Spirituality And Who We Are As Leaders At Work

Becoming human is an extraordinarily complicated and
therefore very fragile process.
– Gerald Hüther

Last Friday, I was facilitating a workshop on time and energy management with a group of nonprofit leaders. As in all of my leadership workshops, I opened by stressing that time management is not about controlling time (since we all have the same 24 hours in a day). It is really about controlling our own inner dynamics and behaviors. Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says there is no such thing as time management, only “self management.”

As we began to talk together in the workshop about Covey’s insight, and the need that flows from it for self awareness and skills in communicating appropriately with others, we became aware once again of how “counter-cultural” this approach is. Some of the participants began to point out that even though they would like to try to adopt more reflective practices that would help in self management, the work environment in most corporations and, sadly, even in nonprofit organizations, is not conducive to it.

Making the cultural change necessary, in my opinion, requires that we first let go of the old mechanistic worldview we inherited from the industrial age. That view looks upon workers as machines, not as people with an inner life of thoughts, assumptions and feelings, all of which influence how they approach the task at hand and their colleagues in the workplace. As I articulated that thought to the group, it suddenly occurred to me how ironic it is that today we get advice from hundreds of books and popular television shows on how to be successful in our relationships outside of work – with our spouse or partner, our children, our parents – yet there is very little said about how to get along well with the people with whom we actually spend most of our day!

Often, in the workplace, there are unwritten codes and subtle cultural practices that prevent us from getting to know our colleagues well enough to know what they fear, what saddens or stresses them, what might be blocking them from achieving their full creativity and potential. Even taking time to sort these things out for ourselves is frowned upon as a “waste of time.”

Who we are at work, though, is all about the marvelous, mysterious story of what it means to be a human being. And what does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to grow as a leader “from the inside out?” In our Western culture, we often receive messages that reaching adulthood as a human being consists primarily of achieving externals. Adulthood is achieved, for example, by acquiring a college degree, a job, a checking account, a car, a spouse, a house, two kids and a dog (or cat). Rarely is the focus on “inner” development; that is, the psychological and spiritual growth required to successfully negotiate life’s challenges.

One of my favorite authors on the topic of adulthood and relationships is David Richo (How to Be An Adult in Relationships. Shambala. 2002). Richo argues that “all the love in the world will not bring us happiness or make a relationship work. That requires skill, and this skill is quite attainable” (p. 1). Richo suggests that this “work” involves knowledge of both the psychological and spiritual aspects of being human. He writes:

Both psychological work for individuation and spiritual practice for egolessness will always be required as dual requisites for the enlightenment of beings as beautifully and mysteriously designed as we. (p. 17)

Another of my favorite books is The Compassionate Brain by Gerald Hüther. In it, he suggests that what most makes us human is our brain’s capacity “to step out of well worn ruts, to undo already existing programming” (p. 135). Hüther tells us that for our brains to continue to develop to their full capacity (and keep on growing) requires us to become better and better at perceiving what is going on around us, to feel these perceptions more and more deeply, and to reflect upon them more carefully before we decide what to do (p. 124).

The ability to perceive, to feel and to reflect requires disciplines often associated with “spiritual practice.” One of the most famous and influential manuals on spiritual practice is a book called, Remember, Be Here Now, by Ram Dass, which was published in the 1970’s. Today, a popular spiritual guide is Ekhart Tolle, whose book, The Power of Now offers similar lessons.

Hüther suggests that in order to develop one’s brain to the fullest capacity one must be capable of certain attitudes that we might also associate with spirituality and religion: sensibleness, uprightness, humility, prudence, truthfulness, reliability, courtesy (p. 127). He also suggests that to develop these attitudes, a person must be able to be successful at being in relationship with others (p. 128). In fact Hüther comes close to defining “love” as “a feeling of connectedness and solidarity.” He suggests that the greater one’s capacity for love, the greater one’s feeling of connectedness to other persons and to the world (p. 128). This is in contrast to the person whose sole concern is with the self and its needs.  Hüther describes this ego-driven person as characterized by attitudes of complacency, arrogance, indolence, superficiality, bias and narrow-mindedness, thoughtlessness, and inattention (p. 133).

In contrast to the ego-driven behaviors mentioned above (of which many of us have fallen victim in the workplace), are the characteristics of what some scholars and practitioners now are calling “spiritual leaders.” By this term is not meant only those who lead within a traditional spiritual or religious environment, but those whose leadership flows from their well-developed inner being. One such author is the international consultant Margaret Wheatley, who suggests that spiritual leadership is precisely the kind of leadership needed in our “turbulent times.” (see her article at http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/turbulenttimes.html). Writes Wheatley:

Few of us want to work as crazily as we do; most of us hate meetings where tempers boil over. Brief moments of silence can work wonders-silence is truly the pause that refreshes.

Wheatley’s “pause that refreshes” is one spiritual practice that can help us to get back in touch with our “best” selves. It can offer us the opportunity to be reminded of the values out of which we want to lead, and the attitudes we want to bring to our relationships with co-workers.

One of the texts I use in my leadership course is Leading with Values: Positivity, virtue, and high performance, edited by Kim S. Cameron and Edward D. Hess (Cambridge University. 2006) The attitude toward spirituality found in the U.S. Marine Corps is presented in a chapter of the book by the authors Dan Yaroslaski and Paolo Tripodi. These authors include among their attempts to define spirituality the notion of “basic values” that “teach us how our basic humanity fits within the overall scheme of things and how we can attain harmony in life and in our work.” The author’s quote one marine lieutenant who defines spirituality in terms of an awareness and knowledge “of one’s place in the universe and purpose in life” (p. 75).

Who we are as leaders at work, then, is people who model for others ways to interact with co-workers that acknowledge what it means to experience the demands of the workplace not only intellectually, but also emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It is my dream to have every person who gets up to go to work in the morning be able to head for his or her workplace with a smile and a light heart. Not that everything will go smoothly when they all get there, but even when it doesn’t, they will know that whatever happens, the community of people to which they have committed themselves will deal with it humanely and effectively.

E.D. Hess and K.S. Cameron. (2006) Leading with values: Positivity, virtue and high performance. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University.

Hüther. G. (2006) The compassionate brain. Boston, MA: Trumpeter/Shambala.

Richo, D. (2002). How to be an adult in relationships. Boston, MA: Shambala.

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