Through The Needle’s Eye: The Spiritual CEO

It’s Monday morning devotional time at the headquarters of Chick-fil-A, a $510 million chain of fast-food chicken restaurants in Atlanta. S. Truett Cathy, the company’s chairman and CEO, sits quietly, listening to a staffer make a prayer request for his son, who recently was injured in a motorcycle accident. About half of the office’s 225 employees are in attendance. “It unites us,” says Cathy, a Southern Baptist who codified the notion of service to God in the company’s mission statement several years ago. “It helps us keep our priorities straight.”

If you listen to the pundits, Americans are engaged in a search for spirituality, and its companies are following suit. A generation after Time magazine decided God was dead, The Economist observes that “something significant is stirring in America‘s spiritual life.” Church- and synagogue-going is up, a majority on Capitol Hill says it’s concerned with family values, and businesses are riveted on improving ethics. The World Bank holds “spiritual unfoldment” meetings, Lotus Development’s “soul” committee helps employees balance home and work responsibilities, and Boeing hopes training sessions with poet David Whyte will stimulate managerial creativity.

Some organizations hope to heal the scars of downsizing and cutthroat competition, says Deepak Chopra, a physician and author who consults on spirituality with Fortune 500 companies including Arco Chemical. Others seek productivity gains purported to come from integrating workers’ emotional and analytical faculties.

At an increasing number of companies, however—like Chick-fil-A—spirituality starts at the top, reflecting the beliefs and concerns of the CEO. It’s hard to say whether there are more spiritual CEOs or whether executives are simply more comfortable speaking out in an era more receptive to their views. With the phenomenon barely underway, statistics are scarce. But experts say several trends involving the corner office are beginning to emerge:

  • Workshops and Internet forums on business and spirituality are on the rise—along with the number of CEOs who frequent them.
  • The spiritual consulting business is booming, with principals maintaining that more CEOs are seeking them out for individual and corporate assessments.
  • Lay organizations such as the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, based in Atlanta, support only chairmen and CEOs, on the assumption that they can talk most freely to one another.
  • Books such as author Laurie Beth Jones’ “Jesus CEO,” offering wisdom from a “turnaround specialist,” are peppering best-seller lists. Autobiographies by religious chief executives also are turning up on bookstore shelves.

“Senior executives are no different than anyone else,” says Judith A. Neal, associate professor of management at The University of New Haven, who publishes the newsletter Spirit at Work. “They hunger for a deeper meaning in an unsettling time.”

“CEOs with religious convictions are nothing new,” says Laura L. Nash, a professor of business ethics at Boston University and the author of “Believers in Business,” an examination of the practices and values of 85 evangelical Christian CEOs. “But with the collapse of materialism in the 1980s, more appear to be looking at the spiritual meaning of work.”

Evaluating how spirit affects management and decision making, CE spoke with executives from a variety of traditions, including Christians, Jews, and those representing so-called New Age sensibilities. Though wary of being perceived as overzealous, and given to minor differences over such matters as the role of philanthropy in spirituality, all argue that faith provides a fundamental competitive advantage, humanizing their organizations, and sharpening their sense of obligation to employees and the community.

Few companies are as unapologetically spiritual as Chick-fil-A, headed by 74-year-old Truett Cathy. Beginning with a single restaurant in u urban Atlanta in 1946, the privately held company currently operates 650 franchises in 34 Sun Belt states and is planning international expansion. But success hasn’t dulled Cathy’s fervor for his Baptist faith: The CEO closes his restaurants on Sunday, spending a part of the day teaching the Bible to a class of 13 year-old boys.

Cathy spends $1 million a year running eight foster homes in the Southeast and one in Brazil, partly to set an example of Christian charity for employees and the community, he says. The company’s mission statement—”To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A,”—is used in employee training materials and etched in a stone marque outside headquarters. “I don’t want people coming to Chick-fil-A just because we sometimes talk about God,” Cathy wrote in his 1989 autobiography, “It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail.” But the hardwiring of Christian values clearly hasn’t hurt. “We do attract the kind of people who appreciate taking Sunday off,” Cathy allows. He adds: “I see no conflict between good business and the Bible.”

Nor does Robert B. Pamplin Jr., who runs R.B. Pamplin Corp., an $835 million Portland, OR-based manufacturer of textiles, sand, and gravel. Nonetheless, Pamplin thinks there’s room for change in the definition of success. “There are two alternatives,” says Pamplin, 54, who enrolled in a seminary after a brush with cancer in 1973 and was ordained a nondenominational minister. One is based on the bottom line. Another, he says, is epitomized by spiritual figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Jesus Christ: “I defy anyone to tell me they’re not more successful than the Donald Trumps of the world.”

Pamplin oversees the private company with his father, Bob Sr., the former CEO of Georgia-Pacific. While both are devout Christians, it is the younger Pamplin whose works have attracted the most attention in recent years. Drawing on the Episcopalian and Baptist traditions, Pamplin Jr. bases his spirituality on a relationship with employees and the community. As a result, at an R.B. Pamplin board meeting several years ago, directors passed a resolution to tithe 10 percent of the company’s pretax income to charitable organizations, including nearby Christ Community Church. The church, where Pamplin serves as senior pastor and occasionally preaches, helps to feed the city’s poor.

