January 25, 2024 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders
What makes a good leader? Any search on the web will return a laundry list of qualities and characteristics of leadership. In the early years of my career, my employer believed that soft skills like communication and technical skills like financial management were key. They gave me a quarterly developmental roadmap to chart my growth. It was a useful guide to pinpoint, “You are here” and “This is where you need to go.” The goal was to demonstrate proficiency, consistency, mastery, and readiness to move to the next level of leadership. However, I’ve discovered that my leadership development plan was missing something crucial.
Twenty-five years later, as I reflect on my professional journey, I can see that the cultivation of my inner life and spiritual growth has been the catalyst for my transformation from a strong manager of people into a loving leader. But sadly no one mentions this inner work in my performance reviews. Esther Perel, psychotherapist and host of the podcast How’s Work, has said, “When my inner world is not stable it’s more challenging to provide stability for the people I work with.” Inner work is a vital aspect of our leadership. If our inner life is that influential, what roadmap do we have to build our emotional capacity to cultivate the well-being of the people we lead? What kind of difference can Christian marketplace leaders actually make?
In a 1952 lecture, theologian Howard Thurman offered an exposition on the inner life and its corresponding outer life with Psalm 19:14 (NRSV) as his centering scripture.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The “words of our mouth” represent the outer, external life, and “the meditations of our heart” the inner. He characterized the inner life as spiritually minded and thoughtful, and the outer life as external and practical. Thurman pointed out that Greek influences created a dichotomy, causing us to split our allegiance and “make a sharp distinction between the outer and the inner,” whereas the scripture allows us to hold them both together.
Thurman asserts that the flow between these two worlds is the sacred pathway to becoming integrated and whole, which holds the power to transform our lives, society, and social order as well. Thurman describes a symbiotic relationship between the two: “The inner constantly and persistently informs the outer so as to redefine the meaning of the outer. But it is also true that the outer can persistently and consistently inform the inner.”
As marketplace leaders, externally focused practical people, we must also cultivate robust inner lives, or we risk conforming to our contexts, the cultural norms, values, and behaviors of capitalism. But when we center down into the spirit, we become partners in the transcendent vitality that connects us with other human beings, and we begin functioning “by a blueprint that is eternal.” Thurman dares us to believe in the possibility of this enduring roadmap, otherwise we “run the risk of missing out on perhaps the most tremendous thing in human life.” This is the Christian difference for marketplace leaders.
Bringing together the outer and the inner is not for the faint of heart, it takes work. In their forthcoming book, Life in Flux: Navigational Skills to Guide and Ground You in an Ever-Changing World, Dr. Michaela O’ Donnell and Lisa Slayton offer this definition:
Inner work—the work we undertake over time to become more wholly the person we’re uniquely intended to be. It’s a process of waking up, letting go, getting to really know ourselves, and discerning what is ours to do. It takes time and practice to develop this kind of internal navigational system, and it requires us to check assumptions and learn new ways of being.
Yet we resist doing the inner work. We would rather stay asleep and avoid the darkness in us. But delusion does not produce spiritual maturity, or healthy leaders. As Lisa Colon Delay asserts in The Wild Land Within, navigating the terrain of the inner world produces healing and is the pathway to cultivating wholeness through spiritual practice. In confronting our shadows, the result of darkness placed in the pathway of light, we discover our frailties which make us human. As I became self-compassionate with my own frailties, my capacity to be compassionate for the frailties of my team increased. This tamed my arrogance, increased my gratitude, and cultivated patience and grace, which ultimately shaped me into a better leader.
What I’ve Learned from Doing Inner Work
Here are three things I learned from doing my inner work.
Inner work begins with introspection. In other words, the inward journey of self-analysis of our own mental and emotional state. It is the beautiful, sacred, and sometimes harrowing journey of knowing oneself beyond our neurosis—where self-acceptance, self-compassion, and grace meet. When done in earnest, we become conscious and aware of our strengths and frailties, cultivate humility, and through discernment begin to sift away the vestiges of the false self. Introspection is not done alone. We have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to help us. Introspection is marked by surrender, an intentional shift from self-reliance to God-reliance, and trust in God’s handiwork in us.
Inner work is about integration. Beyond the dichotomy, inner work is an invitation to lead from our true selves. But this journey to becoming our full, authentic selves is not a solo mission. While we must commit to our own inner work, God gifts us with people and relationships as an important part of the revelatory process of seeing our blind spots. Inner work, paradoxically, is not a self-serving agenda. It employs interdependence and is a praxis for healthy communal life, for the sake of others without forsaking oneself.
Lastly, inner work primes managers to become illuminators. Being more conscious and aware has enabled me to see myself and others more clearly. In How to Know a Person, David Brooks defines illumination as a gaze and the quality of attention put out in the world, a posture of presence, respect, and reverence, and an identification with the transcendent spark inside others. Illuminators are characterized by tenderness, inner dignity, receptiveness, openness, curiosity, affection, generosity of spirit, and a holistic view of people where one sees the face of God in others and endeavors to see them with Jesus’ eyes. Inner work makes illumination accessible.
May it be our intention to commit to the work of cultivating our inner life. Through introspection and integration, may we heal and become whole so we show up as effective and stable guides for others. May we become illuminators who see the spark of the divine in every person and co-creators in the beautiful work of transcendence. May our inner light be what distinguishes us as leaders in the marketplace.