Leading with the soul


25 May 2023

A leader is capable of careful reflection, and of articulating the fruits of this reflection.

In a tiny town of western North Dakota a little girl offered a gem of spiritual wisdom to which I find myself returning when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me: “Silence reminds me to take my soul wherever I go.” (Kathleen Norris in Monasteries of the Heart)

No list of competencies for leaders would be complete without reference to spiritual leadership. It was the French philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote: “There is one great problem, only one; the rediscovery that there is a life of the spirit higher still than that of the mind, and that is the only life that can satisfy a man.”

More difficult to quantify than other competencies, spiritual leadership focuses on the ‘big picture’ aspect of a leader’s work. Descriptors like ‘cultural’ or ‘reflective’ fail to do it justice. Canadian author, Ronald Rolheiser OMI, writes that “long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with the fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality . . . What shapes our actions is our spirituality.”


Just as good carers possess a capacity for connectedness – with themselves, the people to whom they minister, their God – so the community leader must strive to weave a complex web of connections and meanings for his subjects in the world at large. The leader with vision, as Sister Joan Chittister OSB has pointed out, understands that the truth is always larger than the partial present. In her closing address to the 2001 NCEA Convention in America she said: “Immersion in the immediate, a sense of spiritual vision, the pursuit of learning, and the courage to question the seemingly unquestionable is the essence of spiritual leadership. We cannot, and should not, attempt to lead anyone anywhere unless we ourselves know where we are, where we’re going, and what dangerous questions it will be necessary to ask if we really want to get there.” Spiritual leadership, in brief, begins from the inside, from the soul.

Spiritual leadership is about helping our communities to reflect on the present, ask the right questions, and envision a better future. It is about enabling our people to get in touch with their own souls and the soul of society. Spiritual leaders need to help their communities find the right maps, or have the courage to chart different ones, so that the people they serve do not lose their way.

In this respect the indigenous belief in songlines, about which novelist Bruce Chatwin writes in his book of the same name, is a useful image: “Each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and . . . these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.

[The Songlines begins with a biography of Arkady Volchok, a white Australian who lived with Australia’s First Peoples and learned their languages.] ‘A Song’, Arkady said, ‘was both map and direction finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across the country.

‘And would a man on ‘Walkabout’ always be travelling down one of the Songlines?’


In so many ways community leaders scatter a trail of words – song lines, if you like – in their letters, articles, and speeches throughout the calendar year. These are our maps and direction finders, helping our various communities understand where we are at and whence we have come. Not only must a leader be capable of careful reflection, but he or she must also have the capacity and sometimes courage to articulate the fruits of this reflection.

As a moving example of leading with soul, I recently read an editorial written by Jack Bowen, Bowens Builders Board chairman and one of my oldest school friends. He was quoting a letter from his elder daughter, Anna, who was my first Baptism as a young deacon in 1975. Anna is currently based in Hungary and has the exotic title of Regional Humanitarian Diplomacy Coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In reflecting on the tragedy of war in Ukraine, Anna wrote: “I have just returned to Budapest from Ukraine . . . amid all this suffering, we have also witnessed the true power of humanity. The swift mobilisation of resources to support the Ukrainian people and the level of solidarity among countries across Europe (and globally) give me hope. Sadly, migrants and refugees are not often welcomed with such open arms. This response provides a very clear example of what is possible when and where political will exists. In the meantime, my Ukrainian colleagues get on with their day, as I return to safety and count my blessings along the way.”

In his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Professor Ron Heifetz of Harvard University speaks about the need for leaders to have a balcony in their lives if they are to keep proper perspective and understand the sometimes frenzied dance of events going on around them. Without such a balcony, one can easily be swept up in the dance of life and lose their way.

In brief, one might say that the ability to give meaning to life is the essence of spiritual leadership. All the research confirms what we know in our hearts – namely, that the most powerful factor protecting our young people against multiple drug use, suicidal involvement and poor body image is their sense of connectedness to school, family, and religious groupings.

The spiritual leader must help the young person find meaning in what Neil Postman calls the ‘big stories’ of transcendence which give life and hope. It was the Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl, reflecting on his traumatic experience of surviving a German concentration camp, who wrote that “he who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Leading with soul is providing our communities with this ‘why’ – a reason to belong and a direction for our journey. Leading with soul is keeping alight our inner fire, fanning the flame, appreciating its colours and warmth, and allowing some balcony air around it to keep it glowing.

This article first appeared in the winter 2023 edition of Madonna magazine.

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