The shift towards spiritual leadership
What many leaders decry as “declining loyalty” may be subtle rejections of status and power. Relationships that people perceive as inhibiting their growth and development as humans. Ignoring vital, spiritual aspects of their lives, or, even more seriously, subjecting them to values they do not necessarily espouse. Increasingly, people seem to be awakening to the inherent possibilities within them. They are crying out for spiritual leadership.
They are becoming aware of their ability to serve humanity and the Planet. To bring benefits the world would never have known.
Increasingly, people seem eager for experiences and relationships. This includes followship that enables them to live out their possibilities. Even if ostensibly in some cases, more people than ever before seem to identify with transcending values and virtues that, alone, can rescue our beleaguered Planet and bring about the much-desired sustainable global future. These, in part, explain the emerging and gradually spreading concept and practice of spiritual leadership.
The leadership journey
Yesterday, it was “Leadership.” Today, it is “Creative Leadership.” Tomorrow, it’s shaping up to be “Spiritual Leadership.” A bridge too far? Not really. The transition might seem slow, but the trend is discernible; and, from all indications, seems irreversible – as of human destiny. When is the last time you heard one of those wonted, toe-the-line clichés of effective leadership?:
- This way, or the wrong way!
- The buck stops here!
- Order is an order!
- The boss knows best!
- Authority cannot be divided!
Whatever happened to those once hallowed dogmas?
The remainder of this article sketches the ever-evolving leadership patterns. From the fist-pounding, commend-and-control, alpha dogs of the recent past. To the creativity-conscious, innovation-driven mavericks of today. Then too, quite possibly, the diffuse moral exemplars of tomorrow.
Long term leadership
“There is a time for the use of power and control to assure safety and survival, but that strategy has reached the limit of its usefulness in contemporary organizations. Today’s challenges require a new level of organizational capability. The long-term productivity of organizations and the sustainability of the human population they serve depend on our ability to enlarge the circle of concern and “collectively” learn our way through today’s constraints.”
— Barbara B. Lawton
Historical evidence indicates a near-universal tendency to divide humanity into the “wise” and the “ignorant, “Leaders” and “followers.” Across time and cultures, the wise have been perceived as possessing superior intelligence, knowledge, and reasoning. These qualities that, presumably, distinguish and predispose them to lead others toward what they (the wise) regard as desirable ends.
Recorded history traces this (wise-ignorant) division of humanity at least as far back as an ancient Greek civilization. Socrates, for example, described the wise as “Philosopher Kings.” His successor, Plato, posited that “the wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow.”
According to Plato, the only hope of resolving the human predicament was for true lovers of wisdom to assume political office; or for those who rule to become lovers of wisdom. Aristotle, another venerated Greek philosopher, argued that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
We are all pilgrims
Contemporary versions of the principle of unequal distribution of leadership abilities are not difficult to find. A line in a popular novel compares the human experience to a journey on which the strong shall lead the weak, and the most endowed shall guide the less gifted. It reads: “We are all pilgrims on the same journey – but some pilgrims have better road maps.”
Many modern descriptions of leadership still reflect assumptions of extraordinary ability. Examples are “born leader,” “natural ruler,” “designated leader,” “great man/woman,” “the cream of society,” “high and mighty,” “gifted and talented,” “the best and brightest,” and more.
Assumptions of extraordinary ability are also evident in the allocation of social responsibilities, as well as in the distribution of power and privileges. Because of their presumed superior knowledge, longer vision, or a better sense of direction, leaders in many cultures tend to be looked upon to set directions; assign tasks; make key decisions; energize other members of the society, group, or organization. They are seen to enforce compliance; evaluate performance; reward loyalty, and punish disloyalty.
Followers, because of their presumed inferior endowment, tend to be regarded as ignorant and, therefore, to be led; powerless. Therefore leaving space to be “empowered”. They are seen to be lacking vision and, therefore need to be guided. They are presumed unable to manage themselves and, therefore, to be “governed.”
There are even suggestions that subordinates cannot be trusted to do the right things and, therefore, have to be controlled; that they do not always know what is best for them and, therefore, need their leaders to decide for them.
The Leadership Crisis
By all accounts, the world has had many great leaders. The names come from practically every culture and every field of human endeavour. Many of the advances in civilization and the spectacular progress that the human race has made have been inspired, at least in part, by the visions and dedication of these great men and women.
Ironically, at a time when many groups, organizations, communities, and even national societies are pining for strong and effective leadership, many incumbent leaders are complaining of declining loyalty. Warren Bennis, a foremost leadership scholar, pointedly asks: “Why can’t leaders lead?” “Why are people unwilling to follow?” A cursory review of the leadership literature identifies several possible reasons why leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to lead; and why people seem reluctant to follow.
