After a financial crisis which highlighted and unearthed corrupt management, bad business practices and selfish acts of greed, maybe it’s time to evaluate the impact of a more spiritual form of leadership.
Our corporate bosses have become essentially mechanised. As Matthew Fairholm puts it, leaders have become dominated by “non-intuitive, learner rational management”. And it reflects a broader shift in society where morality is a movable feast and few of us can say with any confidence that we know the rules or ethics by which to live.
With uncertainty and unpredictability, however, comes an opportunity. Executives can consciously alter the way they behave and interact within their environment, and offer us something more than the banalities of business leadership. No wonder the idea of spirituality in business is making some noise in the social sciences .
It’s important to understand what we mean by spirituality; it’s about how leaders communicate their feelings to their workers as much as anything else. Mark Kriger and Yvonne Seng’s work contrasts spirituality in leadership with the worldviews of five religions, and offers a useful distinction. They cite Louis W. Fry’s definition of spirituality as an inherently personal “quest for self-transcendence” whereas religion is “an institution, which has formed and developed over time around spiritual experiences of one or more founding individuals”.
One suggestion is that throughout human history there has not been a need to consider what it meant to be spiritual because religion was at the “core of every culture”. With the decline of religion, however, there comes the potential to redefine spirituality – and with that redefinition comes some usefulness to management development.
A few years ago I was exploring the idea of spiritual intelligence – something I’ve since dismissed – and saw Air Vice-Marshal Michael Harwood on the leadership panel. It was the first time I had listened to him speak and it gave me goose bumps. His narrative was, and still is, so intrinsically spiritual that it excited me in terms of my own fledgling research on spiritual values in leaders.
Here was a man who served in the armed forces and who was utterly attuned to the possible outcomes of his leadership decisions – to the extent of making it clear to his squadron that their actions will end the lives of others. It was powerful stuff in any context! He was also acutely aware of the potential pitfalls.
At a presentation we did together some years ago, Harwood made a clear statement of his view. He warned, first, that leaders who seek to inspire must watch out for the omnipresent risk of hubris:
And yet, we must still encourage those sorts of high-octane behaviours (including powerful speeches) which capture the imagination and spiritual intelligence of people. Without such “earth moving” experiences, life will be lacklustre and business will be dull and routine.
In short, it is the perfect time for chief executives, business owners and entrepreneurs to become more open about their transcendent emotions. That idea might call to mind the cult around Steve Jobs at Apple, but for me it is people like Indra Nooyi at Pepsi and Jack Ma at Alibaba who better exemplify this idea. They genuinely help employees towards a form of self-actualisation which can better unleash their potential. It is this goal that the post-crisis business world should explore, or risk finding itself dominated by locked-in technocrats.
Fortunately, we do have something to build on. Laura Reave’s 2005 work gave us the idea that the basics of spirituality in leadership exist in the “esoteric realm of intangible ideals”. It is a branch of research that we should not dismiss. Today’s global organisations will need to think differently if they are to build a form of capitalism which avoids the mistakes of the recent past.
The primary challenge, of course, is how to apply this kind of research in the day-to-day practice of business management. There are many consultants and speakers such as Danah Zohar and Cindy Wigglesworth in this domain who do very well and who are embraced by certain parts of the business community. In truth though, what little empirical evidence has been produced has not been independently academically tested or peer reviewed.
One problem is that the subject has no consistent or agreed-upon definition of what spirituality in business management should or could be. We can hold up people like Nelson Mandela, or even Barack Obama, to evoke the style of leadership involved, and there are clear relationships and associations we can draw on, but there remains no well-defined or distinct (and ultimately agreed-upon) description.
Spirituality in business can be best described as the communication of a leader’s intrinsic values: values which inform their moral and ethical judgements; which wholly reflect their personal beliefs and experiences; and which ultimately prompt virtuous actions and behaviours. If we start to see these phenomena in the corporate world, then that can only be a good thing.