34 Beyond a Leap of Faith: Fostering Leadership Spirituality in the Workplace [full paper]

Shelly Lyons and Carolin Rekar Munro


Leadership spirituality fosters workplace engagement and organizational vitality and prosperity, and it can play a salient role in guiding organizations through the maze of changes in the work world. Despite the growing body of literature about the positive outcomes of spiritual leadership, this topic – from how it is defined to how it can be nurtured – has garnered its share of controversy and is fraught with misunderstanding. This has resulted in organizational tentativeness to adapt a spiritually grounded approach to leadership. This paper will examine: the literature on spiritual leadership, underscoring the organizational benefits; the gap between leadership spirituality theory and organizational practice; and, propose ways to foster leadership spirituality in the workplace, starting with self.

Keywords: spirituality, leadership spirituality, spiritual leadership development, spiritual leader, workplace spirituality, leadership


Scholarship in the area of spirituality in the workplace has gained traction over two decades. Specifically, fostering spirituality in leadership is noted as being the birthplace of organizational commitment, fulfilling and engaging work relationships, work and life satisfaction, peak performance and productivity (Astuti & Haryani, 2021; Efferin & Hutomo, 2021; James, 2021; Widodo & Suryosukmono, 2021; Samul, 2020a; Yang & Fry, 2018; Fry et al., 2017). As compelling and legitimizing as the findings are for cultivating spirituality in leadership, there remains a collective organizational hesitancy to position spirituality as a pillar of necessity in the leadership competency framework that informs leadership development and practice. Spirituality and its application to leadership practice remain controversial and fraught with misunderstanding; its efficacy in contributing to organization performance and productivity is questioned.

At a time of profound and sweeping change in the social, political, economic, and environmental fabric of our work world, spiritual leadership can play an instrumental role in helping organizations lean into and navigate through change (Samul, 2020b). The purpose of this paper is three-fold: 1) to examine the literature pertaining to spirituality as fundamental to leadership, with specific focus on the implications for organizations; 2) to examine the disconnect between what the literature says about spirituality in leadership as being important and what is practiced in the workplace; and, 3) to discuss ways to center spirituality in the leadership competency architecture as a leadership imperative.

Applied Scope of Paper

This paper is within the scope of applied research as per the guidelines for Royal Roads University’s Doctoral Conference 2021 entitled Socially Engaged Applied Doctoral Research in Canada: Approaches to Contemporary Social and Management Opportunities and Challenges. This paper investigates a context-specific application; specifically, it explores the pervasive gap between the scholarly theories, frameworks and models of spirituality in leadership and the application of the aforementioned to leadership practice in the workplace. Discussed in the paper are approaches that can be taken to anchor spirituality in leadership practice; specifically, the work to be done by leaders themselves in order to position spirituality as the focal point of the work they do. The intent is to offer the first steps on the pathway to integrating spirituality into leadership so that it resides with synchronicity alongside other prevailing core leadership attributes that contribute to leadership effectiveness.

Contextualization of Spirituality at Work

Over the years, the definition of spirituality at work has morphed in new directions. Ashmos and Duchon (2000) lead the charge with their definition of spirituality at work as “recognition of an inner life that nourishes and is nourished by meaningful work that takes place in the context of community” (p. 139). Dubey et al. (2020) created a table listing a sample of these definitions and Houghton et al. (2016) did the same by analyzing the common themes of inner life, meaningful work, and sense of community. These themes assist in understanding this term and reflect back to the definition as stated by Ashmos and Duchon (2000).

Fry and Slocum Jr. (2007) discuss the difference between religion and spirituality. They posit that while religion is a formalized system of rituals and beliefs, spirituality is instead focused on the human spirit and its qualities. Following their analysis of both terms, they concluded that workplace spirituality can include religion or not. Other researchers before and after have debated the religion and spirituality argument. Scheitle and Ecklund (2017) found that there was a positive relationship between how often religion was discussed at work and the perceptions of religious discrimination. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, religion will not be specifically examined, except to mention certain studies which had a particular religious bias. Instead, the earlier definition of Ashmos and Duchon (2000) will be used and built upon.

Search Strategy

A blended search strategy was used for the sources included in this paper. In researching another paper on spirituality and business, the subject of spiritual leadership began to emerge and invited further study. Google Scholar was searched with the key terms Spirituality, Workplace Spirituality, Spiritual Leadership, Religion, and Religiosity. What began as a search under Spirituality and Workplace Spirituality widened as further terms were discovered from scanning the articles. Each search used the terms individually or in various combinations. Each source’s abstract was examined and, if deemed relevant, the document saved to Mendeley.

