2017 Volume 20 Issue 3

Does Spirituality Make a Difference in Leadership?

Does Spirituality Make a Difference in Leadership?

Defining Spirituality and Leadership Poses Unique Challenges

To one degree or another, every age has exhibited some interest in leaders. It had to, for sometimes it lived or died, or at other times was better or worse off, at the hands of such people. Even when people had little power over who led them—in the village, city, or country—it paid to know who was in charge and what they might do. But the current fascination with the subject goes far beyond this, it involves not just leaders as such but wider concerns about leadership itself. While reflection on the nature and scope of leadership has arisen throughout the ages, there is arguably a broader and more systematic interest in the topic today than in any time past. Moreover, since the 1980s an interest in the integration of spirituality, faith, and leadership has been on a steady rise. This interest has been driven in large part by the longing to experience purpose and meaning at work. Could it be that leadership is a means to activate beliefs and values and raise the level of moral and spiritual maturity for both leader and led?[1]

Given the increased focus on leadership and the growing interest in spirituality, the purpose of this article is to examine the topic of spirituality and leadership using the example of the Apostle Paul as an exemplary leader for contemporary times.

Spirituality and Leadership

Defining leadership is no easy task, one must first recognize that literature from the humanities, and in particular theology, philosophy, history, literature, and language, provide a rich source of leadership material stemming from ancient times. This includes the Biblical narrative of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Saul, the prophets, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul as well as the classical literature from East and West including Plato, Aristotle, Sun Tzu, Xenophon, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Carlyle, and Gandhi. Philosopher Joanne Ciulla states, “Ancient texts are waiting to be rediscovered and reapplied.”[2]

Peter Northouse in his helpful book Introduction to Leadership Theory and Practice defines leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” He clarifies the four key elements as (a) leadership is a process (b) leadership involves influence (c) leadership occurs in groups (d) leadership involves common goals.[3] Joseph Rost, a leadership scholar focused on the post-industrial twenty-first century, defined leadership as “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.”[4] While there may not be a universally accepted definition of leadership, it should be recognized like other disciplines, leadership has many layers of complexity and a working definition may be useful but it is only a starting point to explore its many dimensions.

The modern use of the term “spirituality” embraces the deepest values and meanings by which people live. Not all spirituality is religious but all religions espouse a distinctive spirituality. For example Christians have delineated several spiritual disciplines, Muslims practice the five pillars, Buddhists have the Noble Eightfold Path, and Hindus have a wide range of practices called Sadhana. Similarly, the secularist in an attempt to be guided by their deepest values may practice a form of reflection and meditation. Purpose and meaning are widely recognized as essential to human flourishing and so spirituality has become increasingly acceptable as a dimension of many in the workplace including leaders.[5]

Articulating definitions of spirituality and leadership pose unique challenges of culture and context. The word spirituality can be traced to a reference by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament (I Corinthians 2:14-15), where spirituality is used positively to connote a personal and affective relationship with God. By the 20th century the word came to imply something that can be pursued in or outside formal religious traditions.[6] Spirituality can be defined as “The feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors that arise from a search for the sacred.”[7] Fry defines spiritual leadership as “comprising the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are necessary to motivate one’s self and others so that they have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and membership.[8]

A review of the leadership literature suggests spirituality is discussed in the following ways: as a source of leadership motivation generally and more specifically as a source of ethical grounding leading to virtuous behavior. Spirituality is also described as an aid for coping with difficulty and toxicity in the workplace for leaders and followers. Those who long for greater purpose, typically described as leading with soul, can find fulfillment from spiritual sources.

