Career & Success

How to Bring Your Spiritual Side to Work Every Day

Many successful business people integrate religion into their careers.

February 10, 2015

| by Deborah Petersen


A man standing at the edge of a pond, looking at it

Taking a coffee break on the job can ultimately increase productivity, and setting aside 10 minutes for meditation can do the same. | Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Before retiring last year, Scotty McLennan spent 14 years as the dean for religious life at Stanford University, where, among other things, he interviewed the Dalai Lama and worked to create a campus meditative center, which opened last summer. As he returns to teach at Stanford Graduate School of Business this spring, the Unitarian Universalist minister sat down to discuss the benefits of quiet reflection, and why people do not need to check their religion at the door when they go to work on Monday morning.

When visiting Windhover contemplative center, which you had a key role in creating on the Stanford University campus, I noticed that some visitors could not help but chat with each other, and one was even texting on her mobile phone. Why is it so difficult for us to be still, even in a center intended for that purpose?

Windhover is meant to be a technology-free zone, knowing that our mobile phones and other electronic devices can not only be addictive, consuming our attention, but also can keep us tense, stressed, and even unable to relax and sleep, as much current research is showing. They can also be disturbing to others. Of course we’re social beings, so chatting with each other and chatting online are normal and routine.

But meditation is meant to break the normal and the routine in service of radically expanded breadth and depth of experience, of enhanced awareness, of mindfulness. It’s not easy, though, and it takes discipline, precisely because it takes us far from our normal and routine life. You actually have to sit still and do nothing. Ideally, you have to concentrate on only one thing, like following your breath in and out, rather than being scattered and consumed by many things.

It is hard for me to imagine that you, while a student, who played ice hockey in high school at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut (and was on the freshman and club hockey teams at Yale) would be able to stay still during meditation.

I was an activist in many ways — physically, intellectually, politically, spiritually. But learning how a great activist like Gandhi found his strength in quiet meditation helped me try it out, and the Hindu priest I lived with one summer in India insisted on it as a daily exercise. Practice makes perfect. Or makes it easier, since it’s certainly never been perfect for me. The more I meditated, the more I learned the value of stillness in many realms: listening to others more patiently and empathetically, smelling the flowers rather than missing them in the rush, becoming slower to anger, breathing intentionally when I feel stressed, feeling connected to the larger universe or Ultimacy.

Meditation is a central practice for many Buddhists and Hindus, and we in America often attribute it to traditions other than Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet, all religious traditions (and many humanistic, secular ones) have something akin to meditation, especially through various forms of centering prayer, but also through silent recitation of scripture or poetry, veneration of icons, handling prayer beads, rocking rhythmically, mental visualization, muscle relaxation, contemplating nature, and enjoying art, to name a few techniques and methods. No one has a lock on quietude, reflection, stillness, and serenity.

I think some people are surprised to know that a minister teaches at a business school. How do these lessons translate to business?


Business people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and many of them want to find it meaningful.
Rev. Scotty McLennan

Business people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and many of them want to find it meaningful. Many also want to conduct their business affairs ethically, and most of us worldwide learn our ethics through our religious traditions or through philosophical understanding of morality that we inherit from our families, education and surrounding culture. I wrote a book with a colleague at Harvard Business School where we tried to help readers integrate their spirituality and ethical commitments with their daily work lives. Ultimately, I believe this leads to more successful businesses and to greater satisfaction of customers and other stakeholders.

There seems to be a renewed interest among business people to make space for finding their inner calm, such as through the practice of mindfulness. But how do you convince CEOs and other high-achieving leaders that it is a worthwhile thing to do?

It doesn’t take much to convince business leaders and others that they should take a coffee break from time to time. Taking 10 or 15 minutes off ultimately increases productivity rather than decreasing it. How much more useful and fulfilling to stimulate one’s “relaxation response” through a meditational or prayer practice during one of those break times. If nothing else, there’s good medical evidence that it helps you to reduce stress, limit negative emotions, lower blood pressure, restore calmness, and increase your overall sense of well-being.

You are just finishing up a sabbatical before you return to lecture at Stanford Graduate School of Business. How did you spend your time off? What will you teach at Stanford GSB?

I’ve used my leave to travel and write and explore areas of interest that I’ve had for a very long time but not been able actively to pursue, like listening to classical music, spending time outdoors in nature, learning about digital photography, watching great movies, and catching up on developments in constitutional law. And I’ve been developing two new courses. One is tentatively titled “Business Biography: Finding Spiritual Meaning at Work.” We’ll look at biographies of respected people in business to see how they integrate what ultimately really matters to them with their business careers, and how they fail in this regard.