After deciding upon the topic area for this paper, Google Scholar was again employed to search using the key term Spiritual Leadership. The decision to refine all sources to 2017 and newer was made in order to ensure that only the most recent studies were included. This search resulted in over 51,000 sources. The search was further refined by sorting by relevance, which resulted in 9,190 sources. The topics of Spiritual Leadership and Workplace Spirituality were combined in the final search, refined to 2017 and newer, sorted by relevance, and resulted in 44 sources. Each of the abstracts for these sources were scanned and eight were saved to Mendeley. Then, each of these eight articles were read and the decision was made to retain seven of the most relevant and represented a diverse sample of studies. After a review of the originally saved sources, three more were added using the same criteria.

The criteria used for retaining these sources were that they were no older than 2017 and had Spiritual Leadership as the focus. The articles were then sorted by conceptual models or literature reviews and studies, with the intention to focus on the former first. The studies were then sorted by geographical location, covering the United States first, followed by Malaysia, Poland, and Indonesia. However, the sequence was changed as grouping by related content seemed to provide a more organized structure. The studies also included a variety of religious perspectives: Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and unspecified. Most of the sources were articles from a variety of journals that emphasize management, human resources, supply chain management, accounting, or spirituality. One source was a doctoral dissertation from a United States university and another was from conference proceedings.

Please note some articles that predate 2017 were included in this paper. They were included because their leadership messages are applicable to the exploration of spirituality in the current workplace landscape.

Literature Review

Pioneering Model of Workplace Spirituality

The article by Fry et al. (2017) should begin this discussion as it outlines some of the seminal work of Fry (2003). This quantitative study had a sample of 652 participants from 27 American organizations that were recipients of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program award (Fry et al., 2017). This study used a revised version of the spiritual leadership model (Figure 1) originally introduced by Fry (2003). In this model, the researchers hypothesized that inner life or mindfulness informs spiritual leadership, which consists of three elements: hope/faith, vision, and altruistic love (Fry et al., 2017). Spiritual leadership, when these three elements are effectively utilized, can create a sense of calling and membership in followers, which, in turn, can produce organizational commitment and productivity, and life satisfaction. The findings of this study confirmed their hypotheses and gave the researchers cause to believe that spiritual leadership positively affects workplace spirituality and “produces beneficial personal and organizational outcomes” (p. 37). The components of the spiritual leadership model and the relationship between them are given further legitimacy through the findings of this study. In particular, two linkages were confirmed between: 1) a leader’s ability to create and communicate the vision of hope/faith to their followers and a follower’s sense of calling or purpose; and 2) altruistic love exhibited by the leader and a follower’s feeling of membership or belonging. These two linkages present in the workplace, either alone or together, positively affect a follower’s organizational commitment and productivity, and life satisfaction. The study also highlighted the importance of inner life as the well from which spiritual leadership springs. Based on these findings, the relevance and applicability of the spiritual leadership model is affirmed and the reason for its popularity in many other studies since its creation is realized.


Figure 1


Another quantitative study, this time by Yang and Fry (2018) on the impact of spiritual leadership on burnout in 235 medical laboratory employees in the United States, again uses the spiritual leadership model. This study was the first to examine the relationship between the spiritual leadership model and burnout. Their findings confirmed those of Fry et al. (2017), with a few variations. However, the groundbreaking finding was that “membership fully mediated the relationship between spiritual and burnout” (p. 318). According to the spiritual leadership model, membership is a direct result of spiritual leadership. Membership, also described as belonging, can mitigate the feeling of isolation and fulfill the need to be understood and accepted. Therefore, spiritual leaders must be aware of the workplace environment they are creating, as well as reflect carefully on decisions that will affect their followers. One potential challenge highlighted by the researchers is that the term ‘spiritual’ may be misunderstood and they suggest that a neutral term may need to be developed to mitigate the negative reaction from followers that could impede the creation of spiritual leadership within an organization.

Benefits of Fostering Spiritual Leadership

Workplace inclusion is posited as having a connection to spiritual leadership in a literature review of these two subject areas (Gotsis & Grimani, 2017). Using subjectivism as their epistemology, the researchers designed their study to determine how spiritual leadership can foster a more inclusive workplace. The researchers introduce an integrative framework which uses, as its starting point, the spiritual leadership model outlined in the two previously discussed articles. Their findings pointed toward a positive relationship between spiritual leadership and inclusive workplaces and harken back to the linkages outlined in Fry et al. (2017) between altruistic love and membership. They posit that, in their model, “spiritual leaders are exhibiting behaviors embedded in values of altruistic love that will in turn address followers’ needs for uniqueness and belongingness through calling and membership of both leaders and followers” (p. 922). As a result, inclusion can be created for their employees, the organization in which they work, and the society in which they live.

