5 lessons in the spiritual life from corporate America
Dr. Barbara Golder, MD, JD Feb. 13, 2018
Quite to my surprise, I had a minor career as a middle manager in a Fortune 500 company – quite a change from my prior, independent work in law and medicine. That career change came at a time when I was beginning to take my Christian life more seriously as a lived-out reality. I was worried that being a Catholic would conflict with being a corporate employee.
There were certainly the occasional conflicts but, more often than not, I found that learning to be an effective manager helped me grow as a Catholic and live my faith more fully, inside and outside of the office. It seems the Holy Spirit can get his point across in a variety of settings – the boardroom as well as the chapel.
Everybody needs a regular one-on-one.
It’s important to have someone who will point out where you need to grow and help you to do so. It was a custom in my workplace to have regular, sometimes weekly, meetings with my own manager, to review what I was doing and how things were going. Initially, I dreaded them. I wasn’t accustomed to being told how to do things and it was uncomfortable to hear my own shortcomings in such great detail. But I began to see my manager as essential in helping me see things about myself I would much rather ignore. Like so many in the culture, I was addicted to praise. I forgot that, in general, we grow where there is a shortcoming.
For Catholics, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the ultimate expression of the workplace one-on-one. In order to get there with a good examination of conscience, it’s important to have someone who is willing to draw our attention to our flaws and just as willing to help us overcome them. Unless we are willing to cultivate relationships with those who do not see us as being as perfect as we’d like to think—or pretend—we are, we are likely to miss those opportunities to experience God’s love in the recognition of our sins and his grace in trying again and growing in holiness.
Talking is not necessarily communicating.
It’s a flaw in my own nature that I believe if I’ve said something, it’s been received and my job is done. Nothing could be farther from the truth. One of my colleagues was fond of noting, I am sure you think you understand what I said, but I hope you know what you heard is not what I meant. In other words, communication is not just a matter of stating information, however clearly. It’s a matter of staying in relationship so that both sides of the conversation have some sense of what the other is hearing and some common understanding develops. That’s an important lesson for those of us who have the task of communicating (not just telling) the Gospel.
Messages are received according to the make-up of the receiver.
One of the colleagues I worked most closely with was an extrovert’s extrovert. He thought out loud, loudly, at length, and to the exclusion of just about anyone and anything else. Moreover, he was utterly incapable of taking offense at almost anything; verbal combat was just part of the process, and he thrived on it. I, on the other hand, am the introvert’s introvert. At first, working with him caused me great anxiety and was profoundly unpleasant, even though I enjoyed his enthusiasm, kindness, and unfailingly cheery nature. I would have abandoned the effort altogether except for the fact that my own boss kept insisting we find a way to work together. She intentionally assigned us projects and coached both of us on how better to respond to the other.
It took me a long while to realize that I simply needed to accept his style of working through a problem if I wanted him to accept mine. It took a little effort to convince him that creatures like me actually existed and needed space, silence and a place to be heard without so much drama. Eventually we developed a working relationship that was not only effective but also very pleasant, because we found a way to respect and enjoy the differences that were initially an obstacle. Knowing that, despite our sometimes extremely annoying differences, and learning to work together for the Kingdom, is as valuable a lesson in the Church as it is in the workplace.
The farther up the ladder, the broader the perspective.
Once I got over the idea that I was in charge of anything but my own little area, I delighted in the fact that what I did was but a small part of a huge enterprise, and the person above me on the ladder had the responsibility of integrating my piece with all the others. After a while I came to appreciate that, no matter how strongly I believed in a particular course of action, there were always several others, and deciding among them took a fund of knowledge that was simply not available to me. I try to remember that lesson every time I am inclined to criticize my priest or bishop for doing things differently than I would like. My job is to do my job, and pass my efforts up the chain. My job is not to dictate how the next guy in line does his, in large part because I don’t have the right perspective.
No one has an unlimited span of control.
Realizing that I was responsible only for what was placed before me, in my own position, every day permitted me a huge sigh of relief and allowed me to focus my efforts and trust that others would do the same. Did the upper level managers make mistakes? Sure all the time. But so did I, and somehow, in spite of our individual inadequacies, the whole corporate effort moved forward – mistakes, missteps and all. It’s the same in the Christian life: there’s only so much we can do and we are called to do only that which is in our power and, even when we make mistakes, somehow the Church moves forward still. It’s helpful to remember this when tempted to spend time, energy and resources on outrage over events we can’t possibly affect. Effort is most effectively expended in direct proportion to the proximity of the problem. Anything that distracts us from the task at hand is probably best avoided, however tempting it may be.
Putting it all together: The corporation has many parts. The janitor couldn’t do my job, but I couldn’t do his either, and neither of us wanted the job of the CEO. Come to think of it, I think I’ve heard something similar about the Church:
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)
The challenge of the spiritual life is to discover what member of the Body we are, and to let the other members be who they are—and to remember that it takes all of the Body of Christ to carry his cross.
Barbara Golder had a 40-year career in medicine and law, including health care ethics. She is now the award-winning author of the ‘Lady Doc’ mystery series and serves as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She blogs at ladydoclawyer.com.