• Leadership

Values, Spirituality and Organizational Culture

The Challenges of Leadership in Tomorrowland

Tuesday 27 October 2015


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This long read was first published in Developing Leaders, Issue 21. Sign up for free with IEDP to receive future issues here. 

In today’s increasingly globalised, chaotic, and changing world, the main role of a leader is to motivate and inspire people to create, innovate, and contribute their greatest potential to their work, organizations, communities, and families, as well as to their selves. The best leaders know that achieving this requires more than developing strategies, performance objectives, or compensation plans; it requires developing organizational cultures based on shared values. Values represent the nucleus of an organization, the DNA of its culture, and they underlie individual, group, and organizational behaviour, as I have explained elsewhere. All meaning and behaviour, therefore, revolves around values.

In the past, progress was primarily measured by the ability of a person, organization, or society to become bigger, richer, or faster, which translated into the accumulation of economic value. This addiction to growth, however, has become unsustainable for humanity, our socioeconomic systems, and even the survival of our planet. As organizations have grown, they have inevitably become more complex. The traditional response has been to put processes, rules, and structures in place to manage that complexity. The consequence has been a dehumanisation of the organizational environment that has demoted employees from trusted agents to automated units, limiting their freedom to innovate and create positive change. 

In the wake of war, terrorism, natural disaster, ever-greater inequality, a widening social divide, and growing global interdependence, progress and success are beginning to be measured by the very core of what makes us human—our values. Organizations still need to innovate to succeed. However, leaders are facing perhaps the biggest challenge in history: how to innovate whilst at the same time creating and maintaining successful organizations based on what is equally good for people, business and society. Our best leaders realize they must maintain a degree of control whilst also enabling sufficient freedom for human and organizational potential to be unleashed. They are also deeply aware that people thrive in values-based cultures and also that, if treated as mere extensions of technology, routines, and bureaucratic structures, they lose their humanity— and with it the sense of purpose and meaning that we all seek to create in our work and lives. Of course, one cannot assume the opposite extreme either, that organizations will develop cultures focused solely on promoting freedom and having fun; such a culture is a fantasy that no organization can afford. However, cultures that combine work and play are entirely possible and, indeed, quite desirable for bringing out the best in both an organization and its people. 

"In the past, progress was primarily measured by the ability of a person, organization, or society to become bigger, richer, or faster, which translated into the accumulation of economic value" 

In earlier writings, we have explained that harmonising the beliefs and values of the owners, employees, and all other stakeholders in a company is a vital source of competitive and cooperative advantage. We have recommended that leaders humanize their companies’ strategic vision, develop and implement ‘values-based cultures’, and lead organizational cultural reengineering programs to create a shared culture of value creation that implicitly and explicitly guides the daily activities of employees at all levels and in all roles. To do this, leaders need to develop core values configured along three axes: an economic- pragmatic axis, an ethical-social axis, and an emotional-developmental axis (see Figure 1). The three axes represent the sum total of the values and are relatively orthogonal. In other words, if one axis is more dominant, the others will, by definition, be less dominant. The intersections of the axes represent concepts such as ‘survival’, ‘sensitivity’ and ‘innovation’. Although as depicted in Figure 1, the model seems symmetric; in practice it is asymmetric and must remain that way in order to enable alignment with the organizational mission and vision.

Cultural models and values are nothing new; they have been studied since the 1970s. Once considered ‘too soft’ to qualify as management resources or be managed effectively, values are now accepted as the basis of organizational identity and as a fundamental principle of an organization’s strategy. Though the perspective of a triaxial model of values is rather new, more and more companies are now using it to change or sustain their organizational culture. The extent to which leaders are capable of applying this configuration of values in an organizational context is reflected in the effectiveness of their leadership. The secret to effective leaders’ cultural reengineering is that they align their organization’s core values (as depicted in its specific triaxial model of values) with its vision and mission statement, as well as with the purpose and behaviours of all its members and stakeholders. Such a process of cultural change is quite challenging and complex, and it requires what used to be called ‘transformational leaders’, that is, leaders who have a noble ethos who lead based on ethics and values, while at the same time inspiring everyone else in the organization to strive for that same ethos.


Today, however, we need a new type of leader to address the current complex environment, a ‘universal leader’. Universal leaders are visionary; they lead by example even as they embed the skills of coaching, empathy, happiness, and an orientation toward wholeness in the work environment. Universal leaders do more than direct their followers or tell others what to do, how to behave, or what values to embrace. Their source of leadership comes from within—from their own inner awareness and realization of purpose, meaning, and values; leading from within means that leaders access their inner knowledge and innate strengths in their relationships and decision-making, allowing their values to uncork their abundant wellspring of potential and capacity in the process. Such leaders have their own sense of ‘spirituality’, yet they understand that ‘spirituality in the workplace’ means that all organizational members, customers, suppliers, board members, partners and even societies—all individual human beings—are connected and interconnected; spirituality is therefore both an inner and a shared experience. Spirituality and leadership, to them, are vitally connected concepts and actions, and they expand their roles in order to create meaning and purpose in their work, in addition to the opportunities that work affords. This gives rise to two questions: should spirituality be considered an additional requisite in leaders and should we add a spiritual dimension to the triaxial model to form a fourth axis. 

"Talking about spirituality and leadership is risky. Business leaders today are usually judged by their results and their ability to create wealth, not by their sense of spirituality and how it has influenced, or led to, those results." 

