Spiritual awakening: Students are being drawn to the teachings of an octogenarian professor of business spirituality

Caroline Haydon
Thursday 04 June 2009 00:00

The time is clearly right for the business world to listen carefully to Paul de Blot. As wave after wave of moral and ethical crises afflict business and political systems, his teachings as professor in business spirituality at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands begin to acquire the status of required reading.

Nyenrode installed De Blot (pictured below) as professor in 2006, interested in spirituality's influence on a company's strength. Questions he asked then about whether the lack of spirituality in European companies weakened their competitive position against their non-Western counterparts now look extremely pertinent, as the fulcrum shifts to the East. There, in places like Japan and China, he believes staff invest more energy in their companies.

At 84, De Blot's energy still radiates as he expounds theories he ardently believes in. And he talks from experience – his story is the stuff of novels. Spending his earliest years on a sugar plantation in Java, in 1942 he became a commando, who was interned in a punishment camp when the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies. A whole year in a windowless death cell followed, a period he now says was his most valuable experience, teaching him that without friends it is impossible to survive.

When freed, he went on to train as a Jesuit and to study and practise Eastern culture, taking time out to study physics in Cologne. He became campus moderator at Nyenrode in 1979, and specialised in the philosophy of science at the Vrije Universiteit (VU University) in Amsterdam.

His business case study into the 450-year old Jesuit order, into which he was incorporated at the age of 39, investigated the way in which this organisation had managed throughout the centuries to maintain its position and even grow in "a chaotic environment".

It is this crossover between science and culture which De Blot says gives him his personal perspective, because he is a creature of both. It also helps him to refute the inevitable criticism that business spirituality is a fluffy or esoteric idea with little to contribute to the modern business world.

"It is in fact a professional way of doing business from the inspiration of your own deep vocation – personally or at corporate level," he says. "It's something that comes from inside – an inner security."

Despite De Blot's background, he is keen to point out that he is not defining spirituality as religious – religion to him is an added value, not necessarily an essential component of a wisdom that comes from experience and reflection about your inner values. These are the things he says define you as a person, and in the corporate world should define a company.

"I come from the East and everything is spiritual there. If you are doing business in a chaotic environment, you are stressed – you need spiritual energy and resources, idealism, and a personal qualitative vocation. We must act professionally but in a human way. In the East, you must make friends first, then do business. We can do this too – I've found young people are very attracted by this view," says De Blot.

Neither, he is keen to point out, is he talking about business ethics, which he regards as a more institutionalised and analytical tool, whereas spirituality must come from within.

Potential waste of human capital is one of De Blot's recurring themes – blogging during the recent crunch, he writes that in a time of crisis people are always thinking about ways to replenish the cash coffers – ways to get money back. In order to make up a financial deficit, for example, there may be mass redundancies.

"But companies become impoverished by the loss of expertise, which they never recover," he says in characteristic blunt fashion. "Men who dare to invest in people are more likely to make up those financial deficits. Money is man-made by inspiration and energy and not vice versa. Money makes people inhuman."

He is optimistic about the outcome of the current crisis on the grounds that catastrophe can be the beginning of innovation – in fact, he recommends plunging in deeper and throwing out weakened or discredited systems to come up with something better, instead of clinging on to what has become devalued. "Formulae for success are good but they must be corrected or balanced by innovation," he says. "Both must be kept in balance."

The other reason he is optimistic is the spirit he sees among the young, who in his experience tend to be more open to Eastern cultural practices and often happy working entrepreneurially, discarding older, more structured and possibly more stultifying systems. This is much in evidence on his website, where students form the bulk of an appreciative coterie.

He asks his students to do simple things to enable them to get in touch with their inner belief systems. Things like keeping a diary of their working life, with the page divided into right and left. On the left side will be a log of day-to-day activity, and on the right all the student's feelings about that activity. After one week, the student is asked to review the right-hand side and see the trends it describes, and after two months of such painstaking recording De Blot talks the student through the entries.

De Blot has been at Nyenrode for 30 years, attempting to balance what he calls the hardware and software – the hardware being the commercial sector, the technology and the business systems of control; and the software the culture of connectivity, culture and entrepreneurship. Although he says much has changed for the better, he says there is still conflict between the two, though he is happier "working with the hardware". Then, he says, he can deal with people needing solutions, "and give people a different option – a different way of controlling the situation, perhaps. People are responsive to suggestions if you open their eyes in the right way". It's a challenge he's up for continuing.

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