The Shaman Enters The Workplace Some employers are recognizing that spiritual health makes for a good employee
By Ryan Knighton As printed in the The Vancouver Sun and The Montreal Gazette on Sept. 23 2004. Healthy spirituality is not only at large in the public imagination, it’s a la mode these days. If you want some heartening examples, if not some downright peculiar proof of the trend, look no further than the corporate world. Spirituality has reached senior management, and they’re taking it seriously to heart. Consultants and conferences abound, all hell‐bent on helping companies get in touch with their souls. Corporate Evangelism? It’s tempting, but that might be too orthodox a descriptor for what’s going on. Nevertheless, spiritual leadership facilitators and spirit workers are billing the blue chip names for some serious meditation time. And what exactly do these consultants do? Well, the range is broad and entrepreneurial, the heavens the limit. In the least ecstatic and fuzzy examples, much of this trend is packaged as corporate social responsibility, a well‐intentioned booster to help large organizations reconsider and implement ethically charged relationships with the local environment and the total health and well‐being of both employees and the community at large. Tending one’s spirit, of course, is only one facet of the holistic approach, the theory being a good soul does good work... …There are far more radical approaches to corporate responsibility and its more spiritualized face. Consider Richard Whiteley, US‐based author of The Corporate Shaman. Yes, shaman. Whitely is a consultant whose clients include such giants as General Electric and Motorola. Those are some big essences to get in touch with, indeed. But the Corporate Shaman isn’t merely intended as some cutesy title or a catchy marketing metaphor. Whiteley sincerely wants to help CEO’s find their power animals. In Whiteley’s own words, the rationale goes something like this: “As allies in their healing work, shamans rely on teachers and power animals from the realms to which they journey. By journeying to these compassionate and healing spirits the shaman becomes the conduit or “hollow bone” through which the healing energies and messages are transmitted to the client.” ”Since shamanic practices are aimed at healing individuals and since organizations are nothing more than groups of individuals, it follows that these powerful methods can be used to heal and restore spirit to organizations and, indeed such practices are beginning to be applied to business issues and the organizations that have them.”
Shamans and their clients? You wouldn’t recognize this conference room. Instead of pastries and Power Point, Whiteley and his clients blindfold themselves and deep breathe in preparation for a journey to the lower realm. Ready the drummers or, if the budget doesn’t allow it, ready the drumming tape. Once everybody has found their animal in a vision, then the animals are ready to be consulted for answers to pressing business questions. Even a power animal can be a consultant, it seems. Instead of a fee, clients are encouraged to honour their animals. This may include, in the privacy of one’s office, dancing like your lion or tiger or bear. Admittedly my knee‐jerk reaction is to call daffy when I see it, particularly with all the worrisome appropriation of First Nations culture here. Then again, to shrug this off with glib, agnostic quips doesn’t account for both the growing acceptance and even the popularity entrepreneurs such as Whiteley are enjoying. He is certainly no stranger to resistance, even from his own clients. When I pressed him in an email interview about such resistance, he attributes receptivity to a matter of his own marketing. The desire for alternatives and change is present in his clients, Whiteley trusts. He just has to find the right way to deliver his curious brand of alternative. “Too many consulting approaches,” Whiteley explained, “are based on left brained, linear models that are applied to any situation the consultant faces. You know the saying that if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.” ”There is naturally resistance from some, particularly in the business world. That is why packaging is very important. For example I sometimes avoid using the words shaman or shamanism. The other important factor is that I do not try to ʺsellʺ shamanism as the solution to anything. If it fits the situation and the people I am working with are open‐ minded, we can introduce it. If they are not interested it is fine with me because in that situation trying to apply it would fail anyway.” Although Whiteley acknowledges a lot of eyebrows rise with suspicion at his approach, he has definitely done his homework, often framing his method and its legitimacy with heavy statistical backing. The logic may be dubious, but the numbers are obviously comforting his client list enough to try their luck at hanging out in other realms. “There is a growing acceptance,” Whiteley proposed, “even seeking of more spirituality in our lives. Several years ago Business Week did an article about spirit in the workplace and concluded that 78% of all Americans were seeking greater spirituality in their lives. This number was up from 20% five years earlier. Pretty dramatic shift. If this is the feeling of the general populace then for sure it will bleed over into business. It is unlikely that the 22% who didnʹt seek greater spirituality were just limited to business people.”
