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The Inner Executive
Study of Business Spirituality Gains Acceptance
Over the decades André Delbecq has been witness to major paradigm shifts in the teaching of business. Areas once deemed unsuitable for study at a business school — behavioral science and mathematical modeling in the 60s and 70s and corporate responsibility and ethics in the 80s and 90s — have become mainstream. Delbecq believes it is happening again with a new field of study: spirituality in business.
“This particular interest group has grown faster than most others,” says Delbecq, the Thomas and Kathleen McCarthy Professor of Management at the Leavey School of Business. “What’s interesting is that it has been a ground-up movement. Interest in workplace spirituality didn’t begin in the churches or the academy; it grew as a societal movement. Incorporating the study of spirituality in business is still very young, but I feel this intellectual inquiry is no longer fragile.”
Delbecq has summarized his view of the growth of spirituality study in a paper, “Spirituality and Business: One Scholar’s Perspective,” published in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion. The paper draws substantially on his long experience in the academy and on his observations about the spiritual hunger expressed by many of the business executives he deals with.
Two themes have repeatedly emerged in those conversations, he says. The first is a sense that it’s tough to be an effective business leader without a feeling that there’s a deeper meaning to the work. A second, arising particularly in recent times, has been a reaction to the distortion of values as reflected in many business scandals.
“Hubris and greed are two major traps in senior business leadership,” Delbecq says. “The answer to that is not just about ethics. Everybody knows what’s ethical, but it’s easy to be seduced by power and wealth. Unless you have a well-developed spiritual compass, power corrupts.”
Associated with a Jesuit university, Delbecq found himself being asked about spirituality in the workplace more and more during the 1990s, and, in turn, wanted better answers himself. In 1999 he was scheduled to take a sabbatical to study business innovation in France; instead, he canceled that trip, enrolled in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to study spirituality and traveled extensively around the world to meet contemporary spiritual teachers.
In the year 2000, he began a seminar at Santa Clara University called “Spirituality of Organizational Leadership,” which over the years has been attended by more than 500 MBA students (who are also working professionals) and 300 senior business executives. He teaches the class in a way that shows how different religions approach the same issue.
For instance, on the question of giving back to society, Judaism teaches that it is a matter of justice; Christianity that it is a matter of charity and perhaps more optional; while Hinduism takes the need to give back as such a given that it is hardly discussed. “An interesting thing about this,” Delbecq says, is that when we ask students to look at a question from a religious perspective, they often end up choosing to refract the question through the lens of a religion other than their own. In doing so, it deepens their understanding within their own tradition.”