What is soul leadership, and how does it differ from historical definitions of leadership?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines leadership as “The action of leading a group of people or an organization.” Leadership, by this definition, implies follower-ship, a relationship as symbiotic and as hierarchical as the relationship between an Empress and her subjects.

And yet, our ideas about leadership have evolved, as our cultural and spiritual understanding of the interconnected nature of systems and societies has evolved.

Leadership archetypes that once held absolute sway – and that remain powerful despite the rise of a more soul-centered, collaborative culture — include the guru, monarch, pastor or priest, patriarch, oligarch, dictator, and corporate CEO, among others. These are leaders who have acquired power through political machinations, ascendancy in religious orders, heredity, by sacrificing crucial aspects of their lives to their careers, or simply by being good at figuring out how to gain power in hierarchical structures. Often, they rule by fiat – divinely ordained or otherwise.

In this world-view, the leader holds an exceptional degree of knowledge and power. Such leaders guide their followers along paths that they divine and prescribe. Any deviations from the normative path are punished, through social ostracism or the threat of physical, spiritual, or legal reprisals. The assumption such leaders make is that their followers aren’t enlightened enough, knowledgeable enough, rich enough, powerful enough or visionary enough to chart their own course.

We see this style of leadership in families in which traditional roles rule: the father as benevolent patriarch and head of the household – the one who makes all major decisions, protects and provides for the family, and carries the sole burden of financial and moral leadership. The mother as helpmate, angel of the home and hearth, and second fiddle. The children at the tail end of the hierarchy, with very little agency or sovereignty over their own lives.

We see it in the resurgence of highly centralized oligarchies, where power is held by a small group of people whose prime objective is the perpetuation of their own wealth, privilege and status. We see this kind of hierarchical leadership in every segment of our society, from systems of governance to educational institutions, from religious organizations to the military, from corporate entities to the criminal justice system, and more.

In these styles of centralized leadership, power and privilege are closely held by those at or near the center. Those further away from the central authority do much of the day-to-day work that keeps the ecology functioning smoothly. They earn less, have far less privilege and fewer options available to them. They also bear the brunt of everyday responsibilities, without the concomitant authority to make decisions and choices about matters that profoundly affect them.

Centralized cultures, like solar systems, revolve around a single, charismatic, powerful leader.

Other, more collaborative kinds of leadership, are now rising in power and visibility. This is largely due to changes in our cultural zeitgeist, the ascendance of third-wave feminism, the rise of multiracial, intersectional identity politics, a growing environmental movement that values the responsible stewardship and renewal of resources, and places the well-being of the planet ahead of profit, and more universal access to information and knowledge. These forms of leadership are supported by evolving technologies that make it possible for networks of people across the globe to gather behind a common cause, and to lend their creative power to achieve a purpose that benefits everyone.

While not all such networks are soul-powered, soul infused, and soul-led, many of them consciously choose soul values as their central organizing principles.

These forms of leadership function more like galaxies than like solar systems. Each person in such a community is a star, with her or his own gravitational field and sovereign agency. The members of such communities work consciously together to support and promote the well-being of everyone in their community, while making space for widely divergent agendas, beliefs, and points of view. Each person accepts the responsibilities, challenges and gifts of leadership. Each person contributes their talents, skills, experience and genius to creating an organic, functioning whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

However, it behooves us to remember that these new forms of collaborative leadership emerge from the existing structures of patriarchal, hierarchical societies. While we aspire to collaborative leadership, we are also shaped and conditioned by the world in which we grew up. Some of that conditioning functions underground, in ways of which we aren’t necessarily conscious. No matter the purity of our intentions, we are products of our cultural and social conditioning and we must enter into a necessary transformation in order to embody true soul leadership.

Soul leadership calls for devotion to a practice of self-reflection, ongoing inner growth, awareness and education, followed by consistent action in support of our vision for a more inclusive world. Soul leadership requires the humility to question and tease apart existing structures of power, and the willingness to create inclusive and holistic solutions to the problems that beset our world.

Soul Leadership and You

As an entrepreneur with a transformational business, you are a soul leader. You hold a vision for your business that is integrated with your values, with your dreams and desires for your community and your world. You understand that your business is part of a larger, more complex ecology, which both shapes it and is shaped by it. You are conscious of the impact of your choices and decisions, not just on yourself but on everyone who participates in the ecology of your business.

You create a business culture that honors the sovereignty of everyone in the world of your business — yourself, the members of your team, your suppliers and contractors, your customers and clients, and your larger community.

You foster a work environment that nurtures creativity, openness, vulnerability, courage, collaborative leadership, responsibility, and the willingness to risk failure to reach for a collective vision of a better world.

Collaborative leadership can be infinitely more challenging, more complex than a simple hierarchical structure in which everyone knows their place and takes responsibility only for those tasks assigned to them. It can be chaotic, slow to cohere and act, unruly and disorganized. Since such cultures are largely self-governing, they may lack the clarity of rules that prescribe behaviour and drive decision-making in more traditional leadership structures. It may take longer to accomplish goals and build momentum because collaborative leadership takes the time to hash out differences and arrive at consensus before moving towards desired outcomes.

But the rewards of these, more fluid forms of leadership, are great. When you lead with soul, you experience more freedom and joy, greater ease and flow. You co-create a community of strong, trustworthy, sovereign leaders, who are generative, innovative, share responsibility and power, and define success, not just as profit or net worth, but as well-being and contribution to the whole.

Soul leadership always has wholeness, service and communion at its heart.

If you want to lead with soul, if you aim to be a champion for wholeness in your life and business, your first responsibility is to the health and integrity of your own being. We can only give what is within us, so to create a business whose central organizing principle is wholeness, you prioritize inner wholeness.

This is easier said than done. Our culture is anchored in values and practices that promote separation – from our bodies, our souls, our desires, our loves, our families and communities, and our environment, to name just a few.

It’s hard to slow down to the rhythms of your body when the society in which we live and work is geared to the pace of technology, not humanity. It can be downright scary to choose to work less, play more, consume less, create more, to honor organic rhythms of activity and rest. It can seem crazy or lazy or unambitious to let go of the addiction to ever-increasing growth at any cost and, instead, to choose wholeness and peace, love and community, creative artistry and genuine contentment.

To lead with soul requires that you know what you deeply value, and you shape your life and business around your truest desires. It calls you to practice the art of presence, and to choose, daily, a way of living, leading, and working that contributes to wholeness and renewal. When you become the face of wholeness, when you become the sweet spring of daily renewal, you become a source of these qualities in the world.

To be a soul leader is to be a source, rather than simply a consumer, of the world in which you want to live.