Spiritual leadership is linked to organizational performance in yet another quantitative study by Elias et al. (2017). This study focussed on 278 small and medium-sized businesses located in Malaysia. These businesses were all part of the halal food and beverage industry. This study differentiated itself by highlighting the Islamic Shariah based entrepreneurial orientation as a mediating factor. The proposed framework was simplistic: spiritual leadership has a direct, positive relationship on organizational performance, mediated by Shariah based entrepreneurial orientation. In contrast to other studies on spiritual leadership, the researchers focussed on organizational performance, with no mention of the employees or their well-being. Although spiritual leadership was used as a major component of their framework, the inherent meaning appeared to be based on religion and not the broader meaning of spirituality.

Widodo and Suryosukmono (2021) researched the relationship between spiritual leadership and workplace spirituality in their quantitative study of government employees in Indonesia. Their sample was 150 people from 10 different organizations. Their research framework showed spiritual leadership and workplace spirituality as having a positive direct effect on self-transcendence and, as a result, on meaningful work. When describing self-transcendence, they referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with self-transcendence being at the pinnacle of the triangle above self-actualization. Maslow posits that “at this stage humans desire to be in a consciousness that is beyond human capacity and to experience the whole One Godhead, the highest power holder, in whatever form it is” (p. 2118). Meaningful work is described on two levels: 1) the worker’s perception that their work is significant; and, 2) the worker’s recognition that their work brings a deeper meaning to their lives. The link between these two concepts can be realized in that self-transcendence is about placing the needs of others above one’s own personal interests, which then creates greater meaning in both work and life. Although this paper does not use the spiritual leadership model developed by Fry et al. (2017), one of their measurement tools was the Spiritual Leadership Theory (SLT) questionnaire which is grounded in this model (Fry et al., 2005).

One of the few qualitative studies highlighted in this paper is one by Efferin and Hutomo (2021). The researchers used case study analysis with 12 senior auditors and managers in an Indonesian accounting firm. As noted in this paper, these participants were in jobs with high stress and long hours. This study explored workplace spirituality from a Buddhist perspective. The framework presented the findings that one of the major contributors to workplace spirituality is spiritual leadership based in altruistic love. The description of the leader who exemplified altruistic love in this organization, showed him as “a role model based on caring and understanding, fulfilling auditors’ needs beyond work technicalities, close relationships, flexibility, autonomy and personal development” (Section 5.2, para. 8). Interestingly, this same leader was unfamiliar with the term spirituality, although he was exhibiting the concept in his leadership style. Another important note is the effect that individual spirituality has on workplace spirituality, both that of the leader and the followers. Although different from the spiritual leadership model (Fry el al., 2017), Efferin and Hutomo’s (2021) model also shows spiritual leadership as the major driver for the creation and sustaining of workplace spirituality. However, they posit that the interplay between spirituality on an organizational level and an individual level is what comprises workplace spirituality. Extrapolating further, one can assume that both the individual spirituality of the followers and leader(s) can either inspire or inhibit the growth of workplace spirituality.

Astuti and Haryani (2021) use quantitative methodology to explore the effect of spiritual leadership and workplace spirituality on employee commitment. “Organizational commitment is the level at which a worker identifies the organization, its goals, and expectations to remain a member” (p. 72). Their study was conducted in Indonesia with 71 hospital employees. They found that spiritual leadership has a positive effect on both workplace spirituality and affective commitment, and workplace spirituality has a positive effect on affective commitment as well. Additionally, workplace spirituality has a mediating effect on the relationship between spiritual leadership and affective commitment. Again, the terminology from the spiritual leadership model (Fry et al., 2017) was reflected in the discussion of the findings where the researchers compare their study with other studies which have similar findings (Astuti & Haryani, 2021).

