Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Religion in Ethical Leadership in the Secular Context of Business

In Peter Berger's terms, the sacred and the profane are like oil and water. In Augustine's terms, the heavenly and earthly kingdoms are two distinct realms, a Christian being only a pilgrim passing through the latter, hence not to be "of it" while in it. I contend that such "white and black" dichotomies are artificial, and thus ill-fitting as paradigms in which to situate religion and ethical business leadership. Perhaps a devoutly religious CEO can unabashedly apply ethical elements of his or her religion without severing them from their theological underpinnings, and therefore without the need for subterfuge. I suspect that the legions of the CEO's subordinates would feel more, rather than less, respected. 

I bristle at the notion that Servant Leadership is distinctly or uniquely Christian. Gandhi, for example, intentionally borrowed from Jesus's teachings as well as Jain ethics to forge active non-violent protest. A leader of a business can genuinely be a servant, internally as well as in his or her conduct, without connecting the ethics to the distinctly Christian theological concept of agape--self-emptying love even unto the Cross. By the way, John D. Rockefeller viewed himself as a Christ figure in saving refiners from the destructive competition that had so ravaged the industry in the 1860s and early 1870s. He also likened himself to Noah--his Standard Oil being like an ark. Yet neither Noah nor Jesus killed the people (or animals) unwilling to be saved. "Save me from the followers of the Redeemer!" Nietzsche exclaims.

Interestingly, employees of a business leader who feels deeply the call of his or her faith on Monday rather than merely on Sunday may actually urge the CEO to apply his faith at full-throttle, rather than selectively as Rockefeller did. As distinctively Christian (meaning shaped by distinct theological concepts), though still respecting the otherness of the others rather than trying to convert them, Christian ethics at the helm need not be a threat, whether implicitly or in practice. A well-grounded, distinctive ethics can actually protect rather than threaten secular followers. In other words, I don't think Greenleaf's wan notion of servant leadership goes far enough because the secular exterior is in want of its native theological content. Ironically, the restoration of a vertical alignment would render the ethics stronger, and thus more rather than less in the interest of followers and even exterior stakeholder groups. 

Perhaps the optimal recipe consists of integration not only of word and deed and of interior and exterior, but also of ethics and the undergirding theology (which gives the ethical edifice a more refined shape). Pitfalls do indeed exist; but with respect for both the religious and secular integrities of followers, tension can be obviated. "Be whom you are," similar to the Buddhist preachment of being in the moment, is inherently respect-gathering, I submit, as long as the personal space of others is respected unconditionally too. 

caritas naturalis (seu agape), seu benevolentia universalis