The Spiritual Game of Leadership


A healthy exchange with author Kathi Elster* on my radio show The Winner’s Circle prompts me to write about the fundamentally spiritual game that a leader plays.  A government worker asked me in an email to discuss the issue of how you motivate your peers.  I suggested that part of the answer was “modeling the way.”  I said if you want a workplace, for instance, where people are cooperative, proactive, and get outside their own boxes to make things work, then act that way yourself.  You might begin to ask people on your team, even an uncooperative type, “How can I help you?”  Kathi was unpersuaded, as she argued that my cheery recommendation would likely result in person being taken advantage of.  From that basic human standpoint, Kathy was right on the money about motivating a peer.  She said squarely: “That’s not your job.  That’s the supervisor’s job.”

In the world of basic human relations, Kathi’s advice was more prudent than mine.  But the game of leadership is vastly different than assessing probable human responses.  The leadership game is much more spiritual.  First, a leader is not primarily concerned with her own survival and comfort.  She thinks and acts as though she is responsible for the group, whether or not she is empowered, paid, or expected to do so.  Her standpoint toward the world is essentially generous or generative.  She chooses to rise above ego and role and instead repeatedly seeks the welfare of the world about her.  So she gives to her peers in the hope that she will create a more cooperative world, even if it means for some time that she will have more to do. 

Second, great leaders act in faith: they believe it before they see it.  Kathi is probably right, that a long-term employee with an “it’s-not-my-job” attitude, or who says, “why should I do it if they’re not paying me for it?” will likely take advantage of a coworker who repeatedly asks, “How can I help you?” But a great leader steers by his vision of what he wants the world to look like, not by probabilities about reality.   No one put it better than Mohandas Gandhi when he wrote, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Great leaders are slow to give up on people, and great leaders don’t let the Winny Winers and the Marty Mopers steal their vision of what can be.  They press forward regardless of the number or volume of naysayers.  Faith in a better way moves things and moves people. 

A leader’s generosity and acts of faith come out of a third spiritual belief:  a radical belief that at each moment we can choose our standpoint.  Kent Keith speaks an unusual wisdom to Kathi’s realistic assessment of human behavior in his remarkable “paradoxical commandments,” in his book Anyway.  The first and last of his 10 commandments seem particularly apropos here: “1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway…10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

Choose to act freely, foster a generous attitude and a spirit of faith, and you will assuredly

Lead with your best self!


*I’ve written before about Kathi’s book Working With You is Killing Me, co-authored by Katherine Crowley.  Kathi and Katherine will be back with me on Saturday the 29th of March.

  • As always, Dan, another inspiring, poignant piece to start my Monday a.m. I get so tired of all the criticism of our leaders (especially the ones running for president) … yes, I know criticism has its place … but for each and every one of our presidential candidates, I hope they read your column! They will certainly relate to the Kent Keith quote: “Give the world the best you have and and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

    • Thanks, Debbie. Yes, there is no rest for the weary. It’s amazing those 2 (still contesting) can even rise to their feet! We’d be good to offer thanks once in a while.
      – Dan

  • Hi Dan
    You talked about being taken advantage of if you “help” someone. It really depends on what you mean by “help”. “Help” can be resistant or it can be responsive. Resistant help is where I help you in order to be seen as helpful, do the right thing, perform help as sacrifice, or because I was told to do so. None of these kinds of help are for you; they are for me.
    Responsive help is when I truly am offering assistance and I feel good about it. Whether or not you are grateful or pleased or return the favor is irrelevant. I am helping you, for you, because that is who I am. I don’t feel taken advantage of, because I have already received. I wanted to help, so it felt good to help.

    The second point is that enabling isn’t helping. If I am doing your job for you on a regular basis am I really helping you? Or, is it that I just don’t know how to say “No.” We are truly helpful to others when we are compassionate, honest, and direct.

    Keep up your good work!

    • William,
      Thank you for making this point. In a perfect world we would all check ourselves when we offer to help spomeone who is not helping themselves or helping the team (at work) to accomplish their goals.