The spiritual and religious dimensions of leadership have only recently entered the leadership discourse and questions concerning dichotomies remain including the boundary between religious and spiritual, as well as a concern for the private nature of religious/spiritual practice entering the public domain of the workplace. Some leaders identify as spiritual but not religious, there is a kind of marginalizing taking place in this description, where religion looks askance at spirituality and likewise spirituality rejects much of the so called rigidity associated with religion; each perspective has marginalized the other.[9]

Peter Pruzan argues that spirituality is the context for leadership. He bases this claim on his study of spirituality and leadership in the east, particularly India. He suggests there are good lessons the west can learn from the east. Because moral awareness depends on accessibility to moral frameworks, it is necessary to evaluate our moral frameworks. In the west that framework is typically utilitarianism which is an ends-based moral decision-making approach, where more often than not, the goal is economic rationality, where the ends justify the means.[10] By contrast, in the east and in particular India, the moral framework is more deontological or more duty-based. In that context individuals learn they have a spiritual nature from which emerges character and conduct in a seamless whole, which leads to an embrace of selflessness, and the will to act without concern for outcomes; to act with non-attachment, and not from ego, but rather with duty toward others. In fact, research has shown that spiritual practices like contemplative prayer and mindfulness meditation heighten awareness of one’s environment and one’s self- awareness, leading to higher levels of moral reasoning.[11] This approach resembles servant leadership and indeed there are examples of this approach to leading even among leaders in the west.

Servant Leadership

Greenleaf advocates the relevance of servant leadership for the marketplace. This runs counter to the power-seeking, take charge, command and control stance so commonly associated with leadership. For him, servant leadership means placing the good of others and the organization over the leaders’ self-interest. While this contradicts the abuse of power, such leadership does not avoid its responsible exercise and influence. Servant leadership is not a kind of anti-leadership, for leading takes place through foresight, courageous action, and accountability, even though such actions happen in the context of shared decision making among rather than over others.

From Greenleaf’s writings, Larry Spears has identified the following critical characteristics of servant leadership, the ability:

  • to listen to others and discern the will of a group,
  • to have empathy with one’s fellow-workers,
  • to help make both others and oneself whole,
  • to rely on persuasion rather than coercion and positional authority,
  • to think and act beyond day-to-day realities,
  • to hold in trust and be a good steward of an institution, to build community among one’s colleagues and fellow workers.[12] [13]

The Apostle Paul

In the spirit of servant leadership, the Apostle Paul was a servant first and then a leader, being follower-centered and not self-centered. Among the early Christians, Paul most clearly and fully articulates an understanding of leadership. As his work and writings are the key source for Western Christianity, and a seminal influence on other Western social and political structures, it is strange that until recently he has been overlooked in leadership studies. It is only in the last decade that Paul has begun to gain attention. As Mark Strom says:

He was a thoroughly urban man. He readily employed his audience’s vocabulary, literary techniques, intellectual models, social conventions and even clichés. He seems to have improvised from whatever was at hand in order to engage the needs and world views of his audiences. Today we take such adaptability for granted, but there was little precedent for Paul.[14]

As we shall see, however, this adaptability was rooted in a set of deeply held convictions arising from his profound encounter of the living God as revealed through Jesus Christ. In the course of establishing far-flung network of local groups in various cultural settings through an itinerant mission team, he developed a clear understanding and practice of leadership that was quite contrary to conventional approaches to leadership at the time. Though he does not provide a systematic account of the nature and practice of leadership, his approach to it was radical for its day and suggestive still for ours. The following discussion considers two inter-related kinds of governance that arose in his churches—the ongoing task of grass-roots leaders and the sporadic role of Paul himself and his team.[15]

The Language of Leadership

If we begin by looking simply at the basic words Paul uses in speaking about these issues, what strikes us first is the infrequency of terms related to those at the top, to formal power, and to organization. Of more than three dozen terms used of people in leadership positions in his day, the only high-ranking one Paul uses is in reference to Christ (Colossians 1:18). Reference to order, or the need to be orderly, occurs infrequently in Paul’s writings (1 Corinthians 14:40; Colossians 2:5), and only once is it clearly associated with the church, coming at the close of his instructions to the Corinthians about what should happen in their meetings (1Corinthians 14:13-40). Its opposite is unruliness, which is associated with disharmony (1 Corinthians 14:33; cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20).

