A deep flaw in many models of leadership on offer these days is in their preoccupation with the benefits it holds for the leader – the one about to buy the book, pay for the program, or attend a conference. Being a leader will make you “highly effective” and elevate your social status. It will give you influence on your team and advantage over the competition. It will help you take control and start telling others what to do. In other words, it’s all – or mostly – about you.
When celebrity leaders sell us their secrets, a large number of us want to be like them – savvy, powerful, successful, and rich – not necessarily leaders in some more essential sense.
The better leadership models quickly bracket and set aside what we might call the ‘perks’ of success, and give more time and consideration to the “character of a leader” – the grind and grit behind the glory … if the glory ever comes.
Truth is, many of the most effective leaders in history are unsung heroes, men and women who commit themselves to the vision of a New Reality. Their unwillingness to simply resign to the way things are, along with their resolve to make things different and somehow better, earns the ire of those whose interests (wealth, status, power, and control) are in things staying just as they are.
Real leaders are frequently persecuted, arrested, and imprisoned – whether these prisons are literal holding cells or the blacklists of censorship that block these troublemakers from their prospective audiences. Some are killed, and then memorialized with honors after a sufficient amount of time has passed.
We tend to idolize living leaders for their accomplishments, while we honor dead leaders for their spirit, their vision, and their character.
There was a light shining through them that we are willing to acknowledge as extraordinary (even divine in origin), but only after the heat of controversy and the smoke of disinformation have had time to clear out.
In this post I will offer a “spirituality of leadership,” using a model that focuses not on the perks of leadership or even on the works of great leaders, but rather (and first) on what makes anyone a true leader. Although popular culture is endlessly fascinated with the personality, charisma, and quirky eccentricities of celebrity leaders, I’m interested here in a leader’s character.
Beneath their critical roles in society as captains of industry, engineers of change, prophets of revolution, visionaries and gadflies, there’s something in them and about them that makes leaders what they are.
My diagram positions the “character” of a leader at the center from which two arrows proceed. One arrow extends horizontally, which according to this model is “outward” and across the web of relationships, moving the leader into engagement with others. The second arrow descends vertically “inward” to the leader’s inner life, beneath their personality and life story, to the grounding mystery of consciousness within.
The logic of this model is based in my understanding of faith as the soul of spirituality, and service as the heart of leadership. The general direction of energy is from the leader’s inner life (of faith) to their action in the outer world (as service), which justifies the order of terms in my title: A spirituality of leadership. In what follows, we will explore four character virtues that facilitate this energy flow (or influence) and help us frame out a working definition of leadership.
So we begin at the source, where the inner life of a leader releases in faith to the ground of being. Faith is not something the leader does, but refers rather to the non-action of surrendering (letting go or releasing) to what is deeper, which anchors or roots consciousness in the body’s physical presence.
Western metaphysics has a long history of seeking the ground of being beyond, or beneath, material existence, traditionally denigrated as “dead stuff” and therefore unfit as the proper foundation of life, mind, personality, and all that we humans find so endlessly fascinating.
But matter isn’t dead stuff. It is energetic, magnetic, electric, and protean in its myriad transformations. And through its transformations, matter is alive, sentient, and self-conscious in the leader’s own personal ego (or “I”). In its capacity for self-transcendence, matter is also able to participate in transpersonal community, to give itself in service to the communal good – more on that in a bit.
The surrender of faith is what enables a leader to relax into being and receive into him- or herself the creative uprising of energy, like fuel channeled up the wick of a lamp to support the flame of awareness. In this light, it makes perfect sense to think of faith as the “soul” of spirituality, where its existential surrender opens the inner life to what Paul Tillich named “the power to be.” The contemplative cultivation of a vibrant inner life – tending the wellspring and nurturing its flow – is therefore the essence of spirituality.
Two character virtues of a leader that correlate with the inner life are humility and integrity. From the Latin humus for ground or soil, humility is the leader’s ability to remain grounded, internally stable and immune to the seductions of false pride, arrogance, and what in classical ethics was called vainglory.
To the rest of us, a humble leader is paradoxically unassuming and irrepressible, free of self-preoccupation yet profoundly self-confident, all-too-human (also from humus) yet, in the language of mythology, chosen, anointed, and filled with the very power of God.
Integrity derives from integer (one or whole) and is the character virtue of a leader that unifies the personality and holds it together, from within, during times of stress, change, and temptation. When we speak of a leader’s “power,” it is this inner strength, or fortitude, that we mean. Any and all outer influence is an outflow and product of the leader’s character integrity, of his or her inner composure, emotional poise, and mental focus in the face of opposition or difficulty.
From the leader’s grounded (humility) and centered (integrity) character, we shift now to the horizontal axis of my model, where all this inner work of faith and spirituality is brought to bear on the challenges of life in relationship with others. Only one who is grounded and centered in his or her own human experience can intimately understand and identify with what another person is going through.
This sympathetic capacity is the character virtue of compassion, from com (with) and passio (to undergo or bear): to stand under – to understand! – another’s burden and give support to their struggle for relief, recovery, respect, or freedom.
The fusion of inner strength (integrity) and caring outreach (compassion) is the “power of love,” a super-virtue held in such high esteem across the cultures and religions as to be identified with the divine reality itself and worshiped as a supreme power. As such, the power of love, or integrity + compassion, offers the clearest summary of a spirituality of leadership.
Courage, the last of our four character virtues, only takes on definition as we follow the outreach of compassion into the conditions and situations of life that cause others to suffer. A true leader doesn’t merely go with a message of consolation, but instead confronts the forces of complacency, prejudice, orthodoxy, and oppression that conspire as a system to forestall or withhold from some the liberated life and wellbeing they long for and deserve.
The service of a courageous leader is always for the sake of a New Reality, which the managers of this “domination system” will resist at all cost.
Managers are tasked with keeping things the way they are; leaders are called to open a way to what today may seem impossible.
Courage (from the Latin root for heart) demonstrates the leader’s wholehearted commitment and personal sacrifice on behalf of an in-breaking reality; one that is even now, in the leader’s own fearless presence and transcendent vision, shaking the foundations of the status quo.