Leadership and Practical Spirituality

Ethan Raath, ThD.

Why the call for spiritual leadership in the workplace?

Work can be satisfying, fulfilling, and rewarding. It can also be soulless, uninspiring, impersonal, and lacking vitality. That is how many leaders and workers often feel. Surveys reveal a high percentage of disengaged workers who are doing just enough to get by. Very few have a clear sense of purpose or meaning in what they do beyond the present moment. Performance and results suffer and infect the spirit of the work setting and affect bottom-line results.

That is why spiritual leaders are desperately needed. Inspired by a deep sense of their personal spiritual values and practices, they influence the spiritual energy of organizations and the work setting.

Spiritual leaders have the opportunity in the right circumstances to:
• Help followers engage in work that is meaningful.
• Connect workers to the larger mission and vision of the organization.
• Support motivation and engagement through satisfaction in work.
• Structure work that emphasizes the benefits of communal collaboration.
• Maintain the integrity of personal and organizational values.
• Cultivate the development and leadership potential of followers.
• Pursue a genuine presence that models integrity and promotes trust.

To understand the value and impact of spiritual leadership, this presentation looks at the meaning, purpose, and practice of spiritual leadership in the workplace.

Meaning of Spiritual Leadership

Spiritual leaders are empowered by a true inner sense of who they are and who they are called to be in the world. Their source of strength lies in spiritual values that shape the direction of their lives and inspire them to walk in a path of service.

Spiritual leadership is the application of leaders’ values and principles in the workplace, to produce spiritual outcomes for their organizations and followers that also produce bottom-line results. In their leadership, they embody universal spiritual practices like faith, hope, vision, servanthood, and community.

What makes spiritual leadership different? Various motivational leadership theories emphasize mental (thinking), emotional (reasoning), and physical (wellness) attributes. Yet we are also spiritual beings, evidenced by the need for that which inspires, sustains, and gives life to the inner being. The call for spirituality in the workplace is a response to the human need for purpose, vision, meaning, community, and satisfaction in life and work.

Our understanding draws on ancient wisdom that conceived of spirit as a life giving force. The Hebrew ruwach speaks of spirit as breath, a forceful wind that gives vigor to life and instills a sense of the divine spirit. The Greek pneuma speaks of the breath of life as a dynamic force (think pneumatic). In the Christian scriptures this word is used to describe an empowering spiritual life force. In Latin, spiritus also implies a vigorous life source from which we have words like aspire, inspire, respire, conspire (working together).

Spirituality in this sense is more than religious beliefs. Religion inspires the moral and ethical values of spirituality for many. Practices such as prayer, reading of sacred writing, worship, and service, develop personal spirituality. Major religions are universal in their call for compassion and empathy in the spirit of servant leadership. For religious and secular alike, spirituality can also be inspired by relationships, nature, music, writings, meditation, recreation, or whatever else nurtures the spirit of the individual.

Yet we live in a time when more and more people declare themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.” They have turned from what they perceive as the excesses, double standards, and irrelevance of religion. But they are still look for spiritual inspiration and nurture.

In an internet age there are many ways for people to research and draw on various religious teachings to shape a spirituality that is personalized. This is especially true for a younger generation of workers. Wise leaders take cognizance of the pluralistic nature of spirituality in the workplace.

However, religious spirituality can also be limiting and inauthentic when practiced out of duty or obligation to a Higher Power or set of dogmas, rather than an expression of inner spiritual renewal and transformation. Leaders who attempt to embody spiritual practices and actions without a personal experience and heart centered commitment will soon be recognized as inauthentic, insincere, and untrustworthy.

I was raised in a religious tradition that measured spirituality more often by outward appearance and behavior than inner spiritual enlightenment. The motivation was based on the one hand by the promise of a heavenly life, and on the other by fear of divine retribution, a life in hell, and rejection by the group.

That fear was transformed in a spiritually transcendent moment when the reality of divine grace was revealed to me. Grace is manifested as good will and favor lovingly extended even to those underserving. The affirming presence of grace in my life sustains my calling as a spiritual guide to others on the journey of life – especially to leaders who are overwhelmed, unbalanced, and spiritually drained.

