Is SQ The New Must-Have Intelligence for Leaders?

Discover how the softest of soft skills could give you the edge

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St Fiachra’s Garden, Co Kildare, Ireland (Photo by E J Oliver)

There’s nothing like a confession to get the words rolling out… despite having had an utter disdain for all things remotely spiritual for decades, I’ve had a complete change of heart and am now ready to ‘come out’ on this. I’m finally prepared to offer a well-percolated perspective, to bust the myth that spirituality is the domain of worshippers, poets and philosophers and offer the view that spiritual intelligence is a much-needed commodity for any business leader.

Having looked through the eyes of a rationally-oriented pragmatist, I now have a greater understanding of the practical benefits of spiritual intelligence (SQ) and firmly believe it needs to play an integral role in the life of any thriving business. High SQ leads to greater awareness, wisdom, insight, compassion, sensitivity and integrity. Can you think of any business where these qualities would not be valuable?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to engaging in this whole subject is that the word ‘spiritual’ has multiple connotations and, for many, a ton of baggage. Unsurprisingly, there is often an unspoken yet tangible dismissal if anyone dare say the ‘S’ word in a business context without explanation. What made the biggest difference in opening my mind on this was developing a clearer understanding about what ‘spiritual’ actually means from an objective perspective. Without this I would have still been stuck with my old influences, and some commonly held assumptions…

The first assumption for many is that spirituality is synonymous with religion, often bound by archaic rules and rituals, and definitely to be contained within churches, temples and monasteries. Secondly, that it sits in the realm of hippie psychedelia and new-age weird-dom, enveloped in the pervading aromas of incense and herbal tea. Finally, there is a perception that spiritual phenomena belong in the nebulous world of ghosts, psychics and sci-fi. In fact, over many decades, the only reasonable clarity on the subject seemed to be that there was no credible business-relevance.

I certainly had a pre-programmed concoction of all of the above. With atheist parents, a natural inclination for mathematical thinking and a pragmatic architectural education, it was probably inevitable that I dismissed anything remotely spiritual. I automatically dumped it into a bucket labelled ‘Airy Fairy Fluff’ and believed that anyone who paid attention to these matters was either gullible, deluded, or simply not smart enough to think for themselves.

I would love to be able to share that my change of heart came about after a spectacular epiphany, but unfortunately it was less dramatic. A gradual loosening of my conceptual boundaries began in my mid 20s during a period of chronic illness. There’s nothing like a health crisis to provoke some new thinking and behaviour. Safe to say that after many months of profound distress, if anyone had said that believing in fairies would help me get better, I would’ve given it some serious consideration.

Consequently, I started to research all sorts of stuff that I would previously have dismissed. I became mesmerised by the wonders of the mind-body connection, which led to an increasing interest in the mind-body-spirit connection. Over time, this became an important side-line in my life — something that I referred to in times of disquiet, mused over on park benches or searched for in the local library on rainy afternoons.

If there was a specific game-changer, it came while attending a boot-camp style meditation retreat. If I’m honest, the incentive to go was initially just for a bit of peace and respite, away from the rigours of hectic family life. Within moments of arrival, after a 10-hour drive, my travelling buddy and I were requested to clean the whole venue, which was full of old newspapers, spiders and damp. The dormitory was completely empty — just a vast space, and we were also asked to make the beds (I’m not just talking about pulling up a duvet here and there). The mattresses had to be lugged out from storage cupboards along with 12 sets of slightly mouldy bedding. In addition to putting together the multi-occupancy sleeping quarters, we had shop for and cook our own food, get up each day at 4am, scramble for the disturbingly inadequate washing facilities and be ready for the first meditation at 4.30. For the first few hours, my stomach was churning with an enormous sense of ‘uh-oh’ and I was desperately looking for an exit.

Those few days were, paradoxically, both massively uncomfortable and yet the most profoundly comforting I’ve ever experienced. To have so little materially and yet so much peace and expansiveness is a blessing that defies explanation.

So, what has all this to do with business?

Following that experience, I sensed a profound shift. I felt lighter, softer, wiser, more considerate and compassionate. Professionally, I was working in the field of learning and development and began to wonder what this type of shift would do for leaders and teams. I wondered what the impact might be on the typical Ego-driven business environment and the predominant hard-work culture. Surely the lightness and softness of a different way of being could be beneficial, and working with a sense of effortlessness and flow could make everything easier. I found it difficult to see any downsides.

I guess my main concern in voicing these thoughts earlier was that assumed I would be ridiculed in the way I had done to others in my somewhat ignorant past. I feared not being taken seriously, and so began the quest to figure out how to bring a spiritual dimension into business in a practical and tangible way. I started looking for suitable language and rationale that would convey the essence of what spiritual intelligence could bring to any pragmatic, results-oriented leader.

I also began to look for signs that the time was right. Perhaps what I’m seeing now are the signs of readiness that are ‘in here’ within me, rather than ‘out there’ in the world. After all, Stephen Covey wrote about SQ in ’The 8th Habit’ in 2004. The ‘Conscious Capitalism’ movement has been raising its profile since 2014, as have the impressive examples shared in Frederic Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organisations’. What is it that these pioneering companies are doing to demonstrate that spiritually intelligent leaders are making a difference?

Business-relevant spirituality suggests an approach to corporate life that supersedes immediate self-interest, and acknowledges our inter-connectedness — not only the connectedness we have within our business networks but extending to our fellow humans and life in general including animals, plants and the eco-system.

You might be thinking there is nothing particularly new in this, but what is new is the substantial increase in numbers that are paying attention. Beyond mere passive interest, more and more people are investing their time and energy in matters of wider consciousness. The explosion of interest in Mindfulness is symptomatic of this and my own continually strengthening relationship with spirituality is undoubtedly a mirror of many, many others.

Inter-connectedness is the way forward (and not just in the technological sense). With the state of global affairs as it is right now, who would argue that it is more important than ever to be aware of the potential impact of everything we think, feel, say and do on the wider world? The wave of popular opinion is already lashing out against any self-centred or divisive tactics. Business practices that put power or profit over morality are being outed in every domain. Conversely morals, ethics, honesty, integrity and environmental concerns are now demanded as non-negotiable business currency.

What other signs are necessary before we fully acknowledge that the time is right to make business-relevant spirituality a key player in the boardroom? In this era of open debate, equality, diversity and respect, don’t business and spirituality have every right to co-habit? The truth is that, in some quiet corners of the corporate world, this mutually beneficial union has been going on very successfully for quite some time already and has been wonderfully augmenting for everyone involved. The tangible and the intangible aspects of each create a perfect synergy.

Spiritually intelligent business is down to each one of us. It is not something ‘out there’ that depends on the alignment of the planets or the benevolent hand of an Almighty — a softer, more compassionate and positively-connected way forward for business is in our hands.

For more detail on how to integrate Spiritual Intelligence in business, search for ‘The Change Equation’ by Elizabeth J Oliver on Amazon or, for more on the 21 skills of Spiritual Intelligence, read ‘SQ21’ by Cindy Wigglesworth.

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Liz specialises in facilitating the human side of change and aims to integrate spiritual intelligence into business solutions

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