Cultivating ‘gravitas’ – What is spirituality?

A long time ago, I was asked to give a talk at a leadership conference on the theme of ‘Developing Gravitas‘. To accompany most of my talks, rather than hand out copies of any slides that I use (which I don’t often do), I prepared a ‘brief guide’. This has proved to be one of my most enduring guides – every couple of months someone contacts me and asks me for more information or to have a chat about the content. (If you want to read it, there’s a copy as a blog-post here:

One of the qualities of gravitas that often attracts leaders is the ability to remain calm regardless of what is going on around you. Key to this is to remain detatched from any fear of the outcome. In other words, if there’s danger all around and your chances of survival are slim, then it is important not to think of the likely outcome and be driven by fear that this is inevitable. Acknowledge it, perhaps, but then concentrate on getting on with the immediate tasks and don’t ponder on the future.

I was talking this through with a client the other day, and I happened to use the term ‘spiritual’. They had always associated ‘Spirit’ with religion and were puzzled at my use of it, which prompted the question;

What is spirituality?

This might be one of those articles that you quickly skip over, and I do understand, but for the sake of completeness and because it did occupy a significant chunk of our time yesterday, I thought I put down a few words as a starter in a dialogue.

It is very tempting, some would say it is a natural step in the process of maturing, to ask this question. However, I am not so sure. In fact, I am fairly convinced that it is unhealthy to want to know the answer to this. Looking for answers to unanswerable questions distracts us from the practice of actually living spiritually. Ultimately, someone who is spiritual has understood themself sufficiently that they no longer have an interest in the answer.

This isn’t saying that intellectuals are less spiritual than other people. It is all about the need to actually live something rather than intellectualise around it.

Without wanting to align myself specifically to Buddhism, I would however borrow from their language, and describe it as living in such a way that cultivates wisdom and compassion.

This means that it can evolve in a being without conscious effort as it is possible for something to be cultivated by its environment and, especially, its experience of that environment. It also means that all animals can experience spirituality – not simply humans.

Thus wisdom and compassion are about the practice of living. In order to live compassionately, we need to do so in ways that will not cause suffering to both ourselves and to other beings – now and in the future. In order to live wisely, we need to concentrate on the present – letting go of the past, and not being obsessed with the future; we need to recognise any attachments that we have especially to things that we have not experienced ourselves, so are based on other people’s opinions and interpretations, and shed ourselves of them.

This raises all kinds of dilemmas and tensions. Sometimes, it is important to look to the future in order to live compassionately – especially when we are trying not to harm the environment or future generations. It also explains the balance of my work in coaching – we focus on the present to prepare for the future, but we do not obsess on the future which is often outwith our control anyway.

I could whitter on at length, but that will do for now!

Best wishes
Graham Wilson
– 07785 222380
PS My e-book The Senior Executive’s Emergency Job Hunt is available for FREE download now.

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