Spirituality and Management02/04/2020
Before a definition of spirituality in leadership can be provided, one must first examine the meaning of the two key aspects of the phrase: the “spirit” and the “leader.” One dictionary definition of spirit is “that which is traditionally believed to be the vital principle or animating force within living beings.” Thus, the spirit relates to the deeper sense, meaning, or significance of something. A dictionary definition of the leader is “one who shows the way by going in advance; one who causes others to follow some course of action or line of thought.” Thus, the leader is one who influences followers to think or behave in some way. Combining the two terms suggest that the leader who incorporates spirituality into his or her leadership will be one who causes others to seek out and understand their inner selves and who fosters a sense of meaning and significance among his or her followers. Thus, one definition of spirituality in leadership is a holistic approach to leadership in which the leader strives to encourage a sense of significance and interconnectedness among employees.
Spiritual leadership involves the application of spiritual values and principles to the workplace. The spiritual leader understands the importance of employees finding meaning in their work and demonstrates a genuine concern for the “whole” person, not just the employee. Spiritual leadership tries to assist others in finding meaning in their work by addressing fundamental questions such as:
- Who are we as a work team, department, or organization?
- Is our work worthy? What is our greater purpose?
- What are our values and ethical principles?
- What will be our legacy?
The spiritual leader strives for a workplace that is truly a community, consisting of people with shared traditions, values, and beliefs.
Spirituality in leadership implies that the focus will be less on formal position power and more on people; less on conformity and more on transformation and diversity; and less on controlling and more on partnership, collaboration, and inspiration. Spirituality in leadership does not require that the leader adhere to a particular religion or that he or she attempt to convince subordinates to pursue a specific set of religious principles. While leaders who emphasize spirituality may base their leadership approach in Christianity or another religious tradition, they may also have so-called “non-traditional” religious beliefs or may not adhere to any particular religion at all. Spirituality in leadership is more concerned with the development of employees as “whole people”—people who exhibit compassion to other employees, superiors, subordinates, and customers.
Spirituality in the Workplace
Spirituality in leadership cannot be understood apart from the more general issue of spirituality in the workplace because spirituality plays an increasingly important part in the workplace. Many employees look to the workplace as a means of finding meaning in their lives. In today’s world, many employees regard their workplace as a community even as other “communities” that give meaning to people’s lives are strained or ripped apart by modern styles of living. In the U.S. of the mid-twentieth century, for example, most people lived near, not only their immediate family, but also their extended family (i.e. grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). This is no longer the case, as many in the U.S. and around the world do not live in close proximity to their family of origin or extended family members. Thus, one’s family is not an immediate and ready source of support for many individuals. This has led to a loss of identity and connectedness in people’s lives, since people’s families provide a rich context for self-understanding, personal growth, and maturity.
Similarly, the pattern of individuals’ affiliation with formalized religion and religious institutions has undergone a dramatic change in recent years. Beginning in the 1960s, a general sense of dissatisfaction and skepticism about organized religion became common, particularly among younger people. In the subsequent years, rates of attendance at religious services and active involvement in religion declined worldwide. Although the majority of people today will self-identify as a member of some religious faith, many still do not attend formal religious services and have only a tenuous connection with a particular church, synagogue, etc. Thus, many people appear to be estranged from formal religion, which takes away another potential avenue to a sense of self-worth, identity and spiritual growth.
Likewise, many people used to find a sense of identity and connection in their neighborhoods and communities. This has changed as well. Many people relocate several times during their careers and spend relatively short periods of time in any one place. They do not put down roots in their local community, do not participate to a great degree in community events, and do not form strong relationships with neighbors. Anecdotal and survey evidence suggest that it is common for people to live next door or across the street from people and know almost nothing about them, even in small towns. In general, many people seem to be “drifting” without a strong connection to others or overall sense of purpose.
Within this context, it is easy to explain why so many people seek to derive great meaning from their work and their organizations. Most spend more time in the workplace with their coworkers than anywhere else. Close friendships, courtships, and marriages are common among coworkers. The modern workplace is not just a place where people work, but a place where they form friendships, socialize, and attempt to find a sense of fulfillment. It is also a place where people attempt to make sense of and derive meaning from the activities that comprise what we call “work” and how these activities fit within the greater fabric of individuals’ lives. This quest for meaning has prompted the recognition that spirituality in the workplace and spiritual leadership are real issues affecting the quality of life in the modern organization.
Those who are strongly motivated from a spiritual orientation can see clearly that there are many possible benefits to be gained from embracing spirituality at work. The benefits evolve from really knowing how to treat people well so that they thrive and are able to accomplish their best within the organisation.
The spiritual life is, at root, a matter of seeing it is all of life seen from a certain perspective .
