Bill: I never expected a book about Trappist monks to resonate so highly with me. First, I had never heard of or purchased anything from a business run by Trappist monks to my best knowledge. And if they are so successful, shouldn’t I have already heard about their great reputation?
Well, it turns out that Trappist monks don’t need to do a lot of advertising and promotion. For the past 1,500 years, they have been quietly, diligently and persistently living their values in service to others by producing products for markets in areas around the world where their products, quality, and service are legendary to those they serve.
In Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity, August Turak shares how what he learned from working with the Trappist Monks translated into business success for him in the secular world. It’s a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach that makes all the difference.
I’m finding it fascinating that this qualitative approach employed by the Trappist monks and by August Turak are also reinforcing and validating the message that I am learning from the interviews at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success and Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces.
As August so eloquently states:
“If we are to create superior organizations capable of overcoming the myriad problems we face today, then we must tap into the massive amount of human potential that lies dormant in most of our enterprises. And to awaken and harness this potential, we must first understand what people really want from life generally and from the workplace in particular.”
In this interview, we’ll learn how August Turak answers the questions that I ask everyone in this forum.
Welcome, August Turak.
What is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked well for you or your clients?
August: I relentlessly ask the question, “Who am I?” I think it’s the most important question that you can ask. It takes you to your true motivations about why you want to be in business, why you want to be a leader.
People ask me all the time, “How can I become a leader?” And I write about that for Forbes, but nobody ever seems to ask, “Why do I want to be a leader in the first place? Who am I?”
You can’t answer the question “Who am I?” without comparing yourself to other people. This question makes you better at understanding human nature, which is essential in business.
In Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, I argue that the monks’ obsession with “Who am I?” spills over into collectively asking, “Who are we?” As Louis Mobley, my mentor and the founder of the IBM Executive School, pointed out, the most important question a leader answers for any organization is, “What is the business of the business? What business are we in? Who are we? What do we stand for? What are our principles? What differentiates us from other people?”
I often argue that “psychology determines philosophy.” The more you find out who you are, the more aware you become of the biases that color your business decisions.
I’m curious, August. “Who am I?” is a deep question. When you ask that, do you meditate with the question, or do you wait for answers to show up? How do the answers come to you?
August: The answers come in many ways. I’m always replaying in my mind situations and scenarios that have happened. I started replaying scenarios while studying Zen. I continued replaying scenarios when I started going over sales calls: “Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say that? Why did he react that way to me? Why did I think I was making great points, when all of a sudden my prospect said, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is working out’?”
My questioning process has become automatic. When somebody orders the beef and I order the fish, I wonder: “Why did he do that? Why didn’t I order the beef? Why didn’t he order the fish?” So studying has become something I constantly do.
That’s a fascinating place to take that question. I wasn’t expecting it.
Bill: There’s a quote from your book that resonated with me because it mirrors my own story. The quote is: “The monastic mission offers an opportunity for a permanent transformative experience, a radical ‘change of heart’ that lifts us out of ourselves and our petty concerns through a teleocratic management model that I am calling service and selflessness.”
How does someone in an organization lead employees, stakeholders, or even customers on a change of heart?
August: This gets back to “Who am I?” Because the most important thing is: Are you authentic? Are you taking the trip yourself?
In the monastic tradition and the Christian tradition, they have this idea of “witnessing.” In business, we say that the leader should go first. The leader should lead from the front. You have to model the values and attitudes if you want to transmit them.
I can’t tell you how many times people would come into my office and say, “I can’t believe the books you have on your shelf!” There were books about the transformation of being, spirituality, and philosophy — the books that helped me answer the question, “Who am I?”
My business partners and I started our business with values. We didn’t start with a business plan. My partner said, “We’re smart guys. We’ll figure out something to do.” We didn’t know what we were going to do, but we knew who we were going to BE.
Bill: That’s a great story, August. I love how you started with questions, followed by your intention to live those values. That’s how this interview series started. One basic question opened a pathway to many more questions.
August: The first thing we did was to write down our values. Our real reason for starting a business in the first place was because we wanted to have a real-life incubator that would help us on our transformational journey. I’m not saying everybody needs to start a business that way, but I am saying that success starts by bringing values up all the time and focusing on them. Teach people in your organization that when they can decide either selfishly or selflessly, make the selfless decision. It’s that simple.
Bill: Last summer, during a business trip, I had an urge to fly over a volcano. During that flight, my partner and I faced one moment of truth after another. It turned out to be a transformative flight for me. When I came back, I had a knowledge and deep desire to speak out fearlessly about expressing truth in organizations, which resulted in several blog posts and a manifesto. I’m interested in hearing your opinion.
If everyone spoke their truth, do you feel that would bring about an inner transformation of being?
August: Yes, absolutely! My book is built on the notion that every human life’s purpose is to be transformed from a selfish to a selfless person. Most people jump to the conclusion that the only way this happens is through humanitarianism, but I also think that when a monk loves God just for the sake of loving God, he is acting selflessly. And when a scientist loves knowledge for the sake of knowledge, when an artist loves art for the sake of art, when a scientist loves truth for the sake of truth, these are all selfless things, as well.
