Spiritual Intelligence

by Cindy Wigglesworth

Spiritual intelligence and good leadership

Spiritual intelligence contributes to good leadership.

  Key message

Less ego = better organisations

Too much ego is bad for business

The ego is a valuable part of the self that we all have and need. It helps us to establish goals, get things done and set boundaries with other people. But the ego can be selfish, immature, manipulative and defensive. Acting from your ego can sometimes get you into trouble, at work or in relationships. Drama in the workplace is the result of people’s egos ‘bumping’ into each other.

It is in the nature of an immature ego-self to be ‘all about me’. The ego wants to be perceived positively by others and to meet its own needs and wants in every situation.

When people behave in egotistical ways, they act as if they are only out for themselves. When things are going well, they claim the credit. When they hit a bump in the road, they will throw everyone else ‘under the bus’.

Such behaviour can be destructive, creating a toxic workplace, demoralising the people who are the ‘victims’ of these behaviours, while sabotaging trust and teamwork. As a result, the organisation can experience a host of downsides from having too much ego in the workplace:

  • Less productivity
  • Higher error rates
  • Fewer ‘engaged’ employees
  • Reduced innovation
  • Damaged relationships with outside stakeholders (customers, community members and so on)
  • Competitive disadvantage as an employer of choice (difficult to recruit/retain people)
  • Competitive disadvantage as a supplier of choice (higher costs, weaker service, lower customer loyalty).

Toxic organisations are rife with conflict, fear and anger. Toxic environments cause people to lose touch with their passion and creativity and to act from their worst rather than best qualities. When you walk into a toxic organisation, you can actually feel that something is wrong. Rather than 1 person + 1 person = the work of 2 people (or more), you get 1 + 1 = less than 1, due to the high drama, low morale and toxic behaviours.

Toxic organisations also make people sick – literally.

People have physiological responses as if they’re in a fight-or-flight situation, and this has negative effects on the body... As a result, immune systems are less effective. Healthy people become ill. Colds, flu and stress-related, illnesses such as heart attacks, are common.

Annie McKee, Primal leadership

Ego gives short term gain, but long term pain.

The ego’s way of dealing with problems usually feels good only in the short term. For longer term happiness and productivity, we need to operate from higher self.

Ego’s approach: ‘John Doe’ does something you consider rude, inconsiderate or mean. You tell everyone how wrongly you were treated by ‘John Doe’. This creates a short-term benefit of feeling self-righteous. You’ve shown everyone how John is bad and you are good.

The short term gain: you have vented your anger, temporarily restored your self-esteem and received sympathy from others.

The long term pain: you’ve added to negative talk in the workplace, you didn’t address your concerns to John, and nothing gets better. You also let your interpretation of what happened (which might not be accurate) create upset in your body that will impact your immune system, blood pressure and so on. You are less healthy, less productive and less happy, and so is your workgroup.

Higher self is smarter!

Spiritual intelligence is an amplifying as well as a capstone intelligence. It is at the top of the pyramid of intelligences (see A simple model of multiple intelligences) in terms of developmental sequence. It also amplifies your IQ by helping you see things in more nuanced and complex ways and, by calming your mind, allows you to think more clearly. It amplifies EQ by helping you to gain powerful insights into your own motivations, and therefore the pain and motivations of other people. Your leadership capacity increases as your SQ increases.

Spiritual intelligence means less ego, more higher self. This reduction in egotism also yields many benefits for organisations; most importantly, it contributes to trusting relationships that create employee engagement, which is linked to innovation and performance.

Increasing spiritual intelligence in the workplace creates a healthy organisation in which

  • People and relationships flourish
  • Employees are engaged and creative
  • Productivity and innovation grow.

Engaged employees

Engaged employees (those who work with passion and feel connected to the company and co-workers) are more productive, profitable, safer, create stronger customer relationships and stay longer with their company than less engaged employees, according to a Gallup research study published in 2006. The research pointed to employee engagement as a powerful factor in catalysing innovative thinking to improve management and business processes as well as customer service.

