Spirituality – esoteric nonsense or the master key to successful leadership?


Michael Kraushaar,

Santiago G. Ponce.




“Change is the only constant in life” – After all these centuries, it seems that Heraclitus was right. However, there is something that he couldn’t predict; the pace of change. The post-industrial society embodies the perfect example in which a tremendous catalyst such as technology exponentially accelerates the speed of societal and organizational change.

While most of the organizational leaders partially respond to the changing environment, only a minority is gaining momentum. In this sense, we wonder, how do they succeed while others can barely cope with the requirements and constant societal changes? To answer this question, we’ve analyzed scientific evidence around leadership to understand better how managers can successfully act and react in this VUCA world.

New challenges, same solutions?

There are a plethora of studies around the traditional centralized, standardized, and formalized bureaucratic organizational form based on fear and built on control that has been the dominant organizational paradigm since the beginning of the industrial revolution (Fry 2003, p. 694; Ancona et al. 1999; Moxley 2000). Nowadays, even the leaders who were educated accordingly and hence, still sympathize with this type of leadership philosophy start to experience this approach’s inefficacy. Why? Well, the world is not the same, paradigms are changing, and individuals and organizations need to learn how to navigate the new complex and dynamic scenario. Thus, we need to deconstruct the idea of leadership based on fear and consciously embrace the emerging social structures’ demands.

The few successful organizations that we’ve mentioned early developed into what is known as learning organizations. A learning organization is one in which expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, and collective aspiration is set free. (Fry 2003, p. 694) In other words, it is love-led, customer/client-obsessed, intrinsically motivated, empowered team-based, flat (in structure), flexible (in capabilities), diverse (in personnel make-up) and networked (working with many other organizations in a symbiotic relationship) in alliances with suppliers, customers/clients, and even competitors, innovative, and global (Fry 2003, p. 694; Ancona et al. 1999).

Thus, for the learning organization, developing, leading, motivating, organizing, and retaining people to be committed to the organization’s vision, goals, culture, and values are the major challenge. (Fry 2003, p. 694) This is not an easy task, as it requires the full commitment of the leadership team as well as the whole organization. It goes beyond complying and isomorphism (Meyer and Rowan 1977); it requires spiritual leadership. Louis W. Fry defines this approach as comprising the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are necessary to intrinsically motivate one’s self and others so that they have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and membership (Fry 2003, pp. 694–695). In the following lines, we’ll try to unveil and explain the fundamental ideas around this definition.

Demystifying spirituality

Introducing spirituality into the world of business might come as a big surprise and surely triggers questions and doubts for most of us. Therefore, first, we need to shed some light on spirituality’s meaning. For many years this idea has been a synonym of religion. However, emerging social structures demand a more comprehensive approach. In this sense, and based on scientific evidence, spirituality is considered a psychological characteristic of all human beings, encompassing the ubiquitous desire for a meaningful life, wholeness, and interconnectedness with others (Weinberg and Locander 2014, p. 391; Zinnbauer et al. 1999).

However, some people might still consider the latter as esoteric nonsense with no place in business; after all, it’s a matter of the individual mindset. Most likely, that same mindset struggles to hire and retain talent in organizations or sadly seduce employees and candidates only through extrinsic motivation such as promotions, pay increases, bonus checks, insurance benefits, and vacation time, or even worse through pressure to perform, supervisory behavior and creating an atmosphere of fear. (Fry 2003, p. 698). After all, in the DACH region, a vast majority of the companies face the kind of troubles resulting from this approach (Bush 2018).

What seems to be clear is that emerging social structures, as well as the new generations, embody a mindset pretty close to the one described in the definition of spirituality, which requires a significantly different approach. Studies about the organizational crisis in hiring and retaining candidates who belong to the millennial generation pointed out that this demographic segment holds values, attitudes, and expectations that are significantly different from those of the generations of workers that preceded them (Schweitzer et al. 2010, p. 281). What is more, this trend seems to gain momentum with Generation Z. Recent studies show evidence on the importance of spirituality from the employees’ viewpoint by accepting lower salaries for doing meaningful work (Hu and Hirsh 2017)

Unlocking motivation

In the definition of spiritual motivation, we noticed the importance of intrinsic motivation. Generally speaking, motivation is primarily concerned with what energizes human behavior, what directs or channels such behavior, and how this behavior is maintained or sustained. The basic building blocks of a generalized model of the motivation process are needs or expectations, behavior, goals or performance, rewards, and some form of feedback (Fry 2003, p. 698; Galbraith, JR 1977; Steers and Porter 1983).

