Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, Laszlo; Brown (Stanford Business Books: 2014)

What: This is a groundbreaking effort to show that secular business should incorporate the sacred. It has three main goals: (1.) to suggest that corporations shift their focus from sustainability to flourishing; (2.) to argue that spirituality is essential to business flourishing; and (3.) to highlight specific spiritual practices for the well-being of leaders and businesses. This book is the product of a study group convened by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western University.

Thesis: “Our goal is a 150-year vision in which humans and all other species can flourish on the earth forever. We reframe sustainability as flourishing, pointing to transformation at all levels: thriving individuals, prosperous organizations, healthy global systems, and ultimately a flourishing planet. Those outcomes emanate from people who are able to experience a sense of connection to others and to the world around them, such that their thinking and action support caring for others. The result is not only implicitly more desirable but also more effective in producing the intended outcomes: business success in today’s complex multi-stakeholder environments” (67).

Key Idea: We need to break down the wall that often separates business from questions of the spirit. Economic flourishing stems from spiritual intelligence. And flourishing is really what we want (not just sustainability). After all, just because something can keep going doesn’t mean that it should. Just because something is sustainable doesn’t mean that it’s worthwhile. But an organization that promotes flourishing is something worthwhile. Its mission is sustainable precisely because it promotes the well-being of others. To promote that flourishing, we need to cultivate spiritual intelligence in our pluralistic workplaces.

Reflections: A few of the things I most admire about this book: its call to a conversion of heart and mind (157), its courage in describing that conversion using the language of spirituality, and its emphasis on manifesting spirituality through care.

This book proposes stretching out the business horizon. Way out: to 150-years. The goal is to begin thinking in terms of “the possibility that humans and other life can flourish on earth forever” (10; see John Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design). Business, the book argues, can be a force for achieving that goal.

But there’s a problem here. We cannot invest our sense of purpose in the hope that our corporations will last forever. They will not. (No more than we will.) Some of the most durable forms of spirituality help us honestly own up to our mortality. And they also remind us that even communities (like corporations) that may outlast us are fragile and finite. The purpose of business is not to last forever. (This is one reason why sustainability can’t be about endless survival.)

The authors also shy away from discussing religion, preferring instead to focus on a broad, intentionally spare, definition of spirituality (12-19, 183). But particularity need not be the enemy of pluralism. Specific religious traditions have insights into the purpose of business that those who do not share a given tradition can appreciate. In order to honor the diversity of our workplaces, we don’t need to bracket religious commitment out of spirituality. The key is to bring personal faith to business in a way that empowers us to learn what we have to learn from others–and what we have to offer.