What Religion Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader [Even if You’re an Atheist]

What Religion Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader [Even if You’re an Atheist]

Religion and I haven’t seen eye to eye for some time.

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I grew up in a Christian household. I went to church every Sunday and attended youth group most Fridays and even was baptised in my mid teens.

But over the last decade or my life I’ve had deep reservations and questions about Christianity, and religion more broadly. And the result has been that I’ve consciously avoided thinking and talking about religion.

Because I wasn’t certain of their ‘truth’ I’ve relegated religion to something I ignore, something I’ve put in the ‘because I’m not sure of it’s truth, it’s not useful to me’ bookshelf.

Recently, reading, Alain de Botton’s book, ‘Religion for Atheists’ I’ve realised the mistake I’ve made. I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water and been guilty of the ‘Ambiguity bias’:

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But just because something may or may not be true, doesn’t mean that you cannot learn from it. 

Religions have existed for thousands of years, have millions of devoted followers, and exert incredible influence on our society and our lives. As leaders there is much we can learn from religion.

Here are my 5 key take-outs from ‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton on what leaders can learn from religion:

(1) The setting you create is critical in developing your culture and community 

The settings we live and work in have a powerful impact on our sense of community, and this is something religions have understood and leveraged incredibly well.

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Churches, temples and mosques:

Mark off a piece of earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their parameters there will reign values utterly unlike those that hold sway in the world beyond, in the offices, gyms and living rooms of the city.

All buildings recondition visitors expectations and lay down rules of conduct specific to them – churches and religious buildings, creates a space where we can lean over and say hello to a stranger.”

As a leader what can we learn from this?

  • Be clear on identifying values that exist within a space and be explicit in communicating these values. Write them on the walls and declare that these values reign supreme.
  • Use the design of the venue and the place to evoke enthusiasm for the notion of a group and to make it easy for people to say hello and build relationships with each other.

(2) We need structure to guide our conversations & behaviour to develop meaningful bonds and connections

Have you been to a networking event where you seem to have the exact same awkward conversation with every person you meet?

“What do you do?”

“I’m a [insert some title/company description]”

“Cool.”

Cue some exchange of business cards and some more awkward superficial small talk before moving on to the next person. 

awkward

The end of the night finally arrives and if you’re lucky, you’ve made a meaningful connection with 1 person.

Let’s compare this to Catholic Mass.

Mass is a tightly scripted ritual – it has clear rules to direct people in their interaction – from standing, kneeling, singing, praying, drinking, and eating at key points. 

These are all choreographed to ensure we develop powerful personal bonds with others. We feel part of something – as opposed to leaving the group to mingle on their own.”

While it might seem formal and unusual, what Catholic Mass shows is that authentic emotion and connection is formed through well-judged rules of conduct, rather than the opposite approach of letting people hang out and mingle (like most work and social events and functions we attend).

As a leader what can we learn from this?

  • Don’t leave the development of bonds and connections between a group of people to chance. Create a structure to choreograph and ensure that everyone connects with each other at a deeper level than just “What do you do?”
  • Just like Mass is choreographed, if you meet with people over food (team building, or family), identify a predefined topic for conversation on the night (this way everyone can feel included, and not be left out of side conversations).
  • “These talking points would be carefully crafted for a specific purpose, to coax guests away from customary expressions of “What do you do?” and towards more sincere revelations of themselves, “What do you regret?” and “Who can you not forgive?”

(3) Eat with your team as regularly as possible

Historically Mass was actually a meal, where:

 Christian communities put aside their work and domestic obligations and gather around a table in order to commemorate the Last Supper… Christian’s understood that when we satiate our bodily hunger that we are often readiest to direct our minds to the needs of others.”

Furthermore, when we eat with someone, it’s much harder to hate them. It creates shared understanding – it’s why often treaties between nations historically would be completed with a banquet, or drink. 

For all the large scale-political solutions proposed to salve ethnic conflict, there are few more effective ways to promote tolerance between suspicious neighbours than to force them to eat supper together.”

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As a leader what can we learn from this?