Clearly something is being sought in the workplace today, and a lot of abstractions are bandied about to describe the goal. Trust, for instance, is among the key words that pop up consistently as the new frontier of investment. Others include vulnerability, integrity, fulfillment and authenticity. These snappy concepts are the new cash crop on the market, and they speak to the cultural desires which have prompted much of this feel‐good zealotry. Among other causes, Whiteley understands the new presence of spirituality as a shift in what constitutes acceptable, even progressive, leadership paradigms. “Many traditional leadership practices like setting aggressive goals, using the carrot and the stick, and expecting people to dedicate their lives to the company are no longer as effective as they once were. What is also required is sensitivity to the needs and plight of the workforce. Workers are looking for leaders who are real and tell the truth, even when the news is bad. They are looking for humility and, believe it or not, vulnerability. And, not to be overlooked, business leaders are waking up to the fact that high spirited companies consistently outperform those that are not.” Leslie Malin of Management by Design offers her own brand of workshop, one in which she coaches employees and managers in ways to discover their divinity in the workplace. In a recent interview, she explained to me the trend of spiritual work as a matter of the contemporary historical record, pure and simple. “I remember being vitally interested in the interconnectedness of work and spirit ten years ago when one could barely find a book or article on the topic. That was the early 90’s and people were intoxicated with “Me”ism and unlimited financial boom times. Obviously, we have moved on from there, from the stock market implosion wiping out many of the financial gains and savings of millions. Many baby boomers were shocked into realizing that financial security is an illusion and that real security is achieved in deepening the self and becoming richer inside as those are qualities which cannot be recklessly gambled or invested away. Investment in self is true equity.” There they are those damned baby boomers. Of course it always comes back to baby boomers. At some point after Woodstock, the argument goes; many of them hung up their love beads and opened up speculative portfolios. I suppose it had to be just a matter of time until the spiritualized sixties found its way back and merged the love beads with a healthy view to the Dow Jones. But Malin is also quick to point out the complicity of Martha Stewart in all of this. “In addition, look at the disillusionment of the Enron’s, Morgan Stanleys, financial institutions and even of Martha Stewart, in addition to political greed and fraud. I think
a new breed of managers, employees and entrepreneurs want to create wealth on material, intellectual and spiritual levels.” Some corporations are keeping tabs on their growth in every one of these respects, too. Some new tests are afoot to measure more than profitability. Long ago, for instance, we primarily valued a worker’s IQ, their Intelligence Quotient, then values evolved and we began to include a measure for EI, or Emotional Intelligence. The trend continues. Some organizations are now implementing a third index, a test for SI, or Spiritual Intelligence. But establishing a new moral compass is clearly a guiding force behind this trend. Still, Malin, like Whiteley, encounters much resistance to the spiritual approach. “Resistances to this trend are huge because this is an evolutionary movement, meaning that it represents for those engaged in it a leap into a new way of being that perhaps comes from the traditional but is essentially different. Society, culture, organizations and, glaringly, politics are terrified, I think, of such leaps as they challenge the old order, make new demands and raise the expectational bar. They create more expansiveness and freedom within the individual thereby making people less predictable, less capable of being swayed and more autonomous.” But the trend may manifest another merger in our culture, another dissolve of the personal into the workplace. Whiteley concedes this may be part of the phenomenon, too. “The wall between personal time and work time has indeed blurred. More is expected from fewer producers, longer hours are expected, and the electronics like fax, e‐mail, and cell phones easily leap into oneʹs private life. Two years ago in the US we lost $1.5 billion to stress induced absenteeism. This is more than the combined profitability of the FORTUNE 500 companies.” So what, in the end, is to be redeemed by any of this work? Perhaps the corporations themselves. The central argument made by both the documentary film and book, The Corporation, is that the profit‐driven organizations we’ve created and politically enshrined are modeled on psychopathic principles. Is the proposal then the cure for psychosis is soul? Renaming your board room the “vision room”, as one consultant suggests, will likely do as little to create real material transformation as redubbing servers into barristas. What the new presence of spirituality in the office does indicate, however, is some serious damage control is at work. I suspect that goal, in part, is to repair the cracks growing in our institutions and our confidence in their very nature. Or maybe I should say our faith.
Ryan Knighton, the author of, among other books, The View From Here, a forthcoming memoir about his blindness.
A newspaper article from the Vancour Sun about the workplace and bringing one's soul into the work that you do. Leslie Malin is quoted in th...