Over the years I have come to value traditions broader than my Christian upbringing that inspire spirituality in me. For instance, Native American spirituality speaks of the inner and outer paths of life. I am reminded to nurture the inner spirit if I am to live faithfully in the world. Seek to make your life long and of service to your people (Tecumsah).

Purpose of Spiritual Leadership

The image of a wheel is used to describe the different facets of life. The spokes represent work, home, family, relationships, recreation, community, religion, and more. My question is this, “What is the hub that holds the wheel of life together and keeps it steady on the journey of life?”

This figurative hub is the core of personhood and spirituality – the sense of who we are, our calling, our values, our desire for meaning, our relationship to others. Spiritual leaders strive to know and live from this center in all of life. It is a way of be-ing that transcends position or title. It is a way of life, a spirit of service, which permeates all they do. Growth toward spiritual leadership is a life journey.

This deep sense of self continually develops through life stages and experiences. It grows through conscious reflection on the meaning we find in the highs and lows of life. In a fast paced world it requires concerted effort to take the time for stillness and reflection. Spiritual leadership is something to aspire to, yet ebbs and flows with the realities of our humanness and the circumstances of our lives.

Spiritual traditions point us to an inner sense of who we are and the call to understand and cultivate the persons we are meant to be. Sometimes it takes more than personal effort to see deeply, especially in the crisis times of life. We can draw on the wisdom and insight of trusted guides to help us find meaning in our conditions and point the way forward.

Spiritual leaders recognize the strength and frailty of their own humanity. This offers the opportunity to be empathetic and unite with the common humanity of those they lead – recognizing the mutual desire for meaning, value, reward, peace, and spiritual well-being. This awareness calls for spiritual leadership that empathizes with and respects those who follow them. Love your neighbor as yourself (Jesus).

Practice of Spiritual Leadership

The style of leadership that dominates and rules through fear is not spiritual and does not enrich the spirit of others. Heartless, angry, and controlling bosses can be soul destroying to those they lead. They do not inspire professionalism, performance, vision, commitment, or satisfaction in work.

Spiritual leaders strive to instill intrinsic values where work and accomplishments are rewards in themselves. Their organizational mission and values (hopefully) are focused on providing services and products that add value to people’s lives and benefit the common good. When these values are in place, then spiritual leaders can inspire their followers to see a common vision and meaning in their work that can overcome apathy and disengagement.

A small example is when I consulted with workers at a greeting card company – printers, packagers, and logistical workers. I asked what was important to them in their work. There wasn’t much response beyond working for survival. I gave them a vision of the value of their work – that greetings cards celebrate life events, send get well greetings, say hello to friends, share expressions of love, provide sympathy at times of loss, and that they had a part in that. I saw a spark in the eyes of some who gained a new perspective on the meaning in their work.

Spiritual leadership is a way of life that is rich and fulfilling when expressed in service to others.


Highwire Leadership LLC

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Leadership Lessons From My Bypass Surgery



It was spring – time to shake off the dormancy of winter and get back to the gym. But it wasn’t the same as before. I could only get through the machines once and I became short of breath with my heart racing for an hour afterward. Thinking back, I remember sitting bowed in the locker room and having someone say, “Are you alright?”

So I went to my doctor. I explained the symptoms including the chest pains. The response? “It’s probably allergies. Use a nasal spray and your asthma inhaler.” Not! However, a stress test was also scheduled.

I did well on the treadmill, pushing through to the speed and heart rate expected. Nothing major showed except a small “blip” on the EKG when I was pushing hard. A retired cardiologist working part-time saw the result and urged me to see a cardiologist. I was advised to go to the Emergency Room if I had chest pains.

Until I could get an appointment a month later, another stress test was ordered using radio isotopes. The same “blip” was there. I went to the Emergency Room the next day with chest pain.

Nuclear imaging and echo cardiograms showed that there was nothing wrong with my heart. After all, I had not had a heart attack that would have caused damage. The emergency doctor looked at the imaging and said my heart was fine. Not! Again, attention wasn’t paid to the symptoms. I went in with chest pain and left with chest pain.

