A Trappist Monk and the Key to Success
For the last 17 years I have had the privilege of living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina as a frequent monastic guest. And I always enjoyed Father Leonard’s fiery homilies at Mass; not just for their erudition, but for his keen insights into human nature as well. Though, as an African-American native of Charleston, SC, how he came to be a Catholic priest and monk in a monastery hemmed in by so many congregations of African-American Baptists remains a mystery.
When I first met Father Leonard in 1996, he was still a monastic youngster of 65 or so spending his days on his knees prayerfully scrubbing the monastery’s floors. And though the sweat dripping from his headband in the blistering heat of a South Carolina summer made it seem more like a crown of thorns than a halo, every time I happened by he would lean on his brush, wave, and speed me on my way with a smile so full of genuine joy that it never failed to lighten my step.
Eventually, Parkinson’s, vascular disease, and an assortment of other maladies took their toll. Father Leonard could no longer scrub floors or say Mass, and when propping his legs up on a pillow resting on his desk could no longer alleviate the pain, he even had to stop answering Mepkin’s phone. Only the luminous joy remained: a joy that despite their best efforts his painful infirmities only seemed to manage to magnify.
Eight years ago I was spending a few weeks over Christmas at Mepkin. My father had died a year earlier and this was my first Christmas without him. One day I stopped by the deserted monastic kitchen on my way back from work for a cup of tea. As I stood in front of the hot water dispenser watching my slowly twirling tea bag gradually dissolve, a hand firmly gripped my elbow. I tried to turn but the grip tightened freezing me in place.
“Don’t you think for one minute that we’ve forgotten you, your father, and your family,” a voice urgently whispered into my ear. “We pray for you every day.”
It was Father Leonard, but before I could catch my breath his silver walker and black hooded head were already inching away.
* * *
Father Leonard peacefully passed away a few years ago, but he lives on in my memory as the beau ideal — not only of a Trappist monk and human being — but of the secret to Trappist business success as well. For over 1,000 years Trappist monasteries have run some of the world’s most successful businesses. These businesses, often built on prosaic products like mushrooms and eggs, have been so successful in fact that a recent article rather boldly argued that capitalism itself should be credited, not to Adam Smith, but to Trappist monks instead.
But what distinguishes the Trappist business philosophy from most of its secular competition is that very same spirit of service and selflessness toward others that Father Leonard epitomized so well. Every great salesman knows that the more he forgets himself, his product, his quota, and his commissions and instead relentlessly focuses on serving his customer’s needs, the more sales he makes. The commissions take care of themselves. When an entire corporation focuses on delighting customers, profits take care of themselves as well. And as every great leader knows, the more he focuses on making other people successful, the more successful he becomes.
I have been in business for over 35 years: First as a salesman and later as an executive and entrepreneur. Over that time I have seen a gradual transformation in the philosophy of business from a model based purely on the competitive zero sum game of win/lose toward a more cooperative service oriented model based on win/win. But while books espousing such a philosophy now appear like clockwork, unlike Father Leonard and his fellow monks, all too often all we have to show for it is lip service rather than the concrete behavioral changes that are essential to success. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet ruefully opined about the manners of his fellow Danes, selfless service is usually honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Louis R. Mobley, my mentor and one of the founders of the IBM Executive School back in 1956, was an early secular pioneer in this trend toward a service oriented business model. And one of his most critical discoveries was that building a corporate culture based on selfless service requires what he called a “transformation in consciousness” or what the monks might call a “radical change of heart” in IBM’s executives. As a result Mobley abandoned the “skills and knowledge” based “training” curriculum of the IBM Executive School and refocused his efforts on transforming the “values and attitudes” of his students instead. And as a result IBM became the most successful and admired corporation in the world in the 1960s and 70s.
It was his longing for this transformation from selfishness to selflessness that sent Father Leonard to the monastery so many years ago. This longing is the urge to transformation, and it produces the kind of “change of heart” or essential “change of being” that remade Father Leonard into someone who had so completely forgotten himself and his suffering that he recalled a man he had never met by silently reading my heart. And if, like the monks, we want to see the business, professional, and personal benefits that only a spirit of selfless service can bring, we must commit, both collectively and individually, to transforming ourselves as well.
~ August Turak