Spiritual Innovation

I ran across a reference to a new book recently, which I plan to read when I can get a copy.  The book is Transformational Leadership: Conversations with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, edited by Annmarie Sanders.  Two things make this a likely book for me to pick up and read.  The first thing is my own interest in leadership issues.  I have written a book on leadership.  And I think I have been trying to be a good leader for a long time now and in many different contexts.  I have had official leadership roles, like Dean, and I have been in informal leader with no title in many other instances.  So I am always interested in a fresh look at leadership---what it is and how it happens.

The second reason I am interested in taking a look at this book is because of the respect I have for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  This is a group of leaders from various American congregations of mostly nuns.  This group is often unfairly portrayed as liberal.  Of course they are going to seem liberal in the face of typical American culture because they are committed to living out the gospel.  The women religious also face the male hierarchy in the Roman Catholic church.  And all women religious have taken a vow of obedience.  So leadership in that kind of context is tricky.  That’s why I have tremendous respect for them and their work.

I immediately was attracted to the book’s title: transformational leadership.  I like the idea of transformational action.  I know this kind of leadership is often portrayed as the alternative to transactional leadership.  Transactional action is simply a transaction---this for that.  A transaction is what I do when I buy my morning coffee.  I pay some money and get my coffee in return.  There is not much creativity in that.  And usually, there is not much creativity in transactional leadership.

Transformational leadership, on the other hand, often demands creativity.  After all, in transformational action one form gives way to another form.  Another word I associate with transformational is innovation.  Of course, innovation is creative.  So I see transformational leadership to be that kind of leadership that brings about new forms of living and acting.  Jesus was a transformational leader par excellence.  And the spiritual life requires that kind of transformational thinking and acting.

In the little article giving me the tip about the book, there was a quick reference to chapter three.  A couple sentences were lifted from the author, Nancy Sylvester.  I would like to share these to help me think about the kind of leader I am sure Jesus was and the kind of leader I would like to be.  Sylvester uses the idea of contemplation to think about a particular leadership style.  Because I have done quite a bit with contemplation and contemplative spirituality, I was eager to read this little selection.

Sylvester says, “The contemplative posture is one that opens us up to ambiguity, paradox and the unknown because it releases for us a lot of our preconceived ways of being and thinking and it releases us of our ego.”  She thinks about leadership, which is born of the contemplative posture.  This is attractive because it helps us get to fresh places to see old things in new ways and, indeed, to see new things.  I do think becoming contemplative does open us to ambiguity, paradox and the unknown.  And of course, this is where we are more likely to see the fresh and the novel.

Most good leaders I know do have to take time to be centered, as my tradition talks about it.  This is especially true for transformational leadership.  Your knowledge and experience do go a long way (and usually are sufficient for transactional leadership), but transformational leadership requires new insight.  This is what I think Sylvester gets to in her next sentence.  She notes, “As we try to get in touch with the God within and become open to the spirit, we are doing some of the very difficult inner work so essential if we are to respond in new ways.”  When we see it this way, we perhaps can understand why so few leaders are transformational.

Many leaders do not see a role for God to speak to them and be a partner in leadership functions.  But spiritual leaders need to be in tune with this.  We do well to get in touch with God and be open to the spirit.  If our leadership roles ask for transformation, this contemplative approach makes sense to me.  I am sure it will seem incredibly inefficient (and it is compared to transactional leadership).  But I also know innovation cannot be rushed.

And if we throw God into the picture, why do we think we control the time-line of innovative, spiritual leadership?  The contemplative approach to living and leadership is a good way to ensure that our leadership is not merely a factor of ego.  Too often, I am sure my leadership actions were too ego driven for my own good and probably for the good of the group I was leading.  In fact, I am confident I was sometimes effective, but maybe not right!

I like this approach to what I want to call spiritual innovation.  I am confident much of this is going to be required as we live on into this century.  Doing things the way we always have done them is no future at all.  We need spiritual people and leaders who take enough time to be contemplative so that we all can become transformational leaders.

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