Another Christian-oriented firm, Service-Master, acknowledges the deity in its annual report. A passage from Genesis 1:31 appears inside the front cover, alongside a statement of corporate objectives: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” In a letter to shareholders, President and CEO Carlos Cantu underscores the role of spirituality in managing cultural diversity: “[Diversity] is based on the principle that…every individual is created in the image and likeness of God.”

If Christian CEOs tap the Bible for business wisdom, 63-year-old Victor Jacobs looks to other sources. The chief executive of Brentwood, NY-based Allou Health & Beauty Care, a $260 million distributor of health and beauty aids and prescription drugs, consults the Talmud, the 1,500year-old rabbinic commentary on Jewish Biblical Law. Jacobs, whose family belongs to the ultraorthodox Satmars, a Hasidic sect that traces its roots to 18th century Romania, finds direct applications for some Talmud passages:

  • “To buy and sell doesn’t turn you into a businessman.” Translation: “Profit is more important than volume,” Jacobs says.
  • “If you leave a hole, the rats will come in.” Translation: With employee theft common in the distribution business, a company has only itself to blame for losses if it doesn’t carefully monitor inventory.

Not all CEOs looking for spiritual guidance turn to traditional religions. The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick and ice-cream makers Ben and Jerry, for example, often are associated with so-called New Age beliefs, which comprise a range of concerns and practices from astrology and holistic medicine, and Eastern religion practices, to environmental concerns.

Another executive associated with the New Age is Thomas M. Chappell, president and CEO of Tom’s of Maine, a $20 million manufacturer of additive-free personal-care products. In 1986, Chappell enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School, where he earned a master’s degree. He returned to his company’s Kennebunk headquarters imbued with a social mission—and a plan. These days at Tom’s, meetings may start with the telling of a story, an ancient spiritual tradition geared to establish common ground, Chappell explains. His own spirituality, he says, revolves around “a loving, intelligent force of goodness.” The job of the individual and the corporation is to “figure out how to contribute to that force.”

Moral imperatives aside, there’s a business bonus to the approach: Some customers buy Tom’s products as much for the company’s philosophy as for their natural ingredients. “We’re building a consumer franchise based on shared values,” 52-year-old Chappell says, adding that spiritual exercises build a sense of community and boost employee morale and productivity: “Ask an organization to respond to a crisis; good luck. Ask a community, and it’s another matter.”

It’s tough getting CEOs to talk about how capitalism and spirituality intersect. One senior executive privately acknowledges concern that despite current trends, many shareholders and customers may frown on passion plays.

But the survey underpinning “Believers in Business,” suggests another reason for tight lips. Laura Nash divides evan gelical executives into three categories: generalists, justifiers, and seekers. Generalists deny that conflicting impulses exist. Justifiers, also in denial, sugges t that good behavior is rewarded in the marketplace. Only seekers attempt to resolve messy questions such as how a religious ethic based on love and service squares with a business ethic based on competition and opportunism, or whether, in Biblical terms, it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy man to reach heaven.

The first two groups considerably outnumber the last, Nash says.

Under these criteria, and based on CEO assessments of the faith/business interface, the executives CE spoke with fall into several categories. Truett Cathy ranks as a generalist: A conflict of values “is not an issue,” he says bluntly.

Bob Pamplin Jr., too, disavows any friction: “I don’t have that tug,” he says. But in his 1993 lineal biography,  “Heritage: The Making of an American Family,” Pamplin shows shades of Nashian justification, commenting on R.B. Pamplin’s 1980s purchase of Mount Vernon Mills. Faced with a choice between reducing debt from the acquisition or investing to make the textile manufacturer a low-cost producer, Pamplin chose to square the balance sheet ahead of schedule. The capital expenditures had “proven again the power of positive thinking,” he says.

Victor Jacobs defies Nash’s categories, ranking as an unabashed pragmatist: “Wal-Mart doesn’t buy because I’m spiritual,” he says. “Wal-Mart buys because I give it merchandise and service.” Only Tom Chappell approaches the “seeker” archetype. He speaks about the individual’s “weak spots,” including the CEO’s inability to strike a perfect balance between God and mammon.

With touchy, metaphysical questions about the role of divine intervention in corporate success, and with gurus such as Chopra talking about “releasing the female energy” of American business, it’s no wonder some CEOs remain mum on spirituality. But if workplace trends continue, outright liberation may be in sight.

In a recent survey of executives and managers by Industry Week magazine and The New Leaders, a San Francisco-based newsletter on progressive management, nearly half the respondents reported they had experienced a “personal transformation.” On a 10-point scale, the group valued emotional and spiritual development (8.0 and 7.4, respectively) more than physical development (7.2), though not quite as much as intellectual development (8.3).

“This could be a wake-up call for those corporations that believe they are being progressive in installing gymnasiums and other perks for the physical needs of workers,” says The New Leaders’ editor and publisher, John E. Renesch. “Could meditation rooms or quiet sanctuaries be the next step for visionary employers?”

God only knows.


Joseph L. McCarthy is a CE contributing editor.

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