"Who are you really, wanderer?” - William Stafford Reading more poetry lately has taught me that poets, gifted with this unique communication style, ask really penetrating questions. Stafford, an Oregon Poet Laureate, sends a penetrating question to us all in this quote: Wanderer, who are you? Really, who are you? This question begs a leader to self-examine, which is work that so many leaders just don’t want to spend the time to do.
So much of leadership development work is focused on the outer life these days, including things like goals to accomplish, skills to develop, or problems to be solved. The objective of this kind of work often seems to be gaining credibility and marketability.
We try to define who we are by what we do.
This includes the goals we have set, the objective measures we strive to meet, the problems we are able to solve. What item do I need to check off my list to give me that feeling of accomplishment and show others what I have done? How can I continue to justify my existence and the work I've been doing?
Now, those of you who read this column on any regular basis know that I am not opposed to outer work: development of skills and talents, the 'doing' part of who we are, the observable economy of leadership, the accomplishment of tasks, the progression of the agenda.
All of this kind of work is very important. I don’t want to minimize that.
I do not argue against improving on one's outer life, but want to point out that to focus only on this part of development is shallow and does not engage the entire person. My point is to challenge the leader to become more intentional about developing their inner life.
My motivation for this post comes from my own research on the subject of wisdom that I did a few years ago. I surveyed 185 executive coaches and asked them to validate 10 different parts of a wisdom model. They were to think about their work as an executive coach and were then asked if they thought the development of things like knowledge, experience, community, and courage were areas they would work to develop wisdom in organizational leaders. For most of the 10 aspects of wisdom we tested, roughly 70% of those surveyed said they did work to develop that attribute...except one.
Of the executive coaches I surveyed, 70% said that if the situation presented itself, they WOULD NOT work with a leader to develop this component of wisdom.
Stop and think about that for a moment: executive coaches who get paid to develop leaders said that if some topic of spirituality presented itself, they would turn themselves away from helping develop the leader in that area.
Spiritual inner work is so needed by leaders at all levels in organizations.
Why is Wisdom Spiritual?
When our 3 kids were in grade school, every morning as they were going out the door my wife would say to them, "remember who you belong to!"
On the surface, this quote could have many meanings. But for those of you who actually know my wife and have spent any time with her, those words could only have one meaning: "Hey, kids! Do not forget you are children of the King."
And those of you who know my wife also know she was not referencing me in her royal reminder to the kids of their position in life. She was telling the kids as they went out into the world that they are children of God.
In Stafford's poem he writes:
"Who are you really, wanderer?" and the answer you have to give no matter how dark and cold the world around you is: "Maybe I'm a king."
While to my knowledge my wife never met William Stafford, they are in some ways united souls declaring that each of us is indeed royal. We are all kings and queens.
So, wanderer, if you are a king, then you have the inner work of wisdom to do.
Inner Work of Wisdom: Developing the Spirituality of the Leader
I spent about an hour researching what workplace spirituality even means. Turns out there is a quite immense body of literature on the subject.
Generally, spirituality is seen as being comprised of two components. The first is a search for a connection with some transcendent force in the universe, and often that there is a being or force that most religious dogmas call God who calls the human soul back to himself after the death of the physical body.
The second is that humans have a spirit. This spirit of man is involved in finding meaning and purpose in life. This means that as human beings, one of the royal quests we are on is to grow into our full potential.
Considering these very broad thoughts, we then turn to the question of how to develop the spirituality of a leader. Are there important components to spirituality that affect us as leaders? If so, then we need to work on our spiritual inner life to be more effective and authentic at this thing we call leadership. Here are four items I pulled from the literature that may resonate with you on your inner life and spirituality:
This constructs a leader's thoughts and feelings. It is what the leader believes in regards to the most important things in life. Worldview recognizes that our speech is one thing, but our actions may be something entirely different, and often more important. For example, a devout Christian may talk about love on a Sunday morning but then act like the devil the other 6 days in the week. This will cause outside observers like Gandhi to make claims like, “I like their Christ, but not their Christian.”
For leaders, a worldview is more than just thoughts or a collection of ideas. A worldview is encapsulated in the vision set forth by the leader, one that has been simmering for years of learning and experience. This vision is not based on the scientific method or model, instead, the worldview of the leader answers questions about spirituality, the world, life paradox’s, human nature, social relationships, relationship to self. It is the very essence and core of who the leader is, and ultimately it is what the leader is constantly trying to reconcile actions with. For most it is so subtle we don’t even recognize it is there, but it is consciously calling our actions to align with it.
While humans live in social communities of about 150 individuals, we have deep and abiding relationships with very few members of our tribe. Doctors Steve Stein and Howard Book, in their book EQ Edge, define interpersonal relationships as those that are mutually satisfying for both parties. If a relationship is going to meet the needs of both individuals, a connection must be established beyond the physical realm. It is easy to recognize that when we connect with the closest relationships in our community there is, what is often described as, a spiritual connection. We have a deeper, almost transcendent connection with some close friends that includes a level of understanding between both parties that we can form with no other creatures on this earth.
Dr. Vern Ludden, in his groundbreaking research on wisdom in organizational leadership, claims that most religions and cultures recognize that wisdom is not developed individually, but in community with others. Dr. Mathew Lieberman, in his book Social, gives physiologic support for the importance of community by comparing the size of the human's brain to the size of other animals' brains. Most animals on earth have a brain just large enough to support the body it is confined with. Not so with humans; they have a brain 10 times larger than needed. Current thought is that this extra capacity, found primarily in the neocortex, is for humans to manage the complexity of the diverse relationships that exist in the communities we are a part of.
Some call this humanity. Who among us doesn’t realize that we all make mistakes? And yet who among us gives that benefit of the doubt to others? I, for one, am quick to want others to say "Don't worry, no one is perfect," when I do wrong, but you best hope you are not the person who cuts me off in traffic or tries to get into the 10-items-or-less checkout line with an extra jar of peanut butter. The spirituality of the leader needs to move beyond humanity and into exploring humility. As a leader, do you actually have the ability to humble yourself? Can you raise the status of others highly enough that they can be seen instead of you? What does it take for you to admit that you might be leading your team in the wrong direction? How easy is it for you to ask and listen instead of command and control?