Barriers to leadership
- “The Alpha Dog Syndrome”: One or a few members of a group or organization become the messiah to whom others are expected to defer.
- “One-Man-Show”: Authoritarianism and, resultantly, inadequate opportunities for other members of a group, organization, or society to reveal and express their capabilities, including “leadership.”
- The “Great Person” Notion of Leadership: The practice of giving the leader all of the credit for a group’s success, thereby denying or minimizing the contributions of other members.
- Lack of Unifying Vision: No transcending ideas or ideals toward which people can focus their energies and actions – higher (moral) purposes that people perceive as reflecting or promoting the values they deeply believe in or regard as worthy of their commitment.
- “Credibility Gap”: Discrepancies between what leaders are expected to do and what they do; inconsistencies between what leaders say they are doing and what they are perceived to be doing.
- Insufficient Opportunity for Personal Growth and Development: Tendency by some leaders to seek to think for the people; to create a vision and then invite others to work to achieve that vision; to decide what has to be done and also plan how to do it.
- Growing Demand for Personal and Group Identity: The increasing rejection of experiences (leadership or otherwise) that people perceive as devaluing them as human beings, or as making inadequate use of their capabilities.
Modern-day leadership crisis
The phenomenon whereby leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to lead, and people seem increasingly reluctant to follow – has spurred a bewildering array of “leadership development” programs. These programs include training, coaching, consulting, mentoring, internships, and more. These are in addition to a spate of material rewards intended to induce loyalty and increasingly severe forms of punishment designed to deter recalcitrance and disloyalty.
Ironically, disenchantment with leadership seems to be growing. This is so, despite the barrage of leadership development programs; despite increasingly tantalizing incentives for loyalty; and even with today’s heavy-handed crack-downs on dissidents. This irony has sparked serious rethinking of the leadership crisis, resulting in some tentative conclusions. Two of those conclusions:
1. Developing potential
First, the modern-day leadership crisis is not likely to be resolved by conventional “carrot-and-stick” approaches, but by goals that people perceive as bringing out the best in them and enhancing them as persons of worth. Harold Kushner aptly summarizes people’s frustration with potential-inhibiting leadership, as well as their desire for meaningful and effective participation in the conduct of affairs. Kushner’s words:
“It is frustrating to know that you can do something and not be called on to do it, or to believe that you can do it and never have the chance to find out”.
2. Encouraging creativity
Second and relatedly, an essential part of the solution to modern-day leadership crisis is social-economic-political-business structures and relationships that people perceive as recognizing, harnessing, and engaging their innate creative abilities.
These, it seems, may have inspired the increasingly popular idea of creative leadership.
“The greatest challenge of our time is to create a culture that promotes learning in the face of intense pressure to keep on doing things the same old way.”
— Dorothy Lagerroos
Creative Leadership, as the term is used in this article, is the ability of the person(s) at the head of a group or an organization to inspire other members of the group or organization to search for new ways to reach collective or corporate goals. The Center for Creative Leadership, the world’s leading institution on leadership matters, underscores the leader’s ability to leverage the creativity and ingenuity of a group or organization to achieve desired goals.
The Centre for Creative Leadership styles of leadership
Relevant literature on Creative Leadership describes this style of leadership variously as:
Features of creative leadership
Distinguishing features of Creative Leadership, as highlighted in the literature, include:
- Inspiring people to think in new ways and to “rise above the level of mediocrity.”
- Handling problems and challenges in ways that call forth the creativity of other members of a group or organization.
- Respect for the integrity of others and a commitment to the actualization of their innate potentialities.
- Ability to unify seemingly disparate interests.
- Commitment to the enhancement of subordinates and constituents.
- Capacity building.
- Team building.
- Continuous improvement.
Ironically, even with all the inspirational, creative problem solving, team building, empowerment, and continuous improvement efforts, disaffection with leadership continues to grow and spread.
Values are key
Review of the platforms of many social movements suggests that the amount of loyalty and commitment that today’s creative leaders can reasonably expect depends on the extent to which followers, or constituents, perceive the leadership/followership relationship as promoting or advancing the values and virtues in which they deeply believe.
Somehow, people around the world seem to be awakening to morality and higher purposes, even in traditionally dog-eat-dog, “kill-or-be-killed” corporate environments. For the first time in recent history, the consensus seems to be emerging that the future of civilization critically depends on values and virtues that conventional economics, business, and politics are not adequately served.
The Earth Charter, Our Common Future, Caring for the Future, No Limits to Learning, and many other publications of the United Nation and the Club of Rome, for example, illustrate this global shift in thinking.
