2017 Volume 20 Issue 3

Bringing the Human Spirit to Business Leadership

Bringing the Human Spirit to Business Leadership

When the Quest to Develop Yourself and Others Makes Good Business Sense

Traditional capitalism and its associated business practices are increasingly under pressure from a more holistic perspective that seeks to bring humanity and the human spirit to the workplace. Nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates boldly asserted, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”[1] Today, a number of business organizations are instilling this belief by establishing the conditions and culture that challenge individuals to continue to grow and develop. To do so requires a huge shift in how organizations view and support their workforce. For business leaders to embrace authentic values around human development, including their own, requires a more evolved worldview, one that—in the service of others—honors the whole person, including the soul, and sees individual growth as an essential human endeavor. This article examines how many business leaders have started to ask whether welcoming the human soul and human development makes good business sense in light of an increasingly disengaged workforce and more complex societal problems.


The Soul in Business

The words soul[2] and spirit may seem incongruent with the hard realities of business, but they need not be. With the religious connotation removed, spiritual leadership is a fundamental call to bring the whole person, including the human soul, to business and corporate leadership. The word “spiritual” is simply that which relates to the human soul, as opposed to that which is material or physical.[3] In essence, “spiritual” pertains to the intangible and subjective aspects of the individual and collective human experience.

Studies show that most people in the workplace view religion as a dogmatic, institutional and negative phenomenon, whereas they view spirituality as an open, individual, and positive phenomenon.[4] The term “workplace spirituality” is difficult to define since it at times is used to propagate a specific faith-based approach in the workplace.[5] Historically, religions served as the “vehicle” to stimulate human spiritual development. All religious faiths are underpinned by ancient wisdoms and truths with paths for people to find their soul and spirit. Unfortunately, religions also have the ability to hold people back through divisive doctrine and limited belief systems. According to Wilber, traditional religions were created over thousands of years ago and have not substantially evolved to new truths—modern and post-modern facts—learned more recently about human nature.[6] While there is a role for the faith traditions in human development, the author contends that the role of established religious doctrine inside business can be limiting. Hence, this article addresses the soul, spirit, and spirituality without the overtones of a specific religious faith.

Without the soul and spirit at work, people live a divided life—ignoring or defying one’s own truth­—with threats to personal and professional integrity and creativity.[7] Yet, these intrinsic human abilities of integrity and creativity are desperately needed to solve the complex issues facing today’s business. This essential and unspoken truth has hampered the evolution of business and society for some time. Major shifts are required in leadership awareness and in how organizations are run and managed in order to address this handicap. A number of business leaders and organizations are now making these shifts.

Parker Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness[8] notes “The soul is hopeful: it engages the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The soul is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes. All we need to do is to bring down the wall that separates us from our own souls.”

The Call for Change

Employee engagement is the latest buzzword in business. A recent Gallup survey showed that more than half of the American workforce claims to be disengaged at work.[9] Studies of the next generation workforce indicate that younger employees seek meaning through work and desire personal growth at work.[10] At the same time, business managers and leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver performance and results in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA). The acronym VUCA was first used by the military college and is now frequently used in business.[11]

Capitalism has served humanity’s evolution over the past two centuries. Adam Smith’s concepts of trade, division of labor, and supply and demand were essential in the industrial age.[12] Arguably, capitalism is aligned with the “American Dream” in the individual pursuit of success and prosperity. However, when in the hands of egocentric and self-serving (“me-focused”) leaders, this mindset has produced numerous examples of moral failure, resulting in a distrustful, unengaged workforce.[13] Many top business leaders have a strong ego that prioritizes individual success above team and mission.[14] The traditional focus on performance and results feeds and rewards the individual leader’s ego and notion of self-worth.

With the demands of the knowledge and information age, the notion of “conscious” capitalism has emerged with its consideration of all stakeholders,[15] giving rise to the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.[16] Today, more businesses are striving to become a force for good in the world and attempting to create meaning for their employees.[17] These efforts require business leaders to increasingly serve others and adopt “other-centered” perspectives (“we-focused”). To do so, however, requires awakened and highly conscious leaders with an authentic connection to higher moral principles and to their fundamental reason for being in the world—a sharp contrast to the ego-feeding conventional model.

