What is Spiritual Intelligence? Does it Have a Place in Business?

© 2016 Richard McKnight

© 2016 Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

I'M WRITING A BOOK THAT WILL BE called Navigating to Nirvana. It is an exploration of the good life: what it is, how to obtain it.

In the process, I've consumed a couple dozen books and countless articles about the psychology of happiness and related subjects.

I've learned that happiness is the promise of every religion, every psychology, every philosophy, and all politics. Everybody wants it and will pursue any conceivable course to get it. We follow leaders who promise it.

But not all paths lead to the Promised Land. 

After all this reading, I've come away thinking that joy, happiness, and serenity, states we ordinarily think of as outcomes of a way of living or of fortune, can also be thought of as skills that lead to outcomes. It turns out that if you want more happiness, you need to do what happiness requires. What more serenity? You need to do more of what makes you serene and less of what aggravates you. The doing is both the skill and the outcome of the doing. The statement attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh gets at this: “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” 

When added together, these get-me-to-Nirvana skills sum to a term that I am somewhat hesitant to use in a business-related blog but one that has tremendous relevance to business: spiritual intelligence. All of this reading has convinced me that the very best leaders can well be called spiritually intelligent and the best businesses employ spiritual intelligence (SQ) to inform decision making. (Jim Collin's “Level Five Leader” can be so characterized.)

Everyone knows what IQ is: it’s the cognitive horsepower we employ to calculate and solve problems pertaining to logic and data. We use IQ to formulate strategy. And most of us know what emotional intelligence (EQ) is. It’s the kind of intelligence that enables us to build and maintain effective relationships, to know our feelings and to choose to regulate our expression of them and to empathize with others. We use EQ, principally, to execute strategy. 

Emerging neuroscience reveals that both IQ and EQ make use of separate but related systems in the brain. But according to Danah Zohar, author of Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence, there is a system in the brain that makes another kind of intelligence possible, what she and others are now calling spiritual intelligence (SQ). SQ is the intelligence with which we address and solve problems of meaning and value. Zohar calls this neural system the “ultimate intelligence” because it gives guidance and context to the other two intelligences. In the strategy context, SQ would help us answer why we pursue a given strategy, i.e., its underlying purpose and meaning.

The exercise of SQ often involves deep inner-searching and questioning. We use SQ to resolve the most difficult issues, to be creative, to break out of existing parameters of thought. We use SQ to find meaning and value in disappointment. It is the intelligence we employ when the chaos of change threatens to overwhelm us.

Zohar and others observe that we use IQ and EQ to solve problems within boundaries—this marketplace, this relationship, this line of business. We use SQ to call the boundaries themselves into question when the old solutions don’t work and when issues of morality, ethics, meaning, and purpose come into play. Thus, according to this line of thinking, when a business abandons a practice because it has injurious financial, environmental, or social effects, SQ is often the capability being called upon.

Here’s Danah Zohar: 

“SQ gives us our ability to discriminate. It gives us our moral sense, our ability to temper rigid rules with understanding and compassion and an equal ability to see when compassion and understanding have their limits. We use SQ to wrestle with questions of good and evil and to envision unrealized possibilities—to dream, to aspire, to raise ourselves out of the mud.”

In 1977, Robert Greenleaf wrote a book called Servant Leadership. Without using the term, the book, it seems to me, is about SQ. The Center for Servant Leadership at the Pastoral Institute in Georgia says that “servant-leaders continually strive to be trustworthy, self-aware, humble, caring, visionary, empowering, relational, competent, good stewards, and community builders.” 

Greenleaf, in his first writing on the subject of servant leadership, a 1970 essay, said if you want to know if you are observing a servant-leader, you will answer these questions affirmatively:  “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

If we see this occurring, in my view, it does not come about principally because such a person is conceptually brilliant (high IQ) or even because they are effective at building and maintaining relationships (high EQ). These capabilities are essential to effective leadership, but there is more.  These results come about because, such a person has high SQ. 

Does this type of intelligence have value in the workplace? I answer with other questions: Are human resources our most expensive asset? Do people have a need for meaning and purpose? Does leadership effectiveness require moral authority?

I’ll be back with more on this topic, including some observations about Jim Collins’s “Level 5 Leadership.” He says Level 5 Leaders have two defining traits: Humility and fierce resolve. This is a nod to SQ if there ever was one. 

(Related blog: “Are Humble Leaders Better Leaders?”)