What Is Spirituality?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990) defines spiritual as an adjective meaning: (1) of or concerning the spirit as opposed to matter, or (2) concerned with sacred or religious things; holy, divine, inspired.  Spirituality can be conceived broadly as encompassing the aspects of an individual’s search for inner peace and serenity as well as the significance of personal integrity and transparency, and mutual respect, trust, forgiveness, and love in relationships.  It also extends to concern for social justice and environmental stewardship and even to one’s vision for the world and sense of personal calling in life (Dorr, 2008).  [This covers much of what experts on Twitter use to describe a good leader.]  A spiritually-minded person might be a religious one; but she might not.

People today often ignore or discount spirituality. Although the majority of people have some explicit or implicit vision of life that lies behind their more generous or less selfish actions and attitudes (Dorr, 2008, p. 222), the Western mind tends to view spiritual business as an oxymoron. This reflects the dominant influence of the Enlightenment on modern and postmodern worldviews that restrict reality to the material. In contrast, spiritual leadership requires an open system perspective, one that recognizes meaning in other levels of reality beyond naturalism, materialism, determinism, and secular humanism.

Scientists such as Michael Polanyi realize that humans cannot be fully explained materialistically in terms of their physical bodies and brain cells. Life operates by principles made possible and limited by physical and chemical laws but not determined by them (Scott, 1995). Polanyi sees natural science as pointing beyond intelligible nature to a higher realm of communion with the divine personhood (Kelly, 2008; Torrance, 1984). Openness to spirituality is thus a rational means for seeking meaning to human rationality and consciousness.

Some Humanist Understandings

Enlightenment thinking has objected to such interpretations. Logical positivists (e.g., Bertrand Russell and Willard Quine) insist that various levels of reality are closed off within themselves without being open to higher levels. Such denial of any meaningful influence from beyond humanity ultimately leads to the existentialist conclusion that life is absurd—that it has no rational purpose.

More optimistic are those distinguished leaders whom Lawrence Carter, Sr. designates as “spiritually aware visionary activists.” Carter includes in this group John Shelby Spong, Joseph Campbell, Daisaku Ikeda, Deepak Chopra, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Andrew Cohen, Betty L. Siegel, and Derek Bok. Their vision is “to awaken humanity to its spiritual magnificence” (Carter, 2007, p. 142), “to allow more people to take a quantum jump to a place to build a world of peace, reconciliation, and connectedness” (Carter, 2007, p. 143). For such thinkers, the spiritual or “soulful excellence of leadership” transcends religious law sanctioned by the church or God, civil law sanctioned by the state, and natural law sanctioned by intelligence, instead resting squarely on ethical laws or principles sanctioned by rational will (Carter, 2007, p. 138).

Christian Spirituality

Christian humanists instead recognize spiritual values as a gift of God—rather than presuming to create a spiritual perspective themselves. As T. S. Eliot said, “Man is man because he can recognize spiritual realities, not because he can invent them” (quoted by Birzer, 2012, p. 40). “In our hour of crisis the key to real power, to the command of reality which the higher imagination gives, remains the fear of God” (Russell Kirk, 1963, as quoted by Birzer, 2012, p. 40).

But is scriptural adherence realistic, even practical, for today’s worldly and pluralistic workplace? Yes, if the reader realizes that the Bible cannot be used as one’s textbook for leadership any more than as an engineering manual. A Christian leader also needs to study and apply the findings of research and learn from his or her experience and that of others. Indeed, Christian spirituality involves recognition and response to God’s general revelation through scientific study of nature as well as to special revelation as reported throughout Scripture (especially note Ps 19, 29, and 135).

Future blogs will explore what this might mean for leaders who are spiritually-minded.

Comments will be welcomed.


Birzer, B. (2012). “Making Modernity Human: Can Christian Humanism Redeem an Age of Ideology?” The American Conservative. 11:8, pages 40-42.

Carter, L. E., Sr. (2007). “Global Ethical Leadership and Higher Education: ‘Being the Change You Wish to See’.” In J. Knapp, ed. For the Common Good: The Ethics of Leadership in the Twenty-First Century. Westport, CT: Praeger, pages 137-149.

