The common thread found in the proliferation of leadership studies today
is that leadership is not leadership in the way we have typically
understood it. . . . Leadership is no longer the result of skills but of
inner values, of heart and of spirit.
– Leonard Doohan
It was due to life and work circumstances that I encountered as a young adult that I became engaged in reflecting on the problem of leadership development, particularly the lack of it. I have since traveled to many countries in which the story is the same: the common people would be so much better off if it were not for the greed and corruption of their corporate, national, and even church leaders. Today, the lack of effective and ethical leadership seems to be everywhere: in government, in churches, in the corporate and non-profit sectors.
I also have since grown to realize that spiritual leadership is not just about the leader, it ultimately impacts the entire life of an organization. I first began to consider this as I integrated the implications of The New Cosmology – the story of our evolving Universe – which reveals that we all are intimately connected. As I began to define spirituality as a word attempting to capture the interconnected nature of our reality as human beings, I realized that all of our organizations are made up of people in relationship. Therefore, I surmised, organizations must have their own “spirituality” – which may be itself characterized as healthy or unhealthy. But I am getting ahead of myself here, and need to go back to the beginning of the story of my awakening to the importance of the connection between spirituality and leadership.
I began my reflections on leadership development in the late 1980’s. I read popular authors at the time like Stephen R. Covey and Peter Senge. I read The New Paradigm in Business compiled by the World Business Academy. I found it very curious that many authors at the time were beginning to articulate not only an awareness that something seemed seriously wrong in our understandings of leadership and but also our understandings of spirituality.
These authors articulated for me my own intuitive sense that the two – leadership and spirituality – are intrinsically linked. I found at the time, however, that many writing for the business world were hesitant to speak about spirituality because of its association with religion, which has its own history of domination and violence. As a former journalist, I began to search for a language that would help us talk about spirituality without the problems associated with its link to the formal religions.
Ironically for me, I found that language in my introduction to the new science and The New Cosmology promoted by the late Passionist priest Thomas Berry and the cosmological physicist Brian Swimme. Reading their books brought together their vision of our Universe as one incredible, unitive, unfolding event with my own personal unitive, mystical experience as a child, and the ancient mystical wisdom of all the world’s major spiritual traditions.
Today, I understand spirituality as the inherent, unitive experience of all human beings, whether or not we become conscious of (awake to) that unitive reality. At present, my working definition of the term “spirituality” is as follows:
Spirituality describes our human reality of interconnectedness and our capacity to live ever more consciously and with greater integrity our interrelationship with the Source and Sustainer of Life, our self, and all of Creation.
For me, then, the term spirituality not only names the reality of our interconnectedness within our Universe, but also names a complex dynamic of human personal growth in relationship. As I see it, this growth takes place on two levels: 1) it involves a continual process of further refining one’s knowledge of one’s own interiority, particularly one’s response to being in relationship, while 2) advancing in one’s proficiency at developing the mindset, values and skills necessary to be in healthy communion (belongingness) with others.
Our collective challenge for the 21st Century, then, is the intention and means to involve more humans globally in this process. For I believe, as ancient spiritual traditions have declared, that it is only this process of attending to the spiritual growth of individuals that will lead to appropriate life-sustaining behaviors at all levels: for the individual, the family, the church, the workplace, the nation, the global village.
You may be asking at this point: What does this mean on a practical level? I now have been studying the relationship between human spiritual development and leadership for nearly 20 years. I began doing so in the mid-1990’s on a part-time basis while also serving as executive director of the Institute for Spiritual Leadership in Chicago. (Yes, curious is it not that I would end up at a place called that after hurling my question to the Universe about the connection between spirituality and leadership.)
I left the Institute in 2006, and began teaching at the college level courses in religion, ethics, and human development, all out of the context of The New Cosmology. In 2008, I began facilitating workshops and teaching courses in leadership in my position as director of Vincent on Leadership: The Hay Project at DePaul University in Chicago.
In my study throughout those years, I have learned what people at various stages on the journey of human psychological and spiritual development look like and what they do. In fact, we all know people we would call “spiritually mature”; people whom we might identify as spiritual leaders. Who are your role models for that? I ask people that question in my classes and workshops. For them, a spiritual leader might be someone like Gandhi; it might also be their grandmother. In their descriptions of these people, they say they are people who live out of a sense of inner freedom. Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.”
They also describe them as people who live out of a sense of deep compassion, particularly for the poor and marginalized. Jesus said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor…and let the oppressed go free.” They often are described as prophetic – they challenge the status quo and oppressive systems. Jesus did that, and it got him killed. Here’s the thing, though: Jesus called us all to that. He even said we would do greater things than he did. Perhaps he suspected that we would one day live in a world that faced crises beyond the imagination of those with whom he walked.
From a so-called secular point of view, leadership is everyone’s business. We all need to prepare ourselves for the leadership moments in our lives. That responsibility does not come with a title or a role description. It comes with the responsibility – the ability to respond – that we all have to make a positive difference in whatever way we can.
I am searching for a way to help us all understand that responsibility. Tom Brokaw has called those Americans who fought in World War II “the greatest generation.” Those profiled in his book saved our nation’s freedom. It is becoming clearer to me every day that we face challenges unthinkable to previous generations. Where previous generations were called upon to protect the future of a free nation, we are in a struggle to protect and preserve the future of our entire planet to sustain its community of Life.
For me, learning about the relationship between spirituality and leadership is central to our response to that call. The good news is that our very interconnectedness means that we can start right where we are – changing first ourselves and then how we relate to the people and the entire living community around us.
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Doohan. L. (2007). Spiritual leadership: The quest for integrity. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. p 35