Ethical Leadership

Over the past few years I have been thinking a lot about the ethical, spiritual and em-bodied aspects of leader development.

A growing area of Leadership discourse is based on the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of leader development. The topic is there in academic papers, conference themes and memoirs of some leaders. Nitin Nohria argues that we need leaders who demonstrate moral humility . How do you cultivate moral humility? Can it be taught?

Starkey believes that a narrative of common interest is required to combat the mantra of selfishness and to create a sense that leadership is for all and not for the few .

Can we change the narrative when “Almost all scholarship on management and organisation is written as if the author is absent, as if objective truth were being recorded.”?

A narrative of common interest should have a human voice, a humble and personal voice respecting all other voices. Great leaders quite naturally make the connection between their external and internal worlds and relate to the environment in a humble and responsible manner expressing their concerns for the common good as something deeply personal. Internalising the concerns of the community enables them to create a bond with others.

To internalise we need to be in silence and listen inwardly. Devoting time to explore and cultivate the mysteries of one’s inner world is an integral part of a spiritual jour-ney. In secular societies contemplation is not a natural part of life. Although meditation and mindfulness training are quite readily available, these practices typically come as an added extra, a novelty rather than an integral part of the community’s or individual’s life.

Is spiritual-based leadership “fluffy”?

Pruzan observes that many in the academic community consider spiritual-based leadership as being “fluffy”. In my personal opinion and experience such comments come primarily from those who have not had a chance to explore and develop their inner world yet. Those who try to live their lives only in the external, material world are rather protective of the boundaries of their world view, be that in an academic or business context, and consider all suggestions for an alternative as an attack on their carefully crafted outlook on life. They dismiss or even ridicule the attempts that try to make sense of the world without trying to force everything into measurable, scientific or abstract frameworks.

Albert Einstein allegedly said that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Most things that are valuable in life cannot meaningfully be counted or measured. Love, friendship, support, trust or a helpful gesture and a smile from a stranger do not have financial value yet life would be un-bearably bleak without them. One can only fully appreciate these priceless gifts of life from the inner world. Feelings and emotions are important signals. They reflect our level of well-being in any given time. Acknowledging the messages that come from the inside and finding appropriate ways of expressing them are part of one’s own journey towards maturity and wholeness. By connecting the signals of our senses and emotions with our cognitive brain we make fuller use of our resources and are better equipped to deal with the growing complexities of our external environment.

If we take trust as an example and talk about it in the abstract it loses almost all of its importance and can easily be reduced to an item on a list. It is easy to talk about trust in general. It is not so easy to be continuously vigilant and observe our own behav-iour, admitting to ourselves, and when appropriate, to others when we did not act in a fully trustworthy or trusting manner. When trust is defined as action and we internally monitor ourselves then trust stays in the forefront of our attention as something fragile and precious that holds human relationships together in a meaningful and fruitful way.

Humanity is at a cross road and we need to make more responsible choices to face our social, environmental and economic problems. A shift in human consciousness is re-quired. Such a shift cannot happen in the abstract, rhetorically magnified and distorted external world. Such a shift can only take place inside the individual. Those who take personal responsibility for the current state of the world and try to act and behave in a more self-less way are tapping into their spiritual resources and connect with the world internally.

Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself

Leo Tolstoy observed that “There can be only one permanent revolution – a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

The only way to contribute to the change of humanity is to start the change in our-selves. There is no shortage of knowledge or inspiring examples to evidence this. The wisdom literature from different cultural traditions keep telling us to pay attention to our inner world, to search for the answers in the silence of our hearts, to sit with our dilemmas and patiently wait for the answers, to listen to the inner wisdom that we all carry inside.

Unfortunately intuition and inner knowing are not highly rated in the external world. They are dismissed as intangible, non-rational and non-scientific. Yet, many discoveries and bright ideas surface intuitively in the human brain while the individual is not thinking about the actual problem.


Reflecting on our own journey

Recently I have been reflecting a lot on my own journey in the context of values, ethical leadership and living a meaningful life. I have been teaching leadership for almost 20 years. The titles of my courses and workshops reflected the trends and institutional requirements of the day but the content and the overall message of my teaching has always been based on ethics and spirituality and reflected the state of my inner world.

My childhood and upbringing was fortunate partly because it happened in a country where religion was not allowed, spirituality was neither acknowledged nor supported, and only rational and physically measurable activities were valued and rewarded. As a little girl I was eager to meet the external expectations of my restricted world and at the same time I developed a rich inner world without boundaries or limitations. I did not know then that what is oppressed externally usually finds a way to grow in-ternally. From an early age it was quite natural for me to sit, dream, ask questions in the silence and patiently wait for the answers to emerge. They usually came through stories and images.

As an adult and an educator I have become passionate about helping people to grow and bring the best out of themselves. It did not take me long to realise that my life purpose [to help others to grow] could not be taught from textbooks and I would not be able to achieve anything meaningful with others unless I focused on my own de-velopment. I noticed that as my inner world expands my external world reflects the changes and mirrors my spiritual landscape.

Reviewing my actions regularly enable me to become more forgiving and less judgmental towards myself and others. In my classes I try to create a safe learning envi-ronment that supports both the external and internal processes of all participants. Each event is unique and the outcomes are never fully predictable. Knowing that I am only one of the components in a complex process makes me humble and vigilant. Making myself vulnerable by showing parts of my inner landscape, when appropriate, enhances my human connection with people and enables me to form an invisible yet al-most tangible bond of trust and openness.

I believe that connecting with people who are practicing the virtues is a valuable way to grow. Teachers and leaders following this path have a responsibility to be there for others and hold a safety net for those who wish to start exploring the mysteries of their inner world.


Combining the latest research and theories with enduring global wisdom, Dr Katalin Illes will guide you through group exercises, individual reflection and in-depth discussions will lead the ethical leadership programme.

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