The Spiritual Game of Leadership


A healthy exchange with author Kathi Elster* on my radio show The Winner’s Circle prompts me to write about the fundamentally spiritual game that a leader plays.  A government worker asked me in an email to discuss the issue of how you motivate your peers.  I suggested that part of the answer was “modeling the way.”  I said if you want a workplace, for instance, where people are cooperative, proactive, and get outside their own boxes to make things work, then act that way yourself.  You might begin to ask people on your team, even an uncooperative type, “How can I help you?”  Kathi was unpersuaded, as she argued that my cheery recommendation would likely result in person being taken advantage of.  From that basic human standpoint, Kathy was right on the money about motivating a peer.  She said squarely: “That’s not your job.  That’s the supervisor’s job.”

In the world of basic human relations, Kathi’s advice was more prudent than mine.  But the game of leadership is vastly different than assessing probable human responses.  The leadership game is much more spiritual.  First, a leader is not primarily concerned with her own survival and comfort.  She thinks and acts as though she is responsible for the group, whether or not she is empowered, paid, or expected to do so.  Her standpoint toward the world is essentially generous or generative.  She chooses to rise above ego and role and instead repeatedly seeks the welfare of the world about her.  So she gives to her peers in the hope that she will create a more cooperative world, even if it means for some time that she will have more to do. 

Second, great leaders act in faith: they believe it before they see it.  Kathi is probably right, that a long-term employee with an “it’s-not-my-job” attitude, or who says, “why should I do it if they’re not paying me for it?” will likely take advantage of a coworker who repeatedly asks, “How can I help you?” But a great leader steers by his vision of what he wants the world to look like, not by probabilities about reality.   No one put it better than Mohandas Gandhi when he wrote, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Great leaders are slow to give up on people, and great leaders don’t let the Winny Winers and the Marty Mopers steal their vision of what can be.  They press forward regardless of the number or volume of naysayers.  Faith in a better way moves things and moves people. 

A leader’s generosity and acts of faith come out of a third spiritual belief:  a radical belief that at each moment we can choose our standpoint.  Kent Keith speaks an unusual wisdom to Kathi’s realistic assessment of human behavior in his remarkable “paradoxical commandments,” in his book Anyway.  The first and last of his 10 commandments seem particularly apropos here: “1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway…10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

Choose to act freely, foster a generous attitude and a spirit of faith, and you will assuredly

Lead with your best self!


*I’ve written before about Kathi’s book Working With You is Killing Me, co-authored by Katherine Crowley.  Kathi and Katherine will be back with me on Saturday the 29th of March.