Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It

We are in desperate need for spiritual leadership. We need religious leaders to be spiritual leaders. We need parents to be spiritual leaders. We need teachers, coaches, therapists, managers to be spiritual leaders.

The term “spiritual” and “spiritual leadership” mean different things to different people: let’s not get hung up on various definitions. Here’s what I mean when I use the term: “Spiritual leadership” is leadership that emerges from the heart and soul of a person who has done the hard work of inner transformation through spiritual connection. It is based on that person’s attunement with the Spirit of God, and therefore it flows naturally from who they are.

Spiritual leadership carries a certain authority, but that authority emerges organically. It flows from the respect we engender when people see our integrity and feel our love. It is not about how we project our strong personality to others, how we charm, flatter, or impress them. These are all stratagems of the ego — projecting the strength of our personality, our confidence, enthusiasm, intelligence, persuasiveness, or appealing to the ego of the other person through charm and flattery. It’s not about crafting a certain kind of persona that is calculated to get people to like us, or want to be on our side, because they only see our strength and cleverness.

Spiritual leadership emerges when we drop our pretense, and dial back the tendency of our ego to dominate. The focus is instead on the Spirit, on the True Self that is touched on through our soul. Some might call this “leading through soul.”

It’s hard to define this, but you know it when you see it.

Spiritual leaders have authority, but that authority coincides with a certain tenderness and vulnerability. They have enough humility to not need to be the center of attention, and not to project certainty when there is not certainty.

Spiritual leadership involves a blending of qualities that might seem opposed to one another. For example, spiritual leaders are often characterized by humility and openness to others and other ideas … while also exhibiting a steely resolve. There can be a sense of urgency, but without the accompanying anxiety that often dominates high-energy organizational cultures.

“He who has found authentic peace within himself is in a position to assist others who are still seekers, but he who has not yet transcended mere theories and erudite studies about peace can only give them some more thoughts to add to the burden that they already carry. … He who is unhappy in himself, or whose home is discordant and unhappy, can show the way to happiness only out of the intellect, not out of experience.” – Paul Brunton

The influence of spiritual leaders flows from who they are … not what they say, and not from a few selected behaviors designed to “make a statement.” This is the heart of what Gandhi was offering to the world when he said, “My life is my message.” This is the heart of what Martin Luther King was offering to the world when his speeches calling for civil rights were clearly emerging from his own pursuit of civil rights, and his own sacrifices and willingness to face risks and dangers. This was what gave Nelson Mandela the authority to speak and influence people … because he had lived what he talked about.

None of these leaders were perfect. They all had their flaws, as does every human being. The point is that their power emanated from something within them that was deeper than skill or personality. They were able to motivate and encourage others on a path because it was a path that they themselves were taking. In that sense, they were offering moral leadership … leading by example as well as by words.

But spiritual leadership encompasses that, and goes even deeper. It involves having strong character, and leading by example, but there is something more. That “more” is the leader’s understanding of of spiritual realities, experience of personal transformation as these realities are lived, and the ability to articulate them to others. People around the leader, who themselves are seeking to live in attunement with the Spirit, as opposed to the ego (what the apostle Paul called “walking by the Spirit” or “keeping in step with the Spirit”), will recognize and resonate with the leader whose own life manifests that attunement.

“If we merely repeat the words of our teachers, we become like parrots and our own teaching will be empty, without direct experience.” – Frans Stiene

People in our time are desperate for these kinds of leaders. This has been true since the beginning of time, but it seems especially important now. I don’t have the interest or ability to diagnose what’s happening to churches in our culture, or with followers of other religions, or the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

But I fervently believe that all people have a spiritual core, and when political, community, or religious leaders fail to recognize and develop this core within themselves, they will fail to nurture it in others, and the culture will be impoverished. The religious organizations will diminish in power, and eventually in size as well.

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