Spirituality in Leadership

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Spirituality in Leadership

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 peoplepeople who exhibit compassion to other employees, superiors, subordinates, and customers.


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. However, this trend has precedent. To a degree, business leaders have historically been concerned with the lives of their employees, including religion. In the nineteenth century, certain factoriessuch as the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusettsenvisioned themselves not just as profitable concerns, but also as institutions that contributed to the moral character of their workers. Similarly, the historian Anthony Wallace documented how the wives of factory owners in the mid-nineteenth century founded churches and other institutions because they were concerned about the religious salvation of their husbands' employees. Later, corporations such as Ford Motor Company also took an interest in their employees' moral development. However, many came to see these practices as too invasive into the personal lives of employees. Today, it is generally held that companies should not have that much access into the lives of their employees.

Still, many employees look to the workplace as a means of finding meaning in their lives. In highly mobile societies such as the United States, people may end up residing great distances from their rootsnamely, where they grew up and where their family and close friends still reside. Many spend more time in the work-place 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 people call work and how these activities fit within the greater fabric of an individual's life. 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.

Spirituality in the workplace can take on many different flavors. For example, many new economy companies of the late 1990s were operated or staffed by people who came of age during the 1960s. As a result, some of these companies had a pervasive spiritual atmosphere that owed much to that time period (for instance, there are stories of executives who did yoga). More recently, spirituality in the workplace has meant a search for work that is more meaningful and rooted in social responsibility. Anita Roddick (19422007), founder of the Body Shop, was one corporate leader who sought to infuse her business activities with this type of spirituality through social responsibility.

Other types of spiritual workplaces do incorporate traditional and established religions into the workplace. Some authors and consultants note that achieving spiritual workplaces often takes effort, such as incorporating a set of values into a company's mission statement. In 2008, a Canadian newspaper reported that some companies in that country had begun hiring corporate chaplains.


The study of leadership is multi-faceted and definitions of leadership vary, but in general, all definitions of leadership agree that it involves exerting influence on other people. If a leader in the workplace possesses a strong sense of spirituality that affects his or her attitudes, emotions, and behaviors in a positive way, then the leader is likely to influence subordinates to pursue the development of spirituality in their own lives. This raises at least two questions: What leadership approach or style effectively promotes spirituality in the workplace? and What benefits are derived from fostering spirituality in the workplace?

There appears to be a shift in approaches to leadership in the workplace, with an increasing focus on more holistic approaches that focus on compassion, encouragement, empathy, and service. Some contend that the greatest aspects of leadership are assisting followers in finding meaning and purpose in their work and fostering a sense of community among followers. This point of view suggests that spirituality in leadership does not involve directives and the chain of command, but transformational leadership that defines the organization's values and helps followers perceive that they are contributing to a valuable and worthwhile goal set.

Although there is little if any empirical evidence that any particular leadership approach or style would be more or less consistent with spirituality in the workplace, two leadership approaches seem to be more closely related to the concept of spiritual leadership than others: servant leadership and transformational leadership.

Servant Leadership. Servant leadership is not a full-fledged theory of leadership but can be thought of as a philosophy of leadership. It de-emphasizes the position of power or elite status of the leader. Instead, this approach to leadership suggests that the leader must first be a servant of others. It suggests that leaders must place the needs of subordinates, customers, and the community ahead of their own interests in order to be effective. Characteristics of servant leaders include empathy, stewardship, and commitment to the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of their subordinates. Servant leadership is consistent with aspects of Christianity, but is not a Christian theory per se. Servant leadership has not been subjected to extensive empirical testing but has generated considerable interest among both leadership scholars and practitioners.

Transformational Leadership. Beginning in the 1970s, a number of leadership theories emerged that focused on the importance of a leader's charisma to leadership effectiveness. Included within this class of theories are House's theory of charismatic leadership, Bass's transformational leadership theory, and Conger and Kanungo's charismatic leadership theory. These theories have much in common. They all focus on attempting to explain how leaders can accomplish extraordinary things against the odds, such as turning around a failing company, founding a successful company, or achieving great military success against incredible odds. The theories also emphasize the importance of leaders' inspiring subordinates' admiration, dedication, and unquestioned loyalty through articulating a clear and compelling vision.

Transformational leadership theory differentiates between the transactional and the transformational leader. Transactional leadership focuses on role and task requirements and utilizes rewards contingent on performance. By contrast, transformational leadership focuses on developing mutual trust, fostering the leadership abilities of others, and setting goals that go beyond the short-term needs of the work group. Bass's transformational leadership theory identifies four aspects of effective leadership, which include charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and consideration. A leader who exhibits these qualities will inspire subordinates to be high achievers and put the long-term interest of the organization ahead of their own short-term interest, according to the theory. Empirical research has supported many of the theory's propositions. Thus, transformational leadership styles would seem to be consistent with a spiritual approach to 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.

There are also some who suggest that spirituality in the workplace makes good business sense. For example, some note that people will be more productive when they find work that is meaningful to them. This requires managers to be active in fostering such environments.

Some have also commented that a degree of spirituality in the workplace can actually become a competitive advantage. For example, in a 2008 article, Stanley E. Fawcett, James Brau, Gary Rhoads, and David Whitlark cite Southwest Airlines as an example of an organization that has consciously worked to create a corporate culture that is meaningful to its employees. The authors also note that since technologies can be reproduced very quickly, spirituality in a company's culture can be an asset. They argue that spiritual workplaces are also corporate cultures that focus on employees and often have similar values. They work to make employees feel valuable to the organization and to foster a sense of community among workers.

SEE ALSO Leadership Styles and Bases of Power; Leadership Theories and Studies


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