Paul never suggests that it is the role of one or a few people in the assembly to regulate its gatherings. This is everyone’s responsibility as the people discern and share what the Spirit is saying (1 Corinthians 12:7-11; 14:28, 30, 32). Organization stems from a highly participatory and charismatic process and is not determined in advance by a few. Likewise, the word authority rarely appears in Paul’s writings. Only in two places does he use the word in regard to his own position—never in regard to those in leadership in local churches—and only then when his apostolic link with a church is being challenged (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10).

At Corinth, he certainly wishes to re-establish his unique relationship with the church as its founder (2 Corinthians 10-13), but he disassociates himself from the authoritarian way the “false apostles” conduct themselves. He does not seek to influence the members by improper means (2 Corinthians 10:3), boast of his preeminence (2 Corinthians 10:12-15), dazzle the church with rhetoric (2 Corinthians 11:5-6), or manipulate and control his converts (2 Corinthians 11:16-19; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:24). His “authority” is exercised only for constructive purposes, and he prefers that the church take appropriate corrective action before he arrives so that he does not have to engage in it.

Basic Metaphors for Understanding Leadership

In talking about organization and authority, Paul draws on several metaphors to provide an overall frame of reference or paradigm for his view. Basic to this are metaphors and analogies drawn from family life. This is not surprising, for the language of family is the primary way of talking about the relationship between God and his people. Just as God is viewed as “Father” and believers as “children,” so Paul describes himself as a “father” to his “offspring” in the faith (1 Corinthians 4:14-15; 2 Corinthians 12:14; 1 Thessalonians 2:11). This conveys an affectionate but responsible parental rather than patriarchal bond.

Paul also speaks of himself as a “mother” who suffers labor pains (Galatians 4:19) and as a nurse who cares for her charges (1 Thessalonians. 2:7; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:2). This cluster of metaphors emphasizes both the affectionate relationship between Paul and his converts and his sense of responsibility for them. But it would be wrong to conclude that Paul encouraged a childlike dependency on him, for he treated believers as adult children and urged them to “grow up” in Christ and to become mature adults in the faith (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:20; Ephesians 4:14).

Other metaphors in Paul’s writings, such as builder (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) and farmer (1 Corinthians 3:6-9), are drawn from the world of work and stress his fundamental role in starting and designing the Corinthian church. The metaphor of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:1-16), especially the reference to the unifying and structuring role of the ligaments, reveals something about the central role of key people in the church whose primary responsibility is to help maintain unity and engender growth.

No Status Distinctions

Reference to certain people in the community playing a greater role than others leads to a consideration of key people within the churches. The language of priesthood appears only metaphorically in Paul’s writings, never of a literal person or group, in regard to a wide range of devotional, compassionate, financial, and evangelistic activities (cf. Romans 15:16, 27; 2 Corinthians 9: 12; Philemon 2:17, 25, 30). Paul’s point is that the kinds of ceremonial activities God required of only some people in the Old Testament are now required of all Christians. This desacralizes and democratizes the role of those who have a significant part to play.

The central corporate action in the churches was the Lord’s Supper, which was held weekly and was a full, not a token, meal. Nowhere in Paul’s letters, disputed or undisputed, is anyone identified as the official presider. This role probably fell to the host, in whose home the meal was held. If Paul’s practice is at all typical, baptism also took place through those who were other than leading figures in the movement (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).

As far as the usual terms for secular offices are concerned, only one of the more than thirty that existed in the first century appears in Paul’s writings, but it is used exclusively of the governing role played by Christ in the church (Colossians 1:18). Instead, the language of servanthood dominates. In the first century, however, this language did not necessarily conjure up ideas of lowly people undertaking inferior tasks. Servants of important social and political figures had considerable status and carried on high-level managerial and bureaucratic work. A servant’s master determined that servant’s status, and many servants had a higher social standing than free men or women who belonged to socially inferior families. In addition, because Christ is the Lord of Christians, their servant work has dignity and should be respected, and because he is the ultimate model of servanthood, he provides the profoundest example of how this should be undertaken.


