Over recent years there seems to have been a growing awareness and interest in the spiritual aspects of leadership. And this interest is not just limited to religious and benevolent organizations. It’s also appearing in corporate and business sectors.
It seems to me that the beginnings of such interest may have been seeded in the 1970 publication of an essay by management consultant Robert Greenleaf entitled, The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf proposed leaders, including business leaders, should focus on being a servant first. He claimed the following criteria for effective leadership: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servant?”
In fact, Greenleaf’s emphasis strongly echoes the teaching of many recognised spiritual and religious leaders down through the ages. For example, Jesus said to his disciples just prior to his arrest and subsequent crucifixion: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:25-26)
While the concept of leadership spirituality may not seem strange for religious organizations, how does it apply in the contemporary, secular, business world where traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and worship appear quite inappropriate?
To open this up I’ll share a couple of quotes from secular sources:
- “Spiritual leadership is concerned with moral, transformational and ethical leadership and it defends integrity, goodness, honesty, teamwork, knowing, congruency, wholeness and interconnectedness.” (online research paper, “The effect of spiritual leadership on organizational learning capacity”, B. Aydin and A. Ceylan, quoting Dent et al., 2005)
- “The essential elements of spirituality include: i) Transcendence of self which usually manifest in a sense of calling or destiny, and ii) belief that one’s activities have meaning and value beyond economic benefits or self-gratification.” (online Abstract ‘Spiritual Leadership in the workplace: Perspectives and theories, Yishuang Meng)
From both these insights we can infer that spiritual leadership in the workplace is not about dogma or religious practices (although some businesses may decide to provide spaces where employees can meditate and pray). Spiritual leadership is the kind of leadership that helps people discover and experience a sense of meaning and vocation in their roles. Ultimately all leadership is about creating a culture (either positive or negative!). Spiritual leadership is concerned with the creation of a culture that honours the transcultural values of respect, goodness, fairness, care and integrity whereby employees feel safe and experience growth and meaning in their work as they make a genuine contribution to not only their organization but also the lives of others.
Putting It Together
Several years ago when my colleague and I were the two state chaplains for UnitingCare Community Queensland, we developed an understanding of spirituality in the secular workplace as facilitating the spiritual quest that humans share by addressing these three existential questions:
- Whose Am I? – The search for connectedness and communion
How can I connect to the transcendent that provides the ‘ground of my being (Paul Tillich)’? Traditionally, for societies in the Western and Arab worlds the answer has been sought through the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (For myself, as a follower of Jesus, mine has been grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.) In Asia, via such Eastern religions and philosophies as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – some of which are more philosophies than religions while others are pantheistic and/or polytheistic in nature. But spirituality is not the same as, or limited to, religion or philosophy. For example, the First Nations people of Australia traditionally find their sense of spiritual connectedness and communion with the natural environment. Earth is their Mother.
2. Who Am I? – The search for identity and integrity
What are the beliefs and values that shape how I want to live? And from where can I find the power to live them out with integrity and grace?
3. Why Am I? – The search for meaning and fulfilment
What is my life’s mission? What are the passions (consistent with my beliefs and values) that drive me, and what is the vision of a preferred future that draws me forward?
Every leader who has a genuine concern and care for their people brings a spiritual dimension to their role. If you’re such a leader (or aspire to be one) I invite you to reflect on the three above questions: Whose am I? Who am I? and Why am I? Take plenty of time to do so. Reflect deeply on your life and your leadership at work and in your personal world. (Remember, leadership is about influencing others, so in some sense we are all leaders whether or not we carry that title.)
So spend quality time meditating on those questions and write down your insights. Whether or not you see yourself as a religious person or a person of faith, maybe consider asking God (or if you prefer, the Unknown Source of All) to guide you. I’m sure you will be blessed in the journey!