S1:E17 – Spirituality and Leadership: Finding Meaning at Work

eps 17

In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the intersection of leadership and spirituality. People are expressing more than ever a desire to find meaning in their work lives. What does it mean to be spiritual, and how does it show up behaviorally? How can we grow our spirituality?



Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Irvine: Well, hello, everyone. And welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. And my name is Irvine Nugent, and I am joined as always by my amazing co-host, Bridgette Theuer. And Bridgette, how are you doing today?

Bridgette: I am doing great, Irvine. It’s so nice to be with you. So, we’re recording on a Monday.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: So, we just had a weekend and before we hit the record button, we were talking about our respective weekends, and I had such a great family celebration last night for a birthday of one of my daughters. And it’s just always so fulfilling and rejuvenating to be able to just sit with, now that my kids are grown, right? I get to interact with them as peers and it’s just so much fun and I feel, really, grateful and very blessed

Irvine: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. I had a relaxing weekend, myself, a little bit of music on Friday night and a bike ride on Saturday and out in the water, yes, in a little sailing boat. So, it couldn’t have been more relaxing, so I’m ready and excited.

Bridgette: Yay. All right. So, what is our topic for today?

Irvine: Yeah. Well, talk about excited. I am really excited about this topic, because today we’re going to explore the intersection of spirituality and leadership and dive a little deeper into finding meaning both at work and in our lives. Now, I came across a survey by the Pew Research Center recently about meaning, and this is something I didn’t realize; they’ve been doing this year after year for many years. And they include data from people from 17 different countries, and what was fascinating about this research was the importance that people gave to finding meaning in their work, in their career. In fact, in three countries, it was placed above finding meaning with family and friends.

Bridgette: Wow.

Irvine: And that number has been increasing over the years, and I’m wondering as well, with COVID and the impact of COVID, made people question a lot about meaning in their lives and where they find meaning. And I think this is the first survey that came out since COVID began, and people mentioned different aspects of finding meaning at work, such as the mission of their own profession or working with coworkers and what the sense of meaning that gave or just for personal growth.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: So, I’m curious, Bridgette, does that resonate with you and do you find clients bringing that up in coaching, about finding meaning both in their lives and at work?

Bridgette: Oh, yeah, for sure. To your point about COVID, all the data suggested that people were asking different questions during COVID and, certainly, one of them was about meaning, but I just had a coaching session with somebody who’d been on vacation, I think for two weeks and, really, got a chance to disconnect. And I said, so what was the value of that? And one of the things that she shared with me is that she reconnected to her purpose, what gives her meaning at work? And she said, it’s, really, about my teams.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: I’m passionate about empowering my teams, you know?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: I’m thinking of another client who, for him, when we first started working together, he told me he had a folder and in the folder were all the cards he had gotten over his 25-year career from people he had mentored.

Irvine: Wow.

Bridgette: And whenever he needed a boost of meaning, he would go through that file. So, I think sure we search for it, we crave it, I do think we get disconnected.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: That sense of meaning and purpose. And we have to be intentional, I think, don’t you?

Irvine: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You just sprung up just a very recent memory for me. I went to the annual convention of my association, which is the speakers association. There, I got an award, which is certified speaking professional, which recognizes, kind of, many years of speaking. But one of the memories I had was, actually, getting a card from my husband, the [fur Fred – 04:13], the first day I went on the road to do training in my new business.

And that’s a card that I keep going back to, because it’s so inspirational and it, kind of, he said, you did this because you wanted to change the world and you wanted to bring people comfort. And I go back to it because it brings, in days of doubt, I reconnect with that. I said, no, this is my mission. This is what it’s about.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: So, I love that idea about the cards.

Bridgette: Oh, what a sweet memory?

Irvine: Yeah. Isn’t that crazy? So, I think the question, therefore, is, well, what’s all this got to do with spirituality? And, I think, first of all, I’d like to be upfront and acknowledge the fact that for, this word, spirituality, can prompt, for people, different meanings and different conflicting emotions; for some, they associate it, totally, with organized religion. And then people think, well, wow, that’s just a potential for more conflict. But, however, I think today, we want to think about spirituality in its broadest dimension and it can include religion as well, but it is bigger than that.

And by spirituality, I think we want to suggest that it’s this inner drive to connect with something that’s bigger. Bigger than ourselves. And it’s this search for meaning in our lives and all aspect of our lives. And why is that important for the world of work and leaders? I think it’s important because when we pay attention to our spiritual lives and addressing these deep, deep values that we have, and the strong sense of purpose, I think it’s sustains us in adversity. I think it motivates us. It gives us focus. It gives us determination that, ultimately, the title of this podcast is resilience, and I think it helps us with our resilience.

