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Business leadership as a spiritual discipline. (Reconciling the Inner Self with the Business of Health Care).


* Leadership Requires Integration

* Inner Journey Versus Professional Role

* Spirituality as Lived Experience, Not Religious Teaching

* Compassion Leads to Purity of Intention

* Greater Effectiveness

"A COURSE IN SPIRITUALITY for senior leadership seemed an unlikely request from busy executives enrolled in Santa Clara University's MBA program. But for many years, this is what they had been asking/or in addition to their more conventional course of study. In the Fall of i997, I began a sabbatical to deepen my spiritual journey and learn about the Judeo-Christian tradition, Buddhism, and Taoism at the Craduate Theological Union at Berkeley. As a management scholar, it was a Journey into a new realm of wisdom and grace, and a life-changing experience."

Andre L. Delbecq, DBA

What 18-hour-a-day executive would voluntarily spend eight of those hours standing on a street corner with a homeless person? One who took a seminar on Spirituality for Executive Leadership from Andre L. Delbecq might--and did.

Delbecq, DBA, is the Thomas J. and Kathleen L. McCarthy Professor of organizational change management at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business. Situated in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, the Leavey School not only mints new MBAs, but also serves the executive education needs of 450 companies in its immediate area. Pour times a year Delbecq also teaches a one-week residential course on managing innovation and change for the American College of Physician Executives. He is intimately familiar with the leadership issues in a variety of business sectors. And he is the first to admit his surprise at the number of executives who have repeatedly asked if there were any courses in spirituality.

"There are two things I thought I'd never see in my lifetime," he comments. "The first was the end of the Russian Empire, and the second is the emergence of spirituality as a subject of inquiry in the academy of management. The intersection of spirituality with business leadership is currently the most published new topic in business school literature."

Not having a model to go on, Delbecq developed his own course. His first trial offering debuted in Fall 1998 with a cohort of nine CEOs and nine MBA students. Its reputation was so robust that when it was listed as a regular course last fall, the 30 available places were taken within the first 20 minutes of early registration. Santa Clara has included the course as a required segment of the one-and-a-half year Executive MBA curriculum and made it a quarterly elective for MBAs. Some other business schools, he notes, are moving in the same direction.

Spirituality is not the same as religion

What exactly is spirituality? That is the first question the participants are asked to grapple with, to arrive at a working definition for themselves. Delbecq defines it as the individual's lived experience of the transcendent, whether that be God, the Buddha, the Dao, or the 'Force'. The second question is, 'What brought you here?' The responses range from a career move into upper management to a personal or professional crisis, or even a toxic work environment. But the most prevalent reason is a daily feeling of conflict between the inner journey and the professional role. The participants report that a lack of integration has started to bog them down and impair their effectiveness.

Although it is not the same as religion, the vocabulary of spirituality borrows many religious terms. Using religious language is tricky, concedes Delbecq, especially in California, a state that embraces a rainbow of cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions. Even though two-thirds of his participants are not involved in religious observances, most were brought up within a specific heritage-from all parts of the Christian spectrum, plus Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and agnostic. So Delbecq uses religious language with great care, establishing ground-rules for multi-faith dialogue at the outset.

Then he dives right in. He introduces his participants to a variety of spiritual disciplines and different forms of prayer--including contemplation, detachment, selected Lakota Sioux practices, and many others. Interestingly, he says, these busy concept- and goal-oriented executives overwhelmingly gravitate to contemplative exercises, rather than to active prayer styles.

Next, he invites each participant to choose a figure from history who they believe achieved a high level of spiritual-pragmatic integration, and then read that person's writings. Among the suggested models have been Mahatma Gandhi, Dag Hammerskjold, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Delbecq finds that studying the stories of great transformational leaders opens a window on the spiritual journeys of those called to lead.

Facing powerlessness

After this preparation comes the pivotpoint of the course. A fundamental characteristic of most executives is the requirement to make decisions. They exercise power and create wealth, and are rewarded with great wealth. Furthermore, executives tend to avoid those areas that they cannot influence, which has the effect of enlarging their sense of control. Delbecq asks them to identify what they fear most, what represents the greatest suffering and loss to them. And then to spend eight hours "there."

Participants do it. One executive, who was afraid of death, spent the time with a dying person he did not previously know. Another, who thought being poor, homeless, and mentally disturbed was life's worst tragedy, spent eight hours standing on a San Francisco street corner with a homeless, disoriented person. Another, a woman whose biological clock was ticking faster and faster, but who feared having a less-than-perfect child, spent her time in a residential care facility for developmentally handicapped children. An executive who excelled in communication skills spent his time with a speechless stroke victim.

In all cases, the participants willingly faced their greatest dread. Afterward, they defined these as peak experiences. A new element had entered the traditional risk-reward formula: it could be called compassion.

But can a moment of compassionate empathy make any difference in the chaotic, impersonal, bottom-line business world? Delbecq's seminar participants will assure you it does. One attests that she has changed the way she enters decisions, preceding them with a period of contemplation and discernment that leads to greater clarity. Another says that he found the courage to tackle an onerous task--shutting down a no-longer essential division--rather than assigning it to a subordinate. He put himself in a servant leadership role, and by his own calmness and compassion he created greater calm in a potentially calamitous situation.