      I think if we understood why we help others we would not be so resentfull. I do agree with you that helping others is really for us, the reward is in the helping. But, I’m not convinced that everyone (at work) is aware of that.

  • As a coach and faculty at Grand Valley State University I am often asked how I motivate my students/athletes. I usually respond by saying that I don’t think I can motivate anyone, that motivation is internal. The best I can do is live with integrity, that is, think and act consistently, doing the right things the right way, always. With that I may be able to influence those around me to also do their best. Just so my students/athletes know, however, what I believe is acceptable behavior I clearly articulate standards of excellence and then hold them accountable, reminding them to do the same to me.

    Dan’s message should be read daily by all those who aspire to lead. Our communities, states and nation would be better for it.

  • A new book that goes right along with Dan’s message back to Kathi is “The Go-Giver” by Bob Burg and John David Mann. It’s a parable along the lines of “Who Moved My Cheese?”. They would argue that, in order to be a leader (or successful), one MUST be a giver – and that it doesn’t matter if you are sometimes taken advantage of.

    I recommend “The Go-Giver” for reading, if only to generate a topic for discussion. I think the authors have it right, but know that many would disagree. The book’s only about 130 pages and can be read in a couple of hours – borrow it from your local library and see what you think!

  • Hi Dan,
    Thanks for another inspiring RFL. You mentioned the work of Kent Keith and the ” paradoxical commandments”. The same do it anyway ideas and phrases appear in a prayer I have in my office that was written by Mother Theresa. Since this is Holy Week for many of us, perhaps this is best time to reflect on the ultimate example of do it anyway.
    I have good news. We heard form our Marine son. Tim will be back in the States on Friday. This was his fourth deployment. (He has spent 40 of the last 60 months in Iraq) Thank you to all of the folks out there who suppoet the troops. Please continue to do so because it helps them (and their families) stay positive and strong!

    • Anita and Donna,
      There is a funny story about “Mother Teresa’s prayer” about loving “anyway.” It’s not hers! It was written by Kent Keith, about whom I wrote, when he was a 19-year old student at Harvard in the 60s. He published a pamphlet and forgot about it. 30-some years later, it found him, as he was at a Rotary lunch (as I recall) in his home state of Hawaii, and sure enough the commandments he had written were being attributed to Mother Teresa. At that time, he felt a kind of calling to publish his book, and so he went back and had it published. By the way, Mother Teresa DID have it on her wall.
      Hope this helps.

    • Donna,
      Glad you’ll have Tim back. Hopefully we can prudently extricate ourselves, and bring all our troops home. In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget them.

      • Thanks Dan.
        My friend Judy (from Mercy) is married to the editor of the CIA Fact Book. If he is correct, it may be a while before we have an exit plan.
        I am hoping you might have some influence with the powers that be!

        I figured you would solve the prayer mystery for me. I always wondered why the good Mother’s name was mis-spelled at the bottom of the prayer, ie Mother Theresa. I guess we may never know how the commandments came to be placed on her wall and the prayer was attributed to her.

        I do have another question for you. Do you know anything about the new adoption bill/law being proposed in Michigan? I would like to know where I can find more information because the outcome of this will effect me, and my family, directly. As I understand it, there is a possibility of opening the closed adoption records to adoptees and their birth parents with/without the knowledge or permission of either party. Currently, adoptees and or birth parents pay a fee of $60.00 to obtain non identifying information in their file. They also have an option of paying another $250.00 in order to find additional information. In all cases a social worker acts as a liaison between the parties involved.

        I would be very grateful for any information you could provide on the subject. I do have some serious concerns and want to be informed about this issue which impacts me, my mom, my sister as well as my husband and children.

        Here’s hoping you and your family will have a joyous Easter.

  • I think there is an interesting disctinction here between motivating by modeling the behavior you want from others, and giving until it hurts. I have worked with many individuals who have literally worked themselves to a point of illness because they have tried to help out by taking on other people’s work. Those individuals end up burnt out and resentful…not a good leadership image.