Bridgette: Indeed.

Irvine: Yeah. I know. We both feel very strongly about grounding this in neuroscience and maybe that’s a good place to start and ask. Bridgette, any findings that you’ve come across, which intersects spirituality in the brain?

Bridgette: Well, the last decade or so, there’s, actually, been quite a bit of research done on this and it’s fascinating. Looking into, for one thing, is there a part of the brain that is associated with this feeling, this connection to a purpose bigger than ourselves, and it turns out, lo and behold, that there is, and that is the Parietal Cortex, which is located in the crown of the head. And so, this is the part of the brain that lights up when we feel that connection to something beyond ourselves.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And then does this notion of spirituality and purpose and connection, does it get handed down culturally or is it genetic and researchers have concluded that there is a genetic component, there’s a predisposition for our genes. It’s baked into our genes, this quest for meaning and purpose, which I think is fascinating, right?

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: And then there’s this researcher, Kenneth Kendler, who’s looked into the connection between spirituality and wellness and mental health, and there’s a strong connection, and I think that makes sense, right? If we are connected to a sense of purpose and meaning, it’s like a buffer against the headwinds of life, whether that’s loss or divorce or illness and just the spiritual practices; what he has found is that spiritual practices make a difference for us.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I want our listeners to hear that, not as some woo-wooey thing where we’re out burning incense per se, but any practice we do that connects us to and creates for us a sense of meaning.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And those can make the biggest difference.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. You talk about, kind of, some of the research in the last 10 years, and I know one of the areas that I’m fascinated in, is meditation, which, again, people think is very woo-woo, but it’s not. Meditation, basically, is taking pause in our lives to an attempt to be fully present to the moment, this present moment; that’s really all meditation is. And there’s been a lot of research on, does pausing and attempting to be present in the moment impact our brain? And it does. What’s interesting is it increases healthy brain functioning in certain areas, and then it also shrinks the part of the brain which is associated with some undesirable behavior.

So, what are some of the increased brain functions that are helped? Well, it helps in our cognition, it helps in our memory, it helps us have a more realistic sense of self, actually, something I do, which train people on is facial expressions. It helps us read people’s faces and their facial expressions. Increases in our empathy and compassion. Now, the one area of the brain, which we’ve mentioned before, that, actually, shrinks, is the amygdala. So, that’s the part of the brain, which activates when we’re in fight or flight and produces fear and anxiety, so people who meditate have a practice of pausing, actually, are better able to deal with anxiety and fear.

Bridgette: Yeah. Hitting the pause button, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: In our day, and it doesn’t have to be for 20 minutes, it can be for a minute, but hitting that pause button makes a huge difference. What you’re saying is reminding me of a new practice that I just started, and I got inspired because I’ve been dipping back into James Clear, ‘Atomic Habits’, that book, ‘Atomic Habits’.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: And one of the things he says is, use the two-minute rule, if you want to start a new habit, make it so simple it can be done in two minutes. So, my new habit for starting my day, using the two-minute rule, is I set a timer for one minute and I close my eyes and I put my feet on the floor and I become present, I breathe, I do a little meditation, nothing, I’m just being present, for one minute and the timer goes off. And then for the next minute, I ask myself this question, what is my intention for today?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: How do I want to show up in the day? And so, I did it this morning and the funny thing is I kept noticing during the one-minute pause that my shoulders were up here, and the day was still young and my shoulders were already up here. So, I kept dropping my shoulders. And then the intention that came to me was, be at ease today.

Irvine: Yeah. Love it.

Bridgette: So, spiritual practices don’t have to take a lot of time, they’re about connecting us to a life spring within us that then allows us to lead from a really different place, right?

Irvine: Yeah. Oh, I love this. And I love the fact that your practice grounds yourself immediately by putting your feet on the ground, because we know that just connects us with our physicality. When I wake up, my mind is racing, and just that purposeful grounding can, really, help us move away from, kind of, the train leaving, and feeling that we’re on this express train that doesn’t stop, and just, really, I love that intentional beginning to the day.

So, it’s interesting as well, as I think about this, what we’ve been talking about so far is, really, grounding ourselves in this well of meaning of our needs, and it, kind of, brings back to mind, Abraham Maslow and this hierarchy of needs. And do you see a connection there, Bridgette, about once we’ve satisfied some of those lower needs; this is the needs that we all crave for?