To accomplish the necessary shift, a number of thought leaders have challenged business executives to incorporate the whole person at work. Robert Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership,[18] Jim Collins’ research on the principles behind great business leadership,[19] and Peter Senge’s seminal thesis on learning organizations[20] have each contributed substantially to that effort in recent decades. More recently, Ken Wilber developed integral theory with implications for business and spirituality,[21] and Robert Kegan researched and studied deliberately developmental organizations.[22]

The words “deliberate,” “intentional,” and “spiritual” describe leaders and organizations who welcome wholeness, build learning communities, and serve others in their quest for development. These intentions are more of an evolutionary pull than a passing fad, initiating a shift in consciousness that truly can drive business success.

Emerging Organizations

More than 25 years ago, Peter Senge called for leaders to build learning organizations in which people are seen as parts of the whole, making them active participants in shaping their own reality instead of helpless reactors to their environment. He viewed traditional business as predominantly oriented towards controlling and performing—enforcing reliability—instead of being a place for adaptability, learning and natural curiosity.

Recently, Frederic Laloux’s research of a dozen companies, including well-known Patagonia, describes a new evolutionary perspective of how people collaborate in organizational settings.[23] Metaphors for business such as “machine “ and “family” are being replaced with “living organism” or “living system,” revealing a pull towards more wholeness, freedom, complexity and consciousness. This manifests itself inside organizations as:

  • Self-management and peer relationships, without the need for hierarchy or consensus;
  • Inviting employees to bring their whole selves to work;
  • A call for organizational members to listen to and understand the evolutionary purpose of what the organization wants to become.

Leaders, therefore, are required to lead in two particular ways: to create and maintain space for innovative ways of operating, and to be role models without hierarchical power.

At Zappos, the Las Vegas-based online shoe company, the CEO, Tony Hsieh, has implemented holacracy, an evolving and agile organizational structure where authority is distributed and everyone in the organization is a leader.[24] In self-managed teams, members share accountability and authority for the work and goals. While the notion of self-managed teams can be traced back in history, the principles behind holacracy take self-management to a new level. The next generation of self-managing teams demands a new generation of leaders who can hold the space for distributed authority while also understanding when more traditional hierarchy may be needed.[25]

Decurion Corporation in Los Angeles is an example of a deliberately developmental organization (DDO) and part of an emerging group of companies where leadership is transforming the human role in business. DDOs organize their culture and practices to support their employees’ development process. At Decurion, people are seen as ends, not means. Where most businesses seem to trade making money for the well-being and growth of their people, Decurion believes that developing people is good business.

DDO-thinking suggests that creating culture is the main work of strategy and that culture should be central to developing people and business. As Peter Drucker famously may have quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”[26] The truth in his mantra is intuitively apparent. If organizational culture is this powerful and important, why do not more companies deliberately develop it? What if the main business strategy was to develop culture?

Businesses need not stop focusing on business growth and profitability. Rather they might view developing people as a noble gateway to both, as suggested by Christopher Forman, CEO of Decurion. Forman contends, “Developing people and pursuing profitability are not two separate things. We see them as the same thing. Each reinforces the other. Setting tough profitability targets creates a pull that mandates people develop themselves. And, in turn their development creates increased profitability.”[27]

Welcoming the Soul and Whole Self

The human soul has not found its place in business. Frankly, it has not been welcomed. As a result, people leave their vulnerability, emotions, and intuition at the door, operating within a potential-limiting shell of their whole selves. This reality has devastating consequences. If the “intangible side” of humanness is not recognized and welcomed in the workplace, businesses lose the essential human creativity and adaptive problem-solving abilities, which are needed to succeed in a complex, fast-moving world. When the soul is invited and welcomed, people must then learn to overcome or transcend their ego, which develops in childhood to protect and defend the soul.

The soul can be brought out from behind the ego’s defenses through introspection and through trusted community.[28] Mindfulness practices that allow for such introspection are now prevalent in businesses such as Google, Aetna, Target, and General Mills.[29] In A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer speaks of an “inner teacher” that serves as a guide to help in identifying and clarifying one’s story and values.[30] Palmer advocates that this “inner teacher” can be invited forth in trustworthy groups that provide a gentle and respectful space for individual exploration.[31] By rejoining with the soul, individuals create a deeper sense of vocation and relationship to work and role. This provides the opportunity to bring forward the human spirit and integrity in all aspects of being, including to the workplace, and to unleash one’s natural talent and creativity.