Lean and Ganster (2017) identified 39 essential behaviours for spiritual leaders in their mixed methods study of 26 academics and practitioners. This study, with its pragmatic approach, was based in the United States and sought to determine a common understanding of spiritual leadership behaviours. The researchers posit that certain behaviours could be identified that were unique to spiritual leaders and that their findings could produce a list of behaviours that are based in both theory and practice. The 39 essential behaviours identified by the researchers were grouped together into four categories based on the spiritual leadership model: 1) inner life – “make decisions based on their spiritual values or beliefs, are guided by their spiritual values, and practice what they preach” (p. 311); 2) the components of spiritual leadership (hope/faith, vision, altruistic love) – “appeal to people’s spirits, value others as much as they value themselves, and show kindness and compassion” (p. 311); 3) calling – “find ways to make work personally meaningful for each employee and help employees see how the work they are doing is serving their customers, community, etc.” (p. 311); and, 4) membership – “create a context for employees to experience a form of community and create an environment where employees enjoy coming to work” (p. 311). Although this list is not exhaustive, it can serve as a sample of the benefits spiritual leaders bring to the workplace.

Using similar terminology as that which appears in the spiritual leadership model (Fry et al., 2017), Samul (2020a) explores the relationship between managers’ perceptions of work and their spiritual intelligence; that is, the processing of spiritual knowledge. The sample was 69 managers from various organizations and sectors in Poland using quantitative study methodology. Samul (2020a) found that having a high level of spiritual intelligence positively affected a manager’s perspective on workplace spirituality. “Spiritual intelligence is related to the abilities of using spiritual aspects to facilitate everyday activities” (p. 703). The research also found that manager’s spiritual intelligence positively impacts workplace spirituality and its related components: sense of meaning, membership, vision, commitment, and performance, which correlates to some aspects of the study by Widodo and Suryosukmono (2021).

The final paper explored was a doctoral dissertation by James (2021). This paper was included because the focus was on the impact of human resource (HR) practices on workplace spirituality, which provides an alternative viewpoint from the other articles in this paper. This qualitative study was conducted in the United States with seven HR managers with at least 10 years of experience. Among the findings were two of interest: 1) the individual spirituality of a leader and their sense of duty and responsibility had a positive impact on workplace spirituality, and 2) the HR managers interviewed were inclined to let their own spiritual values guide how they lead and make decisions within their organizations. Embedded in both of these findings is the idea of spiritual integration in which one’s “spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences are organized into a coherent whole” (p. 187). Spiritual integration can be beneficial for the leader’s well-being, as well as model spirituality to their followers. The emphasis on the individual spirituality of leaders and, by extension, the value of their role in modelling spirituality, is similar to the findings of Efferin and Hutomo (2021). An interesting point to note is the difference in their theological basis despite their similar findings. James (2021) focused on participants who ascribe to Christianity, while Efferin and Hutomo (2021) wrote from a Buddhist perspective.

The Disconnect Between Scholarship and Application

Several scholars advocate for greater integration of spirituality into workplace discourse about leadership and practice (van der Walt, 2018; Daniel & Jardon, 2015; Fry & Cohen, 2009; Smith & Rayment, 2007; Reave, 2005). Despite the body of literature on the benefits of anchoring organizations in spirituality, for the most part, spirituality does not show up in how an organization defines itself, promotes itself, and charts its pathway for success (van der Walt, 2018; Daniel & Jardon, 2015; Porter & Kramer, 2011, Saks, 2011). There are pockets of organizations that promote a spiritual orientation, yet these are exceptions. For example, multinational companies such as Google, Maruti Suzuki India and Apple, promote spirituality through the following: quiet rooms for discernment, meditation or prayer; seminars on work-life balance; access to reference books, podcasts and videos on spirituality; on-site yoga and meditation; paying suppliers in developing countries fair price for their goods in order to facilitate growth and development of community (Devendhiran & Wesley, 2017, van der Walt, 2018; Anthony, 2015).

Business Plans and KPIs at the Forefront

At the forefront of organizational identity and planning for its future is a meticulously crafted business plan rooted in strategic priorities, action strategies, tactics, budgets, financial projections, and metrification. Success in executing on the business plan is based on a number of key performance indicators (KPIs), grounded in trackable, quantifiable measures. According to Kaplan and Norton’s (1996) seminal work on the balanced scorecard, these dashboard indicators cover the gamut of organizational functionality housed as four perspectives: financial, customer, internal business process, and learning and growth.

Absent from KPIs are references to an organization’s spiritual health and well-being, which have been found to contribute to “values congruence throughout the workplace, employee commitment, financial performance, and social responsibility” (Fry & Cohen, 2009, p. 266). Exclusion of spiritual health and well-being from organizational report cards means organizations are missing out on critical intelligence to ascertain whether they are earning high grades – or failing grades – in their ability to foster a workplace climate that inspires employees to soar to their full potential, and ultimately, contribute to organizational goals. In a work world characterized by multiple diversities, understanding the lens through which the workforce perceives and experiences their workplace is imperative; it may not be the same lens through which the leadership team views the organization.

