Spirituality – The Secret Sauce In Real High Performance?

“I am not a religious person. But I do consider myself to be spiritual.” These are words that I have heard increasingly from clients over the past 5 years. Bear in mind that the majority of the people I work with are very battle-hardened, experienced and successful business leaders. What’s interesting is that they consider their spirituality to be a key asset in their success.


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“I am not a religious person. But I do consider myself to be spiritual.”

These are words that I have heard increasingly from clients over the past 5 years. 

Bear in mind that the majority of the people I work with are very battle-hardened, experienced and successful business leaders. What’s interesting is that they consider their spirituality to be a key asset in their success.

But their definition of what it means to be spiritual would be very different to the conventional one. Typically, they probably don’t see themselves as religious and they may or may not even believe in a God.  

Without doubt, there is something bubbling underneath the surface of everyday business. I find more leaders open to talking about this area because they are seeking new ways to cope with the ever increasing volatility and uncertainty.

It used to be that you’d leave spirituality to your private life, but if you’re seeking an edge in your leadership and organisation, you’d do well to at least consider it.

The Biggest Problem With Spirituality

I think that perhaps the biggest problem with spirituality in the business world, is the name itself.  For many it conjures up ideas understandably related to religion and in Ireland in particular, not all of those ideas are positive. 

But in a world that has less and less trust in religious institutions, spirituality is entering a new phase because people are still seeking answers, and some of these answers can help leaders navigate the business world more effectively.

The renowned educator and businessman, Steven Covey said “The roots of the problems we face in the world, in our national life and in our family and personal lives, are spiritual. The symptomatic manifestations (branches) of these problems are social, economic and political, but the roots are moral and spiritual. And they lie first within each individual and then within the family.”

He also said “Since the problems are rooted spiritually, the solutions are also.”

But what does spiritual mean?

Spirituality Is Not About Religion

Spirituality isn’t about religion, although for some it often is. I’m sure like me you’ve met people who are very religious but are the least spiritual people in their behaviour. And equally I’ve met atheists who are incredible human beings.

Religion hijacked spirituality for hundreds of years but something new is emerging. And it’s worth paying attention to it.

For example, one CEO I worked with had a reputation as an incredibly tough operator and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was asked to meet him. Indeed he was tough. An incredible business brain. But the care and attention he showed to his business, people and customers was what I could only describe as love. Tough love but without doubt, in my mind, it was the work of a spiritual man intent on making a difference, and with no regard for egoic-recognition.

Former CEO of KPMG USA, Eugene O’Kelly, was told at the age of 53 that he had 3 months to live in 2005. 3 and half months later he was dead.

In his very moving memoir ‘Chasing Daylight’, he wrote “I had long believed that a successful businessperson could, if so inclined, live a spiritual life, and that to do so it wasn’t necessary to quit the boardroom, chuck it all, and live on an ashram – after my diagnosis I still believed that.”

He approached his forthcoming death with the skills he had developed as a CEO. Things like planning, organisation, thoroughness and in his book he explains exactly what he did over the last days and weeks of his life. 

In the process he ‘discovered depths to which a businessperson rarely goes, and learned how worthwhile it was to visit there, and sooner rather than later, because it may bring one greater success as a businessperson and as a human being.’

Those depths are worth exploring because the riches they can uncover ripple into the other areas of their lives.

When I work with top leaders, we have to focus on them being the best version of themselves. There are four main areas to anyone achieving their full potential: Physical, Mental, Emotional and yes, Spiritual. These are the four pillars of not only wellness but real, sustainable high performance.

My own experience has shown me that integrating the fours areas above reap incredible rewards. Not just for the person and also for the organisation they lead. When you get alignment across all four areas, you experience higher levels of clarity, purpose and confidence. These are the real foundations of sustainable high performance.

A New Definition

When I was in my mid-20s I went through a very dark period of severe depression. But the unexpected gift was the pain of that time made me turn inward. I discovered a completely new world that no-one had told me about – one that would help me get better at my career, relationships and pretty much any area I focused on. 

