B-Schools Encourage Spiritual Exploration

Author: Ronald Alsop

Business schools aren’t trying to inculcate religious beliefs or encourage students to proselytize on the job. But more b-schools are offering courses dealing with spirituality and personal fulfillment in the workplace. What they want to teach students is the importance of remaining true to their convictions — whether rooted in organized religion or personal morality — amid the many conflicting demands and temptations they will likely confront during their careers.

Spirituality may seem like an alien concept in M.B.A. programs, where many students are obsessed with landing jobs that pay six-figure salaries and require marathon workweeks. But such courses are actually quite timely. After all, “moral values” figured prominently in the U.S. presidential election, and the book “The Purpose-Driven Life” turned into a runaway bestseller.

“It was taboo for so many years to talk about workers’ spirituality,” says Thierry Pauchant, who holds the chair in ethical management at the HEC Montreal business school. “But people are suffering by not being able to address that part of themselves and lead a more integrated life. We have seen the exponential growth in antidepressants as people search for more meaning in their lives and their work.” So in his ethics courses, Dr. Pauchant covers the spiritual or “existential” dimension, which he defines as “individuals’ freedom of beliefs and the development of their deepest aspirations at work.”

The corporate scandals of the past few years prompted many schools to create courses on business ethics, which sometimes touch on religion and morals. For example at the Instituto de Empresa business school in Madrid, students’ religious beliefs come into play in ethics class when they discuss the marketing of RU-486, the so-called abortion pill.

But the courses that deal specifically with spirituality and values get much more personal. They aim to increase self-awareness and the desire for more spiritually rewarding jobs. “Work hours are so grueling these days that if you don’t love what you do, you are in hell,” says Srikumar Rao, who teaches “Creativity and Personal Mastery” at Columbia University Business School. “You need the work you do to express your values and be of benefit to the larger society. This is very, very important, but is not acknowledged at most business schools, let alone addressed.”

Professors take different approaches to encourage students to explore their spiritual side and weave it into their professional lives. In “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” Columbia students bare their souls in classroom discussions, a weekend retreat, their personal journals and other assignments. They also learn breathing and meditation techniques and must participate in “total immersion exercises” that Prof. Rao calls “as ifs.” For example, they might be required to treat every single person they meet as if it was that person’s last day on Earth.

At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, literature serves as the springboard for spiritual exploration. William (Scotty) McLennan, dean for religious life, teaches “The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry Through Literature” toward the end of the two-year M.B.A. program when students are thinking most about their futures. They read such works as Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and Leo Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and share their own personal dreams and failures with each other. “There can be tears and anger, real emotion,” says Rev. McLennan. “The course is transformational for some people.”

Joseph Holt, who will teach the class “Spirituality and Religion in the Workplace” this semester at the University of Notre Dame, challenges students to look beyond prestige and salary and ask whether a potential employer is a good fit morally and spiritually. “Every company has a lovely mission statement,” Prof. Holt says, “so I tell students they should talk to someone at the company, or even better to a former employee to get the straight scoop.”

Prof. Holt’s course will address such concerns as treating fellow employees with respect, the role of prayer in blending one’s faith and work, and the ways e-mail, cell phones and other modern technology threaten spiritual time. Although Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic institution, the course also will include readings from Jewish, Protestant and Buddhist perspectives.

Courses on spiritual values typically win rave reviews. Sreedhar Kona, an M.B.A. student at Columbia, says Prof. Rao’s class “instilled an element of spiritual longing” and profoundly affected his outlook. “I had struggled a lot with regard to understanding what truly made me happy,” says Mr. Kona, who had consulted “spiritual gurus” in the past. “By digging deeper in this class, I believe I have gotten a very good sense of the root causes of my professional unhappiness and have started to address them.”

This winter, Columbia Business School’s alumni club is sponsoring a program based on Prof. Rao’s class that promises to help people “discover the purpose that can suffuse your life and bring stars to your eyes.” Notre Dame also has created a “Spirituality of Work” course designed specifically for its older M.B.A. alumni.

Some alumni say the online course did indeed energize them. From the reading and online discussions, Tina Mitiguy of Portola Valley, Calif., found the courage to stand up for herself and others in her sales and marketing job at an Internet company. “I felt a new sense of duty to bring as much fairness as I could to the workplace,” she says, “with less regard for the security of my own position.”

For Doug Lohse, a Notre Dame alumnus in Charlestown, Mass., the class helped him weather a dark moment during the downturn in the telecommunications industry. “With the difficult market, my motivation and willingness to go the extra mile for my customers was eroded; I wondered why I was continuing to work this hard,” he says. “The course got me refocused and motivated. I realized that I get personal satisfaction if I give the best service to improve people’s lives and am honest with customers about what I can and cannot do.”


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