Bridgette: Oh, yeah. I was a psych major, right? So, I remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs very, very well, and of course, most of our listeners probably do too, right? Where it’s like, you have to take care of your more basic needs first, safety and food and self-esteem, right? Before you can then move up that hierarchy to the highest level, which you call self-actualization.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: But that’s, really, the quest for fulfilling our potential, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: For growing into the person and the human being that we’re meant to be. And, of course, we can’t do that if we don’t feel safe or we don’t have enough food. But the interesting thing is that later in his life Maslow, actually, expanded that tip of the triangle there and included transcendence, which is, really, about going beyond ourselves, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: It’s transcending even our own desire for self-actualization and, really, becoming other focused. Beyond ourselves, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, this is just feeling, for me, as we talk about this, it’s such a powerful reminder, it’s very grounding, this conversation, for me. So, let’s think about it behaviorally, right? So, for our listeners, I don’t know, do you have any thoughts, Irvine, on how we take this notion of creating meaning and connecting to something beyond ourselves and look at it through a behavioral lens?

Irvine: Yeah. It’s a great question, and I think it’s an important question, because very often spiritual conversations can feel a little ethereal. And so, there’s a book I came across a number of years ago, which I just love, and it’s by Cindy Wrigglesworth, called, ‘Spiritual Intelligence’. She’s a, really, interesting thinker on spirituality and, really, she bases some spiritual practice growing out of our emotional intelligence. So, she said, people who tend to have very developed spirituality, tend to be people, as well, who’ve, first of all, worked on their emotional intelligence.

Bridgette: Ah.

Irvine: And so, I love this as a construct to talk about what does it look like and feel like to be in touch with your spirituality as a leader. And so, she describes a number of different quadrants, but I just wanted to pull out one or a couple that I think are important. The first is self-awareness, which we’ve talked about before; it’s one of the groundings that we’ve talked about for resilient leaders. But this is just a little bit different, here, we’re talking a little bit about, are we aware of our worldview? A worldview is just, basically, those two words, it’s our view of the world.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: And it’s a lens or a filter through which we sometimes are, usually, not aware, but it filters out information, perhaps, that is not relevant, or we don’t feel is relevant or it’s the lens through which we allow all the awareness we have. So, how aware are we of that? Important question. Do we pause, because that’s such a built-in lens and at times without the pause, it’s hard to, really, sit back and say, wow, what kind of information am I filtering? And what am I ignoring? And then I think the second is, how aware are we of our lives’ purpose? We’ve talked a little bit about this, about our mission. It’s this age-old question, the answer to, why am I here?

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And we just talked about Maslow, and it’s, kind of, the self-actualization. So, I think that’s important. And then a third area is, we all are really based on our values, whether we know them or not, but how aware am I of the values that drive my life? And is there a hierarchy there? Is there a priority? And so, I think there’s, kind of, a, really, interesting question there is, how do I choose my priorities? How do they inform my life?

Bridgette: Whether it’s a lot in there, isn’t there?

Irvine: Yeah. How does that resonate with you, Bridgette? Can you think as well of, kind of, a leader, maybe, you’ve worked with that was, kind of, going through that tussle of self-awareness and spiritual self-awareness?

Bridgette: Yeah. Well, when you talk about the worldview and the lens, I think what that jogged loose, for me, is, one; how critical in this day and age it is to even be aware that we each have our own worldview, and it isn’t the view, there are other worldviews, you know?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I’m thinking of a client who in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was profoundly affected by that and shifted their worldview, because what I recall him doing early on, because at first, I don’t think, how could he, just like the rest of us? How could he, really, understand fully what that, really, meant for him, for the world, for his company, but he reached out to some of his black employees, and he listened and he, really, asked them, what, what does this mean to you?

And he started reading, and he read five or six books and I could hear his worldview shifting. And he made this, you talk about values, he made this a fourth or fifth value in his company, this notion of diversity and inclusion in a different way, and he, really, tried to embrace it.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I think that created a lot of meaning for him and for the organization. And you have to be willing to be humbled to do this work, right?

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: To recognize that sometimes you aren’t seeing the whole picture and that your worldview can be augmented or enhanced.

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: And then you’re able to connect with people in a much deeper and more profound way.

Irvine: Yeah. And I think what you’re, kind of, talking about there is this awareness of universal, universal awareness. So, we kind of, become aware of ourselves and then we move out and what I love about that story of the client is just this sense of openness. Because, at times, we’re not, as human beings, we’re not open. And, at times, we don’t like to be challenged. And, at times, it’s hard. It’s hard to say, the way I have thought, maybe not, there are other ways of thinking and just to be radically open to that. And what I hear when I say that is I get a sense of ease and openness, which is, really, kind of, the opposite, really, to anxiety.