To the extent that these observations are valid: What many leaders decry as “declining loyalty” may be subtle rejections of status and power. Those relationships that people perceive as inhibiting their growth and development as humans. Ignoring vital, non-material or spiritual aspects of their lives. Even more seriously, subjecting them to values they do not necessarily espouse.
Increasingly, people seem to be awakening to the inherent possibilities within them. Their ability to serve humanity and the Planet, to bring benefits the world would never have known. And, increasingly also, people seem eager for experiences and relationships, including “followership,” that enable them to live out their possibilities.
These, in part, explain the emerging and gradually spreading concept and practice of Spiritual Leadership.
Whispers of Spiritual Leadership
“We are made in such a way that only a life of goodness and honesty leaves us feeling spiritually healthy and human.”
Spiritual Leadership, as perceived in this article, implies no mystical experience; but, simply, personal cultivation and exemplification of transcending and universally beneficial ideals, values, and virtues that intuitively attract followers and loyalty. There are two sides to this style of leadership: The one side (“Spiritual”) is the set of values and virtues that characterize an individual – that shape his or her life and give meaning to his or her existence. The other side (“Leadership”) is the inspiration that those virtues evoke, causing others to voluntarily want to emulate or follow.
Consider, for example, Pope John Paul II, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. Global icons, these twentieth-century spiritual leaders lacked practically everything that is typically associated with leadership: inheritance, lineage, “blue-blood,” monetary fortune, political connections, power, overbearing stature, personal “charisma.”
Notwithstanding those “handicaps,” They nourished and profoundly enriched the world with the virtues they embodied. By cultivating and living out qualities everyone inherently possesses or is capable of (but most people ignore), they awakened in humanity virtues the pursuit of which gives meaning and significance to people’s lives.
5 lessons of spiritual leadership
From their lives emerge five lessons of immense significance to bona fide and aspiring leaders – as to everyone else, of course:
1. Spiritual leadership is possible
Spiritual Leadership is not only possible, indeed it is necessary. In every position, one occupies parent, educator, corporate executive, public administrator, politician, caregiver, spouse, friend.
2. Spiritual leadership is feasible
Second and relatedly, Spiritual Leadership is feasible across domains, and in practically every value that one deeply believes and cherishes. Carol Pearson’s wish for the world poignantly illustrates these two conclusions:
“Each of us has a piece of the puzzle of solving the great world problems of our time and creating a more just, humane, and beautiful world. … If everyone who loved to create beauty did so, we would live in a beautiful world. When everyone who loved cleanliness and order, cleaned up, we would live in a clean and orderly world. If everyone who yearned to heal the sick did so, we would live in a healthier world. If everyone who cared about world hunger shared his creative ideas and acted to alleviate the problem, people would all be fed”
– Carol Pearson
3. The galvanizing power of moral values
The very large following that Mother Teresa and the four other global icons drew attests to the galvanizing power of moral values, as against the “carrot” and the “stick.”
4. Refutation of material reward
The enormous personal sacrifice that millions of people have made in support of the virtues that characterized these spiritual leaders is a stunning refutation of material reward as motivation for (lasting) loyalty.
5. Spiritual values are immortal
The very high global esteem in which the five global icons are still held testifies to the immortality of the spiritual values they personified.
The qualities of spiritual leadership
The remainder of this article identifies some of the cardinal qualities of spiritual leadership, why they are important, and how they can be grown and spread.
At the risk of oversimplification, the hallmarks of spiritual leadership are the transcending principles of life that can be found at the heart of every culture, and that have been found to consistently yield positive results at all levels – from the personal to the planetary. Some of these principles can be discerned from the teachings of the Great Masters; others, from indigenous folkways and traditions; still others, from the heart of life and nature itself. A very short list includes:
- Ecological consciousness
Contrary to some presumably “scientific” worldviews, these and related virtues are not mere homilies; they are absolute but long-neglected essentials both for our collective survival and for enduring success of practically everything we do. Consider love, for example, Abraham Maslow’s prophetic plea urges this virtue as a strategy to reverse currently self-destructive human tendencies. Maslow’s words:
“We must study love. We must be able to teach it, to understand it, to predict it, or else the world is lost to hostility and suspicion.”