I am so grateful for the wisdom of my cardiologist who looked at the big picture, including a very severe family history of heart problems, and recommended an angiogram. The discovery of severe blockages resulted in quadruple bypass surgery!

In the time I was waiting for the cardiologist appointment, my primary physician reported that my heart was fine. So I went on retreat, camping at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, trying to hike and ride my bicycle in the heat of the desert. I came home and put a new roof on the patio and cleaned the yard and garage.

After the angiogram, a nurse said, “You must have had an angel keeping you from having a heart attack.” Somehow my heart had been working around the blockages for years, but was reaching its limit.

Here are some leadership lessons I have learned from my experience.

Trust your instincts. You know yourself and work better than anyone and sense when something is not right. I was slow on the uptake but finally recognized that my symptoms where an indicator of something more.

Pay attention. Notice when you are not getting the results you want even when doing more. I now recognize how long I had struggled with exercise, but attributed it to aging and kept trying to push harder. It only got worse.

Seek advice. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see what you can’t see. If the recommendations don’t seem right, get a second opinion. My primary physician’s first diagnosis missed the mark.

Benefit from experience. Seek guidance from those with mature wisdom and insight. It took a retired cardiologist with experience to recognize the small sign of a big problem.

Be your own advocate. If you sense that something is not right, keep searching for an answer. When my primary physician said my heart was fine, I had to ask, “But what about the EKG?”

Find an expert. If you want to make changes and succeed, there is no substitute for expertise. My cardiologist and surgeon are affirmed for being among the best in their field. They saved my life.

Believe in yourself. When you are on the right path, persist until you succeed. I have taken my recovery step by step. The day came when I turned the corner and began to experience new energy of mind, body, and spirit that is carrying me forward.

After two-and-a-half months my recovery is going well. I am exercising, losing weight, and looking forward to many years of life and service. And as a coach, I still have a heart for helping leaders succeed!

Ethan Raath, ThD.
Executive Leadership Consultant & Speaker

Denver, Colorado, USA

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Savor the Blessings of the Season

Winter is a natural time for rest and renewal. And yet we are busier than ever through the holidays with year end reports to be filed, obligatory parties to attend, out of town guests to entertain, and trips to be taken. In a global economy, those living in summer are at a productive peak, and we are obliged to keep up too.

When do we have a chance to savor the spirit of joy and peace that is at the heart oWinter scenef our seasonal celebrations?

In simpler times, the harvest of summer provided sustenance for the winter. Bodies rested from labor and recovered for the coming season when the soil would once again be tilled, seed planted, crops tended, and harvest gathered.

I encourage you to intentionally find moments in this season to be still and reflective. Even for brief moments, take the opportunity to savor the goodness, and give thanks for those who bring meaning to your life.

These reflections will affirm what is of most value for your life and work as you journey into the New Year.

May the spirit of the season light your way and bless you with joy and peace.

©Ethan Raath 121813

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Resisting Burnout: A Mindset for Health Caregivers

Resisting Burnout: A Mindset for Health Caregivers

Ethan Raath, ThD.

Many enter the medical professions inspired by a passion to serve people in need. Theirs is a heartfelt desire to effect healing and wholeness in people’s lives. It is more than a career. It is a calling.

And yet caregivers can fall victim to compassion fatigue. Burnout is precipitated by responding to overwhelming needs, lack of recognition, little appreciation, seemingly small success, intangible results, and no control over outcomes.

Early studies of the burnout syndrome identified two main causes:

  • Giving of self until there is nothing more to give and the emotional well runs dry.
  • Finding the chosen profession is not as satisfying as one had hoped.

One way of resolving compassion fatigue for some, is to assume leadership responsibility as director, supervisor, or administrator. This brings relief from the stress of working with people in need. Yet the task of administering programs and supervising personnel has its own stressors. They find it is not satisfying either, because this is not why they entered the helping profession in the first place. It is an escape, not a solution.

The remedy for not letting the well run dry is to practice self-care. There are many ways to care for heart, mind, body, and spirit and I encourage you to seek those out.

