The Place of Spirituality in Leadership

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Spirituality in leadership


Successful organisational change and leadership in a changing world start with the vision and practices of leaders. Organisations over many decades have shown their appreciation of this by investing large sums of money in leadership development. However, as the current global crisis has shown, many leadership practices have veered towards the darker, unconscious, ego-driven side, and there is a clear indication that great change is required in order to survive the current global meltdown and towards creating a long-term sustainable future. In addition, there are great social changes afoot, with many people in the workforce seeking more meaning in their work lives.

The question of leadership has always been of great interest to me, having both been in positions of leadership and many times answerable to those in direct authority. I have observed myself being a good leader at times, as well as failing to meet expectations at other times. I have also been subjected to this leadership scale by others – at times this has helped me reach a higher potential, but many times has left me dispirited and in despair when subjected to “unconscious leadership”. More than my own individual experiences, has been my observation of others being subjected to poor decision-making which has marked effect both on their being and their lives. I also know the joy, connectedness and deep satisfaction of engaging in activities that are meaningful, energising, and most importantly, have taught me parts of myself and my higher potential, and can make the workplace an exciting and engaging place to be.

Defining Spiritual Leadership

I am particularly interested in the notion of spiritual leadership – what makes this different from leadership? “ In its essence, leadership in an organisational role involves (1) establishing a clear vision, (2) sharing (communicating) that vision with others so that they will follow willingly, (3) providing the information, knowledge, and methods to realise that vision, and (4) coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members or stakeholders. A leader comes to the forefront in crises, and is able to think and act in creative ways in difficult situations. Unlike management, leadership flows from the core of a personality and cannot be taught, although it may be learned and may be enhanced through coaching or mentoring” ( ).

Spiritual leadership “comprises the values, attitudes, and behaviours required to intrinsically motivate one’s self and others in order to have a sense of spiritual well-being through calling and membership, i.e., we and they experience meaning in their lives, have a sense of making a difference, and feel understood and appreciated. The effect of spiritual leadership in establishing this sense of leader and follower spiritual well-being is to create value congruence across the strategic, empowered team. Ultimately, this value congruence fosters higher levels of employee positive human health, psychological and spiritual well-being, organisational commitment, productivity and, ultimately organisational performance” ( Spiritual leaders seek continuous improvement for themselves, their co-workers, and all other stakeholders. They also seek to enlarge the pool of self-led leaders.

William Guillory emphasises the centrality of personal development being at the heart of the leadership path: `Leadership begins with self […] [and requires] a sufficiently in-depth knowledge of ourselves that our external activities naturally carry commitment and passion. Leadership entails self-development in the total and truest sense – intellectually, bodily, emotionally and spiritually (Howard & Welbourn, 2004).

Developing leadership qualities
“There is a real and important difference between what people say they can do and what they actually do”
(Richard Strozzi Heckler 1984)

How do leaders develop into spiritual leaders? Looking at sacred traditions, leaders are generally required to undergo some form of initiation and ritual practices in order to demonstrate to their communities (and themselves) that they are worthy to take up a role of leadership. These initiation rites often are deeply spiritual in nature, requiring the person to undergo an examination of their lives, and understanding of what is required of them, and a commitment to undergo the initiation in order to be service to others. A compelling example is Nelson Mandela. Clearly blessed with natural leadership abilities, a strong intellectual mind, and a compelling vision for the future, he nevertheless had to undergo the initiation rites expected of a young 14 year old Xhosa boy. These initiation rites meant the young men leaving their family homes to live together in make-shift shelter in the bush, obtaining instruction from the elders in the community, and required to show feats of courage in various ways, culminating in circumcision. Successful initiation is testimony to their communities that they are ready to take up their roles as men (or leaders), and that they are worthy to hold this role. As already mentioned, even with Mandela’s enormous gifted potential, if he was unsuccessful in this quest, almost certainly he would never have gained the respect of his community, and his millions of followers would have discounted him.

Similarly, leaders of religious groups are required to undergo various rites of passage. Often they feel a calling to the work, they are required to undergo rigorous religious study and practices, and finally are ordained into servanthood. Throughout this period, they are required to undergo rigorous self-examination.

So, how can these ideas be brought into leadership in the workplace? Barrett (2006) has proposed a model of Personal Consciousness based on the work of Maslow and Wilber, which he expanded into the Seven Levels of Leadership Consciousness. According to this model there are seven well-defined levels of leadership that correspond to the seven levels of organisational consciousness. Each level of leadership corresponds to the satisfaction of the needs of the organisation at the corresponding level of consciousness. Leaders who learn to master the needs of every level of organisational consciousness operate from full-spectrum consciousness. Their research has shown that these are the most resilient and successful leaders because they have the ability to respond appropriately to all internal challenges and external threats while taking full advantage of opportunities for the organisation.

