The New Spirit of Work

Richard Barrett preaches the gospel of spirituality in the workplace – with a difference. His approach is pragmatic, quantifiable, and all business.


Richard Barrett has an honest face. his bristling eyebrows, graying hair, and clear blue eyes – made to seem slightly larger by the thick lenses of his spectacles – create an aura of instant trust. His manner, voice, and English accent are reminiscent of Clarence, the slightly bemused angel who was sent to Earth to earn his wings in Frank Capra’s classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”


But instead of standing on a bridge in Bedford Falls, the 53-year-old Barrett is standing behind a podium at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. It’s an early-spring morning. Before him are more than 300 people who have assembled for the First International Symposium on Spirituality and Business, presented by the Andover Newton Theological School. They have convened in the Georgian Room, a cavernous ballroom with velvet drapery, large chandeliers, and ornate mirrors. On one wall hangs a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s famous unfinished portrait of George Washington. It’s a perfect icon for this meeting — which is also part of a work in progress, and which unabashedly aspires to be historic.

Like a talk-show host, Barrett walks to the edge of the stage and holds a microphone in front of one of the participants.

“How are you feeling today, sir?” Barrett asks the man.


“Fine,” the man says.

“Fine,” Barrett repeats into the microphone. “Hmmm. That stands for Feelings Inside Not Expressed.”

The crowd laughs.


“When people ask me how I’m doing, I say that I’m bordering on the fantastic,” Barrett continues. “Can you say that? How are you today?”

“Bordering on the fantastic!” the crowd calls out in unison.

He has hit an appropriate note for this group: funny but not flip, earnest but without piety or bombast. Everyone’s warmed up. The room is humming. The coffee urns are half-empty. The pastry plates are bare. Notebooks are out. Then, after an attentive silence falls across the room, Barrett compresses into a one-hour speech – part inspiration, part application – what normally takes him a three-day seminar to describe.


“I want to change the philosophy of business at the global level – in my lifetime. It will happen. Amazing things are going to happen in the next 10 years,” Barrett says. “They’re happening already.”

Barrett is preaching the gospel of spirituality in the workplace – but with a difference. Where others earnestly emphasize the human element in work, Barrett speaks the language of pragmatism: He offers a quantifiable approach to measuring the alignment between organizational and individual beliefs. His premise is simple: People and companies do well, financially and otherwise, to the degree that their interests match their values. To create that alignment, you have to see it. And to see it, you have to find a way to measure it. Barrett has a way to measure that alignment – and a vision for improving it.

Over the past few years, Barrett has been to many seminars where people talk about introducing spiritual values into the workplace. He has attended such gatherings in Mazatlán and in São Paulo, in Minneapolis and in Washington, DC. But the group in Boston is different. The dominant look favors cropped, graying hair. Dark suits are everywhere, as are outfits featuring pearls, worsted skirts, and silk blouses. People here have come to a business meeting: They have Fil-O-Faxes on their laps, business cards with Web addresses in their pockets, cellular phones in their briefcases. At some spirituality seminars, the attendees are looking for prophets. At this one, they’re looking for profits.


Barrett and his partner, Joan Shafer – in January, she joined Barrett and Associates, the Alexandria, Virginia-based consultancy that he founded in 1997 – have a mission: to promote a model for business that allows people, in their daily work, to remain true to their deepest beliefs. Adopting such a model, Barrett and Shafer argue, will soon become the only way for companies to make a profit, because it will soon become the only way for companies to stay creative.

Barrett believes that innovation in business has become a runaway train – the train that everyone needs to ride. Perpetual innovation offers the only hope of business and personal success, but it thrives only in an atmosphere of trust. To create that trust, a business must ground everything it does in sustainable values. People need to believe in what they do for a living before they can tap their deepest creative potential.

Onstage, Barrett throws a couple of slides onto a big screen. In 1997, 76% of consumers polled said that – assuming no difference in price or quality – they would switch brands to align themselves with a good cause. In another poll, 75% of graduating MBA students said that a company should consider its impact on society in such areas as the environment, equal opportunity, family relationships, and community involvement. A full 50% said that they would take a cut in salary to work for a socially responsible company.


A cynic might say that yuppies still want to drive their BMWs – but that they no longer want to feel guilty behind the wheel.

Barrett would say that people who have learned to make a living now want to make a difference.

The Spirit Is Willing

Like any conventional business conference, the two-day Boston event pushes participants to choose from a smorgasbord of program options. But those options are far from typical. In one room is a panel discussion on “The Entrepreneur Walking Through the Dark Night of the Soul”; in another, a prayer meeting. Which will it be – the session on “Emotional Intelligence and Spiritual Leadership” or the one on “Wholeness, Meaning and Being Human at Work”? The morning tai chi session is essential for personal centering – but so is networking at the continental breakfast.


Barrett’s agenda for the year is as jammed-full as the conference. His stop in Boston is just one pause on a multi-week itinerary that includes Minneapolis, San Francisco, Austin, and Washington, DC. Over the next few months, his work will take him to Oslo, London, and Istanbul. Yet despite his schedule, he plans to stay for both days of the Boston event. It’s an exceptional chance for him to meet other people in this fast-growing field.