I am offering suggestions for resisting burnout centered on mindset – how to retain the spirit of your calling by seeing beyond your present situation and circumstances. Be mindful of the greater good, the person, and the spirit.

Be mindful of the greater good

In the activity and intensity of work it is easy to lose sight of the larger benefit. You see the immediate benefits of recovery. Yet there is more to it than physical healing. Patients are touched in heart, mind, and spirit by the manner in which you care for them. This is an unseen benefit that extends to families, friends, coworkers, and communities.

Be mindful of the greater good your care is providing. It can help you rise above the weariness, frustration, or irritation of the present moment.

Be mindful of the person

Those you care for share a common humanity, experiencing the joys and challenges of life just as you do. Patients at the extreme end of their coping skills may act out inappropriately, venting their frustrations on the caregiver, or resisting the help that is being offered. Beyond the anxiety of physical pain and discomfort, they may be carrying hidden concerns. Are the children being cared for, who will do my work, can I pay the bills, what will happen if I die?

It is hard not to take these experiences personally or to react defensively. It helps to be mindful of the person and not the behavior.

Be mindful of the spirit

When I was a parish minister, I became frustrated by a woman who kept returning seeking help with finances, food, rent, or gas. I wanted to break the cycle by setting limits on further help. Or did I want to cut her off because of my own need not to be bothered again? As I was heating a frozen dinner for her in the church kitchen, she said with anguish and despair, My soul hurts. My soul hurts. Do you know what I mean? I knew what she meant. I had been there in my life too. Suddenly she was no longer a sponger abusing the system. She was a sister worn out by the struggle of life – a lost soul in despair. She needed care at a deeper level.

It helps to remember that you are caring for the spirit, not just symptoms or needs. When you can, be in the moment with that person. Give them more than surface attention. Listen deeply. Soul care is important in the healing process. Be mindful of the spirit.

Unlike many professions, caregivers in the healing arts don’t see the longterm results of their efforts. Patients leave with wounds that are still healing, medications, and instructions for self-care. You send them on their way and just as quickly have to turn to the next person in need. Sometimes you wonder how they are doing. You don’t always have the satisfaction of seeing the end result.

To resist burnout, try to have a mindset that accepts you can only do your best and trust that healing continues because of the care you have given.

Ethan Raath, ThD. As owner of Highwire Leadership, Dr. Raath provides leadership advising, development, and speaking services. He brings to his support of medical professionals experience in patient care, emergency medical services, pastoral care, and social service leadership. Ethan wrote his doctoral dissertation on the effects of stress and burnout in the helping professions. He has also served the Boards of international medical missions. His wife, Teresa, is a Registered Nurse. www.highwireleadership.com 

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The Impact of Leading From Behind: In Memory of Oscar

Oscar Franklin, my father-in-law, died the week before Thanksgiving. It is an honor to have known this gentle spirit as meaningful part of my life. He was and always will be daddy to my wife and granddaddy to my three sons.

ImageAs one of those people who live life without flare, Oscar made this world a better place, as he led from behind. He grew up in the coal mining communities of eastern Kentucky – one of eleven children. I like to think that those challenging circumstances inspired his gentle heart and caring spirit.

Professionally, he led from behind as a tax accountant, continuing to work into this his eighty forth year. Known for his meticulous attention to detail, business owners could focus on their work, knowing that their finances were in secure hands.

Personally, Oscar is remembered for his friendliness to everyone he met. Early in his career, he audited the books of businesses in then, small town Cleveland, Tennessee. In his visits, many people got to know and appreciate Oscar as a person. It was fun going to the grocery store with him and seeing how many stopped to greet him and share conversation.

As a volunteer, he also led from behind. Charter member of a now large church, Oscar served as financial secretary for 30 years, ensuring the fiscal health of the congregation. An Optimist, he quietly rose to the level of lieutenant governor for Tennessee – something even his family was not aware of at the time. He was more likely remembered for greeting and serving people at his club’s Christmas tree sales that raised funds for community youth programs. He embodied the Optimist spirit.