Bridgette: It is.

Irvine: How often have we talked about, kind of, just this anxiousness and this closing down and this protection and survival, and it’s, really, the spiritual quality is the opposite of that.

Bridgette: It is.

Irvine: It is the ability to be open. It is the ability to be less defensive. And it is the ability to accept challenge.

Bridgette: When I see a leader who has been able to change their view on something in a significant way. I really have such great respect for that. And that’s when I go, now, that’s a leader.

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. For me, part of my spirituality is very much grounded in where I grew up in Ireland and Celtic spirituality, which is a very earthy spirituality. I love it. And there are certain unique elements there, but one of the elements that I love is the notion of a thin place. And in Ireland, we believe that there are certain physical places, where we enter into them and the veil between here and now, the veil between heaven and earth, however you describe it, the here and the beyond, is thin. And so, the quality of something that happens there, and I love that because there are places that I have been to where time just seems to stop, it takes a different meaning.

And it invites me to, first of all, reflect upon myself and become more aware, and then it invites me to connect with the wider universe and to be more open and receptive and just to see how there is so much we don’t understand.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: And so much that is beyond us. And when I was playing with that term, one of the things that I’ve often thought, what would it be like for us to be a thin place for each other? That when we came into a presence of another person, that we were able to in this craziness of rush of life, that we were able to take the quality of our presence to be totally present to another person. To be totally open to the mystery of that person and to recognize that their history is unique; how they view the world is unique, and to be surprised by them.

And I often think, for me, I often try, it’s a little practice that I try and do, because I can get myself into, I know exactly, how many times have we got in a leadership role and a person comes, and I know what this is going to be about. And I know exactly what, and we’ve, kind of, prejudged everything and it’s just that radical openness to another person and what they might bring in this moment.

Bridgette: Yeah. That’s really beautiful, Irvine. I hadn’t thought about that before in exactly that way, but being a thin place for people, where in our presence, they’re able to connect, not only with us, but with just the broader sense of the universe and what’s around us and what’s possible. And, as you said, instead of our interactions, largely, being either transactional or about managing fear and anxiety and getting stuff done; we can have moments like this, where there’s real meaning in the exchange.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, Irvine, I’m curious then, for our listeners, again, this is something you have to be intentional about, right? We, as human beings, we don’t tend to, at least most of us, I think, without being intentional, we don’t tend to lead and live in a very spiritual place. We’re too busy getting stuff done. So, what thoughts do you have for how leaders can grow this side of themselves?

Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s a, really, interesting question. Well, I think, you kicked us off so beautifully earlier in the episode by talking about this new two-minute exercise or practice, and I think practice is a great word. So, I think, first of all, there has to be a commitment. We have to be committed to feeding the spiritual side to ourselves. I think so often we live in a world which is, and, especially, in work, which is so biased toward our cognitive abilities and what we bring. And yet, we in past episodes have talked about our emotions, we’ve talked about our physical bodies needing stuff, and now we’re talking about our spiritual selves.

So, we have to, first of all, I think be committed to that, and I think part of that is space. I think the spirit thrives when we give it space and are able to listen and so much of our present reality, and that’s tough, it’s tough to find space and that just takes commitment and it’s not a full day away or a five-day retreat. It can be as simple as what you were talking about this morning, just two minutes to, really, make a commitment to a practice. I know, for me, I try and have a little practice before I go into a meeting or something just to give myself a minute, just a minute to refocus, and I just ask myself some simple questions, what’s happening now within myself, within my body, and how do I want to show up?

And if there’s a disconnect, then what do I need to change so that I can show up the way I want to? And just something as simple as that, and it’s so simple and yet so difficult to do.

Bridgette: But it can make such a big difference.

Irvine: Totally. Yes. Yeah. So, I think that’s the first thing. And then, I think, when we want to grow in spirituality, I think there are some beautiful questions, which we can just chew on and I think it can, really, help us just, kind of, explore this world. And I think, pulling from some of the conversation we’ve had today, a question might be, am I living in accordance with my purpose and am I making choices based on my values? And sometimes that leads to some very difficult choices, because sometimes we’re out of sync with our purpose and with our values.

And, at times, it may lead to some difficult conversations, and it may lead to some difficult choices. I know I was working with a client a few years ago who was in a very intense workplace environment, where the expectation was that people would stay late and it was, pretty much, your typical dog eat dog. And he had a young son who was growing older and was now, I think seven and had joined a soccer league. He had some soccer games at 4:30, 5 o’clock and was conflicted, because he felt he couldn’t leave.