To foster wholeness thinking, leaders can view business reality through the six windowpanes illustrated in Figure 1 “A Model to View Business Reality Holistically.” Half of these windows focus on the intangible reality—thoughts and internal processes that may be inferred but are not completely visible (left side). The three other windows focus on the tangible reality—that which is clearly witnessed and understood by others (right side). Typically, business leaders are most comfortable with the objective and tangible; they look for communications, systems, and results, and are typically less confident in providing leadership around values, culture and social responsibility.

Figure 1:

Many leaders avoid the intangible and subjective because they are less responsive to cause-and-effect approaches and harder to assess. Yet, the intangible is often the source of the tangible. Using the windows, a leader can bring together the intangible and the tangible aspects of business, placing appropriate, and perhaps primary, emphasis on the intangible instead of avoiding them. Holistic success in business starts with individual intentions and integrity, as depicted in window A1, and considers each of the windowpanes as part of all major decision-making and business strategy work.

Decurion uses the practice of personal vulnerability to generate authentic human connection in community. They find that human connection simultaneously supports personal growth and development and collective intelligence for business value creation. Bryan Ungard, Chief Purpose Officer of Decurion says, “Welcoming humanness into business is not just a good idea, it’s an imperative for our age. Personal and business value are created from the human spirit.”[32]

The Quest for Learning and Expansion of Consciousness

The solutions to the increasingly complex issues facing business and humanity will require new levels of awareness and thinking. As Albert Einstein noted, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”[33] Learning and consciousness development ought to be life-long pursuits not limited to the classroom. The workplace, where people spend the majority of their time, is an excellent forum for increasing one’s knowledge and awareness.

Most scholars who have studied human evolution agree that humans evolve through stages that build upon one another, and that worldview and other advanced capacities develop over the course of moving through these stages.[34] [35] Similar growth occurs in business leadership, as depicted in the “Evolution of Worldviews & Capacities” Figure 2.[36] Human development begins with a “me-focused” perspective (lower stages) and, through normal growth, develops to an “us” (middle stages) and eventually to a “we-focused” perspective (higher stages) unless growth is derailed.

Figure 2:

Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where needs progress from survival to self-actualization and transcendence, there is a parallel progression of leadership capacity.[37] All humans are born with innate leadership capacities that lie dormant but can be awakened to confront challenges. At the most basic level, to grow as a leader is to grow as a human. The leader’s worldview shapes thinking and behavior—his own and others’—thereby creating a foundation for the culture of the organization. Most business leaders in the U.S. today operate from the “Results” stage (3). To lead in the emerging, holistic organizations described in this article requires progressing to the higher levels of “Perspectives” (4) and “Purpose” (5). Business leaders who have uncovered their fundamental “Purpose” (5) demonstrate true service of others and the community at large. Researchers believe only a few percent of the general population have reached the highest level of development (stage 5 in this model) and about 20 percent is on the cusp of entering it.[38]

Although a leadership worldview and the associated capabilities are available to every human under the right developmental circumstances, uncovering them requires continuous focus on lifelong, individual growth. Fortunately, adult development research shows that the brain has plasticity to continue to evolve. In his book, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, author Robert Kegan discusses how human consciousness is challenged by the increasing complexity of the world.[39] He argues that individuals must develop higher orders of consciousness in order to face the demands of the planet. For higher-stage development to occur, both the soul and the whole must be engaged. Business leaders must tap into broader perspectives and underlying personal purpose by making it a point to truly listen and bring forth their souls. Businesses stall or fail when leaders are unable to transcend their own egos and view the world from a more expansive perspective. The essence of wholeness, from a developmental perspective, requires people to have deliberate access to and use of each of the worldviews and capacities illustrated.

From the Past—For the Future

Historically, both Socrates and the wisdom traditions spoke to the human condition and to human development. Now, business leaders and organizations are picking up the mantle. This is very encouraging progress in a troubled world with the need for next level consciousness and a new generation of leadership. Business may have found a new role to play in society.


[1] Plato. Apology (also known as “The Death of Socrates”). Translated by Jowett, B. (2008). The Project Gutenberg EBook. Author’s note: Plato’s version of the speech given by Socrates as he defended himself at his trial in 399 BC.

