Spirituality in Management: A Brief History

If you feel like a cog in a big, cold, corporate machine today, just remember that you have a unique purpose on the earth. Whether you believe in God, a ‘higher power’, or you are an atheist, you know that you are the only person alive that has your particular blend of talent, skills, and experience. You can offer that uniqueness to your colleagues today in a collaborative exchange that helps all of you to reach your full potential. The person sitting at the desk next to you has a vision for their life too, and today, your work contributes to their fulfillment of that vision. You are more than an employee. The services you provide to your colleagues, and the products you create for your fellow humans, these are spiritual acts. You are not a cog in a machine, you are a spiritual person in a business community.

In one of my recent LinkedIn articles, I mentioned that Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) is the new Emotional Intelligence (EQ). For the last 30 years or so, the Social Issues in Management arena has been populated by a growing concern for the influence of human spirituality on organizational dynamics. So today I want to offer a short history and introduction to Spirituality in Management.

In 1904, Max Weber presented the economic success of Protestant Christians as validation of a Protestant work ethic (Weber, 1930). In the US, Mary Follett called for integrative civic dialogue between all participants in capitalist society, to create a community based, “theophany” (Follett, 1918, p. 137). She called for greater meaning in work than the work itself: “We work for profit, for service, for our own development, for the love of creating something” (Metcalf & Urwick, 2014, p. 145). That was almost a century ago! So what happened?

In the mid-century, great voices like Peter Drucker (1946) and Robert Greenleaf (1977) fought for higher meaning in management too, but by the 1980’s, many workers considered themselves as those cogs in great cold corporate machines that concerned themselves only with profits and productivity (Gibbons, 2001; Spilka, Hood, & Gorsuch, 1985). They felt dehumanized and unfulfilled. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that books on the subject became popular, and workers started to think more of their work as a spiritual vocation, something that was meant to fulfill their individual sense of destiny, purpose, and divine calling.

Wagner-Marsh & Conley (1999) had seen the trend in so many companies by the end of the century, that they could identify common elements in the application of spiritual values to organizational culture and identity. Business Week Magazine published surveys that showed that 78% of Americans felt spiritual growth was a core element of daily life in 1999, up from 20% in 1994 (Conlin, 1999). Newsweek did a cover story on workplace spirituality in 2001. Spirituality existed intrinsically in the lives of managers, but the academic theory had not kept pace, so some said that spirituality entered the 21st century as the, “last taboo,” in the field of management studies (Mohamed, Wisnieski, Askar, & Syed, 2004).

Today, there are thousands of books and research articles on spirituality in management, but the subject is as complex and wonderful as the human heart itself. “Defining spirituality at work is like capturing an angel – it’s ethereal and beautiful, but perplexing” (Laabs, 1995, p. 63). In my research, I use this definition:

Spirituality is the search for, and experience of, direction, meaning, inner wholeness, and connectedness to others, to non-human creation and to a transcendent.

But having a definition is just the beginning of the challenge. How do we include those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, especially in the UAE where there is a primarily religious expression of spirituality? And what of those whose spiritual expressions that are different from or even seemingly opposed to our own? And what does any of this have to do with good business?

I’ll get to those in future articles, but let’s start with the last question. What if being spiritual led to stronger business outcomes? Scott Quatro (2002) studied the Fortune 500 and found that companies that were more ‘spiritual’ had a significantly higher net profit and return on assets. He defined organizational spirituality as:

  1. Shared and Intentional Mission / Vision / Values

  2. Individual and Group Transparency

  3. Equity and Justice

  4. Personal Consciousness and Accountability

  5. Ethical Clarity and Soundness

  6. Task Significance

  7. Individual / Organizational / Societal Interconnectedness

  8. Inclusiveness

  9. Servanthood

  10. Sacredness of Organizational Life

  11. Active Individual and Organizational Spiritual Practice / Expression

So whether or not you consider yourself a spiritual person, or whether or not you find it difficult to tolerate the spirituality of others in your organization, the research shows that Fortune 500 companies that invest in the principles above, perform better financially than those that don’t. There are very few consulting experts in this region that are actively pursuing best practices and implementation of these principles.

Spirituality is an ancient concept, but it remains the newest frontier in management studies, and a topic that I am very passionate about. Incidentally, I am a Christian, with a Phd in Islamic Studies. I have spoken at conferences and conventions, to crowds of thousands, and I am presently writing a book on the Qur’an in Corporate Social Responsibility. I am happy to share some of my research with you here from time to time, so please let me know what questions you have for me to include in future articles.

I also want to extend my gratitude to H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid for embracing the tension of pluralism and tolerance while maintaining an excellent example of Islamic governance in Dubai. It is not an easy task to welcome so many different faiths into one’s home. Dubai is a global hub of innovation, wrapped in an openly Islamic environment that embraces the tensions of religious pluralism, so what better place on the earth is there to develop this concept than right here? Dubai’s spiritual governance is an example for the world, and I feel fortunate to live and work here.


1. Conlin, M. (1999). Religion in the Workplace: The Growing Presence of Spirituality in Corporate America. Business Week, 1 Nov.

2. Drucker, P. F. (1946). Concept of the Corporation. New York,: The John Day company.

3. Follett, M. P. (1918). The New State: Group Organization and the Solution of Popular Government. London: Logmans, Green, and Co.

4. Gibbons, P. (2001). Spirituality at Work: A Pre-Theoretical Overview. Articles on Leadership. University of London.

5. Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

6. Laabs, J. J. (1995). Balancing Spirituality and Work. Personnel Journal, 74(9), 60-72.

7. Metcalf, H. C., & Urwick, L. (2014). Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

8. Mohamed, A. A., Wisnieski, J., Askar, M., & Syed, I. (2004). Towards a Theory of Spirituality in the Workplace. Competitiveness Review, 14(1/2), 102-108.

9. Quatro, S. A. (2002). Organizational Spirituality Normativity as an Influence on Organizational Culture and Performance in Fortune 500 Firms. Doctor of Philosophy, Iowa State University.

10. Spilka, B., Hood, R., & Gorsuch, R. (1985). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

11. Wagner-Marsh, F., & Conley, J. (1999). The Fourth Wave: The Spiritually-Based Firm. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 12(4), 292-301.

12. Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Allen and Unwin.