Finding Spiritual Help on the Leadership Journey

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters
compared to what lies within us.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
We cannot be ourselves unless we know ourselves.
We cannot begin to know ourselves until we can see
the real reasons why we do the things we do, and we cannot be
ourselves until our actions correspond with our intentions and
our intentions are appropriate to our own situation.
– Thomas Merton
A traveler am I and a navigator, and every day
I discover a new region within my soul.
– Kahlil Gibran.

If you are a Star Trek fan like me, you may recall the motion picture, The Undiscovered Country. Its title is taken from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, and refers to the unknown – those things that are a mystery to us, like death.

The film followed upon the success of the television series, which aired in the late 1960’s. The show opened each week with images of the starship, Enterprise, soaring through space, “the final frontier,” as the voice of Captain James Kirk narrated over the opening soundtrack.  By the time of The Undiscovered Country, it seemed that for Kirk and his friends on the crew of the Enterprise there was no more “final frontier,” no undiscovered new world left to seek out and explore. Except, that is, for the only undiscovered territory left in the film: an unknown future into which its characters were unwittingly drawn.

The film’s story line reminds me that for many of us our own “final frontier” is still very much what we do not yet know about our own self – our own inner landscape, if you will. Our culture does not invite exploration of the unknown regions of the emotions, thoughts, and reactions that make us who we are.  Our culture seems more intent on inviting ways to mask our feelings. What is more, this unknown inner world exists in conjunction with and is impacted by our outer world in ways which we cannot control and often also do not understand.

I have learned in recent years that there are tools and people who can help us to explore our inner landscape, to map it, and to make sense of how we are going to successfully negotiate its terrain.  One of these helpful processes is to find a spiritual director or spiritual companion on the journey. Such a person is someone to meet with on a regular basis, perhaps weekly or monthly, with whom you feel comfortable sharing the events of your life and the emotions around them.

“You are a change agent, and you had better learn how to live with that.”

These words, spoken to me many years ago by the woman I had chosen to serve as my spiritual director, provided an important turning point in my life. They followed my own attempt, in what was not the first time for either of us, to put into words the emotions and conflicts with which I struggled to cope at the time. The words reflected back to me in a clear image the essence of my story, as well as the challenge I needed to confront. For me, they immediately helped put into context the questions I had been asking and the answers I had been seeking at that point in my life. They gave me an important clue to negotiating my inner and outer landscape. I remain grateful to this day to my spiritual director for her generosity in taking the time to listen to me, and to share her wisdom and insight.

By commenting on my role as “change agent,” my director was echoing many contemporary observers who define leaders as persons with “vision.” I like an example provided by Stephen R. Covey, the popular writer and speaker on leadership. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey distinguishes between leadership and management. He describes a group of people making its way through a dense jungle. Workers are cutting away the thick underbrush to make a trail. The managers are working behind the scenes to organize supplies, equipment and work schedules. The group makes steady progress, and every one is pleased. Until one day, a leader climbs to the top of a tall tree, looks out across the landscape, and then yells down, “Wrong jungle!”

As Covey suggests, leaders are expected to keep the group moving in the right direction, to hold the vision of where the group hopes to end up.  I have found, however, that it is not enough for a leader to simply hold a vision, or even to articulate it.  That is actually the easy part. One also must learn the more difficult lesson of how to hold the tensions that arise both within oneself as the bearer of a vision, and also among those affected by its implications. This is the spiritual work of being a leader. Although at the time I was living right in the middle of some of this tension, it took my director’s objective viewpoint to help me see, name and understand what I was living.

In addition, I am able now to recognize that even before the vision is conceptualized or spoken, creating external tensions, there exists the inner tension of feeling out of sync with the status quo. This can lead to feelings of frustration, even anger, or the desire to withdraw, perhaps without a clear sense of the origins of any of these feelings.

These lessons have been a very important part of the spiritual leadership journey for me. I know now that a leader must learn to negotiate issues not only in the life of the organization one currently is leading, but in one’s own inner life as well. One must come to recognize one’s demons as well as one’s grace. I remember the day I shared with a spiritual companion the realization that: “The organizational problems are the easy part. I know I have the skills and resources to tackle them. I see now that it is sorting through my own compulsions in the face of each problem that will always be the more difficult challenge.”

A good spiritual director can be someone with whom one can freely share the often confusing, messy, complicated, painful aspects of one’s interior dimensions in the midst of work in leadership: the self-doubt, the anxiety, the frustration, the loss of control, the fear, the fatique. Finding such a person to help with negotiating one’s inner landscape is especially important to the leader who does not have peers available with whom to express thoughts and feelings.

Lastly, however, while I have found the wisdom and perspective of spiritual directors and companions to be invaluable on the journey, I also am learning something else as a leader. That is, how to be a good spiritual companion to myself.

Just as helpful and important as making a regular appointment with a spiritual director can be, I find it equally important to allow time to make a “spiritual appointment” with myself. Sometimes I use this time simply to create a space in which to sort through the clutter of the daily grind, and to get clear on what really ought to be the priorities right now. David Starr Jones said, “Wisdom is knowing what to do next.”  Sometimes ten minutes of quiet time can lead me to greater wisdom about what to tackle next among the list of “to do’s” facing me in a given moment.

In such moments of solitude, one can slow the mind and become more conscious of the “still, small voice” within, a voice which speaks the truth of what is going on inside, and often carries the best answer to that sticky problem lying just ahead.

For more about spiritual direction, or for help in finding one in your area, visit Spiritual Directors International.

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