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The book “Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders” written by Reggie McNeal is a clear and accessible explanation of the path, purpose and challenges of being a spiritual leader. The author breaks down the practice of spiritual leadership to seven main elements. They are the disciplines of self-awareness, self-management, self-development, mission, decision making, belonging, and aloneness. The author notes that only practicing all of these disciplines may one achieve success at spiritual leadership and become an outstanding guide for those in need of guidance.
McNeal starts stating that to become a truly noticeable leader one automatically becomes a celebrity and that being well-known and being humble can go together without excluding each other. The author describes the discipline of self-awareness as the leader’s quest towards understanding of the self without which the leader would face multiple hazards likely to undermine their authority.1
Self-awareness provides the leader with confidence, purpose, values and recognition of success, and is a foundation for all the other elements of spiritual leadership.2 Self-management is composed of such sub-elements as expectations, emotions and emotional maturity, temptations, and financial management. The true leader is not to block their emotions or deny them, but to own them.3
Expectations also need management because otherwise one will inevitably face disappointment. Self-development stands for constant growth and improvement of the leader. This quality is highly important as only a progressive leader can provide wise guidance and address the needs of their followers. Besides, the leader is to be able to view their mission clearly and be able to make wise decisions. These two elements come hand in hand as they are the foundation of clever planning.
The discipline of aloneness represents the impact solitude makes on a spiritual leader, the clarity and confidence it brings. Each of the seven leadership elements is illustrated with the help of examples from the Bible, the remarkable leaders described there, their decisions, challenges, and views. The author concludes that the combination of the seven disciplines allows a leader to achieve greatness and become blessed by their followers, colleagues, friends, family, and by God.4 The great leaders are honored to partner with God and lead, yet being a great leader requires a lot of endurance, courage, strength, and determination.
The part that touched me the most was the one about the discipline of aloneness and how it contributed to the spiritual greatness of the well-known leaders such as Moses, Paul, and Jesus.5 It has triggered a very distinct memory of my own experience of aloneness. Some time ago I found myself in an ultimate turmoil. Everything in my life seemed like a huge stress – I had issues with my family members, my friends and I had a lot of misunderstandings, a conflict after a conflict kept occurring at work.
The hardest part of it all was that even though many people were hurting me at that time, I could not find courage to speak up and engage into a dialogue, I would just silently suffer through the conflicts and let others attack me while inside I was screaming with frustration. Then, all of a sudden, I fell sick. I had rather bad tonsillitis which made me unable to speak. I had been in pain for days, yet I still consider that sickness a blessing because it gave me the precious aloneness. I lived in total silence and absence of human contact for at least ten days.
As a result, I got a lot of free time to think about my issues, analyze, write down my insights, read spiritual literature and find answers. One of the books contained an idea that when someone constantly gets angry and frustrated, but fails to let these emotions go, they start accumulating inside a person’s throat and may cause a throat disease. My tonsillitis seemed to fit this description perfectly. My ten days of silence helped me re-evaluate my relationships with family, friends and coworkers, so when I came back to my normal life I felt like a different person, stronger, calmer and more confident.
What bothers me about the ideas presented in the book is the contradiction between the two of the disciplines serving as elements of greatness. They are aloneness and belonging. If the spiritual leader is the person that belongs to their family, friends, followers, and team; then how is he or she supposed to find aloneness? Besides, would not it be selfish for the leader who is needed by so many people to walk away and focus on self-search? On the other hand, does the leader ever actually belong? It seems like the leader is most of the time alone when it comes to making decisions, visualizing issues, planning for the future, solving problems.
The leader may have an excellent team, yet all of the responsibilities lie on the leader alone and nobody else. Finally, in theory, the list of the elements making a great spiritual leader seems rather universal and applicable to the leaders of other spheres. Yet, practically, it does not look like the discipline of belonging is practiced by any of the non-religious contemporary leaders as all of them are mainly focused on self-development, so I wonder if this selfless criteria simply does not survive in the leaders of other fields because their self-management does not include the element of temptation management since this mainly is viewed as a part of religious practice and is not appreciated outside of it.
This reading and assignment helped me realize a number of things about myself. First of all, I came to a conclusion that my contribution to the society as well as my level of serving is very minor these days. To address this issue and make a change I plan to engage into volunteer work. I am considering starting to assist at an animal shelter or find a way I can help people in need on the regular basis.
I used to be involved in a number of volunteer practices some time ago, but lately things changed, my contribution minimized, so now I feel like I could do more for the world around. The second aspect the reading pointed out to me is the importance of self-management and the development of emotional maturity. As for my action in this direction, I plan to train myself to be present to what I say, how I react to situations, my communication with others, even my thoughts. I plan to add more critical thinking, but dial down the criticism and judgment.
McNeal, Reggie. Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Reggie McNeal. Practicing Greatness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
- McNeal, Practicing Greatness.
- McNeal, Practicing Greatness.
- McNeal. Practicing Greatness.
- McNeal. Practicing Greatness.