An Interview with Paul Lambert: Understanding the Importance of Religious Literacy

An Interview with Paul Lambert: Understanding the Importance of Religious Literacy

Fletcher Forum: What, according to you, does religious literacy entail in the context of business?

Paul Lambert: In the context of business, religious literacy is familiarity with, and understanding of, religious influences on people. At the core, business is all about people: it is people who are making your product and it is people you’re bringing these products to in the market place. If you want to be successful in creating your product and running a business, you need to understand the primary things that influence people. Religious literacy is about understanding those influences. You don’t have to be a scholar of religious studies to be religiously literate. But you do need to make an effort to understand.

FF: How important is religious literacy for businesses? Why so?

PL: I’d say a lot! In today’s globalizing world, you have to understand that religion is becoming more important, not less important. The data that organizations like Pew Research have put out suggests that while the world is globalizing, the secularization isn’t happening as predicted in the secularization theory. Religion is not losing its place as an influence on people. It is quite the opposite. For example,  look at the 10 fastest growing economies in 2017 according to the World Economic Forum. Every one of those ten is a religious majority country. This suggests to me that if you want to be successful, to retain talent on one hand and be able to sell effectively to the clientele on the other, you have to understand religious influence on your stakeholders and inculcate religious literacy.

FF: Do you think business schools are introducing interdisciplinary studies to make students aware of different cultural and religious contexts and sensitizing them towards those issues?

PL: They should. While I don’t think everyone needs to go get a Master’s or a Doctorate degree in religion, I definitely support the idea of including it in an MBA, or a program like the MALD. Addressing it in those contexts is critical, because all these programs are interdisciplinary. A successful business cannot exist by only understanding strictly business topics like finance, accounting, and leadership. You cannot do those things in a vacuum in today’s globalized business world.

FF: Do you see that happening as of today?

PL: A little bit, but not nearly enough!

FF: If you could reflect on your experiences at the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute where you are a Research and Development Consultant, how would you say the development and design of religious literacy education programs has changed over the years?

PL: Religious literacy and diversity has been part of the course of study much more degree programs such as the MALD, or those of other international relations schools. That’s been going on for a while. If you take a closer look at the US Department of State, you’ll notice that there is finally an increased awareness of religion in diplomacy. Go back some years ago and look at Kissinger’s book, Diplomacy: a 900 page book from a true heavyweight in foreign relations, yet religion is never addressed. I think they have overcome that and realized that it is something they must talk about given the world we live in today. It is not so much present in the business world, however. For example, you referenced my work at the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center. Our attempt there is to do exactly what you are asking about: to bring religious literacy into the business world. We’re trying to adopt an empirical approach to study the role of religious diversity and freedom and how that impacts business and economics. We have created courses around this, showing how religious diversity, freedom, and literacy have significant impacts on business and economic growth.

FF: You direct programs Leadership, Strategy and Change Management. What would you say is the difference between being a leader at an international organization versus being one in a business organization?

PL: In many ways, leadership is not that different in either case. I think an effective leader in either of those contexts is aware of influences on people and values empathy, understanding and contextual awareness. Having said that, I’d add that this awareness may be slightly more obvious in an international organization like the UN or the World Bank, because it is critical to know that in order to work effectively. But, there is no denying that such awareness is also critical in businesses. Understanding the influences on people you work with, why they think what they think, and why they come to conclusions they do, is critical for a leadership in both areas.

FF: You spoke of globalization and we see that in today’s context, organizations are becoming highly multicultural. This could be both an advantage and a challenge. What approaches could a leader adapt to address the challenges and leverage the advantages?

PL: As far as the challenges go to multiculturalism, many would say that it is challenging to adapt. But it is adaptation or failure. There are plenty of case studies out there, business or otherwise, that reiterate that if you don’t adapt, you will fail. In terms of advantages, you can look at study after study that demonstrates that diversity in business leads to very positive outcomes. Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome is innovation. A study commissioned by the European Union looked at the levels of diversity within societies in Europe and found that those that have higher levels of diversity, including religious diversity, had a much higher level of innovation in the business sector. So the advantages, I think, significantly outweigh the challenges.

FF: Do you think business organizations are doing enough to inculcate a sense of cross-cultural sensitivity?

PL: We have started to have conversations, but there is a lot further we need to go before we are where we need to be.

FF: What skills do you think, we as Fletcher students must inculcate to be effective leaders in the 21st century? What is one thing you wish someone had told you as you were about to start your career in international affairs?

PL: Being interdisciplinary is a really important skill to have. For instance, while I haven’t been in the field of “development” in my career, having an understanding of from taking advantage of a class I took in development here at Fletcher has been hugely helpful to me. Nothing is done in a vacuum, especially when your work is international. Everything is interdisciplinary. Along those same lines were my interactions with my peers - really trying hard to understand their perspectives and learning from them. I learned so much from my peers, and that experience instilled in me a desire to learn in an interdisciplinary way. As much as I can, I try and read articles or books that are pertinent to something I am interested in but not directly related to my career field. Often when I do this, I find myself turning to my wife to say “look at this, this is so interesting, the argument that they are making here. I totally disagree with it, but it is so interesting.” That’s what school is all about. It’s a real tragedy if a student is in a place like Fletcher and doesn’t take full advantage of all it has to offer, from students to the classes to the alumni.

Another answer that is common, but common for good reason, is being a part of something that is bigger than you. That can be a number of different things: a social cause, a religious belief, dedication to a country, or a number of other things. Committing yourself to something larger than yourself will guide you in a way that keeps you grounded, honest, and progressing.

About the Interviewee


Paul Lambert is responsible for developing and implementing Georgetown McDonough’s custom programs centering on global leadership and operations, strategy, and change management for U.S. and international organizations. Prior to arriving at Georgetown, Lambert was an assistant professor and academic officer at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. In this capacity, he served as a daily representative of the United States to defense and foreign affairs leaders from more than 75 nations enrolled at the university in programs focused on leadership and strategy. Lambert also directed the university's American Studies Program, which educates foreign leaders on American policy, government, and global partnerships.

Lambert received his master's degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor's degree in American studies from Brigham Young University. He also is a graduate of the Seminar XXI Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies.

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