By Ali Aslan Gümüsay *
Leadership is both deeply personal and profoundly social. Similarly, religion shapes the core of personal beliefs and values, as well as an understanding of social relationships. It has extensive reach and intensive force. Too often it is regarded with a passive distance and a disdainful disregard.
Instead, we should more actively and constructively engage with religion and its impact on leadership. Engaging with religion does not imply an uncritical rapprochement. On the contrary, engagement means to acknowledge religion as a social fact with a strong impact on many lives and wider society. It follows that religion needs to be taken seriously – both as a source for good and bad – and dealt with accordingly.
I have done so in an 18-month long study with LEAD Academy, a social business with non-profit status located in the heart of Berlin. The study builds on 32 semi-structured interviews with religious leaders of secular organisations and a half-day workshop. Interviewees and participants were adherents of the so-called Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The study illustrates that religion is a double-edged sword that can cause both harm and good in leaders and beyond. Potential pitfalls are worldly negligence, non-critical reasoning, exclusivity claim and a belief in divine right. Potential opportunities are personal harmony, deeper meaning, social caring and lived values. If pitfalls are overcome and opportunities embraced, religion can be an anchor and compass for individuals, organisations, and societies in a complex world.
Interviewees strongly encourage to put religion back on the agenda. Organisations need to consider how to literally and metaphorically offer room for faith. However, some leaders experience “aggressive secularism”, which makes the inclusion of faith particularly difficult. They acknowledge that yoga and meditation are trendy and have attributes of substitute religions, but often lack certain depth. In contrast, religion offers insights about concerns of deeper purpose. In other words, while essential themes for individual and organisational purpose are currently not sufficiently addressed and contemplated upon, religion may offer a means to approach these central concerns.
If practiced in context and in an inclusive way, religion offers an anchor for stability and guidance. This is not a small “if”. Still: religion can be a compass to navigate through and deal with ambiguity in a complex world. This can create a personal mindset and ‘soulset’ empowering leaders’ personal and social conduct. With the right engagement, this can have a significant positive impact on society.
* Ali Aslan Gümüsay is a Research Associate of the CRGA, a Research Fellow at LEAD and postdoctoral DAAD Prime Fellow at the Vienna University of Economics & Business and the University of Hamburg. Prior to his current post, he was a Lecturer in Management at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, and a strategy consultant with the Boston Consulting Group.