Greed and wealth

The feedback from the course enrollees has been uniformly enthusiastic, says Delbecq, regardless of their age or gender. Corporate leaders are quick to grasp the paradox between spiritual practices, typically associated with asceticism, and the material wealth heaped upon top executives.

"Attachment to greed and power are the two most common derailments for executives," comments Delbecq. "It is the successful leader who understands the purity of intention and asceticism that is appropriate to executive life."

While the mix of CEO participants has been very broad, it has included only one physician executive to date. However, Delbecq believes that medical leaders are a natural audience for spirituality explorations. After all, they were drawn to healing professions to begin with. As some of them contemplate or are pressured into administrative leadership, they need to re-envision how their professional roles can still provide psychic satisfaction.

Relevance for health care

Delbecq has some proof of the topic's appeal for physician leaders. In Spring 1999 he was asked to offer a Saturday afternoon course on spirituality at the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) conference in Phoenix. It turned out to be the first sunny morning and free time after several days of rainy weather and all-day meetings. Delbecq expected that the prospect of another session in a stuffy room would be no match for the allure of the golf links. He was astounded when 40 physicians showed up. The AAFP wants him to return to present a session for a senior leadership group.

What is it about the health care field that is ripe for spirituality training? Delbecq maintains that health care is a relatively immature sector administratively. But it has a long tradition of noble calling and compassionate service. Thus, the notions of discernment and vocation to leadership in health care, like other industries, can be explored in the context of spiritual stories from a variety of religious traditions. It is simply being "called" to fulfill a different, but still critical task.

Clarity and purity of purpose, however, are essential to avoid falling prey to the attraction of great wealth and control. Indeed, wealth distribution is a key responsibility of business executives, and they must seek a good measure of spiritual detachment to exercise this authority with inner integrity. Reward systems must be designed and implemented with justice to avoid disadvantaging the economically marginalized. Delbecq teaches that spiritual masters can offer ways of nourishing integrity and justice through reflection and meditation.

Similarly, the concept of building community, so important in the religious world, is equally essential in the corporate setting. Delbecq points out that multi-national business conglomerates have become more influential than nation-states. This simple reality tells us how important it is to foster a vitalizing community within the business organization. Because health care is primarily knowledge work, Delbecq sees its practitioners as engaged in the "highest human capabilities of discovery and co-creation. Good physician executives enlist others in their major challenges.

Physician executives "called" to leadership will not find spirituality to be separate from organizational challenges, Delbecq says. As they struggle with the imperfections of both their leadership skills and organizational structures, there will be many lessons in humility. But through virtue and discernment, they will embrace those challenges with courage and peace rather than fear and anxiety.


The first step in forming a spirituality specific to the role of senior leadership is the "Ah ha" discovery that it can be a noble mission and a true "calling."

I have been looking for a way to deepen my spiritual journey. I have never had a language or a context into which I could think about spirituality and connect it with my leadership role. Jam beginning to see how leadership can be a compelling calling and can be consistent with a full and rich spiritual life. I have a new terrain visible to me within myself I feel as if I am commencing a great internal journey.

Leadership spirituality seminar participant

I too have had difficulty because I felt I had to separate my spiritual life from my work life. The two have seemed at odds with each other. I now see the possibility that if I maintain the right focus, I could easily increase my ability to practice being spiritual in my work life. How open and willing am Ito really do what it takes to gain this more enlightened position? Am I willing to give up my delusion of control, and proceed without knowing what lies ahead? These and many similar questions are being explored as I consider how I might bring these two worlds together

Leadership spirituality seminar participant

Would a course in spirituality benefit everyone? Naturally, only the individual can answer. But don't be surprised to see tracks on this topic in future professional meetings. Delbecq's participants have found their experiences sufficiently transforming that at least two-thirds of them continue to gather quarterly for refresher contacts with each other and for mentoring sessions with current MBA candidates. And Delbecq says he's noticed that course graduates always leave with a new spring in their step. 1

RELATED ARTICLE: Organizational Leadership as a Noble Calling

Andre L. Delbecq, DBA

Unless a leader feels his or her organizational role is a "calling," then the burdens of leadership become separated from the spiritual journey, which contributes to burnout and cynicism. While the physician's calling as healer is clearly rooted in our consciousness, the idea of a health care organizational leader being called to fulfill a noble role in the service of others is less obvious. The inner journey encompassed in organizational leadership unfolds with several ideas.

1. It is through health care organizations that the majority of services are provided. Delete the organization and medical services often cannot be accessed. It is within hospitals, multi-specialty clinics, and other organizational settings that health care is delivered.

Thus it is through organizations that the "Goodness and Mercy of God" will be made available to individuals suffering from ill health. St. Ignatius challenged his followers "to be in the place where God is at work in each age."*

Organizations are certainly one of these places. If the mission of a medical center "matters," then the leadership of a physician executive to enable the organization has no less dignity than clinical roles and is an important calling to service on behalf of others.

