Aug 4, 2011

Faith at Work, Part 6: Expressing Spiritual Values

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5    

“In the spring of 2009, on the eve of graduation, a small group of us at Harvard Business School found ourselves staring into a great abyss instead of standing on the threshold of new and exciting careers. We understood that the moment we received our diplomas, regardless of our good intentions and moral foundations, we would be cast in the roles of the Darth Vaders of the business world.”

This is what Max Anderson and his co-author Peter Escher wrote in the introduction to their book The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders about the business climate into which they were graduating from one of the world’s most prestigious schools.

Instead of sulking to the finish line of receiving their expensive MBAs, Anderson and some classmates came up with the idea for a professional oath that would not only communicate to others their intention to do things differently than the MBAs who had contributed to the financial crisis of 2008, but would keep them accountable to one another.

Text of the MBA Oath

Anderson talked to Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow David W. Miller about the oath at a Princeton University Faith & Work initiative event. He said he and his buddies envisioned 100 of their 900 classmates signing it. Instead, The New York Times and other media got a hold of the story. The oath has now been signed by more than 5000 MBAs around the world and corporations are inquiring about how they can use it to screen potential employees.

The MBA oath doesn’t include explicit religious language, yet it has clear spiritual parallels and undertones.  Anderson is a Christian and wrote the oath with a diverse group of students including other Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. Miller senses that Anderson, who came up with the idea, fits well in the Expression (ES) category of The Integration Box (TIB).

ES types value the ability to “express or communicate their faith tradition and worldview (be it sacred or secular in nature) to others at work,” Miller told an audience at the Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville last year.

This expression may manifest itself in word, deed, or attire, Miller said, and the goal may be to persuade others to join one’s faith tradition or adopt one’s worldview. It could also “simply be to freely live out who one is.”

“Oaths ... are really powerful in our culture,” said Anderson.

“If you want to become a citizen, you speak out loud a promise of what you intend to do. ...It implies that we as a culture believe there is some value and power in saying out loud I intend to do this and I commit to doing this as if the words themselves, speaking them, have a binding effect,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s naive,” he continued. “I think that you need to put a flag in the ground and say very clearly this is the way it ought to be and what we’re aiming for. By doing that you make possible what seems improbable.”

For verbally oriented ES types like Anderson, declaring who they are, either out of “a sense of pride, simple transparency, or due to religious obligation” feels right, Miller said.

“For others, the purpose is to verbally share their religious tradition, hoping to gain new adherents to their worldview,” he said. This might take the form of evangelizing and viewing the workplace as a "mission field."  

Anderson generally doesn’t talk about his faith in relation to the MBA oath, he said, because the unifying feature is the MBA, not any particular religious tradition, but he said he thinks “faith is as appropriate as any other philosophy for thinking about the oath.” He also talked about the covenant that God made with Abraham and recorded in Genesis 15 as an example of oath taking and included a scriptural reference in the introduction to his book.

ESs may have “no particular agenda or goal other than to discuss freely and transparently their foundations and how that informs their perspectives on work or other matters,” Miller said. “ In either case, public expression results in an increased awareness of one's views by one's  colleagues.”

Non-verbal ES types value expressing their faith or worldview, but choose to do it more privately or symbolically, letting their actions speak instead of words, Miller said. Some do this by wearing religious clothing or by placing religious objects in their work space. Anderson keeps a copy of the MBA oath on his desk to remind himself, and perhaps others, of the commitment he has made.
“It’s now license to call each other out,” Anderson said of himself and his peers. “That’s a pretty important and valuable thing.”

Expression style believers see themselves as an ambassador for their faith and hope that because of their example others may come to know the source of their belief, Miller said. Others simply want to quietly express who they are. Either way, they’re making a powerful statement.

Image by Mike Bitzenhofer. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Christine A. Scheller.

Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow David W. Miller is founding Director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative and an Associate Research Scholar at the university's Center for the Study of Religion. Dr. Miller spent 16 years in senior executive positions in international business and finance before entering academia and receiving his M.Div.and Ph.D. in Social Ethics. He is the author of God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement and writes for The Avodah Institute's Faith & Work Blog.

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