2017 Volume 20 Issue 3

Spiritual Leadership in the Learning Organization

Spiritual Leadership in the Learning Organization

How Spiritual Leadership Enhances the Learning Organization's Effectiveness

Spiritual leadership has evolved from a concept written for people interested in the ministry to a model for leaders in business and management. Its tenets of altruism and calling are reflected in its core principles, but it seems a bit elusive when addressing the challenges of running a business and making a profit.

How to organize a business in a way that is compatible with spiritual leadership might have been more difficult in the twentieth century, but today’s learning organizations provide some insights and compatible attributes that spiritual leaders in business can utilize to bridge the gap between sometimes competing goals of profitability and service.[1] Others have noted that spiritual leadership directly impacts the leadership, culture, and employees of learning organizations. This article builds upon their work to show how spiritual leadership can enhance the effectiveness of learning organizations using a Web of Interaction, a system of six organizational components of learning organizations.[2]

Learning organizations (L-forms) are defined as organizations in which everyone is engaged in learning, experimentation, continuous improvement, and increasing the firm’s capacity.[3] This type of organization, with its emphasis on member engagement, is more compatible with spiritual leadership than other organizational forms, such as multidivisional forms (M-forms) that emphasize a command and control leadership style. Louis Fry argues that spiritual leadership is necessary for learning organizations to succeed.[4]

Spiritual leadership flows from leadership theories that emphasize transformational leadership, principle-centered leadership, and workplace spirituality.[5] Louis Fry defines spiritual leadership in business as comprising the values, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to intrinsically motivate one’s self and others to have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and membership.[6] This definition has two foundational components. First, spiritual leaders create a compelling vision in that employees experience a sense of calling that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Second, spiritual leaders create a culture based on altruism and love such that members feel valued and appreciated. Altruistic love reflects a sense of wholeness, harmony, and well-being based on care, concern, and unselfishness. Similarly, leaders in L-forms create compelling visions and strong cultures, though their motivations may vary. Membership and vision are core elements of both spiritual leadership and L-forms.

Barry Garapedian, the Managing Director of The Oaks Group at Morgan Stanley, is an example of a spiritual leader who leads a learning organization. He is known for his emphasis on the holistic goals and development of his employees, encouraging them to take time for their relationships, physical health, and spiritual well-being, as well as the business of wealth management. He and his partner, Seth Haye, rank among the top financial managers in the world and have built a practice consistently ranked highly in terms of employee satisfaction, employee commitment, customer trust, community service, and wealth creation. Spiritual leaders, like Barry Garapedian, utilize the elements of L-forms to achieve both excellent firm performance and altruistic purposes.

Spiritual Leadership and the L-form Web of Interaction

Learning organizations (L-forms) represent a system of interacting parts that enhance and may be enhanced by spiritual leadership. In designing L-forms, the Web of Interaction shows six elements of L-forms that can aid spiritual leaders in running organizations compatible with their calling and altruistic purposes.[7] These elements include leadership, dispersed strategies, horizontal structures, egalitarian cultures, knowledge workers, and integrating mechanisms as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Learning Organizations Web of Interaction


Spiritual leadership goes beyond transformational leadership found in L-forms to being transcendent leadership. Transformational leadership is the norm in L-forms, as firms constantly learn, adapt, and increase their capacity to impact the future. In contrast to transactional leaders who lead through some form of social exchange, such as exchanging wages for a job, transformational leaders stimulate and inspire followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes and in the process develop leaders at every level of the organization.[8] As transcendent leaders, spiritual leaders surpass transformational leaders by being concerned about a person’s spiritual development, membership, and ability to achieve a higher purpose.[9]

Spiritual leaders establish a vision and mission for the firm that addresses making a positive difference in the world. The vision and mission help employees to feel that they are a part of a greater and more altruistic purpose. Cemex’s Patrimonious Hoy,[10] providing housing for the disadvantaged, and Ikea’s building a solar city in Jordan that uses sustainable energy for primarily Syrian refugees, show how firms work to build altruistic purposes within their mission and vision that inspire their members.[11]

The spiritual leader is not just engaged in the transformation of the organization, but is also constantly leading by example and seeking self-improvement. Spiritual leaders use tools, such as 360-degree feedback, to allow employees a safe way to evaluate the leader’s and team members’ performance. However, spiritual leaders go beyond transformational leaders by spending time on developing their “inner self,” by engaging in prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and workshops. The spiritual leader may incorporate some of these practices in the business, as LinkedIn offers free meditation lessons and makes available meditation rooms following the lead of its CEO Jeff Weiner who meditates.[12]

Knowledge Workers

A second interacting element of L-forms is that employees are viewed as knowledge workers, in which everyone can teach, learn, experiment, and continuously improve. Both transformational leaders and spiritual leaders empower workers. However, the spiritual leader goes even further by developing a sense of calling, membership, and altruistic purpose as well as showing a concern for the employee’s spirit.