When an organization does not earn a passing grade in nurturing and protecting the health and well-being of its workforce, a chain reaction is set in motion: employees feel undervalued and disrespected; they are prone to burnout, mental health and physical illnesses; they lose confidence in their organization; and, eventually, they submit their resignation (Rekar Munro, 2014). The organization then finds itself in a vicious and perilous cycle of resignations and replacements, which results in an inflated amount of an organization’s financial and non-financial resources needed to manage the logistics of staffing. Specifically, the organization finds itself in the spin of the following: recruitment and selection; training new staff to reach performance standards; coaching new staff through the learning curve until they are acclimatized to new accountabilities; and, correcting employee errors enroute to reaching performance standards. Managing the logistics of staffing detracts from time needed for strategic planning and execution, which can put an organization’s competitive advantage at risk. High performance and productivity are reliant on a stable and reliable workforce that is fully functional and meeting performance standards (Rekar Munro, 2014).

By creating a spot on the organization’s report card to report on spiritual health and well being, an organization minimizes the probability of being in the resignation-replacement cyclone. The organization can monitor the degree to which their workforce perceives the workplace as healthy and thriving; hence, the organization can intervene early with approaches to mitigate any issues that threaten the viability of the organization.

Spirituality’s Silence in the Leadership Competency Architecture

In most organizations, the leadership competencies which serve as the foundation for leadership development, evaluation of leadership performance, and succession planning do not include an explicit domain called spirituality. There is a spiritual tone in the competency architecture with reference to: authenticity, self-awareness, emotions, intrinsic motivation, and leading from a place of values, honesty, integrity, and morality (Daniel & Jardon, 2015; Hicks, 2002); however, the competency profile falls short of naming these attributes as spiritual in nature. For the most part, leaders are not held accountable for spiritual growth and development in their training and performance, nor are their career trajectories dependent on honing a spiritual disposition.

A select number of contributors in the massive field of leadership research are presented to support the aforementioned claim. Their contributions, including leadership attributes, styles, frameworks, models, and practices are the most frequently cited by organizations in their leadership development programs, performance evaluation approaches, and succession planning decisions (Jackson & Parry, 2018).


Global Reach of Competencies

Scholarly works in leadership have a global span most notably with the work of Kouzes & Posner (2016) and House et al. (2002). Kouzes and Posner’s (2016) international study, spanning six continents, uncovered the top twenty universal attributes of admired leaders. Leading the charge were the following attributes: honesty, forward looking, competency, inspiring, and intelligent. House et al. (2004) led the Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) research project which was an offshoot of Hofstede’s (1980, 1991) seminal cross-culture work. The GLOBE study is arguably the most ambitious leadership project documenting followers’ perceptions of leaders and identifying global leadership behaviours in 62 countries. Some of the qualities viewed positively worldwide include the following: trustworthy, positive, dynamic, effective communicator of values and vision, and a confidence builder.


Leadership Styles and Pathways

Added into the mix is an array of scholarly works pertaining to leadership styles and pathways for leading effectively. Hersey and Blanchard (2007) invite leaders to hone their situational leadership skills; that is, develop fluency in a range of leadership styles – selling, telling, participating, and delegating – and adapt one’s style based on followers’ willingness and ability to complete a task and the situation at hand. Rooke and Torbert (2005) argue that action logic – how a leader acts and reacts when their safety or power is challenged – is a stronger determinant of leadership effectiveness than style or personality. They classify leaders into seven action logic categories ranging from low to high performers: opportunist, diplomat, expert, achiever, individualist, strategist, and alchemist. Covey (1990), in his paradigm-shifting book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, presents a principle-centered approach to leading effectively: being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first, think win-win, seeking first to understand, synergize, and sharpen the saw. Boal and Hoojiberg (2000) chart the pathway for becoming a strategic leader by building bench strength in the following areas: absorptive capacity, capacity to change, managerial wisdom, and tuning into strategic inflection points through discernment and social intelligence as the signature strength for leaders who aspire to trailblaze in competitive markets. Bass (1998) advocates that leadership effectiveness involves the coupling of transformation and transaction. Transformational leadership creates a climate of autonomous exploration where teams can skyrocket as high performers toward unimaginable heights in delivering on their organization’s vision for the future, and transactional leadership focuses on having processes, systems, and structures in place. Conger and Kanungo (1988) chart the pathway for charismatic leadership, with its flair for dramatic and captivating stage presence, charm, storytelling finesse, and powers to uplift and persuade others. Mumford and Van Doorn (2001) flag the limitations of charismatic, transactional, and transformational leadership, and they advocate for pragmatic leadership. This approach is grounded in: identifying root cause problems; working with stakeholders and systems to craft proactive solution strategies and supporting structures; and, demonstrating the return on investment of solutions.


