When I was in the monastery, it took me only five minutes to commute to work. I merely rolled out of bed, ambled down a few vaulted archways and arrived in chapel. For the past twenty years in my corporate job, it took me three hours. I spent the time communing with traffic and trains, nary a chapel in sight. My wife says it’s the price we pay for living in the serenity of the suburbs. Some days it felt like I’d simply replaced one type of solitude for another.
But I used the time religiously. I read, reflected and occasionally prayed. For some, this might mean lots of time with nothing to do. From the way I looked at it, life is not only about doing, it’s also about “being.” My friend Cato of Roman antiquity, who probably spent long hours traversing the Via Apia, opined: “Never am I less alone then when I am by myself.” Sounds to me like the mantra of a true commuter.
My travels to work provided solitude, with copious quiet and empty spaces. Even though idleness is the Devil’s workshop, I experienced this daily downtime to be sacred moments for inspiration, insight and some wholesome playfulness. I also liked to use the time alone to do some curious reading, asking some curious questions.
An Ancient Tradition
While in one of these moods, I was reading an article in a New-Age magazine on “Alchemy” - that ancient science of turning dross into gold, of which I know little. Seemed there was a lot more to it than the little I knew: there was a whole spirituality behind the movement. The article talked about how alchemists believed that the Divine resided in each element. They also held that all things had the potential to be sacredly “transformed.” Turning base metals into precious stone was only a small part of a much larger movement.
What particularly caught my eye was that one of the ancient saints of the Church, St. Albert, was faulted for remaining disobedient to the church’s thinking at the time, and maintained an active involvement in Alchemy. The pious guy almost got burned at the stake as a heretic for disobeying. But apparently with a little street smarts and ecclesial good luck, he outmaneuvered the hierarchy and missed a public flaying.
Despite all the bad press for disobeying the powers that be, after he died he was exonerated and canonized as a saint. I believe the Supreme Court eventually did something similar with Arthur Andersen in clearing them of their obstruction of justice conviction. But similar to Albert, the accounting firm was already dead when this felicitous decision was reached. However, I understand that the government’s Prosecutors stand ready to endorse a proposal recommending that Andersen be collectively remembered as a “saintly” Accounting firm.
In the flawed history of the church, not all were as lucky as St. Albert. Some hapless disobeying souls mistakenly got put to death on the spot and had to wait a while to get their good names cleared. The Catholic Church is funny this way: the heretics of one era become the saints of the next. They’re the same people, just eventually judged by a more enlightened criterion. You occasionally get to see this played out in the corporate world too, although I personally feel more than a few of our present business leaders should be tarred and feathered. But maybe I’m misguided by anger and will need to wait for the full evidence to surface. It’s probably safe to say that mistakes get made, and corrected, in all areas of business as well.
As a policy, the Papal rulers had no problem acknowledging the initial error of their ways, correcting the mistake and communicating it to the faithful. Unfortunately, it could take a thousand years. Most of the faithful didn’t seem to mind, except if it happened to be your own precious hide that initially got roasted at the stake. You could understand how the unfortunate victim might take it all a bit too personally.
With all these hapless mistakes, it was not uncommon for the faithful to grow weary of waiting on the sideline for the church leaders to get their ecclesial act together. In misdiagnosing holy people as sinners, the religious citizenry had even been known to expedite matters by proclaiming “saints” on their own. If they felt the church had “dis-ed” a truly pious man by mistakenly burning him at the stake, they wanted quick redress by declaring his sanctity on the spot.
Usually the Pope resisted, preferring some ecclesiastical homework be done to ensure the veracity of the crowd’s demand. More often than not, the people revolted, rallied and screamed. They wanted a remedy immediately, sort of like the Enron shareholders when their stock tanked.
After a few Cardinals almost got killed trying to delay the process, the religious leaders did the expedient thing and proclaimed the hapless victim to be a saint. In ancient times, hierarchical mistakes were so routinely fixed this way that the church even developed a doctrine on it. It’s referred to as “Vox Populi - Vox Dei”, the voice of the people represents the voice of God.
Catholics have a long tradition of believing that the Divine spirit works directly through the voice of the community: truth resides not only with those in power, but also with the people. This practice was something that the clergy didn’t always take kindly to. Hence there was the need for the faithful to periodically stage an uprising and deliver a good thrashing to the neglecting Cardinal at hand.