The question remains how do Leaders master the needs of every level of organisational consciousness? How do they embody spiritual leadership? A very interesting approach is that of the work of the Strozzi Institute under the leadership of Dr Richard Strozzi-Heckler. Here, leadership is approached from the notion of the soma based on the ancient Greek word which means t”he living body in its wholeness”. The somatic body expresses one’s history, commitments, dignity, authenticity, identity, roles, moral strength, moods, and aspirations as a unique quality of aliveness expressed as the ‘self’. In this interpretation the body and the self are indistinguishable, and the `self’ is developed through the body. Clients are asked to commit to practices that allow them to embody new skills and behaviours; which is entirely different than having an insight or a cognitive understanding of leadership. The `self’ is seen as the leader’s primary source of power, as it is who one is as a person, that is, the self that one is, ultimately becomes the deciding factor in success as an exemplary leader. Although intellectual capacity and technical skills matter, alone they do not make a powerful, effective leader. Spiritual leadership development is about developing leaders who can take actions that were previously unavailable to them. Knowing what one cares about and being able to effectively live this out in the world takes practice and mastery as do mastering spiritual leadership practices. Examples of these spiritual leadership qualities include:

  • Have a centered presence of integrity and authenticity
  • The capacity to listen with empathy to the concerns of others
  • To generate life-affirming moods
  • The ability to quickly build trust
  • To coordinate effectively with others
  • Be able to authentically motivate others
  • To stay emotionally balanced in times of adversity and change
  • Know when it’s time to act and when it’s time to wait
  • Be a lifelong learner

“These skills of leadership may seem obvious to the point of being elementary. Certainly they are not novel or contestable in what are commonly seen as the necessary social skills for a leader. Yet after thirty-three years of working with people it has become abundantly clear to me that we do not transform ourselves and our thinking through good ideas or hope. To make sustainable shifts in our behaviour and way of thinking, we have to “embody” new schemas. The path to achieving such embodiment is established through a series of recurrent practices of mind, emotions, language and body. This new embodiment is integrated by building new interpretations of meaning and future possibilities” (Strozzi-Heckler, 2006).

The Place of Spiritual Leadership in Business

From an individual perspective, Howard & Welbourn (2004) state that it is our business roles which are provoking the timeless spiritual questions that remain as poignant and relevant to us today as they have been to people throughout all ages. We are frequently faced with choices that require us to have some understanding of our identity – Who are we? What do we stand for? How do we determine meaning and purpose for ourselves? Are our lives making a difference? Are we influencing the world for good or bad? And what do we do about such questions? Such questions are the lifeblood of the individual sense-making process, and answering them in the context of our work holds the promise of huge benefits to society as well as organisational life.


Leaders play an important role in every aspect of society, and in “stepping up to the plate”, they immediately embody a position of authority and power that has the potential for both positive (enlightened) and negative (unconscious, shadow) consequences for the people they lead, be that on the battleground, the boardroom, the corporate offices, and government.


  1. Barrett R, (1998) Liberating the Corporate Soul – Building a Visionary Organization. Massachusetts: Butterworth Heinemann
  2. Louis W. Fry* (2003), Toward a theory of spiritual leadership – Tarleton State University-Central Texas, 1901 South Clear Creek Road, Killeen, TX 76549, USA
  3. Goleman, G, (1996), Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ.  London
  4. Handy C, (1999), The Hungry Spirit – Beyond Capitalism a quest for purpose in a modern world- Arrow, London
  5. Howard, S & Welbourn, D (2004), The Spirit at Work Phenomenon, London
  6. Mandela, N, (1995), A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Abacus
  7. Maslow (2000), Maslow on Management – New York: Basic
  8. Morgan, G, (2006), Images of Organisations, London
  9. Pedlar, M, Burgoyne J, Boydell T, (2nd Ed)(1997) The Learning Company – A Strategy for Sustainable Development, McGraw-Hill
  10. Senge, P (1990), The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation – Century Business
  11. Strozzi-Heckler, R (1984), The Anatomy of Change: A Way to Move Through Life’s Transitions – North Atlantic Books
  12. Strozzi-Heckler, R (2004), Being Human at Work: Bringing Somatic Intelligence into your Professional Life, North Atlantic Books

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