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Soul at work: spiritual leadership in organizations

30 November, 2011

Each of the organizations that Margaret Benefiel profiles in this lively and informative book shows the profound role that spirituality, defined as “the human spirit, fully engaged” can play in leadership and organizational life.

158 pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online,  go to www.veritas.ie.


Foreword by André L. Delbecq
Introduction: Soul at Work


1. Soul at Work: Six Who Manifest It
The U2 Community, Sisters of the Road Café, Reell Precision
Manufacturing, Greyston Foundation, HealthEast, Southwest Airlines, Conclusion

2. Behind the Scenes: Leadership for Transformation
Sisters of the Road Café, Genny Nelson, Reell Precision
Manufacturing: Bob Carlson, Greyston Family Support Services:
Theresa McCoy, HealthEast: Joe Clubb, Conclusion

3. Leading from the Inside Out: The Inner Life of the Leader.
Genny Nelson: Inner Nonviolence, Bob Carlson: Deep-Flowing Stream, Theresa McCoy: Compassion, Joe Clubb: Prayer, Conclusion

4. How Leaders Listen: Spiritual Discernment for Transformation
Historical Development, Discernment and Leadership, Conclusion,


5. Broading the Balance: Honoring What Really Matters
Introduction, Southwest Airlines, Greyston Bakery, Document Management Group, Conclusion
6. Nurturing the Nurturers: Caring for the Whole Organization
HealthEast, Mercy Medical, Our Lady’s Hospice, Conclusion
7. Keeping Grounded:Remembering the Cause behind the Causes
Sisters of the Road Café, Sophia Housing Association, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Conclusion
8. How Organizations Listen: Corporate Discernment
Reell Precision Manufacturing, Mercy Medical, Greyston Foundation, Conclusion


9. Putting it All Together: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations
Introduction, Individual Spiritual Transformation, Organizational Transformation, Conclusion
Conclusion: Putting Soul to Work in Your Organization
Sustaining Spiritually Grounded Leadership, Organization as a Whole,
Getting from Here to There, At the Beginning





Soul at Work describes the way organizations do business. Soul in the workplace is not a theological abstraction, but a way of being and doing. It is “the human spirit, fully engaged”.

Divided into three parts, the book looks at the role of individuals in nurturing soul, the organizational reality by which soul is manifest, and the processes by which the tension between individual and organization are managed.

This a book for managers, workers, organization specialists, church groups, and anyone involved in the transformation of organizational life. It is for everyone who suspects that there is more to business than the bottom line.


Fuller Review



The U2 Community

It’s a very healthy way to live your life, not to be so wrapped up in yourself, but actually to think in terms of “us.” I think U2 and U2’s fans are good at thinking about “us” in a very broad sense.

This sense of “us,” which the rock band U2’s guitarist The Edge articulates, permeates all aspects of U2, from the way the band relates to one another, to the sense of community at U2 concerts, to the band’s sense of connection with the wider world.

U2 (the band and the larger U2 community) is not your typical organization, but it clearly manifests the hallmarks of “soul at work.” Behind the Grammy awards, the concerts, and the music, its members manage to create an identity that transcends the individual and supports the greater mission. This corporate identity has evolved from when the four band members first joined together in the 1970s and continues to evolve today. The challenge for U2, as for other organizations described in this book, is “How do we balance sustaining our soul, doing our work, and being individuals committed together?”

Within the band itself, huge rock star egos have no place. Band members ask themselves, “What’s good for U2 as a whole?” While admitting that they all have quite healthy egos, The Edge observes, “Your ego, in our case, gets subsumed into a kind of band ego,” a situation that is possible only because everyone is secure in his position. “No one’s trying to do anyone else down. It’s kind of the opposite. You know if you get a chance to compliment somebody else, in the end you’re complimenting the whole band.” The relationships band members have with one another stem from mutual respect and many years of hard work. Band members have grown up together, gone through their apprenticeship as musicians together, fought with one another, and matured in their Christian faith together. “There’s a stability there and a kind of trust that is pretty indestructible at this point,” comments The Edge. “A very miniature community like we have is a great model for success. It’s a very effective form of cooperation for everybody involved.”

Beyond the band itself, a sense of community pervades U2’s wider circles. For example, The Edge notes, “At U2 concerts, there’s a great sense of unity in the venue, whether it’s a full stadium or a small theater. There’s a kind of an understanding that everybody there shares a certain view of how the world could be, and they’re interested in literally changing the world.” Band members have been delighted to hear from such organizations as Amnesty International and Greenpeace that many new members have become involved with them because of U2’s influence.