As he travels from one meeting to another, people stop him in the hall. “This is wonderful,” says one woman. “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.” Barrett gives her a hug, as he does almost everyone he meets. But hugs aren’t what draw the people who line up to get Barrett’s email address. What attracts them is his clinical, almost scientific approach to a subject that all too often comes wrapped in a fog of quasi-mystical hokum and feel-good rhetoric. Barrett approaches his subject with all the sentimentality of a cost accountant, applying the numerical mentality that has ruled business since the first merchant started calculating the first profit. But he fuses that mentality with the spirit of qualitative change that is now sweeping through the world of work.

Most of the management models that companies have embraced in the past decade seek implicitly or explicitly to combine organizational and personal transformation. Barrett’s program brings to this agenda a way to measure values that are at once nebulous and highly prized, including honesty, integrity, creativity, and fairness.


For consultants, spirituality in the workplace has become a growth stock. Almost anything can qualify, from a Bible-study lunch group to a generic goal-setting program that starts with a mission statement and seeks to connect personal purpose to actual work. The media have kept pace with the trend. The New York Times reported last year on its front page that the barriers between work and religion are crumbling. The newspaper noted a growing acceptance of overt religious behavior on the job: Koran study at Boeing, Torah classes at Microsoft, Islamic study groups at Intel.

The simple fact is, more and more people at more and more companies are flocking to any program that helps them connect what they do for the bottom line to what they value most deeply. Most such programs circle around these issues in ways that appeal more to human-resources departments than to CEOs: They take a part of business that already gets labeled “the soft stuff,” and they treat it in a soft way. Barrett tries to cut the issue on the diagonal, to marry the soft stuff with hard measurements: statistical analyses, charts, survey data.

And Barrett is also distinctly capitalistic. To him, the question is not whether a company should make money but what it should do with that money. Nor does he clothe his message in feel-good promises or talk of win-win emotions. Anyone who embraces the idea of spirituality in the workplace needs to prepare for pain, at least in the short term. “This is not work for the timid of heart,” Barrett says. “The benefits of it are immeasurable. Yet it requires personal struggle. Only when you change internally will you see those benefits reflected in the outside world. You have to go through a process, and it’s painful. You have to show up fearlessly.”


The Hero’s Journey

The story of Barrett’s own career matches that of this emerging combination of spirituality and pragmatism, of personal growth and economic success. Throughout his 30-year work life, Barrett has been successful at everything he has tried. Yet his personal journey is an almost textbook case of seeking and of suffering, of succeeding and of fleeing success – the story of a bottom-line-oriented businessman who has consistently put himself on the line.

He began his career in 1967, working as a transportation planner for the municipality of Leicester, England. In 1969, he joined Freeman Fox and Associates, a highly regarded engineering-consulting firm in Great Britain. Soon he became an associate – the youngest in the company. When he was only 26, the firm sent him to Paris to open a new office, and within two years, he found himself hiring and supervising a 16-person staff. The work got more demanding, but the perks improved: He had a company car and an apartment on the Left Bank, with a view of Notre Dame Cathedral. He was a raging success. And he was acutely unhappy.

“I was young, successful, and extremely well paid,” he says. “But the stress was causing the blood vessels in my eyes to burst. I could not find creative expression in what I did. I began to work on my own as a consultant. I found that my sense of meaning changed. It was no longer about money or status. It was about giving to other people. Giving, not getting. The more I did a good job in serving my clients, the less I needed publicity. The phone was constantly ringing.”


One call was from the World Bank, a Washington, DC-based institution that finances development in the Third World. The bank wanted to hire him as a consultant. For five years, he worked as an independent adviser, traveling the globe and evaluating transportation investments for their economic-development potential. Eventually he moved to the United States and joined the organization full-time.

Once again, Barrett proved himself a success: His work took him to Nigeria and Kenya, to Korea, China, and Indonesia. He became one of the world’s leading experts on urban transportation. And once again, he grew restless. For years, Barrett had been studying spirituality, science, and psychology, and what he really wanted was to write a book on the interconnections between those three disciplines. In 1989, he began writing A Guide to Liberating Your Soul (Fulfilling Books, 1995). It was five years in the making.

In the meantime, his work for the World Bank continued – and continued to go well. In 1992, he was promoted and given a new title: assistant to Ismail Serageldin, the vice president for environmentally sustainable development. At about the same time, he set up a series of meetings on spirituality at the World Bank. When this series of six brown-bag lunches ended, several people asked him to create an ongoing program.


“I wasn’t sure that this was what I was supposed to do,” Barrett says. “I was hoping for a sign. A few days later, I got a phone call from someone else at the World Bank, someone who hadn’t been to the meetings on spirituality but who had seen my picture in a publication devoted to the subject. I was going to do a spirituality seminar in South Africa, and she’d seen the notice. She asked me if I would organize a spiritual study group at the World Bank.”