The leadership lessons of Paul are timeless and offer a comprehensive approach to leadership development that serves as a model for us today. As an authentic leader Paul showed sincere affection and emotion toward his followers.[16] Paul’s exemplary approach to developing the next generation of leaders includes first and foremost careful attention to his own leadership so that he might serve as a role model to all, someone worthy of imitation.[17] Paul’s mission to build and grow the church throughout the Roman Empire required that he lead so as to create future leaders and to do this he lead with authenticity and transparency so that his leadership practice might be easily adopted by others. To this end, Paul practiced leadership as an influence process without asserting his authority. At the same time, Paul was bold when faced with opposition, holding steadfast to his values and convictions, in this way he demonstrated moral authority.[18]

Faithful leadership in the marketplace begins with the question, does spirituality make a difference in leadership? One way to answer this question is to see spirituality as the integrator of Christian values and business practice. Faith anchors leadership in deeply held belief about the world, people, and the purpose of work. In everyday practice, faith compels leaders to seek creative solutions to business challenges, solutions that are often not on the radar screen of business as usual.

Three of the key tensions leaders of faith regularly encounter are:

  • the tension between professional competence and being salt and light: seeking to be highly competent as a professional and knowing when it is appropriate to speak directly about one’s faith in the secular marketplace
  • the tension between calling and trusting God: following the leading of God to serve as a leader and trusting God when situations do not seem to create the opportunity to follow ones calling.
  • the tension between family and work: honoring multiple demands at home and at work while pursuing integrity through and beyond the stress of various responsibilities

As Laura Nash points out in Believers in Business,[19] additional tensions leaders of faith encounter are between:

  • pursuit of God and pursuit of power
  • love and the competitive drive
  • peoples needs and profit obligations
  • humility and the ego of success
  • charity and wealth

These polarities are the daily routine for leaders of faith, and faith is the bridge that holds these polarities in tension. Accepting the journeying of leading while living with these tensions is to understand what it means to be called, that is, finding a purpose of being in the world that is related to the purpose of God.[20] Spirituality and leadership meet where calling, values, and actions come together. Does spirituality make a difference in leadership? The answer is clear: It must.


[1] Ledbetter, B., Banks, R., & Greenhaulgh, D. (2016). Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[2] Ciulla, J. (2004). The Nature of Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

[3] Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and Practice, 7th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[4] Rost, J. (1991). Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. Newport: Praeger, p. 104.

[5] Benefiel, M. (2005). Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations. New York: Seabury Books, p. 9.

[6] Oman, D. (2013). “Defining religion and spirituality” in Paloutzian, R. F. and Park, C. L. (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. New York: Guilford Press.

[7] Hill, P. C., Pargament, K. I., Hood, R. W., Jr., McCullough, M. E., Swyers, J.P., Larson, D. B., et al. (2000). “Conceptualizing religion and spirituality: Points of commonality, points of departure” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 30, 51-77, p. 66.

[8] Fry, L. (2003). “Toward a Theory of Spiritual Leadership” The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 693-727, p. 694-695.

[9] Wong, Y. R. & Vinsky, J. (2009). “Speaking Form the Margins: A Critical Reflection On The ‘Spiritual-But-Not-Religious’ Discourse In Social Work.” British Journal of Social Work, 39, 1343-1359.

[10] Pruzan, P. (2001). “The Question of Organizational Consciousness: Can Organizations Have Values, Virtues, and Visions?” Journal of Business Ethics, 29, 271-284.

[11] Ruedy, N. E., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2010). “In the Moment: The Effect of Mindfulness on Ethical Decision Making.” Journal of Business Ethics, 95, 73-87.