We need to make a distinction between the external and the internal types of motivation. We briefly pointed out some examples of extrinsic motivation, which can be reward or fear-based. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is defined as interest and enjoyment of an activity for its own sake. It is associated with active engagement in tasks that people find exciting and fun, and that, in turn, promote growth and satisfy higher-order needs. Intrinsic motivation is associated with better learning, performance, and well-being (Benware and Deci 1984; Deci and Ryan 2000; Valås and Søvik 1994). It is believed to result from an individual’s basic need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. (Fry 2003, p. 699)

While extrinsic motivation offers reward as something external to the task and seems to have lost momentum, intrinsic motivation thrives because the job is already a reward. As we previously pointed out, working on something that people consider meaningful as well as prioritizing the interconnection with others are fundamental elements that contribute to developing an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation.

Workplace Spirituality: Calling & Membership

There is an emerging and accelerating call for spirituality in the workplace (Fry 2003, p. 702). Companies around the globe offer a set of different disciplines such as Yoga and mindfulness practices, which are rooted in finding harmony between body, mind, heart, and spirit. According to Giacalone and Jurkiewicz, workplace spirituality is a framework of organizational values evidenced in a culture that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through the work process, facilitating their sense of being connected in a way that provides feelings of compassion and joy. (Fry 2003, p. 703; Giacalone and Jurkiewicz 2003).

Besides, workplace spirituality must, therefore, be comprehended within a holistic or system context of interwoven cultural and personal values. Also, to be of benefit to leaders and their organizations, any definition of workplace spirituality must demonstrate its utility by impacting performance, turnover, and productivity, and other relevant effectiveness criteria (Fry 2003, p. 703; Sass 2000).

Fleischman, Maddock, and Fulton present these two aspects of workplace spirituality—a sense of transcendence, calling, or being called (vocationally) and a need for social connection or membership (Fleischman 1989; Maddock and Fulton 1998). Let’s shed some light on these fundamental concepts.

On the one hand, calling, which we’ve already mentioned in previous sections, refers to the experience of transcendence or how one makes a difference through service to others and, in doing so, derives meaning and purpose in life. Many people seek not only competence and mastery to realize their full potential through their work but also the sense that work has some social meaning or value (Fry 2003, pp. 703–704; Pfeffer 2003).

On the other hand, membership encompasses the cultural and social structures we are immersed in and through which we seek, what William James, the founder of modern psychology, called man’s most fundamental need—to be understood and appreciated. Having a sense of being understood and appreciated is mostly a matter of interrelationship and connection through social interaction and, thus, membership. (Fry 2003, p. 704)

What does it take?

In the previous lines, we’ve tried to share a fascinating leadership approach, which might resonate you with the servant leadership style (Fairholm 2000; Greenleaf 1977); that considers the full capacities, potential, needs, and interests of both the leader and followers as well as the goals of the organization. They must develop inspiring vision and mission statements that foster the development of a spirit of cooperation, trust, mutual caring, and a commitment to the team and organizational effectiveness. And, they must be competent in four areas to gain follower acceptance: credibility, teaching, trust, and inspiration as well as to be knowledgeable about the group’s workings. (Fry 2003, p. 710).

Figure 1 synthesizes the model that we’ve tried to share. On top of the concepts already described, the author of this fascinating article, emphasizes two main topics that are required to put in practice this model. First, creating a vision wherein organization members experience a sense of calling in that their life has meaning and makes a difference.

Second, establishing a social/organizational culture based on altruistic love whereby leaders and followers have genuine care, concern, and appreciation for both self and others, thereby producing a sense of membership and being understood and appreciated. (Fry 2003, p. 711)


 Figure 1: Fry 2003 – Toward a theory of spiritual leadership (Fry 2003, p. 695)


Designing business models, strategies, processes, tools, and following-up on their implementation already takes a vast amount of energy and time from leaders. All these activities are a necessary condition for a successful business, but there is increasing evidence that this is not sufficient anymore to cope with the challenges of today and the future. These activities are all critical to building the right framework, let us call it the “right engine,” but today more than ever a key is required to switch-on this engine and to unfold its power. The focus on the mindset of the people involved and the resulting behaviors, as postulated in the approach of spiritual leadership, offer exactly this missing key.

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