Key point

A key driver of employee engagement, according to Gallup (Gallup Management Journal, October 2006), is the strength of relationships in the workplace. A person’s relationship with his or her manager is especially important. Engaged employees tend to have good relationships with their bosses, who make the employees feel that they are being set up for success and are understanding when they make mistakes. An element of selflessness (less ego, more higher self) is apparent in this description.

The research suggests that managers who want to boost team performance and companies that wish to build long-term competitive advantage would benefit from developing trusting and supportive relationships with employees. This means rewarding trust-building behaviours, and counselling and even terminating employees who repeatedly break trust with others.

Trusting relationships

In their book, The trusted advisor, David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford propose a formula that we use (primarily unconsciously) to decide if we trust someone:


Self-orientation (ego) is the most powerful element in this formula!

Staying focused on the other person has a lot to do with building trust, but first, let’s look at the other parts of the trust equation:

  • Credibility means having the capacity to do what is promised. If your colleague says, ‘I will get you a project outline by Tuesday’, you would score her high on credibility if you believe that she has the skills to do that.
  • Reliability means dependability. If your assistant always delivers on his promises, then you would score him high on reliability.
  • Intimacy includes both empathy and discretion. A high intimacy score means you believe that the other person understands your feelings and perspectives on this issue – he or she knows why it matters to you that the report is done well and on time. It also means that you know that the other person won’t treat your relationship inappropriately – for example, you can count on your lawyer to be discrete regarding your transactions, conversations and relationship.

Now, back to self-orientation (ego): if a person gets high marks for credibility, reliability and intimacy, yet you also believe that he or she is high on self-orientation (in other words, he is focused on getting what he wants or needs), then this wipes out much of the total trust-potential in your relationship.

It’s easier to see the power of this in a simple mathematical equation:

In other words, you may think you’re trustworthy because you’re competent, reliable and discrete, but if you’re focused on yourself (high ego or self-orientation), other people won’t trust you. So...

High ego = low trust

Even if you consider yourself to be unselfish, you may still lose points for self-orientation.

The most obvious form of self-orientation is selfishness, but it is hardly the only, or even the most common. Frequently, professionals have only the best motives, and are unselfish – but they are also self-conscious and self-absorbed. Learning to be trustworthy – and to trust – requires more of our human-ness.

Charles Green, HR leaders as trusted business advisors

To the extent that you are worried about your credentials, about what other people think of you, about being clever, or about whether you’ll be recognised for your achievements, you are not focused on the person in front of you. And to that extent you are in your ego, and you won’t be trusted.

Important: finding a healthy ego balance

Finding a healthy ego balance means moving towards seeking win-win solutions and situations. Just as self-orientation can be too high, it can also be too low. The extreme unhealthy version of selflessness is a person with low ego strength, a lack of boundaries, and no self-advocacy: the kind of person who cannot stand up for herself or who considers his own needs to be unimportant.

This ‘you win, I lose’ orientation does not lead to sustainable success for employees or leaders and is not the goal of leadership development or spiritual development.

A great leader has a healthy self-orientation – in other words, he or she is worthy of trust, but is not a doormat. Such a person takes a mature perspective that considers what is good for the whole – including for himself and others – and finds a solution that, in the long run, offers an outcome in which everybody wins (win-win).

To be a great leader, you must develop a healthy self-orientation – that is, one in which you see the big picture, consider others and also keep in mind your own values and needs. You must access a higher part of your nature – your higher self.

That’s why spiritual intelligence is so important. Spiritual growth emphasises developing beyond narrow self-interest into a larger sense of self that includes and embraces the needs of others. A spiritually intelligent person sees the needs of others as being deeply interconnected with his own happiness because the higher self includes everyone and everything in its consideration of ‘self’.

This movement from a narrow self-identity to a larger, more inclusive one is considered to be both healthy and desirable in the spiritual teachings of most traditions, as well as in psychology. As we have seen, it also makes good business sense.

For another way of describing the spiritually intelligent leader/manager in the workplace, see the description of the Wise Owl in the topic on Political Intelligence.

Genuinely care for others. Show you care. Respect the dignity of every person and every role. Treat everyone with respect, especially those who can’t do anything for you. Show kindness in the little things. Don’t fake caring. Don’t attempt to be ‘efficient’ with people.

Stephen Covey, Speed of trust