Bringing God Back in the Boardroom

Here is an interesting story about governance from a talk delivered by His Eminence Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, at the April 2013 Breakfast Roundtable of the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), of which I am a fellow.  This was the complete text of his talk which was shared to all members and fellows of ICD after the event. I guess it was shared to all those who did not join the breakfast roundtable held at Manila Golf and Country Club and missed the wit, wisdom and humor of His Eminence and our good Cardinal Tagle. I am one of the privileged ones to witness him as he shared his talk and argued two main points about good corporate governance. The first is about God’s brand of governance and the second is how Jesus implemented God’s brand of governance, ruling and reigning in the kingdom of God.

Hope you enjoy the read as I enjoyed hearing him share this story and continue to share it to others as I talk about good corporate governance.

“Thank you for that wonderful but frightening introduction. It put much pressure on me now to perform well. I would like to thank the Trustees of the ICD for inviting me to be part of this Breakfast Roundtable and thanks to all of you for coming.

Let us look at the topic, “Bringing God Back in the Board Room”. When this was brought to my attention, I readily said yes. But the more I reflected on the question, the more questions I asked. Why this topic? And why was the topic formulated this way? Is God absent in the Board Room? That’s scary! So is there a place in the world where God is absent? I thought God is omnipresent. Bakit sa Board Room wala? Has God left the Board Room and has not returned? And when will He return to the Board Room – kaya siguro we have to bring Him back? Or maybe God is waiting to be brought in but others don’t want Him to enter yet? Is He locked out of the Board Room? Or is God really present but ignored? These are some of the questions that came to my mind.

I guess we all know what this topic is about. I am aware that I was invited here not as an expert in business strategy or in corporate management but as a priest. So I presume I will be allowed to talk like a priest or bishop and to sound like one.

Preparing for this talk, I realize that if we go to the sources of the Judeo-Christian faith, the Tradition and the Bible, and if we look closely at what is presented as revealed Truth, we will realize that the Bible makes a lot of sense even to non- believers. There is so much rationality, reasonability in what the Bible tells us. The presence of God in our personal lives and even in the corporate world does not have to be against reason. In fact, it can purify reason and liberate reason from what is unreasonable.

Let us not be afraid of God. John Paul II already said that at the beginning of his pontificate. Let us not be afraid of God. Let Him in. He will not destroy our world. He will even make our world and our endeavors more fruitful, more productive.

Somebody asked me, why does the Church teach things that are not reasonable? When we repeat the commandment that says, “Do not steal”, is that being unreasonable or declaring something unreasonable? Stealing is unreasonable, “bakit hindi yun ang binabatikos”? “Do not commit adultery”. Isn’t this commandment fully reasonable? Why do some people find it unreasonable and insensitive of the Church to forbid adultery? “Do not kill”. What is objectionable in that?

After this talk I will go to Quiapo Church, a move from the corporate world to popular piety. In the mass we will celebrate there, we will invite people to pray for those who have disappeared and who are not yet surfaced, especially Burgos. But I also want to tell them that there are many who have also disappeared from our consciousness, from our memory. Even if they are physically present, they may be absent to us. They must have disappeared a long time ago in the consciousness and memory of other people. It can happen to God. We can make God disappear from our minds.

As far as I know, the Boards of Directors are really focused on governance, policy setting and policy direction. The way Rex described the Board as the head, the heart and the conscience of the corporation was amazing. Let me just share a couple of points with you. Afterwards maybe you could raise some questions and if I could answer them, I would.

I. God’s brand of governance

The first point I want to reflect on is the theme of governance in which you are experts. I ask myself, how about considering God’s brand of governance? How does God govern? If we want to bring God back to the Board Room (and it is in the Board Room where governance is exercised) how would God influence your way of governing? The answer is in the Bible. There is an image that depicts the governance of God. In the “Our Father”, we pray,” Thy Kingdom come.” Today we are asking Him and His Kingdom to come to our Board Room. God coming to the Board Room means governing as He does.

How does God govern? How does God reign? I will quote to you a very simple passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 14 where he says, “The Kingdom of God is not about food and drink”. Sorry, we started with food and drink. The text doesn’t say that food and drink are not important but that the Kingdom of God is not just about food and drink “but about righteousness, justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God”. This is a very clear description of the governance of God and how we know that God is present and rules in a place. Where there is righteousness, justice based on truth, mutual edification or strengthening rather than mutual destruction, there God governs. The rule of God strengthens the whole community, which is the equivalent of enabling all to work for the common good. And where there is agreement on the common good, there is peace.

