recognize as our own, resulting in innovations that benefit everyone. In this way, humility prepares a leader to appreciate the importance of relationships and one’s obligations to those she serves and represents.

Hence Father Boyle emphasizes kindness as a reciprocal activity among all who are working towards the same goal. Kindness is possible when one humbly approaches colleagues with recognition of what Father Boyle calls “kinship.” Just as he sees himself as equal to the gang members he seeks to help, so too does a conscious leadership recognize her kinship with all her stakeholders, understanding that any designation of leadership is not assigned by the presumptive leader but conferred by those she leads. Leaders don’t pick themselves; the people do. “Connect,” Father Boyd urges, “don’t compete.” 

In building a corporate culture based on relationships conducted with kindness rather than as transactions performed for achievement, Father Boyle is informed by his higher purpose but he is also firmly grounded in his obligation to reality. He will “cherish” rather than “cling” to his employees, understanding that their commitment to the corporate vision depends on them seeing themselves as stakeholders in their own personal development, too. A dream shared by one of his employees provided Father Boyle with the image he needed to explain this distinction between “cherish” and “cling.” When confused in the darkness, we can shine a flashlight on the light switch to help another find his way to the light; but we can’t turn on the light for others. A leader accompanies rather than guides, sustaining both humility and kindness in the process.

Humility, kindness, and accompaniment are all expressions of the higher purpose that serves as a kind of counter-imagination that prevents a corporate culture from only looking inside.

The social reality of life in Boyle Heights instructed Father Boyle that the only way to change it was to stay immersed in that reality, to “witness,” as he describes it, to the immediate context that seeks to be served. A humble leader practicing kindness and accompaniment Like Father Boyle uses his imagination to enrich his reality, not escape it. As a witness, one’s posture should be not to “send a message,” but to “receive one.” “Receivement,” Father Boyle observes, rather than “achievement,” allows one to “belong to the truth,” rather than merely speaking the truth. While conscious leadership principles may apply across professions, they are composed and enacted in context. For those who aspire to conscious practice of their profession, the example of Father Boyle demonstrates that leadership is not a noun but a verb.

 

Christmas Eve

Living in a city like San Francisco it’s hard not to be infected with some Christmas cheer during the holiday season. The famous Market Street is lined with Christmas lights and filled with the hustle and bustle of bundled-up shoppers hauling with them bags of goodies and simply exuding holiday joy. I walk past homes, that are lit up with colorful bulbs and meticulously decorated Christmas trees in their front windows and often emanating whiffs of delicious holiday scents. But this time of the year is not as cheerful for everyone, especially those far away from home and longing for their loved ones. This is usually the case for me being a transplant from South Africa whose fondest memories of Christmas involve sunny, warm weather and family around a swimming pool, a far cry from the chills of this city. But this year was different thanks to the immense kindness of one of our professors from this past semester.

For those who know Kimberly Connor, they have experienced the sheer kindness and warmth that she radiates, an energy that draws all kinds of people to her. Her class on ethics, so aptly suited to her whole being, consisted of an MBA group that was predominantly international students from a range of about 10 different countries around the world. Knowing this, she selflessly opened her home to any students who are away from their families over the holidays, for a Christmas Eve dinner.

Festim, a fellow student and Kosovan friend, and I head over to her house. I am carrying Christmas cookies, peppermint bark and a bottle of red wine that I wish was fancier than it was, and I am suddenly filled with child-like, excited anticipation that is oddly familiar although also a noticeably distant feeling. As we make our way up their staircase, I notice the many somewhat eclectic tributes of Our Lady placed on the walls and eventually arrive at a Matisse-inspired painting of Kimberly and her English Springer Spaniels. This followed shortly with a bombardment of love from her 8-month-old Springer delight, Harriet, who has a red bow on her. My heart instantly melts, and all the licks and cuddles are more than appreciated. Kimberly welcomes us and introduces us to her equally welcoming partner, Steve, whose worldly knowledge and appreciation for fine wine makes him instantly fascinating. Vu is there, also a fellow student from Vietnam with the purest of hearts and his friend Ai, equally lovely and also originally from Vietnam. Introductions are easy and void of any awkwardness typically associated with some first-time encounters. Adeep, the Mauritian in our class arrives fashionably late with some beer and cherry chocolates and his excitement for the evening is apparent in his toothy grin. The whole atmosphere is homely and relaxed.

As we help to slice what I assumed to be scones but in fact called biscuits, Kimberly explains that the holiday tradition from Virginia is to eat these with a Virginian ham that she has gone out of her way to find for this evening. She speaks of this holiday tradition with a fond reminiscence. She also points to a beautifully decorated table filled with treats and a special princess cake covered in glittery fondant to resemble Santa’s hat. The seven of us, all from different backgrounds, sit around their living area with a log fire burning on the tv to share stories and experiences. Mingling has never been this easy and my social awkwardness is long forgotten.

Kimberly suggests we draw Zen Cards. Something that I am not familiar with but quickly take a liking to as each card has a word on it that is intended to shine a light on something in your life that you can relate to intimately. Each one is uncannily applicable to each person who carefully selects theirs, reads it out loud and speaks of how this relates to them. This a wonderful way to share with others but also brings a new sense of awareness to oneself. We draw cards that read ‘experience, peace, compassion, tranquility, journey and patience’ and personally reflect on their significance. This leads to a somewhat natural progression to talking to a battery, although some may argue ‘Force’, powered Yoda figurine by asking him questions that prompt a wise response. Kimberly is an avid Star Wars fan. ‘Of course’ I think to myself, another reason why I like her. After giggling at some of the questions directed at Master Yoda, we tuck into the princess cake, which I could only describe as having puffy, rainbow-soaked clouds in your mouth. I enjoyed it so much I glutinously go on to eat both mine and Festim’s fondant. It was unnecessary but glorious.

Kimberly then hands us a bunch of pastel-colored chalk and turns to a floor to ceiling chalkboard in her kitchen and gives us carte blanche to decorate it. My inner child leaps with joy perhaps more obvious that I thought I led on. We immediately start writing things like ‘thankful’ and ‘grateful’ on it as those are the feelings that are overwhelmingly occupying our minds of this experience. I draw a shoddy rendition of an elephant, Vu draws to stick figures accompanied with ‘love is equal’ and Festim, a rather accurate drawing of the world, circled with the word ‘friendship’. We finish it off by writing ‘thank you’ in our different languages and the words from our Zen Cards and I reluctantly gather the chalk placing it back on the kitchen counter.

After being incognizant of the fact we were at our professor’s house owing to their comforting hospitality we realize it is getting closer to 11 pm and decide it is time to be on our way. We profusely thank Kimberly and Steve for the loveliest evening and for welcoming us into their beautiful home. We left there with the happiest of hearts and the fullest of bellies.

 

 

 

 

 

Hello World

Welcome to my new blog! On this site I’ll be reflecting on teaching business and the humanities as I used to do for The Huffington Post until they ended their blog platform. My research assistant, Shelley Kruger, will be updating and migrating all the prior content to this site. But to begin again, I’d like to feature not my own writing but Shelley’s reflections on Christmas Eve, which we celebrated at my house in San Francisco with a gathering of international MBA students.

Fare forward,

Kim