The spiritual leader works hard at developing ways to show employees that they matter. At Southwest Airlines, Julie Weber, the Vice President of People hires employees with a warrior’s spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun-loving attitude.[13] Hearts appear everywhere from employees’ name badges to the sides of the airplanes with employee’s names to show employees that they matter. The employees are expected to treat customers with respect and dignity as they are treated.

Spiritual leaders in L-forms wrestle with how to develop an employee’s ability to engage in personal mastery because it operates across multiple domains, including spiritual, physical, mental, personal, and organizational. Spiritual leaders give employees time to increase their organizational capabilities in their pursuit of personal mastery, but they also give them time to “sharpen the saw.”[14] Firms use mindfulness training and well-being workshops to rejuvenate employees. Altruistic purposes are difficult to achieve when employees are burned out.

Egalitarian Culture

L-forms are characterized by strong, egalitarian cultures in which everyone engages in continuous improvement, learning, and adaptation. The view that everyone can increase the organization’s capability is widely held from the highest to the lowest level of the organization. The strong culture is expressed in the values, shared beliefs, norms, and symbols in the organization.

Interaction is highly valued, so much so that the spiritual leader takes time to answer emails, calls, and meet people face-to-face. The leader reinforces the belief that the higher, altruistic purpose of the organization requires that everyone work together to achieve its mission and vision. Moreover, the leader works to minimize negative influences, including employees who block improvement, hoard information, or engage in status and power games.

As a spiritual leader of a learning organization, the leader believes not only in the ability of everyone to lead and learn, but also in the infinite dignity of the spirit within each person.[15] He is careful to correct and redirect while inspiring personal growth and professional contributions that will enhance the firm’s capacity for improvement and competitive advantage.

Dispersed Strategy

In the command and control organizations of the twentieth century, the leader was expected to formulate the firm’s strategy. In L-forms, leaders are engaged in a much more complex and global world, in which unleashing the collective learning and knowledge of the organization is a new and valued distinctive competence, an organizational capability performed better than one’s rivals.[16] As such, leaders create an environment in which strategic ideas can come from anywhere in the organization. They also create forums to ensure that these ideas reach the appropriate person. The spiritual leader begins with an overarching philosophy, including the altruistic purposes of the firm, that drive the organization, providing a garden for other ideas to grow, to flourish, and, if necessary, to be weeded out.

Even though dispersed strategies may be common in other companies, spiritual leaders view employee involvement in strategy formulation as a way of enhancing the employee’s leadership development. Dispersed strategies interact with knowledge workers and transcendent leadership, especially when employees engage in strategy formulation that affects the altruistic purposes of the firm.

Spiritual leaders carry the ability to develop strategies from any level to a new vantage point. Strategic ideas are linked to altruistic and long-term goals, such that firms engage in not only making the customer experience better and improving the quality of the customers’ lives, but also enhancing the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits.[17]

Integrating Mechanisms/Communication

L-forms focus on integrating mechanisms that address the organization, physical, and informational connections of employees. Physical integrating mechanisms include attention to office space whereas organizational/informational integrating mechanisms include creating information technology and virtual workspace. Spiritual leaders enhance the mechanisms in L-forms by being concerned about the well-being of their employees, how they interact, and how they work to achieve altruistic purposes.

While L-forms often utilize open work, in which employees work from home to achieve a work-life balance, spiritual leaders are aware of providing avenues for employees to work together to enhance a person’s spirit. In addition to providing ways to share work or stay in constant contact, they also provide ways to unplug and to work with others on improving the social good and inner self.

Spiritual leaders create integrating mechanisms that increase employee well-being and interaction. Salesforce.com offers free yoga classes as a wellness benefit and 48 hours of paid volunteer time.[18] Promega, a Wisconsin biotech firm, has on-site yoga classes, fitness centers, healthy meals, and lounges and cafes for downtime and relationship building. In spiritually-lead L-forms the integration of people to achieve higher purposes is as important as integrating systems and work.

Horizontal Structure

In order to facilitate constant communication and improvement, L-forms fight against bureaucracy. Similarly, spiritual leaders work toward designing flat organizations so that they have access to all levels of the organization and encourage each employee to do the same. Flatter organizations encourage more frequent communication and sharing of ideas and problems.

Learning occurs and is shared at every level of the organization. As more and more learning about best practices and new ideas is shared throughout the organization, the organization has a better chance to adapt and grow. This growth necessitates new systems and ways of managing growth. Spiritually-lead L-forms learn to shift their focus from positional hierarchies to influential hierarchies, giving access to key people who influence and enhance others.