[2] Author’s note: In this article, the word “soul” is used interchangeably with the “source of our being” and “true self”

[3] English Oxford Living Dictionaries. (n.d.). https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spiritual

[4] Mitroff, I.I., Denton, E., & Alpaslan, C.M. (2009). “Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: Ten Years Later Spirituality and Attachment Theory, An Interim Report.” Journal of Management Spirituality & Religion, March 2009.

[5] Russell, M. L., ed. (2010). Our Souls at Work: How Great Leaders Live Their Faith in the Global Marketplace. Boise, ID: Russell Media.

[6] Wilber, K. (2017). The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great tTaditions – More Inclusive, Comprehensive More Complete. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

[7] Palmer, P. J. (2008). A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life: Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

[8] Palmer, (2008).

[9] Gallup (2013). “State of the American Workplace.” http://www.gallup.com/services/178514/state-american-workplace.aspx

[10] “The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey—Winning over the next. (2016).” Retrieved June 28, 2017, from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/gx-millenial-survey-2016-exec-summary.pdf

[11] Stiehm, J. H. (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[12] Smith, A. (1786). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In Two Volumes. London: Printed for A. Strahan, and T. Cadell.

[13] Author’s note: Examples of moral failures in business are seen in newspaper headlines regularly. Recent examples (2017) include businesses such as Wells Fargo, Uber, Volkswagen, and Weinstein Co to name a few.

[14] Black, B., & Hughes, S. (2017). Ego Free Leadership: Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack Your Business. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press.

[15] Mackey, J., Sisodia, R.S., & George, B. (2013). Conscious Capitalism – Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

[16] Elkington, J. (1999). Cannibals with forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Oxford: Capstone.

[17] Sisodia, R., Sheth, J. N., & Wolfe, D. B. (2014). Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

[18] Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. New York, NY: Paulist Press.

[19] Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. London: Random House.

[20] Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[21] Wilber, K. (2001). A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

[22] Kegan, R., Lahey, L. L., Miller, M., & Fleming, A. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[23] Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness. Brussels: Nelson Parker.

[24] Robertson, B. J. (2015). Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

[25] Bernstein, E., Bunch, J., Canner, N., & Lee, M. (2016). “Beyond the Holacracy Hype.” Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2016.

[26] Author’s note: Peter Drucker, the management guru, is often quoted as saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast;” however, there is no conclusive reference to this.

[27] Interview with Christopher Forman, CEO of Decurion Corporation [Personal interview]. (2014, June 27).

[28] Palmer, (2008).

[29] Schaufenbuel, K. (2015, December). “Why Google, Target, and General Mills Are Investing in Mindfulness.” Retrieved from www.hbr.org

[30] Palmer, (2008), p. 184.

[31] “The Circle of Trust Approach by the Center for Courage & Renewal.” (n.d.). Retrieved June 28, 2017, from http://www.couragerenewal.org/approach/

[32] Interview with Bryan Ungard, Chief Purpose Officer of Decurion Corporation [Personal interview]. (2017, June 26).

[33] Author’s note: There are a number of versions of this famous and often cited quote. The original source is not entirely clear.

[34] Wilber, K. (2001).

[35] Beck, D. E., & Cowan, C. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[36] Torbert, W., & Associates (2004). Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

[37] Maslow, A. H. edited by Stephens, D. C. (2000). The Maslow Business Reader. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[38] Wilber, K. (2001).

[39] Kegan, R. (1997). In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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Author of the article
Soren Eilertsen, PhD
Soren Eilertsen, PhD

Soren Eilertsen, PhD, is President of Kollner Group, Inc. and a sought after consultant and advisor to boards, CEOs, and leadership teams. Soren brings a unique perspective as a psychologist and business leader, and has helped numerous businesses overcome obstacles to grow successfully over the past 15 years. Prior to starting Kollner Group in 1999, Soren held senior executive roles in general management, technology, and strategy. Current clients span entertainment, technology, Internet and financial services as well as non-for-profit. Soren also serves as Adjunct Professor of Business Strategy at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management’s MBA and EMBA programs. He has published articles in periodicals such as Strategy & Leadership, Strategize, CEO for High Growth Ventures, Leadership Excellence, and the AMA Journal. Website: www.kollnergroup.com. Email: soren@kollnergroup.com

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