What is a Spiritual Leader?

The Aim and Foundation of the Spiritual Leader

The leader’s aim should be to excel in ethical leadership behaviors in his organizational or social role.  He must be proficient in applying leadership techniques, styles, and models.  This requires work and study to learn how to improve and grow as a capable leader, one who can earn the respect of his followers and others in the world.  In this, he will err in boasting or presuming success.  His more appropriate attitude is that of humility; he may honestly feel that he never becomes more than a work in progress.

Spiritual-mindedness points a person to seek purpose and meaning to life and in all of life’s spheres, including the workplace.  The person’s spirituality is foundational; he or she must first of all be spiritually faithful and obedient in order to integrate spirituality with leadership behavior.  Indeed, a person with leadership responsibilities does not become a spiritually-minded leader simply by tacking a spiritually onto his leadership approach.

The Need for Character Strength

Leadership is enhanced by natural endowments and traits of personality, such as intellectual capacity, force of will, and enthusiasm.  But, according to Oswald Sanders (1994, p. 20), the real qualities of leadership are to be found in those who are willing to suffer for the sake of objectives great enough to demand their wholehearted obedience.

To succeed, leaders need to develop their inner strength and character.  They also seek fruitful development of their followers, including skill development and improvement in decision-making ability, as well as increased collaboration, a feeling of support and challenge, and greater productivity and character.  Good leadership depends on good followers who respond creatively to leadership and are productive, creative members of the team (Crockett, 1976).  Honesty and trust are to be priorities among leaders and followers.

Good Leadership Practices

The Bible abounds with lessons and examples of good leaders.  These can help today’s spiritually-minded leaders, regardless of their religion.  A good leader should use power appropriately (especially power over himself) (Pr 16:32).  He is to exercise proper control and discipline (Philemon).  He must acknowledge his accountability to proper authority and others (Lk 20:25) and motivate others without manipulating them (Ps 40:1-8; 2 Cor 5:14-15).  He is to communicate carefully—honestly and clearly–while listening to others (1 Tm 4:11-16).

Practical applications abound, and the leader can learn from a variety of sources.  He needs to weigh all relevant information, different viewpoints, and competing interests in making sound judgments.  This involves the Greek virtue of phronesis, or practical judgment, which is developed through experience.  For example, a veteran Army sergeant taught this author never to bow to the use of profane language.  His experience taught him that one’s troops, though often profane, look with disrespect on the officer who employs such degrading language.  Why indeed should followers respect a leader who shows a lack of honor for his family and his God?

A leader needs to assume the responsibility for establishing structures and culture that will promote ethical behavior and lessen temptations and pressures to unethical practices.  This requires good communication use of means appropriate for the context.  For example, he should seek to deter sexual or other forms of harassment and he must discipline offenders.  He should strive to see that strategic and budgetary objectives do not pressure employees to engage in unethical practices.  He should establish incentive systems rewarding group and organizational achievement rather than destructive interpersonal competition.  The properly humble leader does not manipulate his followers nor abuse his position.  Rather, he should refrain from overworking and exploiting others for his personal career success.  He is wise if he seeks to bless his followers and strangers in need (Is 58:7), serving as an exemplar of concern for others.

And the leader must always remember that all eyes are on him.  He or she cannot expect to hide long from exposure through the grapevine.  He and other leaders must comply with organizational and professional codes of ethics, policies, and procedures.  If any code is to be effective, it requires the support of the consensual cultural values of the organization’s members and consistent application of code requirements throughout the organization, from top to bottom.  If the leaders are not monitored as closely as employees on the firing line, or if they are given exemptions not understandable to others, then even the best code or policy quickly becomes merely window dressing.  Even the most well-intended structures and culture cannot withstand hypocrisy, which Rochambeau described as “the tribute vice pays to virtue.”  The leader should pray that he will provide his followers no justification for charging him with dishonesty or hypocrisy.  And he should regularly pray for the welfare of his for his employees, superiors, customers, and competitors.

Leadership Influence by Those in Junior Positions

How can a person in a subordinate position be an effective spiritual and ethical leader?  Does any person have any realistic hope of changing the culture when he is in a middle management or junior position?  The reality is that a person will not be able to perfect or even to quickly reform his organizational culture if it is not already inclined toward spirituality.  Nor should he struggle to do so to the point of frustration.  Nevertheless, he can demonstrate his character through his consistent behavior, obeying his boss and serving his organization (Eph 6:5-9; 1 Pt 2:18ff).  Moreover, a spiritually-minded person at any organizational level can be optimistic that he can eventually make a positive difference by being winsome and setting an example of excellence.

As a person matures and gains respect from employers and coworkers, she may well gain influence in technical and ethical matters.  She may earn promotion to more responsible organizational positions.  In the meantime, she can remember relational and other workplace experiences and their lessons so that she can draw upon them to create a more ethical culture when given greater executive or administrative authority.  The Jewish tenet of tikkun olam reflects considerable practical wisdom: a person should not strive to perfect the whole world but merely work to leave the place and the people she meets a little better than she found them.


Crockett, W. (1976). “How to Be a Good Follower.” Industry Week. (November).

Sanders, O. (1994). Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody.

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


Examples of Spiritual Leaders

Recent blogs have begun a discussion of spiritual leadership.  The best way to understand what is meant by spiritual leadership is to consider some examples.

A great example of a spiritual leader is Barnabas, a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (Acts 11:24).

The church at Jerusalem sent him to investigate the new group of professing believers, some from Cyprus and Cyrene, who were preaching Christ to Greeks. Ray Stedman says that his being a good man means that Barnabas had an easy-going disposition, was cheerful, open-hearted, and gracious. As a man of the spirit, he had been imparted the wisdom, understanding, and love of God. He manifest the fruits of the Holy Spirit in his life; these are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (Gal. 5: 22-23). These are practiced with humility (Gal. 5:26), not because of his own good character but due to the power of the indwelling Spirit.