Spiritual leaders balance systematic networks with relational networks, paying constant attention to the networks that increase the spirit of the organization and its goals toward altruism. By keeping the organization flat, they do not lose touch with the middle and lower levels of the organization, and they encourage others to do the same.


While the linkages between spiritual leadership and L-forms are still being explored, spiritual leaders have the ability to transform learning organizations just as L-forms offer a powerful form to enhance spiritual leadership. While some components of both are similar, Table 1 shows areas in the Web of Interaction that can be strengthened by spiritual leadership.


Table 1: Spiritual Leadership and Learning Organizations Qualities

ModelSpiritual LeadershipLearning Organizations
ApproachSystems thinkingSystems thinking
LeadershipTranscendent and visionaryTransformational and visionary
WorkersMembership based on altruistic purpose, inner self and personal excellenceKnowledge workers engage in teams and personal mastery while finding shared meaning
CultureStrong open cultures based on shared purposeStrong open and egalitarian cultures based on shared purposes
StrategiesOverarching purpose and dispersed strategies with an emphasis on the spirit of the organizationOverarching strategic ideas and dispersed strategies and decision making
Integrating mechanismsPurpose, communication, training and spiritual and organizational developmentPurpose, communication, training and organizational development


While L-forms can exist without spiritual leadership, spiritual leaders can strengthen the Web of Interaction used in L-forms through a greater sense of purpose, vision, and membership. Organizations, such as Alphabet, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, Southwest Airlines, and The Oaks Group, provide insights into how they work together.

Spiritual leaders can enhance L-forms by adding transcendent leadership that aligns altruistic purposes with a firm’s goals and vision. They can enhance knowledge workers by going beyond personal mastery and continuous improvement to focus on employee well-being. Integrating mechanisms can encourage employees to have a work-life balance and take time to meditate and unwind from the workplace and encourage employees to work together on projects that serve the firm’s altruistic purposes. By encouraging an open culture, the spiritual leader can help to enhance employees’ spirits. Maintaining a flat organization and dispersed strategy formation also improves the organization and development of leaders at every level. Spiritual leaders integrate well-being, spiritual health, and physical health into the workplace, enhancing L-forms by focusing on the spirit of each employee.



[1] Fry, L. (2003). “Toward a Theory of Spiritual Leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 693-727.

[2] James, C. (2002). “Designing Learning Organizations.” Organizational Dynamics, 32, 1-17.

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

[4] Fry, L. (2003).

[5] Fry, L. (2003).

[6] Fry, L. (2003).

[7] James, C. (2002). “Designing Learning Organizations.” Organizational Dynamics, 32, 1-17.

[8] Riggio, R., & Bass, B. (2008). Transformational Leadership, 2nd Ed. New Jersey: Mahway.

[9] Gardiner, J. (2006). “Transactional, Transformational and Transcendent Leadership: Metaphors Mapping the Evolution of the Theory and Practice of Governance.” Leadership Review, 6, 64-65.

[10] London, T., Parker, J., & Korona, J. (2012). “Constructing a Base-of-the-Pyramid Business in a Multinational Corporation: CEMEX’S Patrimonio Hoy Looks to Grow, William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.” Harvard Business Review, March 22, Case Study.

[11] Frej, W. (2017). “This Refugee Camp is the First in The World To Be Powered By Solar Energy.” Retrieved September 5, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/refugee-camp-solar-energy-azraq_us_591c6ba4e4b0ed14cddb4685

[12] Huffington, A. (2014). Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. New York, NY: Harmony.

[13] EntreCon: Talking small Business with Julie Weber (Southwest Airlines VP of People). Retrieved September 5, 2017, from http://vmeo.com/190900682

[14] Covey, S. (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

[15] McCormick, B., & Davenport, D. (2003). Shepherd Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass.

[16] Selznick, P. (1957). Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 27.

[17] Fry, L. W., & Altman, Y. (2013). Spiritual Leadership in Action: The CEL Story. Charlotte, SC: Information Age Publishing.

[18] Huffington, A. (2014). Thrive. New York, NY: Harmony, p. 59.

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Author of the article
Connie James, PhD

Connie James, PhD is an associate professor and chairperson of the business administration division of Pepperdine University’s Seaver College. She has published and presented articles on organizational learning, strategic thinking, and ethics, and was an Exxon Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she earned a BA in Economics and an MBA in Finance. She completed her doctorate at UCLA, where she won awards for her dissertation on organizational learning and firm effects. She has been a faculty coach at Noel Tichy’s “Cycle of Leadership” workshop and chaired the Teacher Excellence Committee for the Business Policy and Strategy Division of the Academy of Management. Dr. James has been nominated for “Who’s Who, America Teachers.” She serves on the faculty of NAMIC and the board of Team World Corps.

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