Danah Zohar interviewed by Serge Sardo

Serge Sardo: What do you mean by spiritual capital and what is its relationship to spiritual intelligence?

Danah Zohar: Spiritual intelligence is the need for and access to vision, values and a sense of higher purpose. Spiritual capital is putting these visions, values and higher purposes into practice.

SS: Isn’t that bordering on psychology?

DZ: I don’t think you can separate the basics of psychology and the way we live our financial lives. People like Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and George Sorros have been pointing out that we have become too dependent on rational economic models and we’ve forgotten to look at how people actually behave. We need more of an understanding of how people behave if we are going to clean up this current economic mess.

SS: In your recent book Spiritual Capital: Wealth We can Live By, you say that the cultivation and sharing of our ultimate concerns acts as the real glue of society. Can you elaborate on this?

DZ: The present economic crisis is actually a spiritual crisis. Our vision has gone completely out the window. At the moment we are fairly low on spiritual capital. But this is not just about knowing your vision and values but also the extent to which you practise them in your life and organisation.

SS: Are you talking about the evidence of actual behaviour that goes with those values?

DZ: There is this penchant for companies to have their values on their business card. But none of them get practised in the company. Nobody takes it seriously because it’s become the ‘in’ thing. I don’t think many companies have been conducting themselves with any sense of value or moral commitment.

SS: Why is it so hard to translate values of an organisation—integrity, honesty, compassion—into actual behaviour?

DZ: The real values of the organisation are the sanctity of the bottom line, quarterly returns and shareholder value. And these don’t mesh with deep values such as compassion and a sense of deeper purpose, which require long-term thinking. If your primary values are entirely materialistic then everything is weighed in dollars and cents.

[But] I’m not one of these radicals who believes businesses should give up their wish for profit. If you operate from deeper values like the sense of responsibility to employees and to future generations, you will make even more money. We all know this financial crisis has been brought about by people trying to make a quick buck with no consideration of the morals involved or the long term consequences.

SS: In your book you say that all people have the potential for a high spiritual intelligence quotient (SQ). What are the criteria for SQ?

DZ: One is spontaneity, being able to drop your baggage and live in the moment. Not only does it affect how we deal with our fellow workers but it also works when we are trying to solve problems. So many companies try and use solutions that were relevant to some other problem. That never works. If you are spontaneous you greet each problem as unique and solve it on its own merits. If you are spontaneous, you are flexible. And in these times where rapid change and uncertainty define business life you must be able to respond creatively and quickly to problems and challenges.

Another criterion is ‘positive use of adversity’ which is very relevant in these times. An example of this is Merck Pharmaceuticals, which spent millions trying to develop a drug that would cure a disease in cows, but then they discovered that it cured river blindness in people. Merck then offered this for free to the United Nations and the World Bank if they would distribute it in the third world. River blindness has just about been eradicated from Africa, and Merck won a lot of brownie points, which can translate into business growth.

SS: And this is related to compassion, which I believe is another feature of spiritually intelligent companies?

DZ: Corporate social responsibility is the term that people use when they mean compassion. Every corporation is for CSR but they don’t usually practise it. But if you really are compassionate (which doesn’t mean pitying people but feeling [empathy] for them) you are going to be much better at relating to your employees and the wider community.

Take Unilever in Asia. They noticed that they’d just about exploited their market in India, but that the poor people couldn’t buy their products, so they invented 1 rupee (3 cents) packets. These comprised a tiny packet of soap powder, a tiny bar of soap and so on. Then they sent teams in to show the poor how they were used and now 70 per cent of Unilever Asia’s profits are made from 1 rupee packets. Compassion can be very profitable, but Unilever didn’t do this for cynical reasons. Instead they were thinking: how can we help the poor of India? I would say that Unilever is high in spiritual capital.

SS: Does this sort of behaviour have to come from the top?

DZ: Yes, we need a radically new leadership ethos. People are beginning to see this now with all the excitement around Barack Obama’s election, and the effect he’s had on world morale just by getting elected. We need leaders who practise the 12 principles of spiritual intelligence, particularly a sense of vocation.

SS: Isn’t it impossible, in our western capitalist society, to indulge in the pursuit for greater meaning?

DZ: We’ve got to break out of the cage and say we are not having that anymore. Take Mats Lederhausen. He was head of McDonald’s Sweden and was making lots of money. He had a big house, big car, beautiful wife and four kids. He told me: “I’ve got it all but I’m really deeply unhappy. I work 16-hours a day—to sell hamburgers. What kind of a role model am I being to my children with a life like this? I was raised in a family that taught me values, that I was supposed to serve the community. With my work at McDonald’s I’m not doing any of that.” Mats felt he only had three options: To go for a promotion, which he felt sure he would not get; quit and become a consultant to other companies, but he felt that nobody listens to consultants; or just go off and live in a Tibetan monastery. I, and several other friends, advised him to go for the promotion. He wrote a letter to the CEO and explained his vision for McDonald’s. They moved him to Chicago straight away and made him vice president for company strategy. And he was able to do a lot of good things. He was the one who brought in wholemeal buns and salads, better cuts of beef and campaigned for larger cages for rearing chickens—anything that could make life better for animals or people dealing with McDonald’s. He also refused to work 16-hour days because of his family. McDonald’s accepted that. I think if more CEOs did that I think they would find that things would change.

SS: How can HR professionals help shift the corporate culture towards one that builds spiritual capital?

DZ: I see HR departments as the ‘public sector’ within the private sector. They are the conscience of the company. Companies have a profit mission—HR departments a moral mission. A lot of HR professionals already understand what I’m talking about anyway. But CEOs listen if HR can make a business case for a moral shift and make them see that there will be returns on the day.

SS: You say that building spiritual capitalism will result in ‘sustainable capitalism’, what is this?

DZ: Instead of being based on consumption, capitalism should be based on enhancing the quality of life. That means your business should not be about selling people more shoes than they need to buy. People need better health, more leisure, more time. Once you make that shift, ideas should start popping out of people’s heads.

People are not made happy through owning a lot of junk that they don’t need and couldn’t afford in the first place. We’ve got to go back to the psychology and see what makes people happy and then get into the happiness business.

(This interview first appeared in HR Monthly, April 2009.)