Uniting Spirituality And Leadership For The Sake Of Employee Engagement

The Human HeartThe word spiritual, not the word religious, is the key.”

                                                      Clarence Clemons

One of my son’s closest friends started following me on Twitter recently, and after reading my tweets for a couple of weeks, sent along an e-mail summarizing his initial observations:

“Your dad is like a Twitter God.  He’s practically a leadership religious leader or something!

Admittedly, when I read the e-mail myself, I thought it was pretty cool that anyone would perceive me as being a “Twitter God!”  But it was the “religious leader” part of the comment that held my attention the longest.  Honestly, I’ve never sought to be seen as a “religious” leader, nor do I have any of the requisite background that would qualify me to be one.

Anyone familiar with my work knows that I’m a recent author, but that I also spent two-plus decades as a senior-level executive in the financial services industry.  I’m a business leader, people!  “How is it possible that anyone could think otherwise?”

Well, it turns out I may be sending mixed messages.  Tweets I send routinely use words like “compassion,” “kindness” and “empathy.”  My book is even called “Lead From The Heart!  I have to admit, to a first time tweet reader, I probably sound more like the Dalai Lama than any well-known Fortune 500 CEO.

But I’m not going soft with these tweets, I can assure you.  What I’ve discovered is that many words traditionally heard in a spiritual context are characteristics of the most successful and influential business leaders today.  You simply can no longer be effective in motivating human beings in any workplace if you lack qualities like thoughtfulness, generosity and sincerity.

We know today that a huge percentage of the American workforce is distressed beyond imagination about their jobs, bosses and organizations.  Revealing just how badly people are being managed and led, one new study showed that at 42% of US companies, the best employees are the least engaged.  This means that in 4 of every 10 organizations, leaders have essentially lost the support of every worker.

A big part of the reason so many people have grown so disconsolate in their jobs, is because they too often feel undervalued and unappreciated.  “No one cares about me or what I contribute here,” summarizes much of distress.  What I know to be true is that the human need to feel significant, and to know one’s work matters, are both deeply spiritual.  And the wisest leaders in business today not only know this, they demonstrate through their presence that people are unequivocally essential to the success of their organization.

My main thesis is that feelings and emotions drive human performance and, therefore, leaders who make people feel – in their core – that their organization would be fully deficient were they not there, will be the big winners in the 21st Century.

Here are three “spiritual” ways you as a leader can ensure employees feel this highly valued:

Demonstrate Compassion:

During my recent visit to Google, I had a long conversation with Chade-Meng Tan, engineer turned Mindfulness expert, and author of Search Inside Yourself.

Meng, as he prefers to be called, is a practicing Buddhist and is very comfortable using spiritual terminology in a work setting.   I asked him how I could best speak about “compassion” without being perceived as an evangelist.

“The best definition of compassion I know comes from the Tibetan scholar, Thupten Jinpa,” Meng told me.  “Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.” 

Specifically, he defines compassion as having three components:

  1. A cognitive component: “I understand you.”
  2. An affective component: “I feel for you”
  3. A motivational component: “I want to help you.”

On a very human level, Meng explained, this is what people need and expect from their leaders.  Someone who strives to understand them, connects to what they’re feeling and offers genuine assistance.  That’s called compassion.

Meng also reminded me of Jim Collins and his concept of “Level 5 Leaders.”  These are leaders who, in addition to being highly capable, possess a paradoxical mix of two important and seemingly conflicting qualities: great ambition and personal humility.  While they are highly ambitious people, the desire for success isn’t for themselves as much as it is for the higher good.  “Their focus is not on themselves,” Meng told me, “and they feel no need to inflate their own egos.  This makes them very effective and inspiring.  And that motivational component of compassion – wanting to help people – creates ambition for higher good.”

Be Kind:

I’m not entirely sure why being kind to people sounds weak in business leadership, but, if that’s how we really perceive it, we’ve got it all wrong.  When leaders demonstrate kindness, they telegraph directly to the hearts in people that this is a person who cares.  And when people are made to feel cared for, they instinctively care back.  They care for their associates, they care for their customers and they care to make a real difference.

Dr. David Dawkins, author of Power Vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior, wrote: “Simple kindness to one’s self and all that lives is the most transformational force of all.  It produces no backlash, has no downside, and never leads to loss or despair.  It increases one’s true power without exacting any toll.”

A chief component of my overall thesis is that how leaders make people feel has a far greater influence on their engagement and productivity than almost anything else.  Just by being kind, therefore, you inspire people in the most profound ways.

Be A Human

Somewhere along the way, we were taught that people in leadership roles are inherently more important than other employees.  The tired notion that managers are overlords to “subordinates” drives this point home.

But the people most of us want to work for aren’t the kind who wield their power. Instead, they’re warm, friendly, self-effacing, and people we can get close to.  To be a real human in leadership requires tremendous self-confidence and self-awareness.  But when you consistently act with authenticity, and we can feel it, we connect to you on a much deeper level.  Because of this, we’re able to get into your mind and implement your intentions.   The long-enduring idea that we have to demonstrate our superiority to the people we manage must be turned away.  What inspires us most is when you show us you’re OK by just being yourself.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.