Spiritual Practices for Public Leadership
Guarding one's soul in and out of season.
Icebergs, famously, have 90 percent of their mass below water. The largest modern cruise ships almost perfectly reverse that ratio, with 88 percent of their height above the waterline.
Being a public person—someone who is recognized by people who do not actually know us personally—can be a lot like being a cruise ship. We are rewarded for cultivating the parts of our lives that are visible: our talents, our opinions, our appearance. And while the most spectacular cruise ships on the public ocean may be the people we call celebrities, the unique reality of life in the age of social media is that we are almost all public now, publishing a version of our life to gain others’ attention and, we almost always hope, approval.
This kind of life carries with it grave threats to our health, and the safety of those around us. Without spiritual practices to guard against the unique temptations of public life, we will likely drift into narcissism and exploitation. Sooner or later we will hit an iceberg—and the testimony of maritime history is that when a cruise ship meets an iceberg, the iceberg wins.
A few years ago I drew together a list of spiritual practices I’ve personally embraced to try to safeguard my life as a public person. The core premise is that, like an iceberg, the bulk of my life needs to be below the surface. Deepest are the practices that I call private ones. Then there are practices that are personal—which I distinguish from private because they intrinsically involve relationships with others. Finally there are disciplines for the portion of my life that is above the surface, in public view—how I handle travel, media, and the opportunities that come my way.
Whenever I offer this list to others, I give them a chance to rank each practice for themselves—from 1, “I do this consistently,” to 4, “I do not believe this is appropriate for me.” While some practices—especially solitude, silence, and fasting—come almost universally recommended by the Christian tradition, others are highly specific and contextual. Each person must discern, with the help of others they trust, what practices are most essential for their own health. What is almost certainly not optional is having a plan for surviving the strange and perilous calling of public life.
Spiritual Practices: An Examen
- I do this consistently.
- I do this inconsistently but want to do it consistently.
- I do this rarely (or not at all) but want to do it consistently.
- I do not believe this is appropriate for me.
Solitude, Silence, Fasting
- I am alone (without interactive devices) for at least (a) an hour once a week or (b) this frequency: _____________.
- I am silent (without interactive devices, or reading or writing material) for at least (a) an hour once a week or (b) this frequency: _____________.
- I fast (abstain from food, with modifications for health as appropriate) for at least one mealtime at least (a) once a week or (b) this frequency: ________.
- I train for strength and endurance, with modifications for health as appropriate, at least three times a week.
- I get physical exercise for at least thirty minutes every day.
- I begin and end the day free of devices and notifications.
- I do no work one day a week, and make the same possible for others in my sphere of influence.
- I have a regular annual extended absence from email and other work correspondence.
- I have a plan for extended (at least three-month) sabbaticals where I do no paid work.
- I maintain meaningful friendships with people (family and/or friends) who have known me since adolescence or early adulthood.
- I have friends with whom there is an explicit commitment to maintain our friendship until we are parted by death or incapacity.
- There is someone to whom I am accountable for my income and pattern of spending, saving, and giving.
- There is someone who regularly helps me evaluate my travel, decisions about invitations to public events, and overall work patterns.
- There is someone (in addition to a spouse) who knows the details of those friendships and working relationships that could pose a temptation to inappropriate intimacy.
- There is an identified group of people with spiritual maturity whom I can contact for prayer at urgent moments.
- My speaking terms and invitation and decision process are clearly described in a public document.
- When travelling, I limit public engagements to two-thirds of any given day.
- I use fast, short media like Twitter for praise, gratitude, and affirmation, and use in-depth, longer-form media like articles and books for critique and criticism.
- I promote others using media at least twice as often as I promote my own work.
- I focus my work on the media in which I can become truly excellent and limit my participation in media where I cannot.
- I regularly say no to invitations I could conceivably accept, recommending others who are ready for that opportunity, especially those with less privilege and power than myself.