[12] Spears, L. C., (ed). (1995). Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today’s Top Management Thinkers. New York: Wiley, pp. 4-7.

[13] Batten, Joe D. (1998). “Servant-Leadership: A Passion to Serve.” In Insights on Leadership, edited by Larry C. Spears, 47–60. New York: Wiley.

[14] Strom, M. (2014). Lead With Wisdom: How Wisdom Transforms Good Leaders into Great Leaders. Melbourne: John Wiley, pp. 243-255.

[15] Banks, R. (1993). “Pauline Church Order and Governance.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, 131–37. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

[16] Whittington, J. L., Pitts, T. M., Kageler, W. V., & Goodwin, V. L. (2005). “Legacy Leadership: The Leadership Wisdom of the Apostle Paul.” Leadership Quarterly, 16(5) 749–70.

[17] Whittington, 2005.

[18] Stanley, A. (1999). Visioneering Sisters. Portland, OR: Multnomah.

[19] Nash, L. L. (1994). Believers in Business. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[20] Benefiel, M. (2003). “Mapping the Terrain of Spirituality in Organizations Research.” Journal of Organizational Change Management 16(4) 367–77.

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Authors of the article
Bernice Ledbetter, EdD
Bernice Ledbetter, EdD, is Academic Director, Master of Science in Management and Leadership degree program at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University; Director, Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership. She has authored several articles and book chapters and co-authored the book, Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches, her article “A Values Approach to Advancing Women in Leadership: Using Talent Management to Change the Equation” appeared in the Graziadio Business Review; her recent article, “Business Leadership for Peace” appears in the International Journal of Public Leadership, her book chapter in Women in Leadership and Work-Family Integration, Volume Three: A Global Perspective, Edited by Margaret J. Weber and Kerri Cissna-Heath with Cambridge Scholars Publishing on “Women in Uganda” is forthcoming, and her article “Women in Oman: Leadership Style Preferences in the Context of Peace” is under review. She regularly presents research at academic conferences and is a recognized expert on the topic of women in leadership, and is frequently quoted in news outlets and is a regular contributor on the Huffington post Blog, she is a frequent keynote speaker on advancing women in leadership to international audiences, industry groups and large organizations including Fortune 500.
Robert J. Banks, PhD
Robert J. Banks, PhD, is Visiting Professor, and Associate, Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience, School of Humanities, Macquarie University, Sydney, Adjunct Professor, School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary where he held the Homer L. Goddard Chair of the Ministry of the Laity, and Pasadena and Biblical Graduate School of Theology, Singapore. He is the former Director & Dean, Macquarie Christian Studies Institute, Macquarie University, Sydney, and served as the Founding Executive Director, De Pree Center for Leadership, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. In recent years he has addressed theological students, Christians in the workplace, and congregations seeking more participatory, relational, and world-connected ways of operating in Asia and Europe. He is the author of several of his books on the ministry of the laity, Faith and work, Pauline theology, and New Testament interpretations. Many of his books have been translated into Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Danish, Chinese and German and he has also won Book of the Year awards in Australia, Canada and the United States. He has been a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research in England, and the international Society for New Testament Studies. He is a co-author of Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches (2nd Ed.), Grand Rapids: MI, Baker Academic, 2016.
David C. Greenhalgh, EdD
David C. Greenhalgh, EdD, is Professor Emeritus, and former Founding Director for the Ph.D. program in Organizational Leadership at Eastern University; prior to this he was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Eastern University. He served as Scholar-in-Residence for the Anglican International School of Jerusalem and Visiting Professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. He currently serves as the interim Vice President of Academic Affairs at Manor College in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He is a member of numerous boards and associations; works as a Senior Consultant with Paideia Inc, a comprehensive consulting firm with a biblical worldview. He is a co-author, Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches (2nd Ed.), Grand Rapids: MI, Baker Academic, 2016.
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