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  • Steve Sphar, JD, ACC, PCC

Leadership Development is Spiritual Development

Man In Forest with Arms Stretched Out

Leadership development is a spiritual endeavor. Does this statement sound like a contradiction in terms? If so, it is because we have created a false split between the material and the spiritual in the business world.

All organizations want to bring forth the best in their people, create a positive climate, challenge people’s capacities, stimulate creativity and achieve positive results. Developing good leaders is crucial to accomplishing all of these things.

Traditional approaches to leadership development focus on building skills. There is abundant literature in the academic and business worlds that describe specific leadership competencies and list steps for building those competencies. This conventional style of leadership development focuses on the tangible: what actions can be taken, what behaviors can be learned, what results can be measured, etc.

I would call this arena the material.

I am not discounting the value of the material domain. No organization can survive if it does not attend to the concrete realities of the material world. There is nothing wrong with this approach to leadership development per se, but it is incomplete. The material domain should not be overvalued at the expense of intangible domains that are also critical to organizational success.

When results are pursued for their own sake, divorced from the context of a deeper meaning, the outcome can be disastrous. At the extreme end, people cause ethical scandals such as those demonstrated by Bernie Madoff, Jeffery Skilling (Enron) and Bernie Ebbers (Worldcom). Less dramatic, but far more common, is the slow erosion of employee passion and commitment that drain energy and reduce performance.

When we look at the deeper purpose of leadership, we see there is great value in growing leadership capacities that are largely intangible. To be effective in these intangible areas takes a leader willing to engage in deep inquiry and substantial inner work.

I would call this arena spiritual.

The primary job of leadership is to create the conditions that release and guide the energy of an organization’s people. This energy does not have to be created, it is already there waiting to be tapped. How does a leader release and guide this inherent, abundant energy? Here are some suggestions, to name a few:

  • Articulating a noble vision that excites people’s passion

  • Expressing ones highest values and enacting them with integrity

  • Showing openness to the ideas and perspectives of others

  • Demonstrating ease with ambiguity and paradox

These are all high-leverage capacities that greatly increase a leader’s effectiveness. And what do each of these have in common? They all require awareness of and facility with one’s interior landscape. You can’t articulate a passionate vision if you aren’t in touch with what authentically excites your own passion. Acting with integrity requires you to be conscious of your hierarchy of values and the inevitable dilemmas that hierarchy will constantly reveal. Openness to opposing views and ease with ambiguity demand a level of “comfort with discomfort,” and the ability to realize the limits of control.

These inner qualities are what make life, and work, worthwhile. And when a leader commits herself to a life of meaning, it has a galvanizing effect on those she leads. People respond to her with a renewed effort to create and sustain meaning in their own work. A leader who is operating from a strong inner landscape creates a contagion of commitment in their organization.

Developing these inner capacities fuels and leverages the development of outer skills. Take interpersonal skills as an example. If a leader is learning the skill of active listening only as a technique to exert more influence on others, he is likely to be perceived as manipulative. This surface level of skill-building yields marginal returns. However, if the leader is developing his internal capacity to hold anxiety, doubt and ambiguity, he can learn to be truly open to conflicting views. Authentic listening then comes naturally and the leader is properly perceived as being genuine. His ability to exert greater influence, which was his original goal, increases dramatically.

In truth, the intangible is the engine of the tangible.

Sadly, many leaders neglect or avoid working in their interior domain. Inner development requires courage and fortitude. It also requires a different set of practices than outer development. While outer skills emphasize action and doing, inner development depends on reflection, awareness and other qualities of being that are more receptive.

The tension between these yin and yang qualities is a balancing act. Knowing when to act and when to wait is its own skill of discernment. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of spiritual / leadership development – knowing how to blend the material and the spiritual.

I would call that wisdom.

About the Author

Steve Sphar, JD, ACC

Steve Sphar is a seasoned leadership consultant with over 25 years experience partnering with executives and managers to create sustained positive change. He was a practicing attorney for 12 years before turning his law and business experience to the field of leadership consulting. He helps managers and executives develop their leadership potential though one-on-one coaching, leadership training and facilitation of executive retreats. Read more about Steve.

#leadership #leadershipdevelopment #spiritualdevelopment

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