The physician executive's central leadership challenge is to bring to life a vision that "transforms" the medical organization into a true service entity. The leader's messages, reinforced by behavior and choices, transform abstract visionary statements into reality and are a primary stimulus for staff to (re)consider or deepen their commitment to the noble purpose of the organization.

Discerning such a vision is a spiritual challenge, for which the leader must be the spokesperson. How does the leader find the courage to purify and articulate this vision and engage others to make it a reality? How can the physician leader be sure the vision is not a product of greed and ego? How does he or she arrive at inner integrity so that the vision is communicated with transforming vitality? How does the leader avoid regressing to expediency or short-term advantage due to anxiety or fear? These are not trivial spiritual issues. Spiritual masters suggest that it is only through reflection and meditation that leaders can find the courage to sustain action in support of noble vision in difficult times.

2. Organizations are the locus of activity for providers--it is within their walls that "community" is experienced.

Health care organizations not only determine the quality of service for patients, but also the quality of the work environment for providers. The organization is the contemporary "village" and each day it is the most formative and influential "culture" outside of the family. The physician executive's leadership affects a central segment of life for those who share this work community. Leaders have a special role in building culture and maintaining a healthy organizational climate. Leadership sets the tone for a culture that can either be an oasis of goodness or a destructive hyper-competitive setting of darkness.

3. It is within the organization that most providers utilize their talents and find self-expression in service to others.

As health care is predominantly "knowledge work," it is here that the highest human capabilities are engaged in discovery and co-creation. Good physician executives enlist others in the major challenges that constitute the "strategic agenda" for their term of leadership. They accept constructive criticism, build consensus around problem definition and solutions, and help others discover and utilize their talents. By avoiding autocratic leadership, they enable colleagues to express their unique gifts.

4. It is within the organization that stewardship of resources is practiced.

Health care organizations control the resources critical to serving patient needs, so attention to quality and cost is key. Stewardship is important to not only make services more accessible, but to assure resources are sustainable for future generations.

5. Organizations are the principal determinants in wealth distribution among the workforce.

For many health care workers, salaries, wages, and fees are determined within their organizational context. Properly ordered, the reward system can motivate the virtue of enterprise, offer enhanced individual dignity, reduce envy, and provide economic freedom for creative expression. However, these outcomes are not automatic and the "hidden hand of the market" is not perfect.

The physician leader must assure justice within reward systems and be a voice for those who do not share fairly. Attention must be given to those economically marginalized by an absence of economic power.

Andre L. Delbecq, DBA, is the Thomas J. and Kathleen L. McCarthy Professor at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in California. He offers seminars in spirituality for organizational leadership through the MBA program and the Center for Executive Development at Santa Clara University, as well as onsite programs. He teaches managing change and innovation in medical organizations for the American College of Physician Executives. He can be reached by calling 510/769-8730 or via email at


* St. Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Society of Jesus (1491-1556). Besides founding the Jesuits. one of his great contributions was his Spiritual Exercises, a series of guided meditations designed to facilitate "discernment" in the direction for one's life.

Andre's Recommended Readings

The Call of the Disciple

Fischer, George and Hastschka, Martin

Mahwah, New Jersey, Paulist Press, 1999

A thorough but readable review of the "Calling Stories" in both the Old and New Testaments by two scripture scholars who have wide experience as spiritual directors.

Converting 9 to 5: Bringing Spirituality to Your Daily Work

Houghey, S. J., John

New York, New York: Crossroads, 1994

A careful discussion of the relationship between work and leadership written in an inviting manner for executives.

Theology and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners?

Schneiders, Sandra M.

Horizons 13(2), 1986, p. 253 - 274

Considered one of the most carefully constructed definitional essays setting forth the nature of spirituality as a branch of theology and its relationship to modem life.

A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: Multiple Designs for Fostering Spirituality in the Workplace, Part 1

Mitroff Ian I. and Denton, Elizabeth A.

San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1999

This empirical study of executives finds that organizational leaders yearn to integrate their deepest inner desires with their day-to-day professional role.

The Physician Leader's Primary Challenge

The physician leader's primary challenge is to transform the organization into an "oasis of goodness," modeling not only the best health care practices, but fostering a healthy work environment through the creation of:

* Empowering structures in which all employees reach toward personal potential

* Decision and governance processes that are inclusive and just

* Processes to facilitate change management and entrepreneurship that allow for creative expression

* Just and inclusive gain reward systems

* Models of sustainable development and environmental support

* High quality and cost performance

The physician executive "called" to leadership will not find spirituality to be separate from organizational challenges. Rather, he or she will grow spiritually precisely through a discerning and reflective struggle with these professional challenges.

Andre L. Delbecq DBA

Christine Leigh-Taylor, MS, has a graduate degree in organizational behavior and is the former Assistant Dean of Administration at the Walter Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. She can be reached by calling 707/937-2158.
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Author:Leigh-Taylor, Christine
Publication:Physician Executive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Previous Article:Preserving the soul of medicine and physicians: A talk with David Whyte. (Reconciling the Inner Self with the Business of Health Care).
Next Article:If physician executives don't, who will? (A Reaction).

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