By Pratap Nambiar for Business World India

Spiritual maturity in the context of business leaders has much to do with selflessness, compassion, and mindfulness, all of which integrate into a way of leading that is designed to bring the best out of the team.

At first glance, spiritual maturity may seem to have little to do with business leadership. But after years of coaching business chiefs, and surveying the growing research in this area, I am increasingly convinced that good leaders need to be not just intellectually strong and emotionally grounded but also spiritually mature.

Being spiritual has nothing to do with being religious. An atheist or someone who is not a religious practitioner can be spiritually mature with a depth of character that is essentially human, going beyond material considerations alone, with sound beliefs and assumptions that are a function of a truly evolved mind. The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. To translate that into the day to day leadership behaviors based on key guiding principles requires a level of spiritual maturity that has the ability to shape the culture of the organization.

Spiritual maturity in the context of business leaders has much to do with selflessness, compassion, and mindfulness, all of which integrate into a way of leading that is designed to bring the best out of the team. Dr. David Drake, the founder of The Moment Institute, refers to it as enlightened pragmatism which comes from a combination of the inner and outer journey of vertical and horizontal development.

Contemplation, communion, and consolation are the developers of spiritual maturity that allow leaders to have the inner freedom to be responsible enough to appreciate the impact of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on themselves, others around them, and the world at large. It implies the ability to connect with something bigger than yourself, through nature, rituals, ceremonies, or deeper conversations.

Dr. Drake feels that spirituality is in part about consciously connecting to broader cycles of life and reality. Just sitting with someone who is dying, he says can teach us so much about ourselves, life and death, if the process is done well. Tapping into something beyond everyday life provides a perspective that will allow us to show up differently, create a new presence and energy that will help us work with our whole selves as we address bigger issues.

During the last six months that I have been interacting with my CEO clients throughout this pandemic period, there is a renewed vigour in terms of how leaders are beginning to repurpose their egos and look at the world through a different lens. They are asking questions never asked before and having conversations with their people in a way that they have never done before.

Some speak of a new way of being that has started emerging, one that questions the very purpose of their existence. There is a process of rewinding, or relooking at their old stories, their old narratives, and trying to reshape their identities and shift mindsets to overcome the vagaries of business.

In the words of American author and management consultant Robert Fritz: “People often get caught in the polarity between succumbing to their resistance and trying to overcome it. The result is an oscillation between changes, rather than real advancement.”

Spiritual maturity enables leaders to remain present to what is rather than chasing what should be. They embrace the uncertainty and are willing to relinquish control as they deal with adaptive challenges and experiment with possibilities without fear of failure. As Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz puts it, overcoming dichotomies requires a mindset that allows you to be both “on the stage” in the center of the action, – and “on the balcony” observing yourself at the same time.

The Third Way 

With the onset of spiritual maturity, leaders are able to recognize that there are aspects of themselves that make them show up both as a saint and a sinner. It is like you are able to take on the identity of both an Israeli and a Palestinian, an Indian and a Pakistani at the same time. This requires the skill of reconciliation, being neither this nor that, but a new version by creating a third space that allows for the integration of the two apparently conflicting identities.

The spiritual dimension allows leaders to deal with this duality by creating a third way, a middle path that helps them reconcile the apparent conflict without in any way compromising on what is in the best interest of both. To do this they need to shift their old narratives about themselves and create a new story of what they are moving towards.

Take DBS Bank. “To be the best bank in the world, we started by trying to be the best bank in the world for the world. “ That is the headline of their full-page ad. At DBS they believe banking has a larger purpose, in good times and tough times alike. In fact, being purpose driven is core to how they run their business. So core, that their vision has been redirected to become purpose-driven. To be the best bank in the world and the best bank for a better world is not a question of either/or.

What the spiritual dimension does is to allow executives to hold both these potentially conflicting thoughts and figure out a third aspect of being that presents a new way of realising their ambition. The questions they will need to ask themselves are “what do I want to achieve in this third way of thinking to help me rewind my narrative and reshape my identity that will allow me to embrace this new purpose?”

It is not that they will try a bit of this and a bit of that, but really integrate their sense of self in a way that brings a shift in their default setting so it comes naturally as a part of who they really are – a new way of being that emerges from the third space they have created for themselves. Like balancing the masculine and feminine energies of yin and yang.

Exploration and Discovery 

This requires exploration and discovery. Those who play golf will understand it only too well. A change of grip and a change in the swing can create a great deal of dissonance till such time that it gets fully integrated and becomes a part of muscle memory. It is not something that will come easily, and after much practice and with trial and error, a possible new way will emerge on your own terms that you will make your own and help achieve the performance outcomes you deserve.

The spiritual dimension allows us to reshape our identities, developing a new way of being, not trapped in dualities, stuck in the old ways of reactive thinking, but helping us see the world with a new lens, and from multiple perspectives. Leaders with high levels of spiritual maturity can easily identify with their higher self or spirit rather than with the ego.

That is why the development of the spiritual self requires the repurposing of the ego with less need to be driven by self-interest and fostering the capacity to serve and develop others. Over the last 12 years as I have coached leaders, I have seen a pattern of their ego-self looking for explanations in the external world. As stress accumulates, and anxiety builds, they get drawn to external distractions as a coping mechanism to overcome it. To the ego, it’s an outer problem that needs an outer solution.

Often this leads to immature behaviours like overworking, overeating, drug or alcohol consumption, excessive exercise, binge watching Netflix, etc all hoping to pacify or distract the mind. None of these can help, as the real answer lies in an inner exploration, and the spiritually mature individual knows how through various internal practices it is possible to generate inner peace.

In the context of the current global Covid crisis, many countries have succumbed to the duality of having to save the economy or saving the health of its people. Very few have managed to successfully manage both. It is no longer enough for us to build back, but “build back better” so that we create better healthcare and stronger safety nets, reduce social inequalities, and our economies become more resilient and less vulnerable to the inevitable pandemics that are yet to come.

But this needs a greater depth of understanding, new perspectives, a spiritual way of being, investing in ways that incorporate environmental, social, and governance considerations. My coaching experience indicates that a lot of leaders suffer because they fight the journey to be the way they want the journey to be. Trying to control everything about all aspects of business and life, does not really work very well.

Effective leaders know that it is not possible to prepare for every contingency. Instead, a lot of what is actually most enlightening or evolving comes from things that they may not have chosen at the time. The French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin once said “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience”. There is an old proverb says Dr. Drake that works best for leaders to deal with today’s challenging times: Before you begin the journey, you own the journey. Once you begin the journey, the journey owns you.

Pratap Nambiar, Chartered Business Coach (ChBC), is the founder and chairman of Thought Perfect (Singapore), dedicated to coaching CEOs and senior leaders transform themselves for better performance. 

This article was originally published in Business World on Dec 01, 2020.

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