Leadership Attributes

A number of scholarly works address the attributes of leadership effectiveness, hinting at a spiritual element. Yukl (2013) proposes four prerequisites for leadership effectiveness: high internal locus of control, high achievement orientation, emotional maturity, and deriving fulfilment from influencing others for altruistic rather than self-serving reasons. Goleman’s (1995) ground swell work moved emotional intelligence from the world of psychology into the world of work, with its focus on five composites: self awareness, self expression, relationship management, decision making, and stress management. Collins (2001) in his seminal book on Good to Great inspires leaders to stretch toward Level 5 leadership with its blend of humility and professional will. According to Collins (2001), Level 5 leaders are “a study in duality: they are modest and willful, shy and fearless. They act with quiet, calm determination and they rely principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.” (Collins, p. 73).

Authentic leadership has also gained traction, yet remains contested as to where the line in the sand is for the right amount of transparency and revealing of self to others. George et al. (2007) position authenticity as one of the jewels of leadership effectiveness, yet Ibarra (2015) cautions about the authenticity paradox; that is, too much authenticity can hinder personal growth and development and can negatively affect followers’ perception of one’s leadership effectiveness. Staying within the domain of authenticity, sociologist Brown (2012), offers her milestone research on vulnerability with its paradigm-shifting findings about vulnerability being a strength and at the heart of unleashing experiences that bring purpose and meaning to life. Barrett (2006) presents a full spectrum values consciousness model that leaders and their organizations can use to build a values-driven organization. The model encourages leaders to develop full spectrum values consciousness in seven levels: survival, relationships, self esteem, transformation, internal cohesion, making a difference, and service.


Spirituality Breaking Barriers

There are a few leadership path seekers whose work aims to close the gap between the fields of spirituality and leadership in the workplace. Honourable mention goes to Greenleaf (1977) for coining the term servant leadership, which underscores the importance of service to followers and community as the primary responsibility of leaders. Servant leaders are encouraged to hone the following characteristics: accept wholeheartedly the stewardship of one’s followers; put the holistic needs of employees and community ahead of self-interest and self-pursuits; strive to heal themselves and others when faced with suffering and failure; nurture the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of followers; and, advocate for social justice and equality, even when it is not aligned with the organization’s financial plan (Greenleaf, 1977).

Equally noteworthy, is the work by Maxwell, a pastor, author, and speaker, who has written extensively about leadership. Within his work, is a distinct infusion of spirituality making explicit the inherent benefits of leading with a spiritual presence. His books have sold more than twenty million copies, and they have been translated into fifty languages (Maxwell, 2021). He reminds us that “life doesn’t do anything to you; it only reveals your spirit” (Maxwell, 1998), “an intentional life embraces only the things that will add to the mission of significance” (Maxwell, 2019) and he pushes the envelope with references to the divine, such as, “Question for God every morning: What is the main event today? What do you want me to focus on today” (Maxwell, 2012).

If Not Now, When?

Business plans, key performance indicators, and leadership competency frameworks are arguably important blueprints for organizations as they envision and execute their futures; there is no intent to disparage their salience. The intent is to bring into conscious awareness that spiritual leadership is a simpatico partner in the quest for organizational high performance and productivity that positions organizations for viability and competitive advantage. Given the literature on spirituality in the workplace spanning two decades and attesting to the organizational benefits of leading from a spiritual base, the question, in the words of Primo Levi, becomes “if not now, when”? (Levi, 1986).

Our Changing World

Our world is in an unsettled and precarious state, crying out for care and compassion. It is a world overwhelmed by: the perils of climate change and erosion of the ecosystem; political polarization; food, health care and education insecurities; racial tensions; social injustice and divisions; and, global economic and social recovery from the pandemic (Tsalis, et al., 2020). Additionally, there are new work world realities that beg for organizational accountability. At the forefront, amongst many pressing issues, is the expectation that organizational leaders will re-examine their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and embed DEI throughout their policies, procedures, practices, and employee experiences (Grieser et al., 2019; Thiederman, 2019). Specifically, this means lifting the vow of silence on difficult and unexamined topics that have been entrenched deeply in the psyche of organizations: implicit and unconscious bias, system disparities, microaggressions, privilege, gender identity and expression, discrimination, harassment, and bullying (Fuller et al., 2020; Fogarty & Zheng, 2018; Brown, 2017; Winters, 2017; Meyers, 2014).

