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A Psychological View of Spirituality and Leadership

Finding meaning through Howard Gardner’s notion of existential intelligence by JEFFREY SOLOMON AND JEREMY HUNTER

At first glance, pairing spirituality and leadership might seem incongruous or perhaps even dissonant. This is especially likely to be the case in the domain of public education, where separation of church and state is carefully monitored (and rightly so).

What role could spirituality—often considered personal and deeply private—have to do with the highly visible and social realm of leadership? Doesn’t consideration of spirituality in the context of education violate a sacred safeguard of our constitutional democracy?

These, of course, are concerns of paramount importance. We suggest, however, that when spirituality is understood as a “meaning system,” it can play an important role in effective educational leadership without infringing upon personal or political rights. Meaning systems are the answers people develop in response to existential concerns.

A good starting point for understanding existential matters and for grasping spirituality as a meaning system is Howard Gardner’s concept of existential intelligence. Added provisionally to his list of original intelligences in 1999 (which includes linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and personal intelligences), Gardner describes existential intelligence as “the capacity to locate oneself with respect to the furthest reaches of the cosmos—the infinite and the infinitesimal—and the related capacity to locate oneself with respect to such existential features of the human condition as the significance of life, the meaning of death, the ultimate fate of the physical and the psychological worlds.”

(Gardner, in considering the evidence for a spiritual intelligence, says it doesn’t adequately meet all his criteria, yet it is compelling enough in his mind to grant it a “half intelligence” status.)

Undoubtedly, most of us know some people who have such a disposition—those who seem prone to grapple with questions about the meaning and nature of life, how to live “authentically,” what constitutes the good life and so on. What distinguishes such people is conscious reflection on these matters.

Meaning systems provide a relatively unified psychological framework for making sense of and interpreting one’s perceptions and experiences. While the “existentially intelligent” are more likely to be aware of their personal meaning systems, the rest of us are just as strongly guided in our thoughts and actions by meaning systems that are often unconscious and taken for granted.

Consider life without meaning systems. Jerome Bruner, in his book Acts of Meaning, writes that if people were not able to apply meaning systems to life—what he calls “framing”—“we would be lost in a murk of chaotic experience and probably would not have survived as a species in any case.”

We bring meaning systems to bear not only upon more ethereal topics but also upon the stuff of everyday routine and even the seemingly mundane. “What does my work mean to me?” and “how does my work relate to my values?” are perhaps two of the most common questions people ask of themselves when assessing whether a particular line of work or job position “feels right.” Most people need to know that their work can fit into their meaning systems.

Internal Connections
What does this have to do with spirituality? Spirituality is a meaning system that has wide-ranging impact on how we think and act in everyday life. From our perspective, spirituality is a sense of profound connection to things beyond and/or within one’s self. The realm of the beyond can include perceived forces or energies that are transcendent, overarching and timeless. A sense of internal connection would include heightened awareness of one’s ongoing lived experiences and being more fully present. For some people, these two realms of spirituality co-exist.

Furthermore, spirituality is often idiosyncratic, varying in content, tenor and scope from person to person, even among those who identify themselves as belonging to the same religion. Spirituality, then, is a meaning system par excellence because it provides a framework for making sense of so many of the intangible qualities of life, such as one’s purpose within the grand scheme of life and perhaps even the universe. Ideally, people strive to align everyday actions and contexts, including their work lives, with the values of their spiritual meaning systems.

How can spiritual meaning systems be integrated into educational leadership? We have two interrelated scenarios in mind, both of which play an important role in making organizations effective and healthy.

First, leaders—regardless of whether they consider themselves to be spiritual—can convey to associates that it is desirable to bring themselves to their work. People are more likely to feel connected to their work—and therefore be motivated—when they get the message from leaders that their understandings about life (or meaning systems) can inform how they approach professional roles and responsibilities. This applies equally to spiritual meaning systems. However, let us be clear that we are not advocating the imposition of anyone’s spiritual meaning system upon others. We simply suggest that it is important for individuals to be aware that drawing on personal spiritual meaning systems is a valid means of conceptualizing, framing and approaching work.

In our second scenario, leaders who consider themselves spiritual can set an example for associates through their everyday actions. For instance, approaching work tasks and colleagues with humility and respect (values common to many types of spirituality) not only provides important models for how others should conduct themselves, but also establishes a tone, or ethos, that can pervade an organization.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, psychologist Daniel Goleman reviews effective leadership styles, two of which are particularly amenable to the integration of spiritual meaning systems. The authoritative style, which Goleman ranks most effective, involves motivating people “by making clear to them how their work fits into a larger vision for the organization” and yet “gives people plenty of leeway to devise their own means.” One’s own means, we suggest, could entail drawing upon a spiritual meaning system to inform one’s work.

Meditative Influence
The second leadership style, coaching, entails helping employees “identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and tie them to their personal and career aspirations,” according to Goleman, and encouraging them “to establish long-term development goals and help them conceptualize a plan for attaining them.” Because coaching is concerned with the intersection of the personal and the professional, it seems quite natural that spirituality would be a topic of discussion for those employees for whom it is important.

