Leaders are often reluctant to bring their spiritual beliefs to their leadership roles. Many leaders outside of a religious context are justifiably anxious that bringing their beliefs forward in a multi-religious society will cause unnecessary and unproductive conflict. Still, leaders who win high commitment consciously bring their beliefs to their leadership roles. In other words, they enact their beliefs.
I once interviewed 20 experienced leaders who win high commitment from others. None of them is a “business leader” in the traditional sense and none learned leadership skills in the traditional way—at a business school or a corporate university.
Their decision to focus on insights about leadership from leaders outside of business comes from the belief that we often learn the most from people who are unlike us. These leaders are fettered by limited resources. They must win commitment because they can’t afford to buy it. If they excel at winning commitment, they often engage a deeper commitment that comes from the heart and the spirit.
Although I did not ask those I interviewed about their spiritual beliefs, three beliefs became evident. The ability to enact these three beliefs characterizes leaders who win high commitment.
Belief in Divine Involvement
The first belief was expressed by Pat Croce, former president and part-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball team. Croce said, “My tenet is that if you do your best, God will take care of the rest.” Bonnie Wright, former CEO of the Arizona Red Cross, added an important twist: “If you are doing the right things, the resources will come to you to do it.” The statements form a summary of what leaders express when talking about divine involvement: When you are doing the right things to the best of your ability, the divine powers will supply whatever else is needed. Wright also maintains that periods of reflection are essential to leaders. These are the times, she said, that she gets her “God-given to-do list.”
This belief in divine involvement is also a source of strength and renewal for leaders. Croce’s belief that if he does his best God will take care of the rest provides him with a basis for dealing with the inevitable problems that all leaders face. With that belief in hand, he said, “You then can handle setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations.”
Belief in the Primacy of Service
The second belief is the importance of living a life of service. For example, Wilma Mankiller, the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation and an advocate for minorities, said that she ran for the office of Chief because she wanted to be in a position to allocate more resources to rural and poor people. She said, “My decision to choose public service and social justice issues as my life’s work was driven by passion, compassion and idealism. I was brought up in a Cherokee community where it was understood that we are responsible for one other and that we survive in reciprocal relationships.” These leaders are not drawn to serve because it will be profitable or ensure the loyalty of others. They do it for its own sake and for its own rewards.
The zeal to serve is at the root of the compelling insights that give rise to noble visions. The insights that compel leaders are perceptions about the needs or aspirations of people; they come out of belief in the primacy of service. Noble visions are about the contributions that leaders intend to make to a group of people; they have their roots in the impulse to serve1 and they invite followers to serve as well. Without this impulse to serve, without this belief in the primacy of service, compelling insights and noble visions elude wouldbe leaders. Philosopher Sam Keen wrote: “Whenever you are confused, keep heading in the direction that leads toward deepening your love and care for all living beings, including yourself, and you will never stray far from the path to fulfillment.”
Belief in the Basic Goodness of People
Despite declarations to the contrary, many of our organizations and many people who hold leadership positions tend to operate as if people are basically selfish, needing to be watched and scrutinized carefully to prevent rampant and destructive self-interest. However, leaders who win high commitment act as if people are basically unselfish and trustworthy. They give people an opportunity to show that they are world-class citizens. They affirm their belief in the goodness of others. Such statements are not simply about the capabilities of others, but about the basic nature of people.
This belief is what some refer to as the assumption of trust. William Purkey, a professor at the University of North Carolina, notes: “Given an optimally inviting environment, each person will find his or her own best ways of being and becoming.” Leaders who win high commitment create such optimally inviting environments, which depend heavily on the leader’s ability to hold onto the assumption of trust.
Leaders who win high commitment know what they believe in and value, don’t pretend to anything else, and are persistent about bringing their beliefs to their leadership roles and to the organizations that they lead.