As management literature goes, the work of Martin Buber is a long way from Reengineering the Corporation. Still, when Tom Chappell, CEO of the natural-toothpaste company Tom's of Maine, sought to rethink his business, he looked not to Michael Hammer, Peter Drucker, or Jim Collins for best practices, but to the Viennese philosopher more renowned for his treatise on religious ethics than any advice on strategic planning.
Buber, for those of you whose copy of I and Thou has fallen behind the bookcase, described two sorts of relationships people can have: an I-It relationship, in which we treat others as a means to an end (in business terms: "How can I get this salesguy to make the numbers I need?"), or an I-Thou relationship, in which we treat others with full respect and mutuality ("We are partners in this enterprise"). "Buber said the way to live is to combine these two into a way of being, to integrate goodness and performance," Chappell says. Why not apply this idea to a business context?
Chappell first began wrestling with Buberian thought at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) while on sabbatical from running his company 18 years ago. The experience, he says, "gave me a worldview that I could use everywhere in life." More important, he says, he no longer felt he had to apologize for wanting to incorporate values more thoroughly into his business. After Harvard, he says, "I could argue quite confidently that a holistic view of what's good for society or nature was also good for consumers and shareholders."
While the business school on the other side of the river gets all the attention for turning out world-class leaders, HDS has quietly graduated a roster of exceptional businesspeople. Among those who can trace their pedigree through the gray stone and arched windows of Andover Hall are Chappell; Sanford Keziah, founder of the Boulder, Colorado, branding-strategy firm Kindred Keziah; J.B. Schramm, CEO of College Summit, an organization that helps low-income students prepare for college; Jerry Baker, partner of the executive-search firm Baker Parker and Associates; Martin H. Levin, an attorney at Levin, Papantonio, and designer of SmartJURY, the first commercially available jury-selection software; and Ronald Reagan's former budget director, David A. Stockman, who went on to found a worker-friendly private-equity firm, Heartland Industrial Partners.
While the HDS alumni office points with pride to these and other extraordinary business graduates, the divinity school's response to the growing national interest in faith in the workplace has been surprisingly conflicted. To scholars rooted in the flinty soil of New England, the vogue for spirituality in the corporation too often seems academically flabby, lowbrow, even vaguely unsavory. As a consequence, critics charge, the school has failed to create any lasting programs that address the nexus of religion in the workplace, and its professors have produced little in the way of substantive research on the topic.
The word that might characterize the Harvard faculty's feelings toward the melding of God and capitalism? "Abhorrent?" former dean Ronald F. Thiemann helpfully suggests. Indeed, so skeptical was the school's admissions office of Chappell's motives for applying, for example, that it admitted him only on a provisional basis. After he blew through his first semester with straight As, HDS finally agreed to make him an official student.
Still, despite the school's ambivalence, spiritual pilgrims of the capitalist persuasion keep finding their way to the door. Through its Master of Theological Studies program — a degree that encourages grappling with issues and doesn't necessarily lead to ordination — the school has attracted an astonishingly diverse student body. Many are drawn by the opportunity to explore faith and ethics as taught by a variety of world religions. Others want to come to terms with what Laura Nash, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), calls "moral schizophrenia," the sense that in today's business world you need to leave your authentic self at the office door. HDS dean William A. Graham calls those students "seekers" — people for whom the idea of a corporation as a place where people work for money alone is bankrupt. They're often driven by a spiritual hunger to make something more of the human relationship to the workplace.
Founded in 1816, the divinity school was the first nonsectarian theological school in the country. It now has 480 students, representing more than 25 religious traditions, and faculty positions in everything from Buddhism to Islam. Like most divinity schools, its focus is on interpretation of scripture, theology, ethics, and world religions. But HDS also allows its students great latitude in designing their own courses of study, with the opportunity to take classes throughout the university. "You don't study religion in its social context, as you have to do here, without coming away with an awareness of how important it is to translate those concepts into societal values," says the genial Graham. "I think the historical training students get here, and the opportunity to think about issues of communal and societal importance, instill a different kind of approach to what is responsible activity on the part of a business leader."
In Chappell's case, the experience was transformative. He had come to the divinity school at age 43, after an aggressive growth period in his company that had left him emotionally and spiritually drained. The business was thriving, but he was finding more emptiness than fulfillment in success, he says. Many entrepreneurs would argue that when you reach that point, it's time to flip the business, buy a sailboat, and travel the world. But Chappell was haunted by a comment from his pastor's wife: "What makes you think Tom's of Maine isn't your ministry?" she asked.
So Chappell struck a deal with his board. He'd spend half a week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a student, and half a week in Kennebunk, Maine, as CEO. "I got down there, and the business did very well," he says, "so everyone suggested I stay and do a little more praying." Four years later, degree in hand, he invited his HDS mentor, Richard Niebuhr, to meet with his board and executive team to begin mapping out the company's new direction. That included drafting a new mission statement that drew from 18th-century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards's belief that the nature of being is relational rather than individual. So Tom's of Maine pledged to honor its moral obligations to all its stakeholders — employees, owners, suppliers, consumers, community, and the environment.