Tackling the aforementioned challenges, which can seem daunting and completely intractable, requires a recalibration of leadership; that is, pressing the pause button and reflecting on new perspectives and practices for leading, which may be more appropriate for the times. This does not mean replacing one’s leadership with an exclusively spiritual approach, but exploring how one’s approach to leading can be augmented with a spiritual intentionality and purposefulness. Additionally, it does not mean that spiritual leadership is the sole and primary path to that which perplexes and ails the world; spiritual leadership is a partner in the work ahead.

The signature attributes of spiritual leadership, grounded in giving rise to the human spirit and unified humanity (Fry & Slocum, 2007) and recognizing and nourishing inner life (Ashmos & Duchon, 2000), have the power to heal a distressed world and a world that is in the churn of trying to find answers to complex issues. Specifically, spiritual leadership has a special blend of: creating a climate where care, compassion, and sanctity for human life flourish in community; fostering epic empathetic and generative relationships that communicate the importance of everyone and that the injustice that happens to one person is deeply felt by everyone in community; and, incorporating fully the spiritual bedrocks of authenticity, justice, fairness, and equality (Hicks, 2002). Leaders, who are grounded in spirituality, empower brave, resilient, and strong communities who chart pathways which inevitably lead to harmony, balance and solutions to complex organizational and global issues (Daniel & Jardon, 2015).

Discussion: Pathway to Integrating Spirituality into Leadership

Positioning spirituality in leadership and organizations requires more than a leap of faith; it requires personal commitment, perseverance and intentionality to champion a paradigm shift and a shift in actions. As Mintzberg (2015) noted, rebalancing our democracies, our planet, or ourselves will not come from the leadership within private and public sectors, but it will come from the pluralist sector; that is, “you, and me and we, acting together” (Mintzberg, p. 11). This leaves on the table a germane question stemming from the exploration of leadership spirituality – How can leaders foster spirituality in the workplace?

The answers to this question gleaned from these articles are varied, but two main categories can be seen: leading self and leading others. Although quite a few of the articles outlined in this paper focus on leading others (Efferin & Hutomo, 2021; Elias et al., 2017; Fry et al., 2017; Gotsis & Grimani, 2017; James, 2021; Lean & Ganster, 2017; Samul, 2020a), this discussion will emphasize the importance of leading self. There are three starting points for the journey toward spiritual leadership.

Beginning with One’s Own Spiritual Discernment

First, is the importance of a leader’s own spirituality. If one is to lead spiritually, one must be personally engaged in a spiritual journey. In the spiritual leadership model, inner life is the beginning point of spiritual leadership (Fry et al., 2017; Yang & Fry, 2018). The inner life of a spiritual leader is the impetus for the values of hope/faith, vision, and altruistic love, which a spiritual leader exhibits to create the space needed for spirituality in the workplace. The findings support the fact that leaders must recognize that the spiritual needs of their followers are as important as their physical, emotional, and mental needs (Fry et al., 2017). These spiritual needs, or inner life, must be prioritized not only for the employees, but also for the leaders themselves. “Spiritual leadership can only affect the meaningful work of employees if there is internal motivation and personal passion which is the output of self-transcendence” (Widodo & Suryosukmono, 2021, p. 2123). Leaders can only create for others what has already been created in them. In Samul’s (2020a) discussion of the importance of spiritual intelligence, the importance of a leader’s awareness of their own spiritual needs is highlighted as a crucial component in the creation of workplace spirituality. Recalling the spiritual leadership model (Fry et al., 2017), effective spiritual leadership through modelling the values of hope/faith, vision, and altruistic love can create a spiritual workplace and instill in their followers a sense of calling, or transcendence, and membership, or belonging. Efferin & Hutomo’s (2021) study provided an excellent example of modelling by a senior leader, the result of which was employee retention in the face of long hours and less money. Spiritual integration for leaders, as advocated by James (2021), is an avenue which not only models spirituality to their followers, but also provides space for their own spiritual well-being. In order for leaders to lead spiritually, they must also be spiritually healthy themselves.