I believe this ancient tradition was once again demonstrated anew here in America. A few years back, up in Massachusetts with Cardinal Law’s handling of the pedophile scandal, there was a Boston Tea Party of the religious kind - with the reigning monarch getting thrown overboard. From what I heard, it even came painfully close to him getting publicly burned at the stake. Seems that it wouldn’t have been the first time that Catholics have revolted in fiery rage against their miscreant clergy. All in all, it’s kind of encouraging to see that the process is still alive, though the Cardinal might disagree with me on this.
Choosing to publicly disobey any reigning hierarchical institution always poses its own unique dangers. This is as true today as it was for Galileo Galilie.
In the course of business, doing what you’re told and complying with the boss’ every request may be good career advice, but it creates a precarious corporate culture and hurts the overall business.
There’s a need to maintain a dynamic tension within our large hierarchical organizations, both sacred and secular alike. Yes, there’s the natural desire to conform, comply and cooperate. Parents encourage it; so do teachers. Bosses make a business of it. Yet, these human systems are inherently flawed and if left to themselves have great potential for abuse and evil. Part of our responsibility in living and working in these large communities is that we offer our critique, reason, and on occasion our resistance.
When I was in the monastery, one of our guiding principles was something called “Holy Disobedience.” Even though I had taken the vow of obedience to adhere to the commands of my religious superiors, it was understood that if an order was wrong-minded we had a moral obligation to not only question it, but even disobey it. In its infinite wisdom, the church understood that even though God was infallible, man was not.
We offer our resistance, criticism and dissent to our modern day institutions not as mean-spirited individuals, but as noble people committed to the hallowed principles of our organizations. We hold them accountable for living up to the ideals planted firmly in their original foundation.
But it has its risks. Start questioning some of your church’s less-than-stellar behavior and you might quickly find yourself branded as a heretic and excommunicated. Begin challenging the way local politics gets played out and you might find yourself thrown out of office. Bring to the attention of senior management the company’s contribution to environmental pollution or financial mismanagement and you might find yourself on a career detour … or worse still, off the “High Potential” list.
As our reigning sacred and secular hierarchical institutions continue to grow in power and influence, like the Alchemist of old, we’re well served to recall that the Divine also resides within each one of us. And that all things have the potential to be sacredly “transformed”, even our major institutions. In fact, we have some responsibility to helping the transformation take place.
Doing what you’re told is not always good. Breaking the rules is not always bad. There is something sacred about differing with those in authority when the reason is right. There are higher guiding principles than financial success, political re-election and corporate expansion. When in our heart we know something’s wrong, we cannot collude. Even though our personal aspirations may get temporarily burned at the stake, we must speak up.
And it will justbe a matter of time before the collective community rises up to our support. Vox Populi – Vox Dei. The Divine spirit continues to work through the voice of thecommunity. Hold fast! Perhaps sainthood– and maybe even a promotion - is not far behind.
Besides, rules are largely overrated.
P.S. If you’re thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenny Moore is co-author of The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose (John Wiley and Sons), rated as one of the top ten best selling business books on Amazon.com.
Prior to coming to corporate life, Moore spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Oddly enough, both jobs have proven to be quite similar - except the Incentive Plans vary greatly. Kenny left the monastery because he wanted to get married. Now that he’s married and has two teenagers, he would like to go back.
The media once asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked at the Vatican. “About half of them…” he said. Moore has discovered that there are common operating principles in effect whenever you’re dealing with large hierarchical institutions, sacred or secular.
Several years ago, Moore had the good fortune of being diagnosed with “incurable” cancer, at its most advanced stages. He underwent a year of experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute and survived. He recently had a heart attack and was invited to be sawed in half and given a quadruple bypass: a subtle reminded that his time is running short.
Kenny came away from both experiences recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us.” Moore’s lifetime goal is to spend more of his time playing his music.
Having dealt with both God and death, he now finds himself eminently qualified to work with senior management on corporate change efforts.
Kenny is a watercolor artist, poet and photographer. He is Founding Director of Art for the Anawim, a not-for-profit charity which works with the art community in supporting the needs of terminally ill children. His poems have been published in several anthologies; one was selected as a semi-finalist in the North American Open Poetry Contest.
Moore lives in Northern New Jersey and is married to the "fair and beautiful" Cynthia. Together, they are fighting a losing battle of maintaining their mental stability while raising 2 teenage boys.
Kenny has recently expanded his work to include Stand-up Comedy. This is driven largely by the sneaking suspicion that when the Divine returns, She will find a more receptive audience in bars and comedy clubs than in our Houses of Worship.
Moore is President of Kenny Moore Consulting, LLC. He’s a well-regarded Keynote speaker, executive coach and business consultant for Leadership Development, Change Management and Employee Engagement. He can be reached at email@example.com or (973) 956-8210.