I notice in myself that telling the truth has become especially important. I don’t know when it began or how, but it has become increasingly hard for me to lie to people in this evolutionary process.
I just had somebody ask me to recommend their book. I read the book. I didn’t like it. The easy way out would’ve been to just write the blurb anyway, but I had to tell the truth.
But again, you have to know yourself because telling the first girl you meet on the street who’s overweight that she’s fat may be the literal truth, but that’s not the moral truth. A lot of times, I find people are just too lazy to control themselves. The truth is they should develop patience with other people and the self-control that they need to become tactful people. That’s the truth. But they think the truth is just to tell everybody off. Then they end up alone, telling everybody who will listen to them that the world didn’t understand them because they were the real deal and we’re talking truth to power; nobody wanted to listen to them, and that’s why they failed.
So it becomes an ego trip.
That was one of the themes on that House, M.D. a TV show. House was always rudely blunt with everybody. People began to point out to him that this was a strategy for keeping people away from him. He was using his position as a brilliant physician to say anything he wanted because he knew he was not going to get fired. But he was also using this to keep people at a distance emotionally. Although the things he said to people may have been literally true, he was not operating from a truth position. Does that make sense?
Bill: Yes, it certainly does.
August: So, to me, the question becomes, “Who am I?” What are your real motivations? Many people spend their lives compromising.
One day I asked my Zen teacher what the most important thing he did on his spiritual path was, and he said, “It wasn’t what I did. It was what I didn’t do,” and walked away. I told that story at the beginning of one of my chapters. At the end of the chapter, I said, “I think after all these years working on Zen, it finally hit me: He didn’t do what everybody else does. He never sold out.”
I remember respecting tremendously a guy I met when I was in graduate school studying theology a few years ago. At first, I underestimated him because he just seemed like this happy-go-lucky middle-aged guy studying theology. Then I found out he was building a shack in the woods behind a local house. The owner permitted him to build it so he could live there alone.
We started hanging out together, so I asked him about his plans. He said that he used to work as an investment banker, and when his wife died young at 42, it just devastated him. He said that he finally decided to quit his job and go to St. John’s to study theology and live in a shack.
I said to him, “Sandy, are you telling me that you just walked into your boss’s office and quit?”
He looked at me, grinning, and said, “No, no, no.” He said it was more like: “I walked into his office and I said, ‘Listen, you @$!#@$&! you can take this @$!#@$&! job and you can you can shove this @$!#@$&! job!’” He said, “I told him all the things I’d wanted to tell him for ten years about the crappy way he ran the company.”
My friend got tired of “selling out.” This story changed my opinion of him and we became close friends.
Bill: In my line of work, I encounter many people who would love to say that!
Here’s my next question, August. You talk about a “change of heart that lifts us out of ourselves and our petty concerns.” When I reflect on my own story that begins with the 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success interviews, I realize it has led me to undergo a similar “change of heart.” It’s been a quest to solve an issue that is much bigger than me. I’ve also come to realize that it started to impact me in many other ways. It has catalyzed a way for me to connect with people authentically through the heart. It’s a place where we respond based on what we’re feeling, not thinking.
Whenever I speak from this place I’ll call the heart, even though I feel vulnerable and don’t know what the other person’s reaction will be, I always seem to say the perfect thing for that other person and perhaps even what I personally need to hear.
How do you relate “change of heart” with a transformation of being?
August: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not a choice; it’s a habit. Even Hamlet said to his mother, “Mother, if you just start behaving virtuously, even if you don’t feel it now, eventually you’ll feel it, and eventually you’ll have a change of heart.” What’s critical is behavior, and even if behaving selflessly feels a little bit awkward, keep at it.
I like what some companies are doing today. They invite their employees to work on charitable activities. At McDonald’s, every executive must spend two weeks a year behind the counter flipping burgers.
Always remember: It’s not so important what you think or what you say, or even what you feel. What is important is what you do. An authentic change of heart is brought about by action.
As a leader or an organization, you must give people more opportunities to eventually have the “aha” experience. I had an “aha” experience today. Bill, a friend from when I was studying theology at St. John’s, contacted me recently. I haven’t seen Bill since we left school in 2002, but we’ve stayed in touch. Yesterday, he sent me an email. He’s now a librarian at the University of Chicago, and he said, “Augie, I looked it up: Your book is now in almost 200 libraries.” He gave me some other statistics, and he said, “And by the way, it’s also in the National Library of Great Britain and the National Library of France. Very impressive! Well done!”
I was reading this email from Bill, and suddenly I had this “aha” experience. I thought, “What’s far more important to me is that I somehow made a friend like him: a friend I haven’t seen in over ten years who would do all that research for me without being asked.” I had a moving experience, threw a little bit of acceptance my own way, and said, “Augie, you must be doing something right to have a friend like that.” Hopefully, he considers me the same kind of friend.
