By ‘spiritual’ I am referring to a belief in a reality beyond the senses – whether theistic or not – that provides a framework or horizon of significance giving direction to life. 

Canadian contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor’s views on the secular age and individualism help to contextualize why we need wise, spiritual leaders in a secular age.  By ‘spiritual’ I am referring to a belief in a reality beyond the senses – whether theistic or not – that provides a framework or horizon of significance giving direction to life.  Taylor defines a secular age as a time largely devoid of hierarchical order and a general ‘flattening’ of society[i] when all goals beyond human flourishing are eclipsed and individualism overwhelms the common good[ii]. People used to see themselves as part of a larger order that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. However, this is not the reality of most people in a secular age.

Generally the emphasis for the majority of people in a secular age is self, self-fulfillment, recognition and accomplishments. People in a secular age, Taylor argues, are consequently less concerned with others and society and there is less civic engagement. This does not negate the large public responses to tragedies that are indeed wonderful examples of people coming together through suffering.  Taylor’s point is to say that daily life in a secular world is more individualistic than communal.  His explanation reveals that most people lack a guiding philosophy that informs decisions and social networks, and that there is, rather, a focus on neutrality and an ethic of libertarian thinking where “people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish [and] nobody would [have] a right to force his way of life upon his neighbor”. [iii]  Forcing a way of life does not sound desirable in any case, but Taylor contends that excessive individualism goes as far as to say that people in a secular age generally let other people lead their own lives and do not necessarily see a common responsibility to intervene or help them – that’s the more impersonal role of government. For Taylor, individualism is the primary ‘malaise of modernity’[iv], since it is inherently inegalitarian; not everyone has equal access to the ‘good life’. Self-determination, a focus on efficiency and instrumental reasoning overwhelm a sense of true authenticity, purpose beyond the self and concern for the common good.

…the common good, what the Dalai Lama  refers to as ‘universal responsibility’ or in Swahili, harambee meaning ‘all pull together’.

Perhaps a result of excessive individualism has led to what Karin Jironet, Sufi theologian and psychoanalyst, calls a “widespread reaching out for spirituality”.[v]  Can spirituality inform leadership in a secular age? Indeed, wise spiritual leaders can play a significant peace keeping role as they strive to maintain neutrality while advocating for inclusion and the common good –  what the Dalai Lama refers to as ‘universal responsibility’ or in Swahili harambee meaning ‘all pull together’. Such leaders have a sense of purpose beyond themselves and are motivated by service to the growth and betterment of others.  This servant leadership approach seeks to transform the challenges of competing needs into a community. The way of the peace leader is to continuously define and courageously protect the general good while trying to educate the various stakeholders of each other’s needs. Taylor suggests cultural retrieval is necessary whereby leaders “instead of dismissing the culture altogether, or just endorsing it as it is, ought to attempt to raise its practice by making more palpable to its participants what the ethic they subscribe to really involves” that is, viewing the work of leadership with a deep understanding of the pluralistic, globalized world and commitment to true authenticity, tolerance, universal benevolence and solidarity.[vi]

Taylor’s philosophical and anthropological writings suggest that there are universal ‘goods’ including a conception of human dignity and the value of human life that can provide guidance for our decisions and behaviors. This assertion should be welcome among leaders seeking clarity about the direction to pursue within their organization and with their people. An understanding of common good or universal responsibility is essential to a peaceful society.  Common good is in contrast to corrupt governance and self-interest, it is about higher purposes and public interest as opposed to private interests. Leaders seeking the common good are concerned about fairness to protect equal chances for everyone and in their practice they include processes as a way to determine what the community as a whole desires. For leaders then, policies and procedures are important in the pursuit of fair pubic deliberation to determine the common good and everyday conversations and interactions reflect this fairmindedness.  Respecting and working toward common good involves combining in our lives and in our work “the full development of individual potentials with commitment to a greater whole”.[vii]

An essential common good according to Taylor, is self-interpretation[viii].   A vital component of identity, self-interpretation is what a person thinks of herself.  The universal good related to self-interpretation relies on relationship since a person learns more about themselves in relationship.  A leader needs to take the time to understand how people self-interpret and what is important to them, including purposes that have special significance for them.  This goes beyond knowing empirical information about a person such as race, class, occupation age, background etc.  Understanding what a person thinks about themselves, even if erroneous, inflated or deluded, can greatly assist a leader in working with a person to accomplish both personal and organizational goals, and beyond that, establish a workplace conducive to growth.

The secular world needs peace leaders rooted in wisdom and spirituality to advance a more humane and peaceful society.  

The secular world needs peace leaders rooted in wisdom and spirituality to advance a more humane and peaceful society.   Challenges related to individualism and other practical realities of work face even the most well-intentioned leaders.  Some of these challenges include the preoccupation with maintenance of the status quo rather than an openness to change, finding time and discipline for reflection, our need for recognition and, if we’re honest, the attractions of power, wealth and self-image. The realities of work life in the twenty-first century such as mobility, the transitory nature of work, fragmentation of personal and work life also add to the leader’s list of challenges to overcome in the quest for community and peace.  There are however certain dispositions and skills that leaders can hone to meet these challenges.  A future post will address these dispositions so stay tuned!

[i] Taylor, 2003.

[ii] Taylor, C., 2007: 20.

[iii] Doolitte, C, 2015.

[iv] Taylor, 1991.

[v] Jironet in Goldman Schuyler et al, 2014: 4.

[vi] Taylor, 1991: 72.

[vii] Gardner et al, 2001: 244.

[viii] Abbey, 2000: 58.


Abbey, R. (2000). Charles Taylor. NJ: Princeton University Press.

Doolitte, C. (2015).  Criticism of David Friedman’s ‘Folktale’ Cosmopolitan Libertinism.

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Damon, W. (2001). Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet. New York: Basic Books.

Goldman Schulyer, K., Baugher, J. E., Jironet, K & Lid-Falkman, L. (2014). Leading with Spirit, Presence, & Authenticity. San Francisco:   Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, Charles (1991). The Malaise of Modernity. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Taylor, C. (2003). The Malaise of Modernity. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London England: Belkap Press of Harvard University Press.