Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Leadership Lesson from Trappist Monks that Made Me Rich

Guest post from August Turak:

On March 31, 2000, my partners and I sold our company. Though the financial incentives were more than generous, giving up control over an enterprise that we had patiently built from scratch was not an easy decision. What clinched the deal for me was the almost instant friendship I had developed with the CEO of the acquiring company. Then, only two months into the deal, the venture capitalists that controlled our board pushed out my friend and replaced him with a total stranger.
A few weeks later the former CEO flew in to see me. He was understandably upset over being pushed out of the company he had founded, and he had a plan for getting it back -- as long as my partners and I agreed to go along. He eloquently made a case for his business plan over that of his rival, and pointed out that an acquisition that had been billed as a "marriage of equals" had now clearly reduced my roll to that of a mere employee.
When he finished, I told him that I shared his disappointment. I admitted that I didn't relish reporting to the new CEO: A man who struck me as a chilly technocrat and autocratic task master. But I also told him that I could not go along with his plan.

"Listen," I said, "the company can be successful with you as CEO. It can be successful under the new CEO. What we will not survive is a protracted internal struggle. It will kill the company."
I argued that it was no longer about us, our feelings, and our personal ambitions. It was about hundreds of employees who were counting on the survival of the company to feed their families. It was time for us both to bite the proverbial bullet and "take one for the team."

The former CEO was deeply disappointed, but gradually we reestablished our relationship and he remains one of my closest friends. One day he said, "It is difficult to say this but you were right. I was so angry that I would've done anything to get my company back. But now I clearly see that I would've just hurt everybody -- including myself and my family."
In 2006 my faith and his wisdom bore fruit. Our combined companies were sold for $150 million in cash, and he, me, and everyone else did very well . . .

For over 1000 years Trappist monks have been building highly successful businesses based on high quality products. Since 1996 I have been frequenting Mepkin Abbey in Monck's Corner, South Carolina for extended periods. As a monastic guest, I live and work alongside the monks, and as a bonus I have received a priceless education in business and leadership. And the Trappist leadership lesson that successfully guided me through the thorny thicket of the case study above is detachment.
A spirit of detachment is critical to Trappist business success, but though detachment is highly prized by Buddhist and Hindu sages as well, it is usually misunderstood. For most of us detachment is the opposite of passionate engagement. We are far more likely to associate detachment with that rootless "slacker" The Dude in the movie The Great Lebowski than with the passionate drive of Steve Jobs.

However for a Trappist monk, the opposite of detachment is not passionate commitment. It is identification. When, like financial Zen masters, Wall Street gurus endlessly exhort us to "never fall in love with a stock" they are merely warning us against the personal identification that clouds our judgment. Every athlete must play passionately and "give 150%" to their efforts. Yet at the same time they must always remain detached rather than identified. Why? Because every athletic competition is governed by rules, and an athlete who cannot give 150% while simultaneously remembering the rules will be penalized or disqualified. The player who identifies too closely with winning at all costs becomes a disruptive liability not only to his individual success but the success of his whole team.
In athletics the ability to be both passionate and detached at the same time is called "sportsmanship." In business it is called "professionalism," and according to movies like the Godfather at least, even mobsters must cultivate enough detachment to remember that "whacking" a rival must never cross the line into personal identification. It must always remain "just business."

The Trappist secret to remaining detached in the heat of business battle is to be rooted in higher set of values: a set of values that transcends the current situation and even business itself. These deeper values allow us to "take a step back" under pressure and remember "what is really important." For the athlete this higher perspective is called "the love of the game," and it produces a detached human being who would rather lose than win unfairly and/or hurt his team. In business a proper love of the game transcends our desire to make money. It allows us to temper our competitive fire with a commitment to only the highest ethical standards. And the paradox is that rather than a hindrance to success, proper detachment leads to even greater business success over time.
The reason why Trappist monks are so good at detachment is not because they are rootlessly floating in some kind of spiritual never-never land. On the contrary, they are passionately rooted in something much bigger than their narrow selfish concerns. This makes it easy to put mere business decisions into their proper perspective. Trappist monks are committed to a life of selfless service to God and others, and as a result the game they love produces the business satisfaction that only arises from making a positive difference in the lives of others. And once again, Trappist monks are not successful in business despite their commitment to selfless service but because of it.

Refusing to fight for the control of our company was one of the best and most lucrative business decisions I ever made. And it relied on a leadership lesson I learned from the monks. It was detachment that allowed me to step back under pressure, remember the "big picture," and put the interests of others ahead of what only seemed like my own at the time. I made a huge bet on an unknown outcome simply because it was "the right thing to do," and in the end my friend and I were rewarded in a far bigger way than either of us could've imagined at the time.

Author Bio:
August Turak is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, award winning writer and author of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity (Columbia Business School Publishing; July 2013). He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Selling Magazine, the New York Times, and Business Week, and is a popular leadership contributor at His website is


Ann Deaton said...

I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated your blog, Dan. I had not thought of this through the lens of detachment but rather commitment to a set of values that can enable leaders to set aside ego for the sake of a higher cause, what values based and servant leadership are all about. Thanks for offering another way to see this, along with the bottom line results values based leadership can enable.

Ann V. Deaton, PhD, PCC

Dan McCarthy said...

Ann -
Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the post from August.