But that even goes back one step further because both of us have put a lot of energy and effort into keeping a 12-year relationship going, without even seeing each other. He’s gotten married since and has kids now, yet we still keep the relationship going. There’s no substitute for this. It’s the effort that it takes to keep the friendship going. And then, one day, lo and behold, and when you least expect it, you have the “aha” experience that suddenly lets you know that this friendship — and friendship generally — means more than having your book in every library in the world.
Bill: That’s a wonderful experience, August.
August: The more love you feel, the more you broadcast it. Then, lo and behold, love suddenly comes back to you in a business way that you couldn’t have possibly expected.
But, all too often, we get our priorities wrong. Little by little, we become like the real estate agent who religiously goes to church with his family every Sunday because he wants everybody to think he’s a God-fearing, family-oriented man because it’s good for business. Financial success is the by-product of living the right kind of life, not the other way around.
August: Think of it this way: If you start making friends because friends are good for business, you don’t make many great friends. You end up being considered a glad-hander. “Howdy, howdy, howdy,” you know. As long as I’m useful to you, you’re right there beside me, but if I lose my job, you’re gone.
So your heart has to be in the right place. And until your heart is in the right place, you have to act as if it is. Because, yes, the first thing you get is a change of mind, not a change of heart. My book can’t change people’s hearts just by reading it, but it can give people an intellectual way of changing their perspective on life, and some may want to put it into action.
I’ll be frank here: I’ve always been a gregarious kind of person. But when I look back at the kind of person I was when I was young — ambitious and super-competitive — I don’t like what I see! I’m thankful that I’ve come a long way with the help of people like the monks of Mepkin Abbey!
Bill: I’ve thought about that often. You have genuine people and act from the heart, and then you seem to have others who don’t. It’s really hopeful to hear we can create a change of heart by changing our behavior.
August: Absolutely! In the introduction to my book, I say, “The key thing is you must be sincere, or you must have a sincere desire to become more sincere in every aspect of your life.” You know, we’re not born sincere. We’re not born selfless. We’re not born with a change of heart. If you say, “Well, unless I already have it, I guess I’ll never have it, and I might as well be a selfish you-know-what.” No, no, no. You chip away at it. You work at it. You do things on faith. You go and do charity events, even if you don’t want to or you don’t feel like it. Then, suddenly, something happens. You start to see that there’s something to this stuff.
There’s a great movie from the 1940s called Magnificent Obsession. It’s a story starring Rock Hudson. He’s a playboy, and he almost dies because he’s drunk and driving his car too fast. He’s saved by a piece of equipment that a doctor rushes to him: a piece of equipment that the doctor uses to keep his own heart going, and the doctor dies because of saving Rock Hudson’s life. And, little by little, Rock Hudson finds out that the doctor knew he was risking his life. The doctor was part of this underground secret society called the Magnificent Obsession. And the idea was that if you give and give and give, anonymously and without expecting anything in return, magical things happen. That’s the whole theme of the movie. It’s a wonderful movie, a classic, but it takes faith to act on something like that.
Bill: It does, yes. I haven’t seen that movie. I’ll have to look for it!
August: As I mention in my book, the allure of so many movies like the Magnificent Obsession lies in our desire to see people being transformed. We watch mesmerized as Rock Hudson is transformed from a no-good and selfish you-know-what into a wonderful human being. That’s what these movies are all about. As I argue (I hope persuasively) in my book, we line up and go to see movie after movie after movie where, in the beginning, the person is a no-good you-know-what. In the end, this person becomes a loving person, which shows us that this is what we all want in our own lives.
Bill: Yes. That theme never grows old, does it? Thank goodness!
August: It’s the same, same theme. But unfortunately, in most of our cases, we never experience it more than vicariously. We get an emotional rush by watching somebody else go through it, but we never say, “Listen, I have to get motivated! I have to quit watching others be transformed and take the trip!”
Bill: I agree, August. We are all longing for this transformation, and I feel we have to discover how to do it in our own way, in our own time. I feel there are many paths. But until we start to look inside, the transformation will be fleeting and incomplete.
August, thank you so much for joining me on this interview. You shared many wonderful ideas here that contribute to a message that has been evolving for me personally and in this forum, as well. You have a powerful message, and I’m so grateful that you shared your time and yourself fully and authentically with us.
August Turak – www.augustturak.com
August Turak is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, and award-winning author who attributes much of his success to living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey for 17 years. As a frequent monastic guest, he learned firsthand from the monks as they grew an incredibly successful business portfolio.
Drawing on his experience as the protégé of the man who founded the IBM Executive School, as well as 17 years working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey and over 30 years of business experience, Turak offers the power to transform your business and your life in his book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity published by Columbia Business School Publishing. Order now through Columbia Business School Publishing.
A Note of Special Thanks
I also want to thank the two amazing people who contributed to this interview. Lana DeSimone, Consultant to Luxury Clients and Corporations, contributed her sharp strategic skills in creating the questions I asked in this interview and relating my work to this interview. And Sue Elliott, Editor-in-Chief of Law of Attraction Magazine and Executive Transformation Coach, contributed her superb inquiry and editing skills. I truly appreciate it, and I am grateful for their contributions.
(This interview was originally published in 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success by Bill Fox.)
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