Governance with righteousness, justice, peace, and mutual upbuilding is the work of God. We should not destroy it nor drive it to oblivion, according to St. Paul for the sake of food. You can change the word “food” with other words like ‘profit’, ‘self-interest’, ‘power’, ‘ambition’ or ‘greed’. Whatever happens, everything should be subjected to the ultimate norm which is God’s way of ruling. For St. Paul this is how human beings achieve good governance. These are clear manifestations of the governance of God: righteousness, justice, peace, and mutual upbuilding. In the same letter, St. Paul will give us more specific suggestions on how we can allow God to reign in our human activities. In chapter 12 he says, “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection. Outdo one another in showing honor”. Imagine a Board Meeting where these attitudes rule. “Do not lack in zeal”. Where God reigns, there is passion to work and promote righteousness and justice. “Be ardent in spirit. Serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers”. These are the marks of God’s reign – quite concrete and rooted in attitudinal change as well. (Preparing for this talk was actually quite easy, I just contacted St. Paul.)

Who would think that St. Paul wrote these lines almost 2,000 years ago? They still ring true and reasonable for our time. I’m sure all of us will not be motivated to work with a group or with a Board that does not espouse fairness, mutual upbuilding, peace and love. It will exasperate and drain us. If there is any decency left in us, we might decide that that Board is not for me.

So God rules and this is the way he does. We believe that He wants to us to experience His rule so that our Boards – inspired by his Word and Spirit – may govern like Him. The response is left to us. Will we allow God to govern the governing bodies?

The question to all of us is ‘who governs your Board’? Is it Power, Money, Greed…or God? Whom do we allow to run and shape our Board? What are the principles of that “governor”?

If we allow God to govern our decision making He will also point to us the way to accomplish this. Let us hear from Jesus, in Mark 1, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news”. Repent. We cannot allow God to rule our lives and Boards without conversion.

So let us now dwell on repentance and conversion to God. I know that in our world there are many “kings and queens” more attractive compared to God the true King. I also find it difficult at times to understand our King. Why does He say if somebody slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek? I mean, how can this King get followers? No wonder the disciples left Him one by one. I want to tell Jesus that if He desires to firmly establish His Kingdom and brand of governance, He has to make them more attractive to people. How will people be motivated to be part of that reign when He instructed the rich young man who had inquired about the path to eternal life to sell everything that he had and give to the poor? Observing the commandments was not enough. Losing everything for love of the poor was necessary. Who will follow that kind of a King? So the rich young man left him. From one perspective that’s a humanly logical thing to do. He left, but I hope that one day he would have recovered his senses and would have returned to Christ to declare, “You know, Lord, I thought about your proposal. I am back to follow you.”

Let us consider another incident. Jesus entered the house of Zaccheus, a tax collector and public enemy. Nobody wanted to enter his house but Jesus dared and brought the reign of God with his kindness, with his acceptance of this sinner. And Zaccheus said that half of his belongings would be given to the poor and if he had defrauded anyone, in the least, that person would be repaid four-fold. Who would desire to belong to this new kingdom? Only those who are willing to embrace the new life offered by Jesus the King, with its values and priorities. In other words, only those who are ready to turn away from sin and disregard of neighbor in order to live by justice, love and magnanimity. These are the ones who can choose Jesus’ Kingdom. So, the reign of God, the governance of God will become true if those who take it seriously would also take conversion seriously. This will surely entail getting out of our comfort zones. “Mahirap ang pagbabagong buhay. Mahirap ang pagbabagong-loob. Subalit kailangan para maghari si Jesus.”

So far I have given a short description of how God will rule if we allow him back to the Board Room. I think you will all agree that fairness, transparency, building up the nation, building up our employees, being agents of peace should characterize how we govern. And that’s the description of God’s reign, according to St. Paul. But for us to implement it, we need repentance, conversion, a change of mind, heart, values and priorities.

II. How Jesus implemented God’s brand of governance, ruling and reigning in the kingdom of God

Let me now go to my second and final point.

After that brief description of God’s brand of governance as captured in the image of God’s reign or God’s kingdom, let us turn to a very specific and concrete example of how Jesus implemented it. He bears the kingdom of God in his person as the one sent by the Father to inaugurate that kingdom in our midst. We turn to Jesus Christ, the personification of the reign of God. If we want to see the reign of God, the governance of God operating in the day-to-day life, in word, in deed, in relationships, we can find it all in Jesus. Of course there are other figures from other religious and cultural traditions that we can learn from. But as a Christian, I turn to Jesus and see how this governance of God is manifested in Jesus.

