John E. Fetzer: Spirituality at Work


I live in a community, though relatively small, that has attracted and supported many interesting leaders throughout time. I’ve written previously about Derek Jeter and Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, both of whom lived in Kalamazoo and made their mark on the world. This post highlights John E. Fetzer, an early media mogul and philanthropist whose interest in “the sacred” lives long after his death. Mr.Fetzer left a legacy in the form of The Fetzer Institute, an organization that is helping us to embrace some of the wonderful  parts of our lives that we rarely speak about  (love, compassion and forgiveness) and that can foster great healing in the world.

John E. Fetzer was a person who accepted his humanity, including the spiritual side. Although I never had the privilege to meet him, I feel connected to him through his curiosity about spirituality and the legacy he left following his death; The Fetzer Institute is a prominent non profit in our community, and it’s headquarters is just down the road from my home.

The public side

What most knew of Mr.Fetzer was the public, professional side. A savvy businessman, he started the first radio station in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1930’s. From that humble beginning, he went on to build a media empire called the Fetzer Broadcasting Company. He fought for innovations in radio all the way to the Supreme Court. During World War II, as the appointed national radio censor for the U.S. government, he created an office of 15,000 people to work with 900 radio stations to voluntarily refrain from broadcasting any information that might be advantageous to the enemy; he shut the office down after the war due to concerns that government censorship might continue.

Mr. Fetzer was probably best known for his ownership of the Detroit Tigers between 1961 and 1983 (dare I say that the team has felt his absence since then?)

The private side becomes public

It is said that in his private life, he had a deep curiosity about the “unseen elements” of life and pondered how to intertwine the spiritual and the worldly. Not many people knew that he was a Transcendental Meditator (as my husband and I are). He died a very wealthy man in 1991. The bulk of his wealth was used to start The Fetzer Institute whose stated mission is “To foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community”.

John Fetzer embraced his spirituality; it wasn’t a separate part of him. He was a leader who was ahead of his time. He accepted that his “whole being” included the soul. He was willing to fund an organization that is doing great work to help the world see that despite our divisions, we are fundamentally human; and that being human includes living in communities and working in workplaces where we accept that love, compassion and forgiveness are what connect us.

Leaders must all accept that spirituality is a part of what we bring to work. Work with true meaning is work that goes beyond our “doing” – it means that we are “being” everything we bring into the workplace; body, mind and soul.

We, and our institutions must embrace, as John Fetzer did, that allowing (and fostering)  the “wholeness” of the human experience to work can only enhance the bottom line. Making money and fostering the human soul at work and in our communities are not separate; in fact, they work together to make work an extraordinary experience as well as a foundation for success.

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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.


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