Oscar led from behind as a husband, father, and grandfather, loving, supporting, guiding, and caring for the needs of his family.  He was devoted to his wife, daughters, and their families, modeling faithfulness, patience and grace. When I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, his heart must have been filled with trepidation for his young small town daughter considering life with a stranger from South Africa. But he graciously gave his consent for which I am most grateful, in this our fortieth year of marriage.

At his funeral, I was privileged to share remembrances of him as a father and sing his favorite gospel song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It was not Oscar’s work that was remembered as much as his warm heart, friendly spirit, and willingness to help someone in need. As one friend said, “He didn’t earn an Oscar, he was an Oscar!” He sets an example of the impact one can have when leading from behind.

They also lead, who lead from behind.

How do we want to be remembered? For our work and accomplishments? Or the way those made life better for others?

My sense of life calling is to be a carer of the human spirit. I try my best to live with that purpose. That’s how I want to be remembered. And that’s why I have a heart for supporting leaders who are overstretched, overstressed, and weary in spirit.

Ethan Raath, ThD. ©2013

Leadership Adviser and Strategist

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What Leaders Can Learn From Playing in the Sand

I recently took my nine year old grandson on a road trip that included a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. My idea was to show him the wonder of this amazing site. But when we arrived at the first set of dunes he chose to play in the sand rather than climb further. So I went up a little way to be still and to absorb the peace and grandeur for myself.

I kept an eye on my grandsonGreat Sand Dunes NP and saw that he was in the moment of playing in the sand and rolling down the dune. A leadership image came to mind as I watched. How often as leaders do we have a grand vision of what we want to accomplish and just assume that others will get it and follow along? And yet there are those followers who prefer to play in the sand. It’s what they do best. Just as astute leaders take time to be present and listen to those who work for them, I decided to join in his play.

It was then that I gained another perspective. As he dug down in the sand he kept exclaiming excitedly, “Look it’s moist!” As leaders, when we let others “play in the sand” they make discoveries that we would never have seen because we are fixed on the grander vision. Those discoveries can often bring new insight and expand our visions. And don’t assume followers won’t get the vision. The next day he said, “The Sand Dunes is a special place!”

So follow your vision but sometimes play in the sand with others to gain their perspective. Be prepared for new insights. You may be surprised!

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The Power of Leadership Presence

I once played a in the musical show “1776” that told the story of the events surrounding the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In several scenes a messenger arrives with dispatches from General George Washington to the congress, lamenting the trials the army was facing and his concerns that they would be defeated by the superior numbers of the British.

George Washington was a citizen soldier who felt it his duty to country to accept the appointment from Congress to head the Continental Army, despite his strong misgivings about his adequacy to lead. The army itself did not exist at that point and the call went out for recruits.

As a leader, Washington stood tall, not only in height, but in the esteem of the troops. It was their confidence in him that drew them to take up arms and fight for the Revolution. The soldiers represented a cross section from farmers to storekeepers to professionals. Many were scantily clad, without shoes, few guns, and an odd assortment of farm implements with which to fight.

Once the first winter arrived the hardships grew as they endured the cold, experienced wide spread disease, and little food. From Washington’s writings we know he experienced times of great anxiety and uncertainty about his leadership and the abilities of the citizen soldiers. What made the difference was that he did not show his concern to the troops.

Washington would regularly make his presence known by riding among the troops to rally their confidence. His calm demeanor had a great influence on them, building their trust in his leadership. His presence motivated them to follow him and the cause he represented even with the hardships they were experiencing. It was this confidence in their leader that sustained them on the freezing winter crossing of the Delaware and the night march to Trenton where they won a decisive victory that marked the turning point in the war.

When local, state, or national leaders are present at disasters there is a calming effect. The power of presence is not so much in the words of encouragement but in the fact that the victims see that the leader knows and understands their need and is working on behalf of the people, even pitching in side by side with them in the recovery efforts. It has been observed that there is less looting and other destructive behavior when a high level leader is present.

Leaders can have the power of presence to impact those who work for them, especially in times of change and challenge. Their presence is powerfully effective in maintaining confidence and trust. Be present and be seen. Be heard, be listening, be appreciative, be attentive, be confident, be positive, be visionary, be a cheer leader, and people will have reason to follow where you lead.