In the other course, I want to help students understand the etiquette of doing business in quite different cultures: say, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Brazil, and Great Britain. They will learn about the deeper cultural ethos from which that etiquette emerges, and finally be introduced to the dominant religious traditions which I believe underlie both etiquette and ethos.

Which biographies are on your short list?

One is serial entrepreneur Noah Alper’s BUSINESS Mensch (2009). Among other ventures, the natural foods chain Bread and Circus, now owned by Whole Foods, was founded by Alper, as well as the Noah’s New York Bagels chain, which he sold to Einstein Brothers for $100 million in 1995. Alper tried to run his bagel business on traditional Jewish religious principles, including keeping kosher. He took the ethical dimensions of Judaism very seriously, as well. For example, he describes in detail, with examples, how important being a mensch (an honorable, decent person) is to earn employee dependability and customer loyalty. He cites the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy — shuttering the business for a full day each week. He also stresses taking personal time every day, like a scheduled half-hour walk, for personal reflection.

Another biography I’m considering is basketball coach Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (2013). Jackson brought his Zen Buddhist ideas and practices into his work with his teams, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. He explains how Buddhism helped his teams move from being disconnected and ego-driven to being unified and selfless. He tried always to relate to his players as full persons as well, not just as cogs in a basketball machine, helping them develop their personal moral qualities and spirituality. He incorporated mindfulness meditation into practices and used rituals to infuse work with a sense of the sacred.

What are some ways people can integrate religion into their work lives?

In the book I co-authored with Laura Nash of Harvard Business School — Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life (2001) — we distinguished between espoused religion, which we counsel against bringing to work, and catalytic and foundational religion. The catalytic is personal and includes practices like meditation and prayer, while the foundational emphasizes generalized statements of religious wisdom that cross boundaries and traditions, like the Golden Rule and Ten Commandments or stories of love and sacrifice like that of Rev. Martin Luther King. It can be very important and helpful to bring catalytic and foundational religion to work, from the CEO level on down, while espoused religion should be left at the door.


We also cite business educator and consultant Stephen Covey’s emphasis on practicing spirituality at work as part of “sharpening the saw,” one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Since spirituality, often directly derived from one’s religion, lies at one’s core and involves commitment to one’s value system, it is critical to nurture those sources as much in the workplace as in private life. That can be done through the likes of personal rituals, applying scripture to workplace situations, and developing corporate credos and sagas that can affect a business’s culture.

What lessons does literature offer to the contemporary workplace?

Hermann Hesse’s title character in Siddhartha struggles throughout his life to combine business and spirituality. He becomes a rich merchant who is at first unattached to material success, concentrating on putting his customers first and acting ethically with all stakeholders. But then he becomes covetous, succumbs to the “soul sickness of the rich,” and becomes not only mean-spirited but also suicidal. Late in the book he finds equilibrium in a daily business of ferrying travelers across a river, providing spiritual mentoring to some, but finding that most people simply want good transportation services.

Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine portrays a Hindu immigrant’s journey through a variety of jobs and experiences as she seeks the American Dream from Florida to New York to Iowa to California. Takeaways include how to balance new-world selfishness in personal freedom with old-world selflessness in familial duty; examining whether there is a stable self (or Self) to rely upon in each of us or an ever-changing identity as we change our environments; the foundation of morality in karma, or reaping what one sows; and the struggle between fate and will.

Name a CEO who is successfully bringing his or her spirituality to work every day.

Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, has spoken and written about how he has been influenced by the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama. He considers the number one management principle in his own work life and for his company to be managing compassionately. This goes beyond empathy to walking in another’s shoes and taking collaborative action together.


He is convinced that compassion can be taught not only in school, but also in corporate learning and development programs. A fellow minister who heard Jeff Weiner speak on “The Art of Conscious Leadership” at the 2013 Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco described Weiner as making the most inspiring contribution to the conference. Not only was his spiritual commitment to his employees and customers strongly evidenced, but also he has a business leadership dream to expand compassion worldwide through his powerful social media company.

Scotty McLennan is a minister, lawyer, an author and the former dean for religious life at Stanford. He and his mentor, the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin, were the inspiration for the red-headed Rev. Scot Sloan in Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon. As a lecturer in political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, McLennan uses literature to help students explore the moral and spiritual issues in their own careers.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More