American style capitalism has been criticized for its lack of “heart” or “soul.” Many critics have also pointed to the excessive focus on greed, with little regard for the well-being of employees, customers or the environment.

Other than the typical insights of business school gurus or management consultants, are there answers we can look to elsewhere for the malaise that grips our workers and current economic woes? An unlikely source of inspiration for us might be the Trappist monks.

August Turak is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive and award-winning author who attributes much of his success to living and working with the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina for seventeen years. His book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks is a stunning eye-opener. He combines vivid personal stories of the monks and himself with business cases from his 30-year business career to provide and inspirational and compelling story.

Turak would argue that capitalism has morphed into a form that has created a dichotomy. On one side—people first, higher purpose, care for the customer—is at odds with the other side: Profit to shareholders, and the rigid adherence to the “bottom line,” and whatever it takes to get there. Seventy-percent of workers are either not engaged in their jobs or hate them, according to the latest Gallup poll? And confidence in our business leaders has reached an all time low. Turak says the principles of service and selflessness transcend that dichotomy and can heal our broken capitalist system.

Turak contends that service and selflessness are at the heart of the 1,500 year old monastic’s remarkable business success. That business success in numerous monasteries around the world—each with diverse products—embraces a form of productive capitalism without compromising its ethical and religious principles.

Turak cites parallel examples of these principles as embraced by other organizations as diverse as the AAA and the U.S. Marines. He contends that all consciously transformational organizations have three things in common:

  1. A high overarching mission worthy of being selflessly served;
  2. Personal transformation as part of the mission;
  3. A methodology for bringing the transformation about.

Turak talks about how the monks passionately live their mission every day. Can the same be said of today’s typical American business executives or employees?

The Trappist monks’ business success has been based on an essential part of the 6th Century Rule of St. Benedict: All monasteries must be self-sufficient and self-supporting communities.  Today, can large corporations live by that principle? For example, according to a New York Times report, 48 companies, including Microsoft, Shell, Dow, Prudential and GE, have received more than $100 million in federal and government subsidies. Why can they not be self-sufficient?

Turak outlines several principles that are at the heart of the monks’ business success:

  • The overarching mission must be worth of being served;
  • Selflessness;
  • Service to others;
  • A commitment to excellence;
  • A dedication to the highest ethical standards;
  • Trust;
  • Living the life [walking the talk].

When we consider these principles you could ask, how many businesses live them?

A fundamental component of the monk’s success, Turak argues, is building and sustaining a commitment to community, something beyond self. “The Trappist commitment to mission, individual transformation and the community are all intertwined; these three elements feed back on each other in a virtuous cycle that often produces what we often describe in business as ‘culture.’”

 In the end, Turak’s call to transformation and the hero’s journey is powerful. And that transformation will contain some pain before final resolution. But what alternative do we as people and organizations have to the current model of business, which is clearly not working any more? He says: “If we want to introduce the magic of service and selflessness in our secular organizations, we must change the daily experience of the workplace. We need corporate missions every bit as powerful as Mepkin’s [Abbey], and the kind of bottom-up culture that lives this mission every day. Above all, we need the faith to begin, the commitment to continue, the self-knowledge that reveals how much we need others, and the trust that everything will turn out as it should.”

The book is an inspirational, provocative and ground-breaking tour-de-force and should be required reading for business leaders and in business schools.

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