As leaders continue to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, many have decided to take up meditation, mindfulness, and other forms of spiritual practices to help them cope with unprecedented uncertainty and stress. This has prompted us to reflect a bit deeper on the role of spirituality in leadership. This article explores the concept of spirituality and its role in helping leaders be more effective.

Spirituality is a dimension of the human experience that has gained quite a bit of popularity in the last three decades. This increased awareness around Spirituality has fueled a multidisciplinary body of research that explores its impact and role on different aspect of our life, general health and well being.

Strictly linked to religion for the longest time it is only during the last century that an idea of spirituality as distinct from religion starts being accepted in the western world. This modern idea of spirituality includes religion but also refers to a subjective experience and an intimate, direct knowledge of the sacred, freed from religious dogma.

Spirituality expresses itself through different kind of practices. Various forms of organized prayer, meditation, yoga, and some relaxation techniques are all recognized spiritual modalities that have enjoyed an increased following in the last decades.

In the last 20 years of exploring spirituality, we have observed how every kind of spiritual practice essentially aims at shifting one’s consciousness from the outer world to the inner self. Through various techniques, modalities, or rituals we are led to go inward. Through regular practice we are invited to explore, question, and get to know ourselves from within.

This kind of self reflection helps integrate intellectual learned knowledge and personal life experiences and can directly support our growth and transformation as human beings.

Practicing some form of spiritual technique promotes the ability to still the mind, get off the hamster wheel that keeps on spinning with our worries, to do lists, duties and commitments, and helps us just be in the present moment- even for just a brief period time. Being able to be here and now becomes the basis for acceptance and inner happiness.

Ultimately, the conscious exploration of our inner territory offers an opportunity to directly connect to the mystery of life and find the answers to our existential questions: What is Life? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Who am I?

With time, we develop our own intimate connection and we start listening and trusting our own inner voice to answer our questions. Our role in the world and our purpose become clearer and our perspective expands beyond our own immediate needs.

Spirituality feeds that part of us that seeks to understand the meaning of life and our role in it, helps us digest our life experiences, develop self-awareness through self reflection, gain perspective, and ultimately grow and transform.

It is a way to take care of ourselves and our needs so that we can be present to the needs of others. After taking the time to go within and explore our inner self we can move the focus on the outside again. Our newly gained perspective can now inform our actions with clarity of intent and vision, helping us find and pave our own way.

We don’t see these as two separate phases of spirituality – first within and then without - but a continuous movement where we shift from the outer world to the inner self and come out again centered, refreshed and renewed to start the cycle again.

Spirituality and spiritual practices, therefore, plays a key role in helping leaders be more effective in several ways. First it provides leaders with an opportunity to quiet the mind, gain perspective, reflect, and achieve some degree of clarity. Second, and as we have explored, spiritual practices often provide leaders the space to reflect on themselves, their behaviors, thinking, and reactions to the world around them. This naturally leads to further self-knowledge and ultimately self-acceptance. At Insight Leadership we consider the ability to reflect and the development of self-awareness as two of the three fundamental building blocks to effective leadership (the third is to have a systematic approach).

If we turn to Abraham Maslow, the famous American psychologist, and inventor of the Hierarchy of Needs, we can see how Spirituality plays a role in fulfilling the needs at the higher levels of the hierarchy. As per Maslow’s theory, when the needs at the first level of the scale are met, we seek to fulfil the needs on the next level, and so on. After fulfilling physiological, safety, social, and self-esteem needs we look to fulfill self-actualisation and self-transcendence needs.

Most leadership development programs respond to the desire to fulfill the need of self-actualization. Leaders are given tools and strategies to develop self-esteem, self-awareness, self-discipline, to uncover their potential, their purpose, and find the motivation to achieve their goals. Initially, self-actualization was the highest level of development in Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.

Years after the development of his initial theory, Maslow added one more need beyond self actualization: self transcendence, which goes beyond individual needs. Self-transcendent people are guided from within and they work in service to others in whatever way is right for them. Their perspective is expanded, and their goals and causes are greater than themselves. Their actions are geared toward the highest good of the world around them. Highly effective leaders often describe their work their mission in those terms. They understand that achieving sustainable results can only really be done if they are in the service of others.

The notion that leadership is a position of service is not new. It is the motto of the prestigious Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and has been discussed in leadership development for years. Highly effective leaders will often explain that they are at their best when helping others whether they be their direct reports, the employees of the company, the consumer or society at large.