Leadership as spiritual practice

Posted by: Tom Pappas
Category: Leader's Gymnasium

Humanity’s greatest and most effective friends do two things: they awaken, and they share their awakening with the world. ~ Roger Walsh

Building a spiritual practice – what we call ‘spiritual weightlifting,’ – is an important process to help reach our full potential. Whether in the stillness of solitude or the busyness of everyday life, we need to find time to focus on our inner growth. To many leaders this may sound quite mundane. Who has time for silence when there is so much action to be done?

You may be surprised to learn that this inward path mirrors the approach that some of history’s greatest spiritual leaders and philosophers have undertaken.

Withdrawal and Return – The cycle of history’s greatest leaders

Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote about “the cycle of withdrawal and return.”  It is a two-step process of secluded practice followed by service.  Socrates, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Budha, Christ, Mohammed and the prophets of Israel have all had a profound spiritual realization then devoted their lives serving their fellow man.

Now, I am not saying you are going to be a founder of a spiritual movement. But if the approach works for some of history’s greatest leaders, why can’t it work for you as well.

…To go up alone into the mountain and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends. ~ Evelyn Underhill

As I reflect on this most important practice, I’ve come to a striking conclusion: Leadership is more than an organizational position, it’s a spiritual practice. In fact, done properly, ethically and morally, leadership is the ultimate spiritual practice.

Let me explain.

Leadership as service

I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. ~ Rabindranath Tagore, Noble Prize-winning Indian Poet

You’ve probably heard the expression ‘servant-leader.’  First coined by Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 article The Servant as Leader, it explains that the best leaders are servants first.  Servant-leadership is not a new concept. The military has been practicing it for centuries.  When I was in the military I was told my priorities where: the Mission, the Men (our team) and finally Me. The military taught being precedes doing; that character is the foundation of leadership and that serving your soldiers is the way to achieve the mission. Duty, Honor and Country, is the motto and mantra we were taught at West Point. To server others, your soldiers and your country, is the highest calling and duty of military leaders. The same applies to all leaders, whether working for public or private institutions.

The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. ~ Albert Schweitzer

Service as spiritual practice

As you reflect on the benefits of service you will notice an interesting thing: service is not only an expression of our growth and awakening but also a means to achieve this growth. All the religions of the world speak about the importance of generosity and the notion that it is better ‘to give than to receive.’ Roger Walsh notes that ‘even the supreme goal of enlightenment is sought, not for oneself, but to better serve and enlighten others.’

Leadership as the ultimate spiritual practice.

Putting these two concepts together one comes to an amazing conclusion: that leadership itself is the ultimate spiritual practice. You can almost apply mathematical logic to this reasoning:

  • if leadership = service, and
  • service = spiritual practice
  • then, leadership = spiritual practice.

More than just a title or a position in an organization, leadership done well, ethically and morally, becomes the highest form of spiritual practice.

The Hindu tradition highlights the importance of this concept in what they call karma yoga. Here action is transformed into awakening service.

“The two-thousand-year-old Bhagavad Gita brings us a series of surprising principles for living and optimal life, and for transforming skillful action into spiritual practice,” wrote Stephen Cope in his book The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to your True Calling. This is the path of karma yoga.

Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself ~ Thomas Merton

Stephen Cope highlights something crucial for all of us, especially we leaders: our everyday lives are really the center of our spiritual practice. “In fact, the Bhagavad Gita was written precisely to show us how to make the world of action (the marketplace, the workplace, the family) an arena for spiritual development. Indeed, it portrays the ‘battlefield’ of life – real life, everyday life – as the most potent venue for transformation.”

Author: Tom Pappas

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