Beginning with one’s own spiritual journey invites leaders to carve out time for discernment and to protect this time as sacred and immovable from one’s daily schedule. Specifically, it means having undisturbed and undistracted time to reflect on inner self and the questions, issues, and goals that are important to one’s spiritual awakening, growth, and development. It entails being gentle and non-judgmental with oneself when grappling with questions and concerns that, at first blush, may not have easy, straightforward answers. It involves sitting in the muddiness of uncertainty and confusion and allowing new insights to unfold. As noted by Palmer (1998), “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you” (p. 87).

Integrating Spiritual Awakening into Workplace Behaviours

The second area of importance is developing behaviours that contribute to workplace spirituality. Based on the findings of their study with medical laboratory employees, Yang and Fry (2018) posit that spiritual leadership in this setting positively affects outcomes of both employees and the organization. They suggest that developing spiritual leadership characteristics may create a workspace conducive to spirituality. Lean and Ganster (2017) reiterate this idea by outlining 39 essential behaviours common to effective spiritual leadership. Although the knowledge of these behaviours could be helpful in defining spiritual leadership, this lengthy list may be overwhelming for practitioners attempting to develop their capacity as spiritual leaders. As outlined earlier in this paper, these 39 behaviours could be categorized into themes drawn from the spiritual leadership model. Doing so could make this list more manageable and allow practitioners areas in which to focus.
For those who are new to the spiritual journey, beginning with the theme around their own inner life would allow them to lead and model spirituality from personal experience. Modelling of one’s personal spirituality (Fry et al., 2017) and exhibiting these behaviours could stimulate one’s followers to explore their own spirituality and contribution to workplace spirituality (Lean & Ganster, 2017). Astuti and Haryani (2021) encourage spiritual leaders to exercise values, attitudes, and behaviours that will motivate themselves intrinsically, and to make the aforementioned explicit in conversations. Furthermore, this exercise may also serve to motivate one’s followers towards realizing their own spirituality. The development of a leader into a spiritual leader is a journey. In order to develop new skills and make changes in one’s leadership style, a leader needs to be intentional and, in turn, encourage others to be the same (James, 2021).

Accountability for the Spiritual Journey

The third area of importance is evaluation. Of the articles reviewed, only one specifically highlighted evaluation as an integral part of the growth of spiritual leaders (Widodo & Suryosukmono, 2021). The researchers suggested that leaders should be evaluated as part of their performance appraisal on their success as a spiritual leader. They posited that metrics should be developed by the organization to better measure their effectiveness. While this idea could be commended for its desire to reinforce the importance of creating a spiritual workplace, formalizing it in this way may have negative effects on a leader’s motivation and authenticity. However, as suggested earlier, including workplace spirituality as part of the organizational KPIs could provide vital information about the spiritual well-being of the organization and its employees. Consequently, including spiritual evaluation as part of a leader’s personal developmental strategy and as part of an organization’s scorecard may provide valuable feedback. Perhaps this could be a discretionary addition to a leader’s performance evaluation; that is, a performance factor added to a leader’s performance evaluation, should this be of interest to their personal and professional growth and development.

Further Research

All of the articles, except two (Astuti & Haryani, 2021; Elias et al., 2017), gave suggestions for further research. Some called for similar exploration in different organizations or departments (Efferin & Hutomo, 2021; Fry et al., 2017; Samul, 2020a; Widodo & Suryosukmono, 2021) or in other countries (Yang & Fry, 2018) or in different religious frameworks (James, 2021). Others called for further development of their theories (Lean & Ganster, 2017) or examination of alternate areas of resistance (Gotsis & Grimani, 2017). Regardless of their recommendations, the need for more research in the area of spiritual leadership will only advance this body of knowledge and bring positive change to our organizations, leaders, and employees.


Despite the literature on workplace spirituality and spiritual leadership, many still misunderstand or refuse to acknowledge the value added both to employees, leaders, and organizations (Lean & Ganster, 2017). However, the greater challenge may lie in translating this knowledge to actual workplace practice. The landscape of leadership continues to change. Our organizations are becoming more diverse, employees are seeking more meaning in their work, and discrimination and inclusion continue to create difficult situations. Leading spiritually may not be the complete answer to these challenges, but it may create a space for leaders and followers alike to live more authentically and be more connected to each other and the world.


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Beyond a Leap of Faith: Fostering Leadership Spirituality in the Workplace [full paper] Copyright © 2022 by Shelly Lyons and Carolin Rekar Munro. All Rights Reserved.

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