There are many parts of Scriptures that can be the topic of reflection in our homes and in our board meetings. One is Mark 10:35-45. Jesus has just told the disciples that, yes, he was the Messiah. He did not hide that truth from them. But you see, the disciples held on to a concept of the Kingdom of God and of the Messiah largely determined by a political, militaristic model. Jesus explained to them in Mark 10 that he was not of that mold, that he would be arrested, put to death, but rise again on the third day. After that episode, John and James, two of the closest friends of Jesus, asked if they could sit – one at his right and one at his left – in his kingdom. They failed to understand. Their minds were still clinging to images of power and influence brought about by proximity to the King. In another version, they even asked their mother to intercede for them with Jesus. They thought Jesus would not have the heart to turn down their mother. It must have been frustrating for Jesus as he educated his disciples about the values of His kingdom in contrast to the world’s brand of kingship. So Jesus said, “You know that among the pagans, those whom they recognize as rulers lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This is the mark of the individual who follows the kingship of Jesus. In governance, we should address not only the board as a body, but also the individuals on the board. In the end, it is the individual who will have to make a decision and who will contribute to the quality of the board. Here Jesus says plainly, for those who want to follow Him and to promote the governance style of God, they should not lord it over others. They should not be tyrannical over others. Another translation has Jesus saying “the rulers among the Gentiles make their importance felt”. That is the governance style, according to Jesus, of the pagans. That is the style of those whose God is not the true God, but whose God may be wealth, power and prestige. If my God is “Prestige” then I’ll pattern myself after it. Remember, we are created in God’s image and likeness but we can recreate ourselves in the image of false gods. So you enter the Board Room, make your importance felt and lord it over others. I have the right to shout at others. I have the right to step on others. Why? Because I am a member of the Board. But that is how those without a God and who do not recognize the true God govern.

Jesus challenges those who want to adhere to His brand of kingship to live in humility. It is not rank but service that counts. “If I want to be the first then I should be the slave of all. If I want to be the greatest then I should be the least”. This is the change that God will introduce into the board room. Bringing God back to the Board Room could be “dangerous” to those who have been habituated to the ways of the world.

So, do you still want Him in the Board Room? The topic just sounds harmless but in fact it could disturb the status quo. It could pose a threat to our usual ways of governing.

I will now shift to another image. According to Gospel of Saint John, chapter 13, Jesus, before he died, washed the feet of his disciples. This is another occasion to manifest his brand of governance.

In the world of the Jews, washing the feet of guests was the task reserved to the lowest of slaves. They also had the hierarchy among the slaves. “Pati sa pagiging alipin meron pa ring mataas at mababa”. The governance style of this world operated even among slaves. If you’re a Jewish slave you’re higher in rank compared to a non-Jewish slave because as a Jew you belong to the Chosen People.

We realize that what Jesus calls the governance style of the Gentiles could be found in many quarters. Even those who have already encountered God in the person of Jesus could be tempted to embrace it.

This is true not just in the corporate world. We also have to deal with it in the Church. It is a constant call to learn from Jesus’ lessons to His own “Board”, the Apostles. The Twelve were difficult to teach. They often misunderstood Jesus. But in the washing of the feet, Jesus demonstrated the lesson in living action.

When a slave washes the feet of his master’s guests, he does not do it out of love for the guest. The task is imposed on the slave. He does not have any choice. He simply cannot get out of it. It is part of being a slave. But Jesus is not a slave. In fact he is Lord and Teacher. His rank or status precludes the washing of feet. But he does it not to comply with a duty imposed on him but to show his love in complete freedom. Jesus’ washing of the feet does not come from his rank, but from the dictates of a heart, of a conscience that says, “I am here to serve”. That’s why Peter protests. He seems to be saying, “You are our master and lord. You should not do the work of a slave. Remember your status.” To this line of reasoning Jesus says, “If I your Lord and Master washed your feet, then you should wash each other’s feet”. This marks a person that belongs to my kingdom and has entered my way of governing: washing the feet of others by choice, simply out of love.

In another parable found in Luke 14:7-14, Jesus reminds us not to occupy the seat of honor when we are invited to a banquet. The host might have invited a more prominent guest, and how embarrassing it would be for you to be told to move to a lower position. Do not raise yourself up, wait for others to do it for you. I submit – in government, in business, especially in the church — we should all go back to the towel and the wash basin as the symbol of a true leader and not the seat of honor. “Pinag-aagawan ang upuang pandangal subali’t walang nag-aagawan sa palanggana at tuwalya”.

If we are intent on bringing God back in the Board Room taking inspiration from St. Paul’s teaching and Jesus’ words and example, then we need to challenge our presuppositions, our accepted modes of doing things. The Kingdom of God present in the person of Jesus becomes the norm. The integrity of the individual members of the board would set an example to the whole corporation so that its choices and dealings with people would offer an experience of the mighty God who cares and of the King who is a servant.

If we embody the justice, the righteousness, the humility and the service orientation of God and His Kingdom in big corporations we could really help in the transformation of society. Imagine how much good the Board could do, not only for their workplace, but also for the nation.

Thank you for your patience.