As a man of faith, Barnabas acted based upon what God revealed to him rather than his own feelings and intuitions. And he actively searched for facts he found.  Through his investigations, he found that the people of the church at Antioch were genuine. He witnessed the grace of God confirmed by signs and wonders and manifestations of spiritual gifts of God among the people of the Antioch church. Barnabas had an open system perspective, allowing him objectively to identify and understand the evidence he witnessed. What he found led him to rejoice and to encourage the Christians at Antioch to remain true to the Lord (Acts 11: 23).

A contemporary example is Elizabeth Elliot (1926-2015).  After her husband was killed in 1956 by the Auca (aka Huaorani) in Ecuador, she spent two years as a missionary to this tribe whose members killed her spouse Jim Elliot.

She wrote over twenty books and became a popular speaker.  Her two best-known books are probably:

Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (1958), and

Through the Gates of Splendor (1957).

Read her books for a glimpse into the mind of a spiritual leader.

Comments are welcome.  And can you name other spiritual leaders?

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


Why Be a Spiritual Leader?

An effective and ethical leader must communicate a clear vision and purpose for followers. She also must exhibit the moral character to honor the rights of others while fulfilling her own obligations in a principled, knowledgeable, and skillful manner. She thus needs to be spiritually aware, one who recognizes that reality encompasses more than the material world. She respects her followers as worthy persons with their own creative abilities and wills. Spiritual leadership is not optional if she is to reach decisions according to sound ethics while seriously undertaking a responsibility to help followers and others find meaning and purpose. 

Spirituality can be viewed in various ways. It can be conceived broadly as encompassing the aspects of the individual’s search for inner peace and serenity; personal integrity and transparency including respect, trust, forgiveness, and love in our relationships; one’s concern for social justice and environmental stewardship; and one’s vision for the world and sense of personal calling in life (Dorr, 2008). Mitroff & Denton (1999) define spirituality as “the basic feeling of being connected with one’s complete self, others, and the entire universe.”

From an open worldview perspective, spirituality involves recognizing the reality and value of influences beyond the closed material universe. Whereas some consider spirituality to be a religious concern, others view it as secular or without a need to relate it to any religious persuasion.  Carroll (2009, p. 162) writes that those searching for a secular spirituality seek a deeper and more meaningful understanding of why they are here, why they are in their particular workplace positions, and what the future holds. A non-religious individual might accept the existence of something larger than himself or herself, but does not rely on any specific religious belief system in searching for interconnectedness. A religious spirituality demands that leaders also cultivate and nourish a sense of self that recognizes the interrelatedness of life or a sense of community (Fluker, 2008).

The recent increase in attention to spirituality in business possibly stems from a greater demand by people for meaning and purpose in their work. In Mitroff & Denton’s (1999) spiritual audit of working people, respondents most often agree that workplace meaning and purpose come from:

  • Realizing one’s full potential as a person
  • Being associated with a good organization or ethical organization
  • Interesting work
  • Making money
  • Having good colleagues; serving humankind
  • Service to future generations
  • Service to immediate communities

Leaders who recognize the importance of spirituality and who recognize a holistic responsibility for others, particularly their followers or clients, need to develop practical ways for offering them meaning and purpose. This can be a challenging objective in the prevailing culture, one suggesting the need for some paradigm shifts in viewing leadership responsibilities.

Indeed, action-oriented leaders often consider philosophic contemplation to be an academic diversion, just getting in the way of making pragmatic decisions needed to run their organizations efficiently. They seek profitability as the ultimate “bottom line,” as opposed to viewing it as an important (even commendable) means to more meaningful ends. Without a rich understanding of the moral and spiritual implications of what people do in their businesses, they misunderstand their contribution to the wider society and ultimately lose perspective of their very selves and their companies (Naughton & Cornwall, 2009. p. 3).

Some Characteristics of the Spiritual Leader

The successful spiritually-minded leader, whether religious or not, is one who causes others to seek out and understand their inner selves and who fosters a sense of meaning and significance among his or her followers. He strives to encourage a sense of significance and interconnectedness among employees (Barnett, 2010). Spiritual leadership involves the application of spiritual values and principles to the workplace. It is concerned with the development of employees as “whole people.” Whereas there is little empirical evidence that any particular leadership approach or style is more or less consistent with spirituality in the workplace, Barnett, 2010, p. 5) suggests that the two leadership approaches of transformational leadership and servant leadership seem to be more closely related to the concept of spiritual leadership than others.

A spiritual leader can apply moral imagination, a prime resource for leaders in finding innovative practical solutions as well as in transcending intellectual situations. Leaders must possess the attributes of action, courage, and experimentalism to find ways to escape from the comfort zones of established identity-based enclaves. For example, management practices for overcoming racism and sexism can be developed as leaders think through differences, i.e., what it means to be somebody else in circumstances other than their own.

Future blogs will explore spiritual leadership further. Comments are welcome.


Barnett, T. “Spirituality in Leadership.” Reference for Business Encyclopedia of Business, 2nd ed., pages 1-6. Accessed at http//:www.referenceforbusiness.com/management/Sc-Str/Spirituality-in-Leadership.html

Carroll, A. (2009). Business Ethics: Brief Readings on Vital Topics. NY & London: Routledge.

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

Fluker, W. (2008). “Spirituality, Ethics, and Leadership.” Spirituality in Higher Education, 4:3, pages 1-6.

Mitroff, I. & E. Denton. (1999). A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Naughton, M. & J. R. Cornwall. (2009). “Culture as the Basis of the Good Entrepreneur.”  Journal of Religion and Business Ethics. 1:1, pages 1-13.

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