January 2004
Uncertain Times

The Spirituality of Authentic Leaders

We are all pilgrims, together on a journey through life. On our journey we are searching for our unique way to make a difference in the world. For those of us who believe in God, that search becomes a spiritual journey, tapping into our deeper yearnings to “hear the call” for our lives and to heed that call. 

Poet Pablo Neruda spoke to that call in one of his first poems: 

Something ignited in my soul, fever or unremembered wings, 
And I went my own way, deciphering that burning fire. 

That fire to decipher the call burns in each of us. But if we go sleepwalking through life, the fire gradually dies out and is eventually extinguished. 

When we join with others in pursuing that call, we become fellow pilgrims. In that sense, we are also called to help others and lead them on their journeys. 

This is what authentic leaders do. They are true to themselves in pursuing the call as they hear it through their inner voice, yet they are bonded together with others on a similar path.

Discerning our calling
When I was just a teenager, I was strongly influenced by the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I heard it saying to each of us, “We are born with gifts given us by our Creator. Develop those gifts and use them in such a way that they honor your Creator, and that other people will honor Him as well, as they see your deeds.” 

But how do we discern our calling? What is our purpose in the short span of time that we dwell on this earth? And how do we know when we are following God’s call or just pursuing our own ego needs and our self-aggrandizement?

The hardest part of all for me is discerning every day whether I am pursuing God’s call or my own ego needs. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus admonishes us, “No one can serve two masters...You cannot serve God and money.” In recent years too many of our leaders have ignored or abandoned their calling, to pursue the God of money. In doing so, they have abandoned their fellow pilgrims. 

The line between using our gifts to honor our Creator and advancing our own egos is a very thin one. I have learned this repeatedly throughout my lifetime. No one can serve two masters.

True North
We are all called to be leaders, each of us in our own way. We are the servants of the people we lead, and stewards of the assets of the organizations we are chosen to lead, most important of which are the human assets.

In becoming leaders, we are called to be the authentic person that God created — to be our own person, true to our unique gifts and to our values. Authentic leaders lead with their hearts, with a sense of compassion and passion for those they serve. They establish deep relationships over many years that are characterized by connectedness. 

Leadership is not about image, it is not about charisma, and it is not about style. 

It is about having a clear sense of purpose for your leadership, based on your calling as you discern it, and practicing your values every day, especially when no one else is looking. To stay true to those values, we must know the “true north” of our moral compass. It is all too easy to rationalize the small steps that give us immediate gratification, yet lead us away from our true north.

This is how so many corporate leaders got in trouble. They didn’t start out to do bad things. But little by little, bit by bit, they made marginal decisions that benefited them personally in the short run — winning them praise from their peers and outside observers— yet taking them farther and farther away from their true north. And no one had the courage to tell them they were on the wrong course.

Then one day they realized they were in deep trouble and couldn’t hide it any longer. That’s when the real trouble began: the gross errors, the defensiveness, the cover-ups, and ultimately, the destruction of the very enterprise they were responsible for leading.

Staying centered
To avoid these temptations we need to develop practices and relationships to help us stay centered. In addition to regular prayer, I practice meditation twenty minutes twice a day and use exercise like jogging to clear my mind and body of distractions. 

But it is my relationships that help me the most in staying centered. In addition to my family, I have the benefit of a men’s group where we talk about our lives, our struggles, our dreams, and we pray together. 

And my wife Penny and I have been part of a marvelous couples’ group over the years who come together monthly in a spirit of sharing our beliefs and our lives. Having these groups in our lives is one of our greatest blessings — a gift that helps us stay centered. 

Envision yourself at the end of your days with your granddaughter on your knee. Hopefully you will be able to say: “I did my best to use the gifts I received from God to help others...I let my light shine.”

Bill George is teaching at Harvard Business School, having taught previously at Yale and IMD International in Lausanne, Switzerland. He sees his current calling as developing the next generation of authentic leaders through mentoring, teaching and writing.

This article is part of the January 2004 Vestry Papers issue on Uncertain Times