What Is Spiritual Leadership Anyway?

What Is Spiritual Leadership Anyway? by Dr. Greg Waddell

Painting by Arnold Friberg. Available at Wikipedia

George Washington was one of the greatest leaders of all time.  By many estimates, he was a real man’s man, able to command the respect of his troops and to take swift action against anything that would bring detriment to their success. But, there is another side to Washington that anyone who studies his leadership will find very evident and that is that he trusted his subordinates and sought to build their capacity to lead others and carry on their work without his direct intervention. This is a key component of spiritual leadership.

Have you noticed? Spirituality is in vogue in the business world. Unfortunately, the word itself conveys so many different things to different people it has become almost unable to carry any real meaning. Nevertheless, I think spirituality and being a spiritual person and particularly a spiritual leader is an urgent need of these times we are living. Instead of trying to define spirituality, I want to describe the behavior of a spiritual leader.

First, this type of leadership is not driven by a narcissistic dark spot in the leader’s character — as is much of leadership in the modern world. Instead, the spiritual leader is empowered by true inner strength, which — in addition to bottom-line results — produces spiritual outcomes. This kind of leadership might be described as walking by universal spiritual principles and being led by the source of those principles.

Many leaders depend too much on command and control management and external reward systems. Spiritual leaders see helping their followers grow toward freedom as a core motivational strategy. Such leaders are champions for freedom and work to develop their follower’s abilities and skills for handling this freedom responsibly.

This approach is similar to Doug McGregor’s Theory Y style of leadership. Theory Y managers perceive people as motivated by the work itself and not by external threats. Under this paradigm, people are self-directed toward goals to which they are genuinely committed. Even in situations where the risk of failure may be high, this type of leader expresses confidence that their followers will use their freedom to make the right choices.

In order to allow that kind of freedom and possess that level of confidence, spiritual leaders must develop trust. Trust is a type of confidence about things you anticipate will take place but haven’t yet materialized. Spiritual leadership addresses people today according to what they will become tomorrow. Spiritual leaders are, therefore, optimistic about the future and about people.

Spiritual leaders help people grow toward maturity through approximation. They are not scandalized by imperfection but are willing to dedicate the time needed to help people reach their potential.

Jesus Christ expressed this kind of trust in his followers when he referred to them as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). I can imagine those who were listening to these words saying to themselves, “Who is he talking about? Surely not us.” Jesus didn’t consider them only in their current condition; he visualized what they could become by following him.

This level of commitment to their follower’s development occurs when leaders have a genuine concern for people. Spiritual leaders work to form a team characterized by mutual concern among all its members. They are committed to the growth and well-being of others. They look at people holistically, not just in terms of an individual’s contribution to the organization.

Finally, spiritual leadership is expressed through service. Spiritual leaders treat their people as they would want to be treated if they were in the same position in the organization. Great leaders must first serve others and this simple fact is central to his or her greatness. True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a desire to help others.

In other words, spiritual leaders instill a culture of service throughout the organization, a culture that percolates out to all constituents of the organization.

What do you think? How do these concepts of trust, concern, and service work in the chaotic world of organizational life?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

2 thoughts on “What Is Spiritual Leadership Anyway?

  1. I like this. You wrote, “Spiritual leaders help people grow toward maturity through approximation. They are not scandalized by imperfection but are willing to dedicate the time needed to help people reach their potential.”
    Whether it’s spiritual leadership in business, a home fellowship, or as a stay-at-home mom, we need to be un-shocked by imperfection and flaw. We need to understand that potential can be reached, not born innate. Great post.

    • Thanks Tidbitter,
      I genuinely appreciate your encouraging words. Yes. being short-fused with people and demanding they meet your criteria now, w/out showing them respect and taking an interest in their development is not a sign of leadership but of immaturity. Thanks for coming by.

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