Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks

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A Peek at the Preface

For 1,500 years monasteries all over the world have been calling men and women to a life of prayer and work according to the Rule of St. Benedict. The monastic motto, ora et labora (“pray and work”), tells us that these twin pillars of the monastic life are of equal importance— so much so, in fact, that for a Trappist monk, work is a form of prayer and prayer is a form of work. But while many authors, like Thomas Merton, have taken us behind the cloister walls to explore monastic prayer, very little has been written about the “work” half of the monastic equation. Similarly, although much has been written about the tremendous intellectual debt that Western civilization owes monasticism for preserving Greek philosophy and drama during the Dark Ages, very few have explored the highly successful business methodologies that the monks have preserved and prospered by for centuries.

This book takes a step toward redressing this imbalance by bringing these neglected monastic business secrets to light and sharing them with a wider world. This is not a disinterested academic treatise on monastic business practices; rather, it is a highly personal, nuts-and-bolts account of the business lessons I have learned over seventeen years while living and working with the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, as a frequent monastic guest. Further, by incorporating case studies drawn from my own career and from the example of other successful companies and organizations, I hope to show you how to apply these monastic lessons to a secular marketplace in order to run a more profitable business and have a more successful career. Perhaps what is more important, I believe that if you take these lessons to heart, you will also enjoy a more meaningful and satisfying personal life. I feel fairly safe in making these assertions because I know that these Trappist secrets don’t work just for monks; they worked for me as well.

Most of my monastic research was conducted firsthand while getting my hands dirty working alongside the monks, but I’m not alone in my fascination with the business success of the Trappists. An article in USA Today about the beer- brewing Belgian monks of St. Sixtus Abbey provides a wonderful three- sentence summary of Trappist business success, saying: “Piety, not profit, is what these monks seek. The St. Sixtus monks break every rule in Business 101 except attention to quality. And therein may lie the secret to their success.”

At first glance this analysis may seem woefully incomplete. Of course delivering a quality product is crucial to the success of a business, but what about pricing, positioning, accounting, human resources, cash management, distribution, marketing, procurement, competition, R&D, customer support, government regulations, patent protection, and access to capital? All these things (and many more) are also necessary— not only for producing a quality product in the first place but for making sure that this product can consistently find a market. However, a closer consideration of the phrase “attention to quality” should help us overcome these qualms. Quality doesn’t just apply to the relative merits of what are commonly referred to as “products.” Attention to quality also implies a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach to business, and it is only through this much larger lens that we can begin to see how the monks regularly break the rules of Business 101 and do it so successfully.

For more than a hundred years, the dominant trends in business have been quantitative and analytic. In 1911 Frederick Taylor published his seminal Principles of Scientific Management, and ever since then economists, consultants, pundits, and legions of business- school professors have been trying to wrest business from the clutches of art in the hope of turning it into a science. Unfortunately the significant dividends that this quantitative approach has produced have often come at the expense of the more qualitative aspects of business— things like mission, purpose, values, principles, integrity, ethics, service, and people, which, the monks would argue, are even more critical to success. These qualitative aspects of business are what the monks have mastered, and the author of the USA Today article aptly sums up all this monastic know- how with a single word: piety.

Piety comes from the Latin word for “duty,” and according to Webster’s dictionary, piety in its broadest sense encompasses the duty we owe to parents, country, and our fellow man, and to any noble undertaking that transcends our purely selfish motivations. For Trappist monks, seeking “piety, not profit” means faithfully paying attention to the sacred duty they owe not only to God but to their customers, lay employees, vendors, local community, each other, the environment, and mankind in general. It is the dutiful, or “prayerful,” way in which the monks attend to these qualitative aspects of business that is the overarching secret to their success. And the paradoxical theme that runs throughout this book is that the monks are successful not despite the fact that they seek piety, not profits, but because they do.

Nothing in this book denigrates the quantitative approach to business or treats it as something superfluous. As a business executive and entrepreneur, I’ve spent countless hours poring over spreadsheets, flowcharts, research, and “the numbers” generally, and I know some monks who are second to none in this regard. Yet if one of the purposes of this book is to redress the imbalance between prayer and work in the world’s appraisal of monasticism, another is to redress the gross imbalance between the quantitative and qualitative approaches to business.

I use the phrase service and selflessness to describe the monastic business model throughout this book, and the key to successfully applying this Trappist model to our secular business challenges is authenticity. Authenticity is the latest business buzzword: we hear of authentic businesses, authentic leadership, authentic products, and authentic brands. But while often positioned as the “next big thing” in business, authenticity is nothing new to the monks: Trappist monks have been building authentic businesses, leaders, brands, and products for more than a thousand years. Trappist authenticity shows up in three distinct areas of the monastic way of life and business, and throughout this book, we will be returning again and again to these crucial areas. The first is mission, the second is personal transformation, and the third is community.

Mission

A qualitative approach to business means articulating a high, overarching mission worthy of being piously served. To be authentic, this mission must genuinely drive the decision making that in turn determines even the tiniest activities of the enterprise. Trappist monks don’t have a mission, something to be kept safely tucked in a drawer until the annual meeting rolls around or someone innocently asks about it. Instead the monks live their mission every single day. It is this critical distinction that is so often missing in our secular organizations— and in our personal lives as well.

Personal Transformation

Authenticity is not a technique that can be mastered and then manipulated for our own ends. It is not something we can turn on and off at a moment’s notice as the situation requires. Authentic businesses, leaders, brands, and products can only be created by authentic people, and that is exactly why the monks are so good at it. In the USA Today article, the St. Sixtus brewmaster, Brother Joris, is quoted as saying, “You do not become a saint just by entering a monastery.” Saintliness is just a religious term for authenticity, and the monastic way of life is designed to take ordinary people and transform them into authentic individuals. One f the secrets to the monks’ success is that they value personal authenticity above everything else. The authentic brands, products, and leaders that the Trappists produce are merely the byproducts of this continual movement toward authenticity. If we want the business benefits that only authenticity can bestow, we ust first become authentic individuals. Just how to make this happen in a secular world and in a secular way is a large part of what this book offers.

Community

Trappist business success relies on the cooperative lubrication that only an authentic community can provide. The Trappist mission and individual drive toward authenticity would amount to little were it not for the monks’ unwavering commitment to community.

It is the constant mutual reinforcement and beneficial peer pressure of community that keeps the monastic mission front and center and does most of the heavy lifting involved in personal transformation.

But the communal commitment that drives the Trappist way of life is not circumscribed by the cloister walls that enclose the monastery. The Trappists’ communal embrace encompasses customers, retreatants, government regulators, their neighbors in the local community, and— through ceaseless prayer— all of us. All these constituencies are authentically treated as “brothers and sisters,” and this is a critical component of Trappist business success.

The Trappist commitment to mission, individual transformation, and community are all intertwined; these three elements feedback on each other in a virtuous cycle that produces what we often describe in business as “culture.” Once again, it is the critical distinction between an authentic culture and an inauthentic culture that makes all the difference to success. Creating and maintaining an authentic business culture is fraught with diffi culty, but how to do it is perhaps the most important thing you will learn from the monks you meet in this book.

The Greek philosopher Archimedes famously said, “Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The same might be said of the business, professional, and personal “leverage” the Trappists have to offer us all if we take their secrets to heart.

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