Bridgette: Right.

Irvine: And so, the value, of course, of work was, no, you give your life, you work insane hours, this is how you get ahead. And then it was, well, my value is my family, my children. And if I miss time, what will I do here? And so, he really wrestled with that until, eventually, he said, no, the deeper value is my family. And so, he started leaving work at 4:30. He said, I think I had nine daggers in my back, the first on my left. But he said, you know what he said was, really, interesting? He said after about a month or two people came to thank me, because he had inspired them, that his embracing of his values had helped them understand how out of whack some of their values were and gave them courage to act on their own values.

Bridgette: That’s lovely.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah. So, that’s one. And then a second question is, am I attached to a particular outcome? Do I feel I need to be in charge? Because I think part of spirituality is, and we’ve just been talking about this in last week’s episode, of this letting go.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: Of realizing that I don’t have to control everything.

Bridgette: Right.

Irvine: And I think that’s important. And then the third question is, how flexible am I? Because if there’s one thing we understand about life, it is ever changing. And I think spirituality helps us explore the mystery, the wonder of that, and knowing that life is constantly changing. Bridgette, anything to add to those?

Bridgette: I just love those questions. I was sitting in them a little bit for myself and they’re very powerful. And, as you said, they can provoke insights that are difficult, that we have to wrestle with.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: There’s not a human being alive, who hasn’t, at some point in their careers and in their lives, fallen at a step with their deeper sense of purpose and values. And the question is, do we have the courage to face that and then to do something about it? And when we do, as you pointed out in your example, we can inspire other people to do the same. And that’s real leadership, right?

Irvine: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. Totally. The ability and the courage to do that, the actual courage to live out those values.

Bridgette: Yeah. Well, so that’s, really, helpful. I know we always end our podcast with a practice, so we’ve already suggested some, really, neat things and our listeners might be going, oh, I’m going to do that, or I’m going to start that, but is there a fitting practice you’d like to, sort of, leave with folks?

Irvine: So, one new thing has come up, I was going to suggest, though, and I will suggest, maybe taking a question, a juicy question and munching on it throughout the week, I think is, really, powerful. And so, those are three questions, which I’ve just brought up and I think they’re great questions. So, let me just go over them again.

Bridgette: Okay.

Irvine: Am I living in accordance with my purpose and making my choices based on my values? Second question is, how attached am I to a particular outcome? Do I feel a need to be in charge of situations and people? And then the third is, how flexible am I to the ever-changing nature of life? So, chew on this and then maybe, Bridgette, just mentioned a wonderful, simple practice in the morning. For her, it’s taking two minutes to ground and to set an intention. So, maybe you take two minutes, you don’t have to do what Bridgette does, but maybe just take two minutes for yourself, as you ease into the day or maybe two minutes at night, as you ease into sleep. And just give yourself some space.

Bridgette: I love that.

Irvine: Commit yourself to that space. Yeah.

Bridgette: Thank you for sharing those questions again and any one of them, right? Just hitting the pause button to ask any one of those, let alone all three could produce something different in our day.

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely.

Bridgette: Thank you so much for that. Well, Irvine, this has just been, oh, such a grounding conversation for me. Kind of, getting ready for it this morning and then having this with you, literally, shifted something, for me, and reminded me of the importance of being in this conversation with myself, right? Where do I find meaning? What is my deeper sense of purpose? How much am I living in accordance with my values? How flexible am I and open to other world views besides the one that I carry? And can I be a thin place for other human beings where when they’re in my presence, they are able to connect with something richer and deeper within themselves and within the world around them?

All, really, wonderful stuff. It’s been great having this conversation with you. To our listeners, if you find this particular episode helpful, please share it with others. Irvine, you want to remind them if they want to leave us with a question or a comment, how they can do that?

Irvine: Sure, absolutely. We have an email set up, resilientleadershippodcast@gmail.com. Please feel free to send us your comments, if you have ideas for future episodes, what you’re enjoying, what you’d like more of, we’re all ears and open to any comments you have.

Bridgette: Awesome. And our next episode is going to be about how we can use music to manage our anxiety and build greater resilience; I’m, really, excited about that and I look forward to it. So, to our listeners, I hope you have a great rest of your day, and Irvine, as always thank you for being in conversation with me.

Irvine: Real pleasure, Bridgette. Thanks so much.

Bridgette: Take care. Bye-bye.

Irvine: Bye now.

Subscribe to our Podcast

Other Episodes You Might Like

Share this post with your friends