How do these ideas look in practice? We offer the example of a critically acclaimed film director (whom we’ll call Peter), from a study we’re conducting on how mindfulness meditation influences the lives of working professionals. Very simply, mindfulness practice is a systematic method that disciplines the mind by developing skills for concentration and emotional stability. In many ways, directing films overlaps with the activities of high-level school administrators, albeit with differing ends. Both roles entail coordinating diverse and complex groups of people—often with competing and conflicting goals—to achieve a larger purpose.

Peter has been meditating for at least an hour a day for several years. Prior to beginning meditation, Peter put most of his energy into an aggressive form of professional striving in his films (what he calls “ambition”). He also admitted to a need to excessively control his environment. Meditation practice has helped him develop a spiritual meaning system that instead emphasizes enduring qualities that transcend both his career trajectory and his life as a whole. This paradigm shift has freed Peter to live more fully and wholly in the moment and thereby to appreciate that his life and the lives of those around him are part of a much larger framework. Consequently, Peter reports feeling more “engaged” and “present” not only in his work life, but also in his personal life.

As a leader, Peter infuses his spiritual meaning system into his work and in the ethos of his studio in four ways. In each case Peter emphasizes his responsibility for both setting an example through his own behavior and for creating the conditions for his associates to bring their own meaning systems to their work. In essence, Peter combines authoritative and coaching styles in his leadership.

First, Peter approaches what he calls the everyday disasters of film making with equanimity and calm. As he says, “How can we turn accidents into happy accidents? Okay, the set fell down … well the set looks kind of good half-fallen down. What are we going to do with that?” As he says, by modeling this attitude he can “set the movie behavior” of those around him on the set. Educational leaders no doubt also face an ongoing series of unexpected “disasters” and are in need of constructive strategies to ensure the smooth functioning of the complex organizations they manage.

Second, Peter puts a premium on establishing genuine connections with those who work for him. This expresses itself in very simple ways, like smiling at people and inquiring about their well-being. He explains that “everyone is looking to you to take their cue” and that once an atmosphere of camaraderie develops the crew invests more in the film. “When there’s a certain kind of emotion on a set, a certain kind of feeling, you start getting guys who hang lights ... get[ting] invested in the movie,” he says.

While the playing field of educational leaders is certainly broader than that of a film director, people from all different constituencies, including fellow administrators, teachers, parents and the larger community, also look to educational leaders to set the tone for their districts.

Third, in another expression of personal connections, Peter talks about the importance of creating a safe, trusting environment so that his actors can take risks and be “emotionally naked.” When actors understand that he will not let them look silly, they can bring greater conviction and authenticity—who they are as unique people—to their roles. This further creates a sense of investment and ownership on the part of Peter’s associates. Similarly, the educational leader who communicates to fellow administrators and teachers that such personal risk-taking is valued is likely to be surrounded by people who are invested in what they do.

Fourth, by de-emphasizing his own ego and living more fully in the moment (and thereby devoting his full attention to what is before him), Peter can recognize occasions when his actors create scenes that are more viable alternatives to his original ideas. Being connected to his experience as it actually happens rather than to what he wished would have happened makes for richer outcomes. By valuing what spontaneously unfolds in front of him he further establishes conditions for his actors to put personal stamps on their work.

Likewise, when educational leaders are open to the expertise of others, they can bring out the best in innovative thinking from a variety of perspectives to solve complex problems.

Peter sums up his approach as being like the “head of the family, the general of the army.” As a leader, Peter understands the balance he needs to strike between rallying his troops to a common cause (using the authoritative style to set a tone for his studio) and working individually with associates to create opportunities for their personal expression (the coaching style). Peter accomplishes this balance because his spiritual meaning system emphasizes connection to other people and a larger cause rather than his own personal ambition. As Peter says, “My ego is much smaller these days.”

Overlapping Features
coTo relate our ideas about the value of infusing spirituality more directly to educational leadership, we suggest a fundamental overlap exists in the purpose of education writ large and spirituality as a meaning system. Essentially, both are concerned with understanding and connection.

Our view of education entails students developing the capacity to think critically within various subjects and to think critically about them. This means that students cultivate rich, deep and complex understandings of subjects and make conceptual connections between them. Our idea contrasts with the mere memorization of facts (for example, formulas, historical dates and lab procedures). A school system in line with our vision emphasizes ongoing reflection on the human condition (searching for underlying causes, connections and meanings).

In essence, we suggest that subject areas are elaborated meaning systems that students personally engage with, respond to and critically assess. For example, learning the sciences is not simply an exercise in digesting facts and procedures but is, at its heart, an endeavor to impose order upon and make sense of the world around us. Education emphasizes not only “objective” learning of knowledge, but also the personal connection and relevance that knowledge has to a student’s life.

Both our education framework and concept of spirituality share an ongoing search for connection, understanding and meaning concerning the human experience. Because of this intersection, educational leaders might consider their connections to both their work and colleagues as well as encourage their associates to contemplate how their meaning systems can play a role in their work. Finally, teachers who are encouraged to fuse connections between larger meanings and their personal work are much more likely to pass on such a spirit of inquiry to those who matter the most: their students.

Jeffrey Solomon is a research project manager at Harvard Project Zero in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He can be reached at 124 Mount Auburn St., 5th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: jeff_solomon@pz.harvard.edu. Jeremy Hunter is director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. Their research on spirituality is available at www.goodworkproject.org

Additional Reading

Jeffrey Solomon suggests the following books:

Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, New York, N.Y.

Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, N.Y.

Acts of Meaning, by Jerome Bruner, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.