What Religion Teaches Us About Great Leadership



Even if you’re not religious, or think religion and business shouldn’t mix, understanding how religious and spiritual beliefs can influence and inform leadership, and organizational values ​​can only provide invaluable information for work and business.

INSEAD graduates Executive Master in Change (EMC), a curriculum that examines the fundamental drivers of human behavior and the hidden dynamics of organizations, sought to do just that. They immersed themselves in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism to discover the religious teachings and patterns that have had the greatest impact or the greatest potential to impact leaders and organizations.

The Seven Strengths of Good Leaders

Today’s business world is marked by a constant war for talent as well as the evolution role identities and responsibilities. Michael Issac Moyal, founder of Nevooa at Station F in Paris, endeavored to identify exemplary values ​​of leadership in the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah applicable to the contemporary context. He named seven psychological forces and seven Torah figureheads who embody these forces:

Chesed – The kindness embodied by Abraham

Gevurah – Strength/Justice embodied by Isaac

Tiferet – Beauty/Truth/Harmony/Good Balance embodied by Jacob

Netsakh – Hope/Ambition/Endurance embodied by Moïse

hood – Humility/Glory/Recognition/Gratitude embodied by Aaron

Yesod – Foundation/Stability/Connection embodied by Joseph

Malchut – Greatness/Sovereignty embodied by David

Abraham, for example, dedicated his life to caring for others. Despite his moral contempt for Sodom and Gomorrah, he prayed to God for the first time in his life in a desperate attempt to save both cities. He also showed singular leadership in rejecting the idol worship that was popular in his day, claiming there was only one God.

Moyal created an interview protocol that recruiters could use to assess potential hires on each of the seven dimensions set forth in the Torah. The questions relate to the candidate in relation to herself, to others as well as to her psychological resources and her motivations. For example, Abrahamic leadership qualities were measured by the following questions: When did you feel you were different (able to lead)? Is it possible to count on you in good and bad times? Do you think that through kindness you receive more than you give?

First do no harm

While leadership qualities are vested in several exceptional men in Judaism, for Muslims, one man embodies the ideal leader: the Prophet Mohammad. From the life of the founder of Islam, one could distill the leadership traits of humanity, compassion, gentleness and kindness, as well as power and assertiveness, says Saud Ghassan Al-SulaimanCEO of IKEA Saudi Arabia.

These ideal Islamic leadership qualities are not so different from contemporary Western models of successful leadership, says Al-Sulaiman. He identified the traits through a comprehensive review of Islamic leadership literature and interviews with Islamic scholars. One of the latter quoted a hadith, or saying, of the Prophet: “Verily, the worst shepherds are those who are harsh, so be careful not to be one of them.”

But of course, a good “shepherd” goes far beyond doing no harm. To be a good leader in business, one must have a positive and harmonious relationship with his employees or subordinates, based on trust, explains Al-Sulaiman. And, according to an academic he interviewed, Islamic teaching encourages leaders and employees to develop their skills with charity, inspiration, wisdom and experience. Another scholar highlighted patience, social intelligence, inspiration, honesty, sincerity and self-confidence as important skills in Islamic leadership.

Sustain a business

Regardless of their abilities, a leader cannot sustain an organization for long if it does not have the right culture. Ian Leonga physician from Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital who is involved in building community healthcare networks in the city-state, analyzed the values ​​and governance practices of the Benedictine and Jesuit orders of Catholicism to propose a framework for organizational longevity.

Founded in 529 AD, the Benedictine order is the oldest monastic order in the Christian West. Benedictine monks live in monasteries, are governed by abbots and take vows of stability (commitment to the monastery to which one belongs), obedience, conversion of morals (commitment to the monastic way of life), poverty and chastity .

The Jesuit Order, established in 1540, is the largest male religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. Jesuits are required to take a special vow of obedience to the Pope and may be deployed in any ministry the Pope deems appropriate. But they are also trained to become “self-directed leaders” and to focus on self-development, a practice evident in the many schools they have founded around the world.

In short, says Leong, Benedictines focus on community development and stability while Jesuits focus on self-development and flexibility. Both have been hugely successful.

Leong argues that a modern business could combine Benedictine and Jesuit paradigms to create a culture that ensures it remains thriving for years, if not decades. Here’s how:

  • Create a transformational organization that practices what he believes to be good values ​​and tries to propagate those values. For example, leaders can focus on promoting higher education and improving the quality of life
  • Develop a clear and detailed value system that is practiced throughout the organization, constantly emphasized and periodically reinterpreted as needed
  • Maintain cohesion through respect, positive communication and forgiveness
  • Conduct daily reflection exercises to foster change
  • Provide coaching to help employees process and interpret experiences and the decisions
  • Develop leaders who are humble, empathetic, resilient, ethical and aligned with the values ​​of the organization

Lesson of a Warrior Prince

Even the most successful executives are sometimes plagued by crippling self-doubt due to circumstances beyond their control. Take it from Arjun (also known as Arjuna), the warrior prince of Bhagavad-Gita (or Song of the Lord), one of the most important texts of Hinduism.

A demi-god, Arjun is described as brave, intelligent, humble, and righteous. Yet when he finds himself on the brink of a battle against his evil cousins ​​to reclaim lands usurped from him and his brothers, Arjun gets cold feet. The thought of defeating his loved ones, even for just reasons, is too much for him to bear. Krishna, the god who serves as Arjun’s charioteer, then engages the warrior in a dialogue, helping him overcome his apprehensions and triumph over injustice.

Dialogue is a lesson in rising above anxiety and personal attachments for the collective good, according to Pankaj Bhatt, the former Chief Transformation Officer at Nucleus Software. Bhatt compares Krishna to an impartial coach who helps his client through mentalize, reality check and impulse control. Through his dialogue with Krishna, Arjun has a better clarity of a leader’s role and duty, which is to take justified action even when it is unpleasant and results cannot be guaranteed. To do this, the leader must realize that nothing is permanent and strive to be less attached to emotions, ego and success.

When it comes to leadership, religious traditions have more in common with modern practices—and with each other—than one might think. By By revisiting long-held religious and spiritual beliefs, as EMC graduates have done, one can glean insight into the individual and collective strengths that combine to bring about positive change at work.

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