©Dr. Ethan Raath 2012

Executive Leadership Consultant
Highwire Leadership LLC

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The Platinum Rule for Leaders

The Golden Rule says, “Do for others as you would have done for yourself.” This sentiment is contained in various forms in the writings of the major world religions. It has been the foundation for serving others in a helpful and meaningful way. BUT what if the things you want done for yourself are not what I want done for myself?

The Platinum Rule says in contrast, “Do for others as they would have done for them.” In this way we show respect for the diversity of values and norms of others we encounter at work and in everyday life.  When we show this respect, the way is open for us to be respected in turn.

In a pluralistic and international world of business, knowing, understanding, and respecting the cultures and traditions of the persons with whom we are working, keeps the door open for effective communication and collaboration. When we give respect and consideration, we are in a better position to be respected in turn and to receive what we need.

When I was a communication professor, my class was visited by potential young leaders from Japan whose company had brought them to the United States to improve their English proficiency.  When asked what they thought of American business practices, one of the group immediately said, “I don’t like the way you communicate with each other in meetings. You raise your voices, disagree, criticize, and interrupt each other. In Japan we are more respectful. In Japanese the verb comes at the end of the sentence so we have to listen to the entire message before we can understand and respond to the other’s ideas.” This is one example of how, by understanding another culture’s style of communication, we are able to listen, learn, and respond appropriately.

The Platinum Rule applies in everyday leadership too. Leaders promote the vision and strategy of what needs to be done to develop business and manage projects. The support of the team can be gained by communicating in the spirit of the Platinum Rule. When the leader asks, “What can I do to help you accomplish your task,” or “What do you need to complete this project,” teams can move forward with success. And their success becomes the leader’s success!

  • Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. (Judaism)
  • Doing good to others is not a duty—it is a joy, for it increases your own health and happiness. Avesta (Zoroastrianism)
  • A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity. Gautama Siddhartha (Buddhism)
  • Be known for pleasing others, especially if you govern them. Ruling others has one advantage: you can do more good than anyone else. Lao Tzu (Confucianism)
  • Seek to make your life long and of service to your people. Tecumseh (Native American)
  • Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus Christ (Christianity)

© Dr. Ethan Raath 2013

Dr. Ethan Raath
Executive Leadership Consultant
Highwire Leadership LLC

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Walking the Leadership Highwire

Leadership can be likened to a high wire act. It takes practice to develop the skills to walk confidently, maintain balance, and stay focused. The higher you go the more challenging it becomes.

Gymnasts use a balance beam that has a wide enough base to perform challenging maneuvers. A lower level of leadership can be likened to walking the balance beam. There’s room to move and if you fall it’s not very far to the ground. You get back on and try again.

Leaders rise in their careers from the beam, to the mid level tight wire, to the highwire. Entrepreneurs may climb straight to the top. The risk increases and leadership becomes more complex the higher one goes. It takes greater courage, skill, and experience to traverse the highwire. It can be exhilarating and stressful at the same time. And if you don’t have a safety net, you fall, that’s it. I you survive the fall, it can be a long and hard recovery.

A high wire artist carries a bar to adjust to the shifts that can lead to a loss of balance. When there is a pull in one direction and then in another, the high wire artist doesn’t overcompensate. Once leaders find their balance point, they can make subtle adjustments to remain balanced.

Leaders know the experience of being pulled one way or the other by demands for results, unexpected crises, strained relationships, group conflicts, loss of valuable employees, drops in sales. In order to maintain your balance, find ways to develop your personal and professional abilities so you can skillfully make the necessary corrections that will keep you moving toward your vision of success.

In a high wire act, there is someone who prepares, encourages, and gives assurance to the artist. The wise leader doesn’t try to walk the highwire alone. As a leadership coach I can help you stay poised, keep focus, maintain confidence, access inner capacities, and equip with abilities necessary for maintaining poise, purpose, and productivity while progressing toward your desired outcome.

© Dr. Ethan Raath 2013

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