Spirituality and Community on the Leadership Agenda: Authentic or Cynical?

I’ve spoken with internal development people in two global firms, household names, in the last fortnight and noticed, with some surprise, how spirituality is now overtly at the heart of the development agenda for senior leaders. 

Last month, Professor Michael Porter challenged business schools to rethink their curricula and respond to graduates’ hunger for a greater sense of purpose.

Dee Hock, founder of VISA and one of the most radical business entrepreneurs of the last century, describes the journey of his career and life in distinctly spiritual terms as “a story of harbouring four beasts that inevitably devour their keeper: ego, envy, avarice, and ambition; and of a great bargain, trading ego for humility, envy for equanimity, avarice for time, and ambition for liberty”.

Exercising wise leadership requires the kind of growing self-knowledge and self-discipline that Dee Hock refers to, knowing our needs, drives and vulnerabilities, and reaching over time for a purpose beyond and bigger than our small self and our easily threatened ego – all of these are necessary, valuable spiritual leadership disciplines.

Have you also noticed that community is now emerging on the agenda in a new way? Internally, the community question for organisations is framed as how do we create horizontal integration – belonging, commitment and collaboration – to a larger purpose than just my department/business unit or my career. Externally, the question of the moment is can we develop a new kind of capitalism “imbued with a social purpose” and if so, how do we do it?

In terms of the UK and the ‘Big Society’ agenda championed by David Cameron, the government has awarded a contract to train 5,000 Community Organisers to Locality. Jess Steele, Director at Locality, commented that the tender brief required that the successful provider had to draw on the work of Saul Alinsky (Obama was trained in this tradition of community organising) and Paulo Freire (Brazilian radical and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Is this a cynical appropriation of community activist traditions – a smokescreen to give sham integrity to the Big Society? Or is it an authentic pursuit of an agenda to which Cameron is genuinely committed, and for which he is getting no political brownie points, from any side?

Authenticity in my mind is associated with transparency, integrity, congruence, openness. Cynicism is a self-protective attitude: people often say the cynic is the disappointed idealist who’s seen too much duplicity and disingenuousness – those times when people (and themselves) have said one thing and done another. Maybe each of us is more a mixture of the authentic and the inauthentic than we care to admit. I know that on occasions I fit in, go along with things, often with good intentions – in that sense, I’m inauthentic.  At other times, I choose not to challenge the power structures and the dominant narrative. Sometimes we don’t have the energy, will or self-awareness to acknowledge the growing gap between our declared intentions and how we are and what we do. That’s where good colleagues and friends, who will point that gap out to us, are invaluable.

So what’s your response to this emerging agenda on community and spirituality? Cynicism? Or do you think it’s authentic?

I recall a conversation with a senior partner in one of the big four consultancies, a number of years ago, when I discussed the topic of spirituality and leadership development. “John”, he said, “that’s a topic that would have been a good bet a year ago, but it’s just not the right time on the FTSE at the moment”.   I was gobsmacked, but shouldn’t have been, as he continued to describe how at a future point, when the market had improved, a spirituality offering could be developed, as if it was just another management tool. The temptation to use people’s deepest motivations, and cynically appropriate or manipulate them, is the quickest way to discredit spirituality and the organisation’s reputation. On reflection, this partner’s comments reflect a systemic problem: the tyranny of measurement, the belief that everything valuable and significant can be measured. Not everything can be or should be monetized and measured. Measurement is a useful tool but only fools worship their tools, and in the domain of community and spirituality, those things that sustain us and give our organisational and wider lives significance and purpose cannot easily be measured.

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One Response to Spirituality and Community on the Leadership Agenda: Authentic or Cynical?

  1. Danny Chesterman says:

    Thanks John for your stimulating thoughts on the place of spirituality in our organisational lives. I wanted to pick up two points in particular.

    One is to notice just now how many people (admittedly mostly but not exclusively in the public sector where I mainly work) are reporting a loss of meaning in their work, as layer after layer of change accelerates without the space to make sense of it and before the next wave is upon them. In such conditions, it seems that (perversely) people do fall back on deeper levels of discerning in their hunger to make meaning, which might emanate from the spirit.

    The other connection is that I’ve noticed a growing interest in exploring what place wisdom has in our organisational lexicon, and as a word carries a lot less baggage than a word like leadership ! And is anchored in everyday spirituality. I’ve been noticing that asking questions like what would a wise action be at this point encourages people to access ways of knowing that are held elsewhere than in our heads……perhaps in our bodies, in our ancient stories, in the bigger system. Julie Allen is doing some interesting work on this and shared some of it at a recent meeting of the Organisation Development and Innovation Network….

    Danny (Chesterman)

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