People can be highly productive, innovative and cooperative in the right environments. They can feel fulfilled through their work and know that what they do each day is of value. This brings an important sense of meaning and job satisfaction. It generates happy and enthusiastic employees and productivity rises. Invoking spirituality is a way to help create work environments where people can thrive and flourish.
In a spiritual work environment, people thrive because
- The organisation, through line-management, takes a personal interest in their development and success
- People are encouraged to be all that they can be
- They are appreciated, challenged and excited at the opportunities they have
- Business leaders promote trust and empowerment
- Participation in collaborative dialogue is encouraged – instruction and control minimised
- Employees are supported, coached and thanked
- Positive emphasis is placed on relationships, ethics, inspiration and reflection
- Successes are noticed and celebrated.
But many businesses are not like this! Rather they are run in ways that emphasise rationality, process, finance, the short-term and efficiency. Financial outcomes are often seen as the sole measure of success. Control mechanisms which are in place lead to self-centred behaviours.
Spirituality and well-being
People spend a lot of their time at work and partly derive their social identity from the workplace. So what happens on the job is important for mental and physical well-being. Managing people in a way that is consistent with their spiritual values may help in establishing an overall sense of well-being and health.
The well-being of employees is a serious issue, especially in jobs which can be highly stressful, such as policing, the armed forces, fire services and other emergency services. Even in our secular society, it is recognised that the spiritual needs of staff should be supported
As the credit crisis intensifies, some of the experiences in modern workplaces are becoming closer to those experienced by police officers. The fear of large-scale redundancies and other stresses which emerge within work can create similar ‘issues of survival’ to that experienced by police officers such issues can create conditions of trauma. The impact of stress at work is seen in increasing numbers of people experiencing depression, bullying and long-term sickness and absenteeism. Dealing with these spiritual challenges can be addressed as part of training and support, and can help people learn how to deal with their emotions and manage stress effectively.
The benefits of a positive environment
Spiritual alignment is beneficial both to deal with personal challenges and problems, as well as to provide a way to create a positive work environment. Management is concerned with achieving high performance from staff, and the type of management practices and approaches managers put in place and use have substantial effects on whether or not this is achieved. The impact of good management is not only felt by staff, but can be measured through economic outputs, using measures such as quality, productivity and profitability. The argument is that when management practices are positively regarded, they elicit high commitment and high performance in discretionary effort from staff and then profitability increases.
The importance of free choice
The danger with this argument is that organisations may decide to ‘use’ spirituality as a means to generate productivity or profits. Organisational spirituality itself becomes meaningless if it is used to increase control over employees. Rather, openness to organisational spirituality should provide freely-chosen spiritual development opportunities to its members within it structures. The element of free choice should allow for resistance and deviance as much as for agreement and receptivity. Organisational spirituality enables individuals to uncover greater meaning (and understanding) for themselves at work, rather than having meaning prescribed by the organisation.
What is important to understand about the whole area of research into organisational spirituality is that ‘it is moving beyond traditional, economic, instrumental and strictly materialistic conceptions of organisations and the positivist, scientific research methods that undergird and support the continuation of such conceptions.
Driver, JMSR, 2007
Spirituality and change
The great ‘difference’ that spirituality offers is its capacity for radical transformation. When you look into any spiritual practice, you will find it yields insights into personal change or transformation, self-knowledge and inner learning. Since people and organisations are continually and increasingly facing change, both planned and unanticipated, it makes sense to gain some understanding from spiritual wisdom, which has been supporting deep change for centuries!
Even with access to spiritual wisdom it is sometimes hard for people to translate ‘good’ ideas into practice. A focus on spiritual ideals reveals that organisational environments are resistant to spiritual change, even in the face of such possible benefits. The nature of spirituality is paradoxical. It offers light, but the light also reveals the ‘shadow’ in organisational life: the typical mistrust between managers and subordinates; fear of power sharing and loss of personal influence on the part of decision makers. And structurally, short-term measurement systems create a blockage that prevents more spiritually-based cultures from being supported. Spirituality is not a ‘panacea’ but it is a way to engage in new perspectives – it offers insights into humanity that can bring support, strength and sometimes clarity about priorities in difficult times.
The Benefits of Spirituality in Leadership
Since there has been little empirical research regarding spirituality in the workplace or spiritual leadership, it is difficult to say precisely what the benefits (or costs) of spirituality in leadership will be. However, enough conceptual and empirical research has been conducted to suggest several potential benefits of incorporating a spiritual dimension into leadership. From the perspective of followers, incorporating spirituality into leadership has the potential to create a workplace that is more humane and that provides a sense of community and shared purpose. From the perspective of the organization, incorporating spirituality in leadership may lead to greater perceptions of trust, organizational support, and commitment among employees, which could have positive effects on organizational performance. However, spirituality in leadership should not be thought of as a “device” for developing positive organizational outcomes, but must instead be a genuine philosophical belief on the part of leaders.