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At a recent online Leadership Summit, I attended recently, the word(s) spiritual or spiritual journey was used more than once. For a first-time attendee this might seem strange. They could be forgiven for thinking they had walked into the wrong conference! “I thought this was about leadership- not religion”, they might have said to themselves! Any they would be right. The conference had nothing to do with religion and all to do with developing leaders and leadership.

That got me thinking why the word spiritual?

Let’s start with a definition of the word spirit. One dictionary definition says spirit is “the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body”. Another definition suggests spirit is the “non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character”. Both definitions suggest that our spirit is the core of who we truly are- when we are overtly conscious of how we ‘show up‘ as humans.

When leaders go through leadership development programs, typically they start with the leadership fundamentals. These can include learning about the difference between a leader and manager: how to delegate, how to recruit the optimal staff, how to deliver performance feedback and how to have ongoing coaching conversations. Later they will move onto more business related topics such as setting strategy, creating an effective operating rhythm for their team or organisation, understanding the financials of an organisation, marketing tactics for segmented customers, merger and acquisition diligence and the like. All of these are fundamental aspects of organisational-based leadership.

As the leader performs and received promotions in the organisation, their own development is eventually capped at the level of their own consciousness.
What this means is if the leader does not understand the impact they have- both positively and negatively in the organisation, the own development stalls. Their leadership impact then stalls or goes backwards, particularly the more senior they get. In fact at the recent Summit, some speakers illustrated how their leadership liabilities actually cancel out the positive impact of their leadership. At some stage the leader will need to overcome their own liabilities as a leader.

The very friendly leader who has an inherent need to be liked will need to overcome that trait in order to make tough decisions.

The aloof leader who is really intelligent and wants us all to know that will need to overcome their desire to be seen to be intelligent and move towards a place of assisting the organisation through sharing her wisdom.

The control freak who pushes all outcomes and (believes) they hold high standards will have to learn that they are also pushing people out of the organisation.

Through their own need to be overtly in control of everything they are telling everyone else that the leader does not trust them. They are showing everyone else that Darth Vader is in town in the form of their leader! Eventually the organisation moves to not trusting the leader and the leader has to go.

This is what is meant by a spiritual journey.

If we believe that spirit is the purest sense of who we are as humans, then we also believe that our ego gets in the way of that illumination. Overcoming our own humanity (needs to be liked, admired, in control etc.) is our personal transformation. That becomes the complete change in our character and nature where we ultimately get out of our own way.

The control freak who pushes all outcomes and (believes) they hold high standards will have to learn that they are also pushing people out of the organisation.

In the 2015 released book, Mastering Leadership, Anderson and Adams outline the development needed for leaders to get out of their own way. The journey is not easy! It would appear that self -awareness is neither sexy or interesting, but absolutely fundamental for the leader to be able to overcome themselves.
Sogval Rinpoche, the Tibetan leader, once observed when leaders who are developing towards their own spirit are courageous enough to taste and relate to their own fears. This is not seen as a failure but rather is seen as a purification.

I really like that notion of purification.

It suggests that we all have very noble intentions as leaders. We genuinely hold a deep desire to be the best we can be. But our humanity as expressed thorough our own fears- drives us to get in our own way and not fully realise what we actually could.
Therefore, the journey to realising our full potential-despite the cliché involved- is actually a journey to remember who we already are (our inherent spirit) and to let go of the fears we are bringing to the table as leaders. The starting point is acknowledging for ourselves that we all naturally have desires and beliefs that may no longer be working for us- such as the need to be in control of everything your team does.

Two questions come to mind that are useful to ponder?

What behaviours do I exhibit that are possibly getting in the way of your team?
What fears or beliefs sit beneath that behaviour that I might need to re consider?

Padraig (Pod) O’Sullivan is the Founding Partner of The Leadership Context, a leadership advisory firm specialising in top team development and accelerating leadership transitions. He is the author of the award winning ‘Foreigner In Charge’ book series.
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