Several years ago at our annual National Association of Student Personnel Administrators conference, I was invited with an inaugural group of presenters to launch NASPA SA Speaks. This format is similar to the popular TED talks. www.ted.com Presenters had an opportunity to explore a topic of their choosing, and had a 10-12 minute time limit. When I arrived in the room, the crowd milled about, and it was hard to tell if it would be a full house. Within minutes of the program starting, all seats were full; folks lined the walls and sat on the floor. As every public speaker knows, this is when your mouth goes suddenly and completely dry.
I started the program showing this amazing YouTube video “The Human Spirit.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiZ-hF9d9Rw
It was a powerful opening, and I knew that it would energize the NASPA crowd. Oh, how I wish it had worked that way! The hotel Wi-Fi was so poor; the video immediately started buffering. After two attempts at a failed connection, it was show time, and no great opener! Life happens.
Discovering spirituality in leadership and bringing our whole selves to work was my 12-minute focus. I cautioned listeners that the “spirit talk” wasn’t going to be the soft, feel-good message. This was not just about authenticity. In large measure, my message called for a deliberate dose of respect for one another. I do not believe you can go to work and separate your mind, body, soul. In other words, you do not leave your soul at home on the way to the office! Your spirit (however defined) comes with you regardless of what work you do. By definition, spirit is the inner quality or nature of person. You cannot escape having spirit; you can decide how you want it defined.
Folks often define spirit in terms of a belief system, and in fact those that are agnostic or atheist actually have a belief system as well. In some ways, owning your belief system is the last “coming out” story. For a time it seemed if you mentioned you were Christian in the academy, there was a connotation of being anti-intellectual. So at NASPA I came out. I am an unabashed fan of Jesus. As I said this, looking around the room, I could tell by the crowd’s reactions they were already making assumptions about me.
Therefore, I took it a bit further and shared, I work at a Jesuit, Catholic college, raised Episcopal, have an eclectic spirituality, and a Muslim stepmother. I questioned the group: hearing this, how do you begin reframing your assumptions about my “spirit?” We need to be freer and bring our whole selves to work. Practicing a leadership that is inclusive of mind, body and spirit only makes sense, especially in higher education. It doesn’t make sense that our moral thinking and ethical decision-making can be separate from our inward life, from spirit.
Leadership includes the qualities of power, influence and execution. It also includes and offers opportunities for service and grace. In leadership roles, we should invite members of the academy to share and live their spiritual truths without judgment. A university is stronger when interfaith dialogue enhances the mind, body, and spirit among us.