— Abraham Maslow
The impact of non-spiritual leadership
Studies in psychotherapy, in particular, associate the dearth of these virtues with many of the social and psychological problems that are ruining the lives and destinies of countless millions of people around the world. One widely reported problem is the spreading sense of personal futility and, resultantly, the global “epidemic” of meaninglessness, including:
- deep feelings of unfulfillment [and] the plague of boredom that abounds in the workplace
- busy-yet-bored employees whose hearts are not in the work they are doing
- outwardly successful, yet emotionally troubled executives
- honoured and well-educated but without ever having experienced what it means to be truly alive
- having everything [one] ever wanted and knowing that it is still not enough … continuing to feel that something is missing
- some people [who] turn to drugs in a desperate effort to rise above the emotional flatness of the everyday … to add excitement to their otherwise humdrum, boring lives
- hundreds of troubled young people who have so much to live for [but decide to] take their own lives every year
- ever more people today [who] have the means to live but not the meaning to live for
- the forgotten four-fifths [who have neither the means to live nor the meaning to live for
- most of us [who] go to our graves with our music still inside [unplayed, unheard]
The spreading sense of personal worthlessness is an issue of global concern, particularly to psychologists and psychotherapists. Leo F. Buscaglia, for example, deplores the tragedy and, pointedly, underscores the importance of self-rediscovery and moral leadership, both for one’s good and for the Planet:
“Too many of us see ourselves as useless and worthless – and certainly without the ability to offer anything to our world. We select to be followers rather than leaders. Too often we become conformists rather than have the courage to be ourselves and create newness through the expression of those selves. We, in this way, lose ourselves, and in so doing, the world, too, experiences the loss of us”.
— Leo F. Buscaglia
Spiritual leadership versus political correctness
It is an irony of modern times that, just when personal and collective morality seems to offer the best hope of resolving the dreadful situation the world is facing, Spiritual leadership remains the exception rather than the rule. “The cry of many but the practice of a few,” practically everyone extols moral values.
In reality, however, relatively few people seem willing to make necessary efforts, particularly if they perceive that there is “price” to pay. For the sake of group solidarity, social cohesion, professional etiquette, patriotism, party loyalty, ecclesiastical faithfulness, etc., very many people would rather be “politically correct” than speak their truth.
While moral values are not evident in all, or most, modern-day leadership situations, they are certainly spreading; and, by all indications, the trend seems irreversible. Worldwide clamours for personal growth and development and the growing disaffection with unfulfilling social, economic, political, and professional arrangements and relationships suggest that we may be entering a period in history when spiritual virtues will become an integral part of everyday activities.
This is a time in the foreseeable future, hopefully, when the worth of human interactions, policies, decisions, and relationships will derive primarily from their ability to fulfil people’s higher (spiritual) needs, above and beyond material considerations.
Three ways spiritual leadership can thrive and flourish
To thrive and flourish, however, spiritual leadership and its underlying virtues are likely to require three things: ethical base (moral-consciousness); formal action; and mass engagement.
1. Moral consciousness
The ethical base of spiritual leadership, as envisaged in this article, is worldwide recognition and acceptance of shared global values as the guiding principles of society and the basis of everything we do in the economy, business, education, politics, medicine, sports, entertainment, care-giving, and more.
2. Formal action
The formal action component of spiritual leadership, again as envisaged in this article, is institutional arrangements and social processes that enable (i.e., respect, challenge, encourage, and support) everyone’s virtues to sprout and bloom, to thrive and flourish.
3. Mass engagement
The mass engagement component of spiritual leadership as perceived in this article is everyone’s obligation to lead by personal example – to cultivate and to genuinely express one’s cherished values in ways and things that conduce to the greater good and that therefore inspire others to emulate.
Lecomte du Noüy’s admonition implies these vital elements of spiritual leadership, with particular stress on the global spread of spiritual consciousness. Noüy’s words:
“Human evolution … depends above all on the progress of morality, that is to say, on its extension to the great majority of men, for the fundamental moral ideas are absolute and cannot be perfected. It now behoves humanity to spread these ideas and to engrave them in the hearts of men so that they acquire as much strength as the instincts.”
–Lecomte du Noüy
Central to Noüy’s admonition is everyone’s twin obligations: First, to personally cultivate life-enriching, ecologically-sustaining ideals and values. Second, to live out those virtues in one’s sphere of life, and in ways that inspire and edify the people whose lives one touches. In this regard, General Napoleon’s advice is pertinent: To exemplify one’s virtues so genuinely and so publicly or conspicuously that good men and women are eager to emulate or follow; while others are abashed to contradict or do otherwise.
Finally, to those scientists who, as Harold Kushner observes, “are out to make love disappear in the name of scientific progress,” out to make moral values irrelevant in public, business, and professional life, Albert Einstein (twentieth-century iconic scientist) has two sobering messages:
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He [sic] experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
There, briefly, is the crux of spiritual leadership: self-transcending love, generalized compassion and, relatedly, community-serving, ecologically-conscious personal qualities and social conduct of which everyone is entirely capable.