You might wonder if the religious heart surfaces in the midst of the World Economic Forum—a meeting of the world’s most wealthy and powerful people (is that redundant?). As a representative of Special Olympics, I was invited to the Forum’s annual meeting to be a part of the discussions about how together we can “improve the state of the world.” So I get to line up for coffee with Bill Gates and Queen Rania; get to go to parties with George Soros and the Google guys; get to have discussions with the next President of South Africa and the first Lady of the United Kingdom. They’re really all there.
But most observers don’t think the attendees at Davos really want to do anything other than make more money. One cynic put it bluntly: “The people who come to Davos spend 51 weeks of the year screwing the world, and one week talking about fixing the mess they’ve made.” One might conclude that the divine spirit isn’t what’s foremost on the minds of the fortune-laden in the Swiss mountains during the Forum.
That view is too narrow.
There’s a ton of spiritual hunger in Davos. Granted, those with power are often the most blind to their own spiritual needs, because they’re the most likely to think they can get along without God. But at the same time, because their lives are so filled with distraction and so hell bent (pun intended) on success, they often have the least amount of spiritual satisfaction and therefore the most spiritual hunger. The founder of the Forum, Klaus Schwab, realized this when he created a meeting unlike other business meetings—one dedicated not only to advancing business but also to advancing the idea that successful business leaders are people with spirit.
Call me naïve, but I saw spiritual hunger all over the place in Davos.
I saw it among scientists and corporations working together to fight Malaria—rushing to get new treatments out of their labs and into the hands of mothers holding febrile children.
I saw it when Queen Rania spoke of the value of educating girls in the Arab world—of their need, their potential, their blossoming when given the chance.
I saw it in Mel Young, the founder of the Homeless World Cup, who spoke of how humanity’s losers—the homeless—recover their dignity, break their addictions, and get jobs just by being offered the chance to play, to train and to compete in sport.
I saw it in Coke’s COO Muhtar Kent who spoke of Coke’s commitment to clean water, to reduced carbon usage, and to great causes (like Special Olympics!).
I saw it in George Soros’ commitment to expanding his philanthropy to Africa and the developing world—philanthropy that doesn’t give services away but rather looks to empower citizens to become advocates for themselves, their families, their futures.
And I saw in in Muhammad Yunus’ beautiful stories of lending to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh. At one point early in the history of the Grameen Bank, his colleagues were encountering more and more women who simply didn’t want to borrow. “Talk to our husbands,” they would say, “because we don’t know anything about money.”
Yunus understood that resistance should be expected when tapping into the awesome power of the spirit. He told his staff: “When the women say they can’t understand money or create any business of value, that is history talking, not their spirits. We must resist the tyranny of an oppressive history and help them find their power, their spirits.”
The rest of Yunus’ story is now well known. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for relentlessly believing in the value of even the poorest of the poor, of even women. He did it largely by believing that the patterns of history should not dictate the possibilities of the future.
It’s true that these leaders are not necessarily front page news in Davos. Virtually every news story I read about this year’s World Economic Forum focused on fears of recession. And indeed, those fears were the big story. Between the greed induced collapse of credit markets (many of those responsible were at last year’s meeting) and the free fall of the stock market, people were thinking about their wallets.
But the most attended sessions in Davos are always on how to reduce stress, how to find purpose, how to make a difference. One corporate CEO discussing social engagement put in the form of a plea: “The people in my company are parents, are citizens, are good people.” Put differently, they’re spiritually hungry just like the rest of us! Just because they believe in profit, in efficiency, and in competition, doesn’t’ mean they aren’t in the same search as everyone else. Just like the people in the pews on Sunday, they’re hungry for the divine too.
The challenge of the globalized world is to create new patterns of harmony between business goals and spiritual hunger. Yes, the temptations of greed and indifference will persist in business, just as the temptation toward inefficiency and arrogance often exists among social and religious leaders. But both sectors need to escape the oppressive dichotomies of history and find new common ground.
In my view, that’s the hope that Davos represents, however jaded many observers might be. It’s a hope that many will resist, just like the women who resisted Yunus’ invitation to empowerment. But when I hear the resistance, I’m going to remind myself of Yunus’ reminder: “That’s just history talking.”
I’m hoping that next year’s Forum will include a prayer service led by religious leaders of every tradition—right in the middle of the Forum hall, not down the street in a place of worship. And I’m also hoping to bring some special guests: Special Olympics athletes, homeless champions, destitute women. When they tell their stories, I’m guessing their session will be the best attended of all. They’ll remind everyone there that we are all children of the divine, all powerful beyond description, all overflowing with potential for goodness and love. That’s a lesson every leader is hungry to hear.
There is no reason why making a living and making a life should be different tasks. And there’s no reason why the World Economic Forum—like our daily lives– can’t be about both.
Timothy P. Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics, Inc. In that capacity, he serves 2.5 million Special Olympics athletes and their families in more than 160 countries. He’s also a TV and film producer. His credits include co-producing “Amistad” and “The Loretta Claiborne Story.”