U2 members bring their whole selves to their music, including their spirituality, and thus go against the grain of the artistic world they inhabit. “We throw everything in, you know, politics, religion, sex, everything that is us. I think that is what’s missing now in music, that completely holistic thing. It’s like art and music mostly has completely turned its back on anything spiritual for such a long time,” observes The Edge, also noting that he thinks that trend will change eventually. U2 is aware of a generation growing up in their native Ireland with the influence of the Catholic Church having waned and nothing yet replacing that spiritual influence. Because they believe that to be human is to be spiritual, U2 looks forward to the day when the spiritual element reasserts itself in Western society in general and in the arts in particular.

U2 members are not involved in the institutional church; they rely on their wider community to nurture them in their spiritual lives. The Edge describes this community: “There is that community sense that I would associate with the Christian ideal of looking after your neighbor. But it isn’t always pretty; in fact it’s often very rough. Like do you care enough about someone to risk confronting them with the truth, if it is going to hurt them? That’s love in action, real commitment to one another, real community, and it has nothing to do with being nice to everyone at all times. So in some ways rather than being a once-a-week concept, it’s sort of the way we try and live here. And the challenge is to try to move it out further, so there’s not just your immediate small community but it’s asking, can you get it to be bigger and bigger?”

While the band doesn’t have a specific plan for increasing the scope of the good they do in the world, they continue to maintain their vision of transforming the world. And they know that that transformation begins with them. As The Edge puts it, “I just think by continuing what we’re doing I hope there’ll be a natural process of change in us.” As they change, they understand that they’ll influence the U2 community around them. The Edge muses, “It’s nice to feel like you might have been a bit of a catalyst along the way, or to be more accurate, that the music and the culture that’s grown up around the music would be a catalyst to other people to do something.”

U2 incarnates what it is to think in terms of “us,” in the band itself, in the U2 community, and in the wider world. In reflecting on the U2 community, The Edge typifies this attitude: “In the long run, I suspect that other people will end up doing far more than us, and that’s an exciting idea.”

Sisters of the Road Café
“I need you. You are the social service center in the neighborhood. You can point me to where clothing is, you can point me to where the health clinic is, you can help me find a job. I know that about you. But don’t you ever forget that you need me, too!” screamed the homeless woman who had burst into the staff meeting of the social service agency where Genny Nelson worked in 1979. The words struck home with Genny, reinforcing a message she had been hearing from the homeless for several years: “Listen to me. You need me.”

Genny Nelson and her colleague Sandy Gooch founded Sisters of the Road Cafe in Portland, Oregon, in 1979, in response to hours and hours of conversation with homeless people, listening to them articulate what they needed in order to get back on their feet. They asked for an alternative to the missions and soup lines, a place where they could dine with dignity, a place where they could work for their meals. They asked for a safe space, for community, and for help in job training. “We don’t want to be stuck in a lifetime of charity,” they said.

Sisters of the Road became all that they requested, and more. Today, Sisters serves hot meals every day between 10:00 and 2:45. Customers can work for a meal or pay for a meal. They can work their way up to staff positions at Sisters. They can join the workforce development program and receive job training and help in job placement. The sense of community at Sisters is palpable. “This place is different,” notes a customer. “You can feel it the minute you walk in the door.” Customers and volunteers alike note the sense of respect and mutuality that pervades the atmosphere of Sisters of the Road. Not an easy atmosphere to maintain in the midst of the poverty and violence of life on the street, Sisters of the Road staff rely on their monthly nonviolence training and their daily practice of meeting violence with compassion to create and sustain the sense of community and mutuality at the cafe. “Nonviolence is the practice of living from the heart honestly,” states Genny Nelson. “It asks of us the courage to address hurtful behavior while not humiliating that man, woman, or child’s personhood.” Genny attributes the atmosphere at Sisters to the consistency with which nonviolence has been practiced at Sisters over the twenty-five years of its existence.

At Sisters of the Road, staff, customers, and volunteers continue to work together to solve the problems of homelessness. The partnership between the homeless and the housed that Sisters conceived of initially continues in Sisters’ day-to-day operations. “Listen to me! You need me.” The message Genny received from the homeless woman who burst through the door has continued to echo in Genny’s consciousness and has provided guidance throughout the years of Sisters’ existence.

Reell Precision Manufacturing

We are committed to do what is right even when it does not seem to be profitable, expedient, or conventional.

So reads the first principle in Reell Precision Manufacturing’s Direction Statement. While such a principle might not appear to be a recipe for business success, Reell has grown from the 3-person company it was when it incorporated in 1970 to the 225-person company it is today. The company has adapted successfully to changing markets and a shifting economy and is now thriving, with revenue of over $25 million in 2004.

At first glance Reell seems as distant as can be from U2 or Sisters of the Road Cafe. What can a midwestern manufacturer of hinges and clutches possibly have in common with a rock band or a cafe for the homeless? Yet at the most fundamental level, as Reell’s Direction Statement suggests, Reell shares a common core with U2 and Sisters of the Road. Reell, like U2 and Sisters of the Road, shares a commitment to soul at work, to manifesting its deepest values and its spirituality in its day-to-day life as an organization.

