Serving God with mammon: 'Fortune' examines the faith of CEOs

God and gold are usually a forbidden blend, but they combine in one of the premier journals of business and finance in a Fortune story on spirituality among CEOs of major corporations.

The story starts with Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, saying he considers his homosexuality "among the greatest gifts God has given me" -- then notes that Cook is "not forthcoming beyond that statement about his religious beliefs," probably fearing judgment about going public with those beliefs.

Then Fortune provides a great "nut graph":

Most CEOs, in fact, keep their faith squarely out of the workplace, according to Andrew Wicks, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “They specifically hide their religious faith, precisely because they fear people making a big deal out of their religious views,” said Wicks, who teaches a course called “Faith, Religion, and Responsible Decision Making.”
But Wicks says being open about faith is actually important because it is a powerful aspect of how business leaders define themselves.

Whatever else this 2,800-word article is, it ain't narrow. Besides Christians, it features Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu CEOs. And among the Christians are a Catholic, a Lutheran, a United Methodist and a Southern Baptist.

After an intro, the article is broken up into mini-profiles between about 280 and 450 words each. Business journal that it is, Fortune starts with each person's name and the stock performance of his/her company. For instance, Indra Nooyi's name is followed by "PepsiCo (#43)  PEP 0.75%."

Nooyi is religious enough to keep statue of Ganesha, the "God of Auspicious Beginnings," in her office. Fortune quotes her thusly:

She also said she has taken to heart her mother’s deep and committed spiritual life. “Our house had a very large temple room, and my mother used to pray three or four hours every morning,” she told the magazine, “So the house was a deeply religious house, and every occasion of life and death was observed with great care and exacting standards.”

But how do the CEOs' faiths work in the office and the marketplace? That's fleshed out as well -- at least sometimes.

* When Indra Nooyi is stressed, she thinks about a temple like Tirupati, and "Hinduism floats around you."

* Daniel P. Amos, the Methodist, runs the Aflac insurance company on "corporate responsibility" ethics, drawing from the Gospel According to Luke: "To whom much is given, much is expected."

* Brian K. Bedford believes in treating people fairly at Republic Airways, based on his Roman Catholic belief that humans were "created in the image and likeness of God." Bedford has also been filmed "kissing a cross on his necklace and reading the Bible," Fortune  reports.

* Donnie Smith, the Southern Baptist head of Tyson Foods, spells out simple values like fairness, telling the truth and feeding people. The company also employs counselors who make themselves visible on the assembly line floors, for total accessibility.

Each profile is fleshed out with human themes and details, adding weight and color.  Arne Sorenson, a Lutheran, is the first non-Mormon CEO of Marriott International -- and the first non-Marriott family member. Bedford was a guest in 2010 on the reality TV series Undercover Boss. Pierre Omidyar was born in Paris to Iranian parents, but he's a Buddhist who supports the Dalai Lama through his own foundation.

Fortune doesn't make everything rosy for these guys; when there's a controversy connected with one, the magazine reports it. Pierre Omidyar is funding an "aggressive media network determined to expose government secrets," the magazine says. But it tables the issue adding only that Omidyar "is known as having a gentle, mindful presence."

Still, the magazine seems to go overboard with a flap connected with James Tisch of Loews Corporation. It cites his chairmanship of Jewish Federations of North America and his past work with other major Jewish groups. But then it spends 146 words on a tiff 17 years ago over Loews owning the Lorillard Tobacco Company, a situation that some other Jewish leaders considered immoral.  (Did they also object to the Bronfman brothers co-chairing the Seagrams liquor company?) The matter appears to crowd out discussion on how Tisch seeds his Jewish values into his work, which was supposed to be the main topic.

The Fortune article has a few other flaws also. It says John Tyson made his company "faith friendly" but not "faith-based." It also says "faith-based family values" guided Marriott in hiring Arne Sorenson. Neither time does Fortune explain what that means.

Donnie Smith, the Baptist CEO at Tyson, says food production literally feeds into his ideas of how to get into heaven. (He doesn't say it, but he could have cited Matthew 25.) How does that square with the Baptist beliefs in salvation solely by grace through faith and "once saved, always saved"?

It would have been nice also to specify there are many strains of Buddhism -- Zen, Pure Land, the Forest Tradition, etc. -- besides the Tibetan branch that Pierre Omidyar'practices. Their adherents sometimes complain that the Tibetan variant gets the most attention because of the Dalai Lama.

But I don’t want to sound too hard on an article that was bold enough to choose this topic at all. Especially when a couple of the CEOs went out of their way to say they don’t push religion on people. "I don’t beat people over the head with it," Bedford feels the need to say. Daniel Amos extols anonymous giving because "one of the most important things that's in the scripture is you don't flaunt what you're doing."

If so, I'm glad Fortune is doing it for them. We've all seen too many news reports on what happens when the only business of business is business. It's good to see that some CEOs remember there are higher values. 

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