Dorr, D. (2008). “Alternative Business Ethics: A Challenge for Leadership.” In G. Flynn, ed. Leadership and Business Ethics. Dordrecht: Springer, pages 211-227.

Kelly, D. F. (2008). Systematic Theology, Vol. I: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity. Fearn, Ross-Hire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus.

Scott, D. (1995). Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Torrance, T. F. (1984). Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge; Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

>>This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.


Developing as a Leader of Strong Character

Leading well is a great challenge, requiring the leader to dedicate his mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources to his vocational calling. To be effective and ethical in a typical organizational setting, a leader should communicate a clear vision and purpose to followers. You also should demonstrate a strong moral character in honoring the rights of others while fulfilling your obligations in a principled, knowledgeable, and skillful manner.

Succeeding at this may appear daunting.  Pressures and temptations are ever present for a leader facing complex interactions of competing responsibilities. Indeed, success in ethical leadership requires not only spiritual knowledge and insight but also integrity of character.

A character or virtue ethic does not focus on rules or changing contexts or even primarily on specific decisions or acts. Instead, the person of moral character integrity should develop a moral compass or moral character combining the right inner dispositions or virtues that guide or incline him to act appropriately regardless of the circumstances. The morally virtuous person will have developed the inclinations to habitually know and act in the right way, at the right time, for the right end. You can seek to develop more virtuous dispositions as you follow them (in your decisions and behaviors) over your lifetime. As you act according to a virtue’s direction, you will gradually grow as a moral person. You cannot expect to become completely virtuous, but you can hone and strengthen your moral character.

What virtues do you need to develop? There are many lists of virtues—several are offered below. But you need to decide for yourself. I do not recommend a specific list that applies to everyone. However, Beabout (2012) argues that the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom is the one essential and universal virtue needed by leaders and employees to establish a virtuous culture in a business organization. Practical wisdom involves a person’s ability to perceive a particular situation accurately, to have the appropriate feelings and desires about it, to deliberate as to the proper action in the situation, and to act in the right way. This virtue requires experience and growth based on reflection about purpose and past experiences.

Assess yourself in light of your own role in your organization and your life context. Focus on developing through your habitual practice those qualities that you believe you most need to excel. This blog series suggests five ways of promoting development of the character a person needs to become a good leader:

  • accepting challenging assignments
  • engaging a personal character mentor
  • observing other leaders in action
  • reading biographies and accounts of leadership
  • keeping a journal to record and assess leadership observations and experiences.

By adopting some or all of these practices you can grow as a leader.

But is all this too idealistic? How can an ordinary mortal, even if truly called to faith and a leadership role, expect to succeed as a good leader, one who is not only ethical and effective, but also spiritually-directed? Trials and tribulations will arise to block one’s way.

Developing into a good leader is indeed a great challenge. Making the correct choices and having the disposition to follow them ethically and spiritually, in spite of pressures to act otherwise, requires developed moral character strengths. Perfection is out of reach in this fallen world, but the person committed to develop his character can grow in virtue. Whether or not he achieves financial wealth and fame in the world, he can become a good leader—effective, ethical, and spiritually-minded.

J. Thomas Whetstone

Some Important Virtues for a Spiritual Leader

Classical Virtues                           Christian Virtues                     Moral Excellences

                                                               (1 Cor. 13:13)                               (2 Pet. 1:5-7)

Practical wisdom                                     Faith                                          Knowledge

Courage                                                   Hope                                          Self-control

Temperance                                             Love                                          Perseverance

Justice                                                                                                        Godliness

                                                                                                                   Brotherly Kindness


3 Highly valued virtues in business leaders:

  • Honesty, with technical competence (Whetstone, 2001)
  • Humility and professional will (Collins, 2001)
  • Practical Wisdom (Beabout, 2012)   


Beabout, J. (2012). “Management as a domain-relative practice that requires and develops practical wisdom.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 22:2, 405-432.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. NY: HarperCollins.

Whetstone, J. T. (2001). “How virtue fits within business ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics. 3:2, 101-114.

>>This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.  See previous blogs for elaboration of the suggestions.