In this article, I make six propositions intended to lead us toward a spirituality of leadership. Working with Leaders and their teams, I have become more and more aware of the significant impact leaders can have on the lives of those they lead. We can argue that people should not allow their leaders to influence their lives so profoundly – but the reality is that the influence exists. People look up to leaders, they subscribe to their vision, they listen to them, rely on their wisdom and direction, and at the end of the day, they follow them.
Too many leaders seem to be oblivious to this reality. Such leaders act in a cavalier manner. They say thoughtless things, offer throw-away criticisms, are dismissive of the needs of their people, and do not give careful consideration to the impact of their behaviour upon the lives of those under their leadership.
In this article, I suggest that developing a spirituality of leadership will provide a firmer foundation for the practice of leadership and enable it to be taken as seriously as it deserves, at the same time providing the desired fulfilment and possibility. This is not intended in a religious sense, although religious people may integrate the spirituality of leadership with their own spirituality.
In exploring a spirituality of leadership, I make the following propositions:
When the word manager is used rather than leader it conjures up perceptions of a title with a job. Leadership, however, is much more than this. It recognizes that there are few higher callings that can be placed on a human being than to lead others. Leading is an awesome and awe-inspiring privilege and comes with the sacred trust to handle the lives of the people with compassion, empathy, and care. It is not to be taken lightly or carelessly, but in full awareness of the potential impact leaders can have on people’s lives.
In almost every situation, leadership has the opportunity to make choices, and the choice they make could have the possibility of changing lives, positively or negatively. People are complex, breathtaking, and infinite beings. At one moment capable of being transcendent and inspiring and at another sinking to unfathomable depths of depravity. And it is often the role that leadership plays in people’s lives that determines whether they rise to the transcendent possibilities of what it means to be human or slide into the mud of decadence and corruption. Leaders have the potential to make that difference. History is littered with examples of people who had incredible potential that was never realised because they followed a leader down a dark path. Consider the following:
Humility is a deeply spiritual concept. It is about placing one’s own importance and ego in perspective with those of others. It is about not regarding yourself more highly than you should. It is not about being self-effacing or falsely modest – it is about recognizing that no matter what your title or how many people stand up when you enter the room, you are no more or less important than anyone else. This characteristic of leadership enables leaders to embrace the importance of every individual in their teams and ensure that they make every effort to understand the complexity of each human being they lead.
Humble leaders do not leave an abiding impression of how important the leader is – they leave everyone they lead with a sense of their own importance and value to the team.
What is more spiritual than being a purveyor of purpose, meaning, and hope? Leaders lead through good times and bad. When times are good, leading is easy – people are optimistic and receptive. It is when times are tough, and for many, the past year has been exactly that, that a leader’s ability to infuse hope is truly tested. It is the leader who enables people to see beyond the darkness of the moment, to not lose hope and give up, to keep going and achieve above and beyond their wildest dreams.
It is precisely when times are dark, and hope is fading that leaders need to remind their teams of the meaning of what they are doing resulting in a refreshed sense of purpose and hope for everyone. And this hope and purpose is an infectious spirituality. Its influence often extends well beyond the team and the workplace.
By constantly and consciously connecting people with the reason why they are doing what they do, leaders keep hope and perseverance alive. They make it worth carrying on.
Leaders lead people. For many, this means leading from the front – being a leader for the people. However, my contention is that true leadership is leading with the people. When leaders presume to lead for the people, they can easily presume that they know what their people want and then impose this upon the team. Leading with people implies the full and meaningful participation of the whole team in deciding direction.
This sense of leadership with people is about enabling a sense of belonging and team that, for many, is part of their own spirituality. I have had many conversations with people who, despite attractive job offers, chose to remain with a particular team because they are taken seriously, belong and feel valued.
There is something deeply spiritual about being someone who inspires possibility. This possibility ranges from being the one who inspires an individual to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible to inspiring a team to create or enable something the world has ever seen before – this makes leadership a creative enterprise. True leaders do not rest easy with the status quo- they want to inspire and enable more.
Such leaders are not obsessed with problems. They do not constantly ask what is wrong and how do we fix it – their constant question is what is possible and how do we make it happen.
There is much to talk about in regard to values in modern leadership discourse. Values arise out of beliefs and often have deeply spiritual foundations. In principle, that is to be welcomed and embraced. The focus on values in the workplace and the world should be experienced by people as a liberating and creative force, unleashing the true potential of human beings.
The reality is a little less hopeful. My experience is that values are too often the new language of control.
Values should liberate people to reach new heights, not restrain them in the predetermined way in which leadership would like them to behave.
The difference between liberating and constraining values is often determined by one single reality – who decides on the values? When leadership decides on the values to be lived, independently of those being led, they often consciously or unconsciously promote values that reflect the behaviours leadership wants in the workplace. However, when collectively decided through a process where leaders work with and not for their people, the outcomes are often more liberating and conducive to creativity and possibilities.
Let me leave it there with the question – What is your spirituality of leadership? How will this change the way you lead?