    There is a saying that has really helped me over the years which is “Give from your surplus, not from your core.” This means, give generously to those around you, but not at the expense of your own physical, mental and emotional well being. While I am a big fan of the golden rule, I believe that some people have to remember to take care of themselves as they are leading — whether they are helpful leaders, kind leaders, generous leaders or great leaders. In a work situation, this would mean modeling a helpful attitude AND not overgiving.

    • I love the rounding out that’s going on with today’s RFL.

      I sure welcome the additional points.

      I would say, Katherine, that I too have known people like this. In my book I wrote about Fr. Frank Canfield who was an amazing mentor to me, but who sometimes depletes that core. I am one of his friends who worries about his complete commitment to every student he mentors and the toll it takes on him.

      But I think there is also a mystery about energy, and that unlike gas or batteries our psychic energy can be renewed in different ways. “Giving” and “taking” are not always what they appear. And the notion that we have to “conserve” may not always be the best metaphor. For instance, there have been times – to change the setting from work – when I have felt like I just don’t have the juice to play a good night song to Jack or even sit on the edge of his bed. My core feels half-eaten by 10:00 at night. But some of those times, when I have gone in because it seemed the “right thing to do,” he has refreshed me. I haven’t spent more, but have filled my tank. (Jack is a giver; that’s for sure. Others can “make me feel” like I’m never giving enough.)

      I’m not trying to create martyrs here, but I can’t help but see that some people “in giving, receive.” Some seem to get stronger as they give, even when others “don’t get it.”

      Enjoying the dialogue about changing our worlds (and sometimes starting by changing our selves).


  • Hello all,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this post and all the wonderful comments. I must say that entire question of what is helpful and what isn’t can be baffling. Next week I am teaching Assertivness. Often people who take Assertiveness classes have trouble saying no. They tend to do and do until it hurts and they explode.

    What I attempt to communicate is that you say “yes” when it feels right. Once it begins to feel wrong or you feel taken advantage of, then you should back away. We use the metaphore of the monkey on your back. Once the monkey jumps from my back to yours, I’ve won and you’ve lost. When I invite the monkey to my back, I’m happy to have him there and willing take on the extra weight.

    As leaders, we must be there in helpful supporting ways. If we refuse to say, “How can I help you,” for fear we’ll be taken advantage of, what kind of leader have we become?

    BTW, I’ve used Anyway in my training classes forever. I’m delighted to learn the source. Thank you Kent Keith!

    Another great book that some of you might enjoy is The Big Sister’s Guide to the World of Work by DiFalco and Herz.

  • Consider the perspective of the “receiver,” the co-worker in whom you see great possibilities, expecting and hoping to elicit growth and change in a positive direction. Has it ever happened to someone that we expected / hoped for / envisioned too much of the receiver… where our high expectations de-motivated them… where our vision overwhelemed them and made them feel completely inadequate to grow into that sort of human being, one who could accomplish those things?

    With all the best intentions in the world, these expectations can prove a lifelong burden. I speak from my own experience. Throughout my early life, many, many people would tell me: “Norma, you have great things in you! You will go far! I’m going to be able to say, ‘I knew Norma when…'” Well, in my case at any rate, it’s always been “when,” more than 40 years after I earned my high school diploma. I haven’t become the world’s great physicist. I haven’t written the great American novel. I’m not a world-famous anyone doing something totally terrific. I’m just me, doing the best I can every day. And maybe the world would be a better place if there were more people doing just that, succeeding at being a responsible human being, right? Even if they weren’t living up to someone else’s high expectations and arbitrarily-set performance standards?

    For many years, these high expectations made me feel like a failure. If I wasn’t at the top, earning oceans, then I wasn’t living up to all those expectations. I completed college, got jobs, married, raised responsible children, earned money, paid my bills, and continued to help those I can along the way. But am I the world’s greatest anything? Clearly, not! Does that make me a failure? I don’t think so. Taking care of my own back yard, doing what I can to make the world a better place in my own small ways, is goal enough for me. I finally got to a place of acceptance on that. I’m not the best at anything, but I’m OK!