And Chappell adopted Buber's ideas on integration to launch a series of three "Common Good" partnerships a year on topics such as saving America's rivers and dental health for the poor. In league with like-minded retailers such as Whole Foods and CVS, which donate premier retail space for Tom's products and a display of information about the issue, the company runs a sale, and a percentage of profits is donated to the cause. "When our products are on display for two weeks, we get a 400% increase in sales," Chappell says. "Goodness works."
Sanford Keziah took a different path to the divinity school but was equally transformed. Keziah enrolled at the school as a cocky 23-year-old, having already built a successful hotel- and restaurant-management firm. But having tasted success so young, he could already see that a life dedicated to the pursuit of money and power alone was likely to be pretty hollow. A quote from Walker Percy nagged at him: "To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." Says Keziah: "I walked into divinity school thinking, I'm on the search."
After Harvard, Keziah launched a career in an unlikely field for a theology student: advertising. Seven years later, having worked his way up the ranks on Madison Avenue, he decamped to Colorado and founded his own firm, Kindred Keziah, with his soon-to-be wife, Victoria Kindred. "I started Kindred Keziah because I felt there was a strong need for the business world to have a much deeper understanding of humanity," he says. Too often, he says, market research defaults to stereotypes. "I wanted to help companies understand their consumers in a highly nuanced and sophisticated way so they could serve them better. It would be a win-win."
Keziah's hallmark was research driven by what he calls "creative rigor" — a more robust investigation into behavior than what typically passes for market research in the industry. The approach, he says, grew directly out of his HDS experience. Its curriculum "was open to that element of human knowing that is not quantifiable. That's incredibly important, and I don't think you find that anywhere in the academy except in religion."
Kindred Keziah thrived, attracting blue-chip clients such as Coca-Cola, Diageo, and Kellogg's. In March, though, Keziah sold the agency to two senior managers. He plans to launch a new venture that marries his branding expertise with his desire to make a bigger difference. "I've done the best I could to express my values through a commercial venture," he says. "Now I want to ante up again and do it in a more altruistic way."
The school hasn't always avoided the intersection of faith and business. In 1994, then dean Ronald Thiemann founded the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, dedicated to exploring how the divinity school could connect to broader ethical issues being discussed within the university. The initiative meant HDS took the public responsibility of religion seriously and welcomed input from other quarters. "Anybody who wanted to cross boundaries in their professional lives could do so here," Thiemann says.
By 2001, however, the program hit the skids. Thiemann attributes the center's demise to quintessentially Harvard-like reasons: the inability to find a first-rate candidate schooled in both religion and economics to lead it, and the lack of an identifiable body of scholarship worth studying. And there's some merit to the argument. Should the focus be on ethics, values, spirituality? World religions and their implications for the multinational corporation or the culturally diverse workforce? Are the issues weighty enough to merit study in a curriculum heavy on Kant and Kierkegaard? "This is the sort of thing that can generate interesting conferences," says Thiemann, "but it's harder to make it take deeper root in the culture of a divinity school." Others attribute the collapse to a more unsettling development. In 1999, Thiemann was forced to step down as dean when pornography was allegedly found on his university-owned computer, and the center floundered without his advocacy.
Strangely, the Harvard Business School faculty now seem more comfortable addressing issues of values, ethics, and social responsibility than their colleagues on the other side of the Yard. "I think there's an acknowledgment here that this is a big force in leaders' lives," says HBS's Nash. Still, the pressure is mounting to have some institutional response to the topic. In a speech before the divinity school in September 2002, Harvard president Lawrence Summers threw out this challenge to the assembled faculty: "If some of the most vexing questions in our public life have religious dimensions, we should foster active and vital collaborations between ethicists from the divinity school and faculty from the business school on newly pressing questions of professional ethics."
From Boeing to WorldCom, the ethics questions certainly don't seem to be going away. But nearly three years after Summers issued it, some critics say there's little evidence that his challenge has been addressed. The school has also been surprisingly slow to address the related issue of social entrepreneurship. "There seems to be a population of businesspeople out there eager to bring their religion more deeply into their working life," says Nash. "But within the formal divinity schools there's been very little preparation of the faculty and seminarians to answer this need. Universities are more conservative than business, so businesspeople started creating their own study groups, support groups, and prayer groups."
Tom Chappell, however, is confident that the school will address these issues appropriately — and soon. Chappell, who serves on the Dean's Council, says the divinity school is at a crossroads. By fall, there will be a number of new faculty positions, giving the dean an opportunity to take the school in a new direction. "The divinity school wants to keep its traditions and roots, but it will be reaching out to be more inclusive of the professions," Chappell says. From his lips to God's ears.
Linda Tischler is a Fast Company senior writer.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.