  • Use the eating and sharing of food as a way to develop shared understanding between people
  • Eat with your team frequently to build a sense of team spirit and team bonding
  • If you’ve got a difficult personal or professional relationship in your life, meet and speak over food! It will create greater empathy between you both!

(4) Have special days and themes to enable your team to be grateful, apologise, and be vulnerable

Apologising, being vulnerable, and expressing gratitude can be difficult. 

It can hard to admit you are wrong, don’t know what you are doing, or thank someone else for what they have done for you.

And the longer you don’t apologise, be vulnerable or express gratefulness to a colleague, the greater the opportunity for the relationship to sour. For the other person to feel wronged, taken advantage of or not appreciated.

The Jewish faith have a wonderfully powerful way to navigate and facilitate the resolution and prevention of ongoing social conflict in relationships called ‘The Day of Atonement’ or ‘Yom Kippur’.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur falls shortly after the beginning of the Jewish New Year and it is a day in the year that Jews must set aside their usual activities, and mentally review and reflect upon their actions over the prior year, identifying all those whom they have hurt, or behaved unjustly towards. 

On this day, they must then say a prayer at the Synagogue, and then seek out  and contact via catching up in person, phone calls, letters, or emails those who they have wronged, angered, or treated poorly, and apologise to them, asking for forgiveness.

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In turn, those who receive the apology are urged to recognise the sincerity of the act, and forgive, not holding the bitterness and anger inside, as they too are not free from fault.

As a leader what can we learn from this?

  • Saying sorry or expressing gratitude is difficult. It requires us to be vulnerable and expose ourselves to the potential of negative feedback, which we view as threats to our self esteem and our survival.
  • As a leader to encourage vulnerability and gratefulness we therefore need to create the space and time for people to feel safe to be vulnerable and apologise. A powerful way to do this is to have days or weeks during the year with themes e.g. ‘Gratitude Week’, ’Say Sorry Day’.
  • This gives permission for everyone to simultaneously open up, which reduces the fear that if you open up and be vulnerable that another person won’t.

5) Remind your team always of your why, your mission, your values, and key learnings 

Have you read a great book, or blog with some amazing ideas, principles and values, but then a week later forgotten most (if not all) of it?

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I know this happens to me frequently, and this forgetfulness we experience is something that religions recognise and understand.

In the Christian faith, each week when you attend church, you listen to a pastor delivering a sermon. Each week you attend small prayer and bible reading groups with your peers. Each day you read the Bible.

All of these serve to every day and week remind you through stories of the key values, lessons, and principles to live your life by. These constant reminders provide ongoing role models and supportive, positive messages about how to live a good life. 

As a leader what can we learn from this?

  • With information overload, it’s easy to forget the key values, beliefs and principles of an organisation. It’s easy to forget the key learnings about being a better leader and team member. It’s easy to forget what the vision is, what the mission is, and why we’re doing what we are doing.
  • It’s critical therefore as leaders to find ways to remind your team of these every day and every week.
  • How can you use your weekly meetings, and events you run to tell and share stories that reinforce these?
  • How can you design your space with positive messages, principles and values so they remain every present and top of mind?

Overall Review – 4 out 5 Stars for ‘Religion for Atheists

I found ‘Religion for Atheists‘ a thought provoking read – it challenged my attitude towards learning from religion regardless of questions I have about it’s truth. Given the impact that religion has had on the world across centuries of time, there is much you can learn from religion across a diverse range of areas of life and Alain de Botton does a great job in teasing these out.

At times Alain de Botton could be more succinct – some of the points he makes while insightful are dragged out. Additionally his examples are largely drawn from Jewish and Christian faiths – it would have been interesting to also see more examples and references to Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths as well. Finally, it’s not immediately clear the actions you can take from the book and this requires a little digging!

Additional Reading & Resources:

  • Alain de Botton runs the ‘School for Life’ an organisation that puts into practice a lot of the ideas he shares in his book.
  • Alain was interviewed by Krista Tippet on the podcast ‘On Being’ which is a great listen and introduction to his broader work. Listen to it here.
Written by
Rowan Kunz
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