Reell discovered how to Enron-proof its organization long before American business knew how sorely such insurance was needed. Named after a German word meaning “honest” or “trustworthy,” Reell made ethical behavior a part of its DNA from the start. Reell’s first priority is the growth and development of its employees. Unlike most American manufacturing companies, who believe that workers must be constantly monitored in order to get the most work out of them, Reell believes in trusting its co-workers to do their best, thus freeing them to “express the excellence that is within all of us.” Furthermore, Reell knows that business needs to make a profit, and they expect profits; at the same time, “our commitments to co-workers and customers come before short-term profits.”

Because of its commitment to employees and customers, Reell has done such unconventional things over the years as limiting executive pay to roughly seven to ten times that of the lowest-paid employee. Furthermore, during economic downturns in 1975, 1979, and 2001, when other companies were laying off employees, Reell discovered another way and didn’t layoff anyone.

“Do what is right, even when it does not seem to be profitable, expedient, or conventional” has served Reell well. By putting the development of their employees first and foremost, while at the same time keeping a steady eye on technology, markets, and the bottom line, Reell manages to work smarter, adapt quickly, and avoid the power struggles which often dominate technology and manufacturing compames.

Greyston Foundation

I wanted to create an environment demonstrating the interdependence of life…. The big question was how to bring spirituality – an awareness of the oneness of life – to the marketplace. (5)

With these thoughts, Bernie Glassman recalls his motivation for founding Greyston Bakery, the forerunner to the Greyston Foundation (an umbrella organization for two for-profit ventures and five nonprofits) in 1982. While Glassman knew how to bring spirituality into non profits, he wanted to demonstrate how spirituality and commercial ventures could be linked. A Jewish astrophysicist turned Buddhist roshi, Glassman was influenced by both spiritual traditions when developing his principles of social engagement.

Greyston Foundation, located in Yonkers, New York, now includes not only Greyston Bakery but also Greyston Cafe, Greyston Family Support Services, Greyston Housing, Greyston Child Care Center, and Greyston Health Care. The bakery, currently a $5 million business, donates its profits to the Greyston Foundation to support Greyston’s other projects. In addition to funding Greyston’s nonprofits, the bakery contributes to Greyston’s vision of social transformation by hiring “unemployable” people and training them to be successful.

While Glassman moved on in 1997, the spiritual foundation he put in place remains throughout all Greyston’s branches. David Rome, one of those currently responsible for maintaining the spirituality of Greyston, serves as senior vice president for planning and development. Like Glassman, Rome grew up Jewish and later became a Buddhist. Rome attributes his spiritual formation to both traditions, and felt at home at Greyston when he arrived in 1992 because of Greyston’s integration of Jewish culture and Buddhist practices. Rome seeks to help integrate spirituality throughout the internal organizational life of the Greyston Foundation, as well as throughout client services.

The various branches of Greyston have grown organically over the years as needs have become apparent. For example, Greyston Housing grew out of experiences at the bakery. Observing that many of the people who came seeking employment struggled with homelessness, Greyston leaders began exploring ways to address that problem. Greyston Family Support Services, in turn, grew out of these same explorations, as Greyston staff came to see that a more holistic approach to the problem of homelessness was needed than just providing housing. Greyston Family Support Services now provides everything from training in practical skills like budgeting and housekeeping to spiritual support for its tenants and prospective tenants.

Bernie Glassman’s dream has been more than realized. Greyston has brought spirituality into the marketplace and has demonstrated the interdependence of life. From baking brownies to preparing homeless people to be housed, the Greyston Foundation demonstrates how soul at work can transform individuals and organizations.


There’s real compassion and love and relationship in this organization; there’s friendship, there’s support, there’s trust. We have permission here to express ourselves in a different way.

With these words, Etta Erickson, program director for the cancer program at HealthEast, expresses her experience of the organization. HealthEast won the Best Minnesota Hospital Workplace award for 2003, based partly on HealthEast’s employees’ reporting descriptions of the organization similar to Etta’s.

HealthEast was created twenty years ago through merging two Protestant and two Catholic hospitals on the east side of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Now a health care system bridging two states, HealthEast boasts four hospitals, eleven clinics, five assisted-living residences, and various outpatient and home-care services.

HealthEast’s “passion for caring and service” (6) shows up in how employees treat one another, in how employees treat patients, in the variety of support groups and therapies offered, and in the structures and processes of the organization. Staff at HealthEast work in interdisciplinary teams in order to build relationships across specializations and thus enhance staff relationships and patient care. Strengthened through a program called Interdisciplinary Clinical Practice, teams work regularly on improving the quality of their relationships and the quality of their patient care, measuring their results carefully.

