Summer Reading: The Soul of a Leader

My new friend and ministry colleague, Margaret Benefiel, is a seasoned veteran in the world of spiritual formation and leadership development. I had the privilege of meeting Margaret a few months ago at a gathering of spiritual formation ministry leaders from a wide religious heritage but from the same region of Greater Boston. She was obviously one of the more recognized and admired in the room. We had previously known each other from a distance, and found mutual joy finally meeting one another in person.

Her book The Soul of a Leader has been praised by many, including Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Tilden Edwards, noted author and founder of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. It was a good read particularly for those in various leadership positions in the business community. In her book, she helps those who are surrounded by the pressures of a results-oriented culture, and who work hard to stay focused on their drive, productivity, and long work hours. But, she addresses the question: what happens as a result to their personal wellbeing and the health of the organization they lead?

In The Soul of a Leader she offers real-life stories and practical advice for navigating the path of soulful leadership. She writes for the leader: whether an executive manager, teacher, committee chair, pastor or parent. Her definition of a leader comes from Parker Palmer, “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.” And adds her qualifier, that “both internal soul formation and external skills are necessary for effective, inspired, ethical leadership over the long haul.” Palmer’s and her statements are powerful for a leader’s deep reflection.

Although I resonate with her broad leadership definition (“everyone is a leader in his or her sphere”), her use of the word soul is also purposefully broad, “Soul is the way that emotional or relational depth is honored and the way that yearnings for development or evolution are given space, whether in a religious context or in other contexts.” Benefiel is comfortable with an understanding of the soul as the deep essence of a person that finds expression through religious faith or in “other ways.” That may be the water which divides us as spiritual formation leaders…something meriting more serious and prayerful consideration. My view of the soul is more in line with the essence of a person, and the deep place within us where God and God alone seeks to reside. So, to invite other affections into that place is not appropriate for the soul, especially the soul of a Christian, from my vantage point.

The bulk of her text is the introduction of one main principle after another, with real life stories of leaders who embody and fulfill each point. In part one, “Choosing the Path” she introduces: following the heart, by paying attention, taking the first step, and even stumbling; in finding partners, she talks about speaking the heart’s truth, seeking resonance, and inviting partnership; in daring to dream, she invites assessing what is, finding the heart’s hope, and dreaming. In part two, “Staying on Track” she has three chapters: keeping mission at the fore, via focus on something more, sharing the vision, and returning to mission; in practicing gratitude, she encourages receiving work and colleagues as gift, practicing and creating a culture of gratitude; in battling for the soul, she talks about keeping people first, committing to ongoing development, and staying true to values.

In part three, “Persevering to the End” her final few chapters focus on seeing compassionately, forgiving, and persevering via spiritual transformation, and the threefold path of 1. The Purgative; 2. The Illuminative; and 3. The Unitive…using the classic Christian formulation of the three ways to describe the process of spiritual transformation developed from the third through the sixteenth centuries. She also includes seasons of the “dark night” and how organizations experience these as well. While causing me rather abrupt pause, given her style in the previous chapters, I found the jolt quite intriguing. Do organizations truly experience spiritual transformation in similar ways as individuals?

Her final chapter on “Finding Spiritual Guidance” and her conclusion introduce the importance of spiritual direction with a particular focus on leadership. Her concluding exercise is an invitation to the leader to consider ways to specifically apply the principles contained within. She ends with words of hope and challenge for the leader who chooses to travel the path of success and fulfillment outlined throughout the previous chapters. I appreciated her upbeat and hope-filled conclusion. A worthwhile read for all who are in leadership and want to influence others from the perspective of the soul. Kudos, Margaret. You’ve stimulated my thinking and I’m profoundly grateful.

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Steve Macchia

Steve Macchia

Founder & President

Steve is a graduate of Northwestern College (IA) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.). His prior ministry includes serving on the pastoral staff at Grace Chapel (Lexington, MA) and as president of Vision New England. Since July 1, 2003 Steve has served as founder and president of Leadership Transformations, director of the Pierce Center for Disciple-Building, and adjunct faculty in the Doctor of Ministry department at Gordon-Conwell. He is the author of fifteen books, including the Baker bestseller Becoming a Healthy Church, and Crafting a Rule of Life (IVP). He lives in the Boston area with his wife Ruth and is the proud father of two grown children, Rebekah and Nathan, daughter in-love Ashley, and papa to his beloved granddaughter, Brenna Lynn. “My soul comes alive singing the great hymns of the church and enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. I’m in awe of God for fulfilling the dream for LTI that he birthed in my heart, for the team he has assembled, and the transformational impact experienced in the leaders and teams we serve.

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