Barrett began the World Bank Spiritual Unfoldment Society. Within a couple of months, the Washington Post wrote a favorable article about the fledgling group. “The World Bank, ‘an institutional pillar in the Washington power structure, is gaining a reputation for enlightenment.’ That’s how they put it, I think,” Barrett says. “But I began to realize that my own values were no longer in alignment with those of the organization. I began to side more with the outside critics than with the people in control of the bank. It turned out that our little group was taking upon itself the responsibility for shifting the values of this organization.”

In 1995, Barrett urged the bank to form a permanent advisory group that would promote spirituality and values in the organization’s daily activities. His proposal languished. Then, less than a year later, the bank underwent a dramatic change. A new president arrived. Sensing an opportunity, Barrett took his proposal off the shelf – and this time, he found support. He was given a budget to organize a major kickoff symposium that would put spiritual values on the bank’s agenda. That October, more than 30 speakers appeared at a two-day conference on spirituality at the World Bank.


“It created a whole new energy. I felt, when it was over, that it would change things immediately,” he says. Yet a month went by, and then another. The conference was fading into memory – with no sign that the ideas presented there would become a part of the bank’s agenda. “We were into the third month, and I wasn’t hearing about spirituality from anybody in our group,” Barrett says.

He had reached the kind of moment that he now challenges others to embrace: a time to face personal fears. Barrett composed a confrontational email and sent it to several World Bank VPs. “I told them that we were missing the boat on spirituality,” Barrett says. “We missed the boat on the environment, and we were criticized. Now we’re missing the boat on this. It was one of those emails where your finger hovers over the Send button. Finally my finger went down, and off went the message, a week before Christmas.”

Two days later, Mark Malloch-Brown, the vice president for external relations, sent back an email to Barrett. “You’d better come see me,” it read.

It was a moment of truth for Barrett. What would Malloch-Brown say? Did Barrett have his support? Did he still have a job? What Barrett learned was that the bank needed a new image – and that spirituality might provide the key to creating one. “I agree with you,” Malloch-Brown said. “But how do we get this on the agenda?” Barrett was overjoyed. “I know how to do it,” he replied. “Let me write out a plan for you.”

He wrote a statement outlining what would need to be done to put spirituality on the organization’s core agenda. Two months later, when he returned from a trip to Vietnam, his proposal to create a “values circle” – which would meet to talk about that agenda – had become a reality. “I volunteered to show up,” Barrett says. “When the meeting started, someone said, ‘We need somebody to work on this full-time.’ I volunteered again.”

He was given yet another new title: values coordinator. By April 1996, his work was finally bearing fruit. The values circle had begun a process to align the World Bank’s activities with a core set of values. Barrett was given a mandate to do four specific things: increase membership in the circle; develop a values tool kit; train 50 people to use the tools in the kit and to promote the circle’s mission; a and build Web site that would deal with values and that would link to the World Bank’s own site.

By the end of the year, Barrett had accomplished all of these things. “The vice president of human resources was ready to roll out the program throughout the organization. We were ready with all the trainers,” Barrett says. “It was on everybody’s lips. A year earlier, nobody was talking about it. Now my mission was complete.”

Once again, it was time to leave – time to make yet another leap into the unknown. Barrett would be abandoning a $180,000 job and a reputation as a global expert. He would be leaving one of the world’s most prestigious financial institutions to enter a field that some consider flaky and in which he was barely known. Still, the choice was clear: In June 1997, he left to set up his consultancy.

In the past year, he has taken on corporate and governmental clients from around the world. He has conducted workshops for people interested in measuring social responsibility and spiritual values in business. He boasts a list of prestigious clients: the Newspaper Association of America, a large Istanbul-based conglomerate called TATKO, the Swiss Development Cooperation, the Australian office of McKinsey & Co. In April, he spoke at the first UNESCO Business Forum in Stockholm. This August, he will conduct a three-day training session in Oslo.

The Wealth of the World

The Boston conference is winding down, and Barrett – still working the ballrooms, workshops, and corridors – is summarizing his message. Ultimately, he says, the point isn’t about spirituality. It’s about the future: What must each of us do to create a sustainable world economy?

“The trick is, you have to have profit before you can do anything at all,” Barrett says. He has another slide that emphasizes the economic realities. In 1996, 447 billionaires had a net worth equal to the combined income of the poorest half of the world’s population. Wealth, Barrett says, has become the most important determinant of political power. “We need new ways to distribute this wealth,” Barrett says. “Corporations must take on more social responsibility, and governments need to become more like business – more efficient and cost-effective.”

But what about the long-term outlook? On a global level, Barrett’s vision can easily be dismissed: It’s grounded on a foolishly optimistic faith in the ability of people and organizations to change simply because they decide they should. Anyone who has gone through a large-scale reorganization knows how difficult change is. Yet Barrett remains unflappable.

“This conference is significantly more real than any I’ve been to in the past,” he says. “I’m terribly optimistic about the future. Over the next few years, we’re going to see the rapid development of the practical side of these ideas. It’s going to be huge, this questioning of beliefs and assumptions. This is all going to happen.”

David Dorsey (, a Rochester-based journalist and novelist, is a frequent contributor to Fast Company. You can reach Richard Barrett by email (