    It’s also happened in the other direction, where I as provider hoped that I could support a mentee in some goal by believing in them, cheering them on, providing them with whatever informational resources and supports that I could. Still, it wasn’t enough. In one case, I didn’t know that she had survived 10 years of incest in her early life, leaving her with non-apparent but nevertheless severe emotional and cognitive impairments.

    Hoping a lot for her, realistically, would have been hoping that she could give up her victim mentality and start to take responsibility for her own behavior rather than staying on the pity pot, feeling powerless, blaming anyone and everyone–the perpetual victim! But I didn’t know that such a mental change in attitude would have been a tremendous accomplishment, even if it took years of therapy, because her shame was too great to divulge that key information to me.

    Because of this abuse, she hadn’t ever learned how to be assertive with someone perceived as more accomplished than she(though I have never had to survive anything as horrendous as repeated sexual assault from a family member with tremendous power over me). Maybe THAT’S her huge accomplishment–surviving that–not the goals that other well-intentioned people set for her… How could I know? How can anyone know the paths that others have followed, the limitations they face?

    There’s value in believing in people, in trying to help them re-frame a situation from “I can’t…” to “I haven’t been able to… yet, but now…”

    Still, we have to walk a fine line. How much is enough belief to be motivating without it becoming an overwhelming burden, yielding a sense of failure and grief even when there’s moderate success, especially when a receiver really likes and admires and wants to please their mentor, coach, teacher, supervisor, co-worker, or significant other who believes in them?

    It’s weird, because in another couple of cases, I didn’t know about some non-apparent impairments or how severe they were until AFTER the interaction. In those cases, I found that the individuals WERE able to achieve the standard goals in a classroom or work situations even though anyone who knew the specifics of their impairments would believe that I was expecting way too much!

    I don’t have the answers. I only have questions.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking posting and discussion, from many persepctives.

  • Dan,

    I just read this week’s newsletter and it got me to thinking about all of your efforts to discuss leadership and a future article you could develop for your readers.

    Here’s an observation regarding what I think is a LACK of leadership in Michigan, Southeastern Michigan, and within the City of Detroit. With all of the past acts of poor judgment, incestuous appointments and dealings, moral and ethical missteps, and now very obvious illegal actions on the part of Mayor Kilpatrick, and especially since he holds a law license, why is it that no leaders have stood up and demanded this mayor’s resignation? Aren’t multiple years of this lousy leadership enough? The state of New York got rid of Spitzer in a “New York Minute.” Yet we can’t get a spiritually, morally, ethically deficient person, who broke the law and allowed public funds to be used to cover up his perjury and possibly other misdeeds, out of office!

    Where is the leadership of our Federal elected officials? Where is the leadership of our State elected officials? Where is the leadership of our Local government elected officials? Where is the leadership from the private sector business executives who hold top leadership positions? And where is the leadership from our other non-profit and community leaders?

    Everybody seems to be afraid of standing up and fighting for what should be a simple act of getting a poor leader out of office and someone into the position who has good morals, ethics, judgment, and will do the “right” things for our city, region and the state.


    This is not a Democrat, Republican, Independent or other political party issue. This is a leadership issue. Where are the leaders with guts? It’s like everyone has burrowed themselves into a dark hole and are afraid to stick their heads out for fear of getting it cut off. I am embarrassed by every one of our “supposed” leaders and the cowardice they have shown and continue to show to the rest of the nation and world. This is not “our finest hour!”

    Now I suppose that article will create a firestorm of discussion, which even you may not be willing to facilitate. So if you can’t do it, I’ll understand. But for all of the talk about Leadership, I think some leader should step up who has a voice.

    Keep up the good writing and provoking thoughts for current and future leaders.

    Best regards,


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