However, leadership and even the practice of business itself always entail risk. Putting any vision into practice is inherently risky, as is selecting the most appropriate leadership role or style for a given situation. Universal leaders, as noted, do not shy away from risk or deliberations of risk and return, but rather assess risk and return from not only an economic perspective but also a human and social one, asking the question, ‘risk and return for whom’?

A paper reviewing more than 150 studies showed that there is a consistent link between spiritual values and practices and effective leadership. Values that have long been considered spiritual virtues or practices (such as compassion, contemplation and meditation) have been demonstrated to be related to leadership success. In the recent Spirituality and Creativity in Management World Congress held in Barcelona (April 2015), many respected scholars, businesspeople, and CEOs from around the world very clearly described a strong connection between the spiritual practices of their daily lives— such as prayer or meditation—and the effectiveness of their leadership. They moreover described many applications of their beliefs—as emphasized in and by many spiritual traditions (faiths)—as crucial leadership skills, including: showing respect for others, ensuring fair treatment, expressing caring and concern, listening responsively, recognizing the contributions of others, and engaging in reflective practices. This suggests: 1) that spiritual values and practices are embedded within the very core of humanity—not just within certain cultures or solely parts of people’s lives; 2) that one’s personal, reflective spiritual practice has a strong and enduring impact on the people and environments in which that person might lead and work; and 3) that leaders have a need for reflective practice in order to be universally effective.

Here are a few direct quotes from some of the academic leaders who participated in the Spirituality and Creativity in Management World Congress in Barcelona: 

  • “The balance with humanization and spirituality is what matters most” (Richard Boyatzis, distinguished professor of organizational behaviour, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University).
  • “The qualities that make a leader great are the spiritual qualities, including the inner freedom to decide’ (Chris Lowney, former senior executive at JP Morgan, prolific author and chairman of Catholic Health Initiatives).
  • “Creativity emerges when we are committed to the expression of our own essence” (Richard Barrett, prolific writer on the evolution of human values in business and society and founder and chairman of the Barrett Value Center).
  • “Future leaders will need to be more humane on the one hand and to exemplify inspiration on the other’ (Jaume Gurt, CEO InfoJobs, Spain).
  • “Spiritual people are more daring and thus more creative” (Simon Dolan, ESADE Business School).
  • “We are told that 70 to 80% of what we do comes from accepted and automatic habits. These habits come from our lifestyle DNA, which acts as a filter for how we think and act. At the most basic level, ‘spirituality’ is a filter through which we live” (Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor of Business, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and partner at the RBL group).

We contend that contemporary leaders need to develop the capacity to embrace and enact all four values axes of the proposed quadraxial model: economic-pragmatic, ethical- social, emotional-developmental and spiritual-universal (See Figure 2). 

Although spiritual values are not as decisive as those described in the triaxial values model—that is, they do not have a direct impact on organizational effectiveness—they do provide a platform for aligning the instrumental values. In the short term, organizations and leaders can ‘get by’ without spiritual values; in the long term, however, their absence makes their mission, the development of an innovation culture, and the creation of long- term sustainability nearly impossible. Adding spiritual values to leadership practice and the spirituality axis to the triaxial model of values is thus essential for people exercising leadership in any field. Though no CEO will be around long enough to be judged on whether they have successfully enabled such a culture, or achieved the long-term benefits thereof, they will know from their own sense of inner leadership, meaning, and values that they are nurturing the humanity of people, organizations, and societies and sowing the fertile soil of the flourishing work environments that will bring out people’s potential. 

Universal leaders will be able to create a values-based culture that incorporates all four sets of values. Leading from a sense of inner knowing, they will also be able to get to know others who are both alike and different from themselves. They will be aware of their own understanding of the fundamental ‘universal’ truths that are components of all world faiths and spiritual traditions, which surprisingly share more commonalities than differences.

I would like to conclude with some words of wisdom and food for thought in applying the ideas discussed here – a final thought on experiencing true leadership. One must remember that the flip side of leadership is followership; there is no leadership without followers. Ask yourself then: who is (or was) the great person in your life (whether at work or outside work) that you are willing to follow? Close your eyes and think about this question for a few moments. Try to identify the core values of this leader and place him or her in the triaxial model described in Figure 1 (above). How many of this person’s values are economic- pragmatic? How many are ethical-social? And how many are emotional-developmental? Which values axis is dominant? Does this person also have spiritual qualities? I will not be surprised if you can come up with a configuration similar to the one depicted in Figure 2 as a framework. This is really something worth thinking about, and I encourage you to explore this type of thought further, applying it to leaders that you are by no means ready to follow. Again, values are the core, and a configuration based on the quadraxial model can be instrumental in assessing and understanding who is a ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ leader.


Let me end  with  the  following  quote:  “We  are  all  spiritual  beings.  Unleashing  the whole capability of the individual – mind, body, and spirit – gives enormous   power to the organization. Spirituality unlocks the real sense of significance of the organization’s purpose.”

 Editor’s note: A fully referenced version of this article is available from

Author’s note: This article was written following the 1st Spirituality & Creativity in Management World Congress, which took place at ESADE (Barcelona) from 23 to 25 April 2015. I wish to acknowledge the ongoing support of Infojobs (Spain), which will allow us to hold similar conferences in future. I am also grateful to Dr Kristine Kawamura (joint organiser of the Spirituality and Creativity Congress) for her comments, additions and suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper.

ESADE Business School, since its inception in 1958, is one of the world's most prestigious business schools, and has become a frame of reference in the world of executive training.

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