This area was the inner dimension of myself which includes the mind and dare I say it the soul. An area I now call The Inner CEO.

What I didn’t expect was the benefit of moving beyond the mind into the what you would call spirituality. I also started to explore spirituality because of some transformative experiences that occurred.

But I’d like to put forward a different definition for spirituality. One that is more in keeping with the times and based on working directly with great people over 20 years.

Spirituality is working on the state of your consciousness or in more simple terms, it’sworking on yourself. And all with the view of evolving to the best version of yourself.

Literally it’s the work of transformation.

And as anyone who has committed to it knows, working on yourself is very rewarding but it also requires serious commitment.

This is why organisational change is so challenging.  And increasingly places of work will be seen not only as places to work and get results, but also places of meaning, transformation and personal growth. 

Ultimately change at an organisational level has to be at the personal level and this is the reason most organisations never really change – because the leaders don’t do the real inner work needed.

Which spiritual leader do you think said this?

“Every process of transformation begins with yourself. It has to start with personal change.” 

Buddha? Jesus? Gandhi? Eckhart Tolle?

You might be surprised to read that it was actually said by a successful business person from the world of energy, Phil Carroll, former CEO of Shell Oil.

He also added that “The abstraction of corporate transformation – that’s a result, that’s not a method.”

I’d argue that there is no greater place to work on improving yourself than in your place of work. We spend most of our time there, we get our buttons pushed all of the time, we encounter conflict, challenge and suffering. What better environment to really be tested to grow?

Indeed, I’d go out on a limb and say that if Buddha were alive today, he’d most likely be an entrepreneur or CEO. 

His company would be focused on the genuine wellbeing of all the people connected to the business – employees, customers, suppliers and their community. But I’d also put forward that Buddha would be very focused on the numbers and results in the business. If you read about famous spiritual people you’ll see they they were focused on results, weren’t shy of conflict or of shouting at people, especially if it was for the greater good.

The measure of a spiritual person to me is how well the people around them are doing. If they are growing, developing and thriving most likely you are in the presence of a spiritual leader. I wonder how many organisations can honestly claim that today? 

The Past Repeating Itself

15 years ago I remember being laughed at by some business leaders when I tried to talk about the power of the mind. But when the crash happen in 2008, I had an unprecedented opportunity to apply my understandings with clients. The stress of the situation had opened their minds to what they had previously seen as BS.

Thankfully over the past 10 years people’s minds have opened in that area and now leaders are open to not only being coached but also exploring their mental fitness.

Today I see something similar happening around the subject of spirituality. Most business people are reluctant to look at their spiritual dimension. But some leaders are, although they are still very private about it.

But rest assured interest in all things spiritual is definitely increasing, perhaps under stealth, even if you don’t think so. Mindfulness, meditation, self-awareness, reflection, inner well-being have never had more interest from the business world. Where do you think they have their origins?

What would Saint Kevin think today?

As I finish this article I’m in the beautiful environment of Glendalough, Co.Wicklow, Ireland. It’s Good Friday, the sun is shining brightly and I’m in a cafe surrounded by cyclists waiting for their morning coffee. 

Glendalough is home to a monastic site and I wonder what the founder, Saint Kevin, would think of all of these cappuccinos and lycra shorts – on what is meant to be one of the most important days in the religious calendar.

I’m guessing that, like me, most of the people here won’t be going to any church today. But after a 2 hour hike around the lake here, I feel spiritually recharged.  Nature has a way of helping us all connect with something deeper, something that is beyond words.

And that charge will ripple into my work, my clients and my life. I’ve connected with a deeper part of me in a couple of hours and I’ve transformed my state.

Who says spirituality isn’t practical and useful in business?

I think the time has come to start a conversation around what spirituality means now for everyone, because work is the new church.  It’s where we spend most of our time.

But we need our leaders to role model the way.

Happy Easter!