HealthEast focuses on holistic patient care, offering not only state of-the-art conventional medicine but also doing research on and offering alternative therapies such as healing touch and massage. In addition, HealthEast offers, as a complement to medical care, counseling and support groups on living with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other topics.

“Moments of Truth” at HealthEast are defined as moments when patients or their families have an opportunity to form an impression of HealthEast’s service through contact with the organization. At HealthEast, employees remind one another that each” Moment of Truth” has the potential of becoming what they call a “Moment of Compassion.” They notice and name” Moments of Truth” and share these stories with one another to encourage greater awareness.

The authentic relationships and compassion evident at HealthEast are examples of how a sustained commitment to organizational soul can avoid the stereotypical soulless bureaucracy which can emerge when institutions merge out of necessity. HealthEast’s example demonstrates how a continuing focus on soul and relationship can help organizations and their cultures recover from the surgery of mergers and restructuring.

Southwest Airlines
In the midst of the failing US airline industry, Southwest Airlines stands as a shining counterexample. The secret to its success? Fun.

When Rita Bailey, former director of Southwest’s University for People, would frequently be asked about Southwest’s employees, “How do you get people to do those fun things?” she would respond, “We hire fun people.” Southwest flight attendants crack jokes during passenger safety briefings, pop out of overhead bins, and generally enjoy themselves in their work. Their attitude is contagious. Passengers enjoy flying Southwest Airlines, and go out of their way to buy their tickets on Southwest, where they consistently find the same attitude in flight attendants, ticket agents, gate agents, pilots, and ramp agents.

Since Southwest is known as a low-fare airline, its success is often attributed to its no-frills, point-to-point service. While these are important elements in its business model, they are not the most fundamental. Other airlines who have tried to copy Southwest focusing only on these elements have discovered that they can’t compete. (7)  Southwest’s success depends on creating and sustaining fun, caring relationships – between top management and employees, among employees, and between employees and customers.

As Bailey says, understanding and living out Southwest’s philosophy is “simple, but not easy.”  The fun at Southwest Airlines is not a superficial, irresponsible type of fun but is intrinsic to how employees connect to one other and to customers. One writer calls the secret of Southwest’s success the power of “relational competence.” (8)  Simple to understand but not easy to live, relational competence requires both training and ongoing sustenance. Being caring toward fellow employees and customers is simple to understand but not easy to do in the relentless daily pressures of running an airline. It is because of these pressures that Southwest hires people who are already caring people
with a good sense of humor and then trains them to be even better at those skills. “You can teach behaviors that look like nice, but that doesn’t make me nice,” observes Bailey. Southwest wants people whose hearts are in their jobs and who are committed to living out the philosophy of the airline.

The first airline to define itself as a customer-service business, Southwest prides itself on its high customer-service ratings. Southwest is also the only airline to win the “Triple Crown” five years in a row, based on the Department of Transportation statistics on on-time arrivals, fewest customer complaints, and least misplaced baggage.

Financially, Southwest stands out against the backdrop of other US airlines, many of whom are losing money year after year and some of whom are in and out of bankruptcy. Southwest, in contrast, has turned a profit every year since 1973, and its stock is currently worth more than all other major US airlines combined. (9)

Building a business on fun may seem counterintuitive, but Southwest has demonstrated that, when understood in the right way, it works brilliantly.

Organizations, like individuals, have souls that transcend and support their practical activity. (l0)   In these six organizational snapshots, we have seen how that soul is manifest in a quality of care in personal relationships among the organizations’ staff and stakeholders. This quality of care is not blind to or divorced from bottom-line concerns, but it energizes individual and corporate activity toward those concerns. Care of this kind is simple, but not easy in the real world where decisions have to be made and deadlines need to be met. This very tension is what makes organizational soul more than a Human Resources policy; it is an insistence on holding the organization in all its relational complexity while pursuing its economic, social, and cultural goals. In the chapters that follow, we look more deeply at the way in which soul at work manifests itself in these organizations and others.


5. Newsday, March 1, 2004, 4.
6. HealthEast vision statement.
7. For example, Continental Lite and United Shuttle.
8. Jody Hoffer Gittell, The Southwest Airlines Way: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 85-100.
9. As of April 17, 2005, Southwest Airlines’ market capitalization was $11.6 billion, and the many other U.S. airlines’ market capitalization combined was less than $8 billion.
10. For the purposes of this book, I define (p.9) spirituality as “the human spirit engaged”.  See Mary Frohlicj, “Spiritual Discipline, Discipline of Spirituality,” Spiritus 1, no. 1 (2001) for a similar definition that draws on Bernard Lonergan, who in turn draws on Thomas Aquinas.


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