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Spirituality and strategic leadership

The influence of spiritual beliefs on strategic decision making

USA, academic research, September 2012

High potentials in the pipeline: Leaders pay it forwardSenior executives make decisions on difficult organisational issues every day - issues that must be considered in the context of a changing environmental, political, regulatory and economic landscape. This diverse landscape means that the decisions will be complex and thus decision making will be a demanding process.

Previous research indicates that a leader’s values, personality, and cognitions shape their decision making; but, what about their personal spiritual beliefs? Dr Phipps (Rockhurst University, Kansas City) recently explored this question. She proposed a framework that describes how senior leaders’ spiritual beliefs impact decision making. Rather than examining the specific belief itself (i.e., Hinduism, Christianity), Dr Phipps sought to understand the effect of beliefs and their role in decision making.

Dr Phipps’ framework proposes that personal spiritual beliefs act like a schema, guiding which information a senior leader ignores or attends to. Schemas are the mind’s way of filtering and framing material into an integrated and coherent view – for senior leaders, they operate as a lens through which information about the organisation is filtered during decision making. Phipps’ further proposes that this process is influenced and impacted by multiple factors. Specifically, it is affected by the leader’s constructive development (e.g. stage of cognitive, affective and moral development), meta-belief (e.g. the value leaders prescribe to their own beliefs), organisational context (e.g. culture, industry, size) and leadership style (e.g. transformational, authoritarian, etc.).

Dr Phipps suggests that when these factors promote productive framing of information and allow the most relevant information to be considered, senior leaders’ personal spiritual beliefs can provide a strategic advantage.

Aim

This research aimed to develop a framework for understanding the influence of leaders’ spiritual beliefs on decision making.  In particular, Dr Phipps sought to understand how and when personal spiritual beliefs of senior leaders affect strategic decision making.

Method

The author conducted a literature review on strategic leadership and leadership theory, spirituality, schemas, constructive development, meta-belief, organisational context and leadership style, with a focus specifically on the intersection of spirituality and strategic leadership. Using research from over 80 sources, Dr Phipps’ identified a framework for understanding this intersection and offered eight propositions to explain how other factors are also influential.

Findings

Dr Phipps’ framework is founded on the principle that senior leaders’ personal spirituality acts as a schema, filtering and framing information, during strategic decision making. Phipps’ argues that when it comes to personal spirituality and strategic leadership, senior leaders’ schemas are impacted and influenced by the factors below:

Constructive development

How individuals construct their reality evolves over their lifetime, and as their constructive development advances, so does their ability to think with complexity. According to constructive development theory, as individuals mature, they become more aware of the forces and assumptions that drive decision making. Thus, the degree to which leaders’ use personal beliefs to inform decision making will depend on the leader’s stage of constructive development.

Meta-belief

Individuals assign different value and importance to beliefs depending on their meta-belief. So what exactly is a meta-belief? A meta-belief is a belief around the importance and value of one’s own belief structure, and how that belief is held.  Not all leaders apply the same weight and value to their spirituality; as such, leaders’ personal spirituality has a varying impact on how leaders reach decisions. For example, if a leader assigns little value to his or her spiritual beliefs, these beliefs will not influence decision making as much as other factors.

Organisational context

The environments in which strategic leaders operate have been shown to influence how leaders make decisions. Dr Phipps proposes that organisational context (e.g. national and organisational culture, industry, organisational structure, physical setting, etc.) moderate the effect of personal spirituality on decision making.  As such, some organisational contexts (e.g. unionised workforce) may constrain the role personal spiritual beliefs play, whereas other organisational contexts (e.g. small business) may enhance the role of personal spiritual beliefs.

Leadership style

For years researchers have studied and classified different leadership styles (e.g. transformational, autocratic). Each of these styles embodies a unique collection of behaviours, each with a different set of characteristics. This research suggests that the style a leader adopts will impact the degree to which personal spirituality will influence their decision making. For example, leaders who practice an autocratic leadership style generally have complete control over decision making and abide to strict rules and regulations.  Due to their style of leadership, these leaders may disregard their own personal spiritual beliefs when making decisions and instead filter and frame information based on specific organisational rules.

These factors speak to the complex role that personal spirituality plays in strategic decision making amongst senior leaders. Ultimately, Dr Phipps argues that when these factors promote a productive framing of the organisational context and other information - allowing leaders to consider the best information - personal spirituality can be harnessed as a competitive advantage. However, when leaders do not use their personal beliefs to consciously identify and consider the best information, they may not make as strong of a decision as they would otherwise.

Implications

This research implies that leaders, regardless of specific beliefs, should stretch themselves to be more cognisant of their own spirituality and how it manifests when making tough decisions. Senior leaders may want to engage in coaching and self-reflection to consciously understand how they can harness their beliefs as a competitive advantage - just as they harness personality and values to differentiate themselves.

Additionally, focusing on how beliefs manifest themselves, rather than on the specific religious doctrines and beliefs of employees, could be considered by managers and Human Resources (HR) professionals as an effective way to approach religious diversity in the workplace. HR professionals and managers may want to recognise the value of different perspectives and beliefs during recruitment or when developing a team. They may also want to discuss how spirituality can unconsciously influence decision making with their teams and peers.  Educating their staff on the role that spirituality may play is an important step in minimising bias in decision making. However, as this article argues, when beliefs are consciously considered and used to promote effective framing of information, the different beliefs of employees can serve as a unique differentiator.

To read the full article, see Phipps, K. A. (2012) “Spirituality and strategic leadership: The influence of spiritual beliefs on strategic decision making” Journal of Business Ethics, 106:177-189.

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