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Are You Living the Life You Are Meant To?

Daniel Tong, Contributor

The Spiritual Lives of Leaders takes you on a transcendental journey of self-reflection and humility.

The Spiritual Lives of Leaders, SLL,  is a masterpiece of a course brought by a collective effort between Harvard Business School, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It approaches a conversation that seldom happens at HBS on the fundamental beliefs and practices that drive the world’s leaders. What gives leaders purpose and guides them in making their most challenging decisions? What are the commitments that rest in the very heart of their moral, ethical, or religious identity? In a rare and rich multidisciplinary combination of faculty and students from different schools, and world-class leaders that include Harvard University President Larry Bacow, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan, and Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, this short intensive program (SIP) was life changing.

This was not your usual HBS case study class, and each session had a curated selection of guests to explore meaning in the workplace, faith in business, transgenerational change, morality, the civil rights movement, religion—Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity—and many other themes. What I found surprising was how hard it was, especially for b-school students, to enter the discussions. These conversations were so different from what we are used to and from what we have learned our entire lives that you just need time to reflect on what is going on. You can feel the whole process of deconstruction of preconceived ideas and notions flowing through your intrigued mind. While writing this article, I am still trying to organize all aspects of this unique experience.

The definition of spirituality is very personal, but it could be described as a sense or belief in a connection to something bigger than ourselves, which may involve deep values, religion, or even personal growth. I have never been spiritual or religious but have been struggling the last years with finding meaning in my work and wanted to explore how leaders approached this. In our very first class, students were confronted with the following statement: “You can win the rat race, but in the end, you are still a rat”. This was directed at us, who have always blindly pursued the best grades, the big bonus, the next promotion, the next shining star in our CV—in the end, we are chasing what society values and defines as success and often overlook what we are truly feeling, thinking, and wondering. In this sense, I have distilled three main threads throughout the week: identity, connection, and leadership.

Identity: understanding who you are and who you want to be. “Most of us sleepwalk through life and do not understand the difference between making a living and making a life,” said our guest Gurcharan Das, Indian author and former P&G India CEO. His message was to live with intent and fulfillment, being conscious about the experiences, relationships, values, imperfections, and roots that shaped us. It made me reflect on my own upbringing in Brazil as the son of Chinese immigrants and what it means to have privilege in an unjust society. What are my moral responsibilities towards such a country that warmly welcomed my family sixty years ago and that today I call home? As I try to find purpose, it is interesting to notice how our guests and great leaders have a deep sense of self and are strongly grounded in spiritual practices—may they be ancient wisdom, religion, or just raw principles. These leaders know very much who they are and how they are meant to live, but also rely on a strong support system called community, something that has been lacking in younger generations.

Connection: belonging and humanizing the whole. “Community is a place where a joy shared is twice the joy and a sorrow shared is half the sorrow.” In modern times of polarization, social media, and economic inequality, people are disconnected from reality, and we are losing forms of community and empathy. We urgently need to rebuild community in our lives, may it be in our family, friends, work, neighbors, or religion. This is when we met Angie Thurston, Co-Founder of Sacred Design Labs, who helps companies personally and authentically connect with employees and acknowledge their whole and complete lives. As Millennials and Gen Zers strongly look for meaning in the workplace, Angie teaches companies to extend their purpose and embrace people for who they are. As leaders, we need to understand that we need to take care of the people we have the privilege to lead.

Leadership: it has never been about choosing a career, it’s about answering a call for service. The world is going through a time of shifting paradigms—Covid-19, climate change, resurgence of populism and distrust in our political systems, rethinking capitalism, race disparities—and our humanity is being called upon. Throughout the week, guests and lecturers explored how servant leadership and the politics of gesture, not words, are important during difficult times. Hope comes from serious ethical, moral thinking, and solutions embrace plurality and open dialogue. In a study of civil rights movement leaders, we could take in how they find inner strength from their deep-rooted spirituality and are committed to impact lives in the right direction. The ultimate question for HBS students is how are we going to use our power and privilege to make the world a better place?

This week has been marvelous, and I would like to thank the teaching team composed of Professors Derek van Bever, John P. Brown, Howard Koh, Nien-hê Hsieh, Laura Tuach, and Arthur Segel. A special thanks to Christopher Diak, the maestro that made all this possible. 

The spiritual journey is personal and of individual discovery—I welcome you to question your own assumptions and live life with intent. My eyes are now wide open. I can certainly say my spiritual life has begun.


Daniel Tong (MBA ’23) is originally from Brazil and graduated from the University of São Paulo in 2015. Prior to HBS, he worked in a Brazilian energy & infrastructure conglomerate, helping tackle climate change in his country. He spends most of his time with family, friends, and playing tennis.

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