Spiritual Intelligence as a Calling: How I Became a CEO and Then Walked Away


By Dr. Yosi Amram, author of Spiritually Intelligent Leadership: How to Inspire By Being Inspired

As leaders, it’s all too easy for our identities to become wrapped up in status, for us to sacrifice our mental health and overall well-being on the altar of power and prestige. For over a decade, I’ve worked as a therapist and executive coach, guiding over one hundred CEOs as they face this very challenge. It’s sometimes surprising to them to find out that I have struggled with it myself as well.

My clients usually come to me, whether they know it or not, to learn to harness their spiritual intelligence (SI)—an often-overlooked form of intelligence I’ve devoted my life to studying, developing, and promoting. When leaders foster their SI, not only do they drive results for their teams, but they also create transformative change in their own lives. This includes looking beyond our notions of status and stepping into leadership, as a calling, for the right reasons: a lesson I learned myself the hard way.

My path wasn’t straightforward—the hero’s journey of our souls never is. But every moment of my journey, no matter how painful it may have been, brought me to where I am now—having completed a psychology Ph.D., serving as a clinical psychologist and executive coach, and publishing my findings on spiritual intelligence’s impact on leadership.

My journey began back as a teenager when I was drafted into the military. There, despite amassing numerous leadership awards and the fastest promotion record in my regiment, I found the command-and-control hierarchy, while effective in battle, oppressive and dehumanizing to the human soul. I began to feel something pulling me towards envisioning more enlightened forms of leadership. 

Afterward, I moved to the US and enrolled at MIT, where I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Finally, after graduating from Harvard Business School and spending a few years at tech startups and venture capital firms, I had my chance as a CEO. In 1988, I founded a company called “Individual,” utilizing sophisticated software that ran against thousands of newswire stories and trade journal databases, delivering each client an individualized collection of articles. Years before the rise of the internet and decades before the rise of personalized algorithm-delivered media, it was a true breakthrough in the tech world.  

Inspired like never before, I poured everything I had into my burgeoning company. By the end of 1994, I had been working incessantly for about six years, often logging eighty hours a week. At the time, I had two young children but could barely find time to see them or my wife. I would routinely skip meals, sleep, and exercise, and I saw all my relationships starting to suffer.

Around this time, facing a deep depression, I began taking Prozac. I wasn’t ready just yet to truly dig into why I felt the need to push myself so hard. All I wanted was a mood fix, and, for a time, Prozac seemed to do the trick. Newly motivated, I was able to take our company public and started pushing my employees and myself even harder.

It was around that time that I underwent an immense spiritual awakening while receiving a massage I had booked as an attempt to relax. Lying on the table, I realized that all matter and energy are made of consciousness, taking on different forms. This sudden realization of the interconnectedness of all things is commonly referred to as “awakening.” Following this nondual experience, I felt a new sense of euphoria, and my life became full of synchronicities.

In retrospect, I can recognize what I was experiencing as mania, but at the time, it felt like a cosmic calling. I grew obsessed with the internet. The idea of an information network of networks that connected everything and everyone across time and space took on a mystical significance in my mind, and I wanted Individual to be the company that could realize that future.

Overwhelmed by my vision, I grew impatient and erratic. As a CEO I became difficult, demanding much too much from my employees and never accepting compromise. I tried to explain the potential I saw to my coworkers, but everyone (perhaps justifiably) thought I had lost my mind. In a sense, I had. 

Finally, it all came crashing down. In the summer of 1996, I read in the headlines of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that I had commenced an immediate leave of absence. The day before, the board passed a resolution to put me on “voluntary” leave due to “emotional instability.” Because my whole life had become my company, it felt like my life was over. My entire identity as a leader and CEO evaporated. I spent months in a deep depression before eventually deciding I needed therapy to better understand myself.

Building my self-worth back up from nothing took an immense amount of work. I delved into countless spiritual and psychological leadership texts, including the work of Abraham Zaleznik, who asserts that powerful leaders are often “twice-born.” They encounter major crises, only to emerge on the other side with new courage and individuality.

Slowly, I committed myself to self-care and psychotherapy, locating my center. Weaning off my psychoactive meds, I found the energy to return to work. I was able to join two other co-founders at Valicert, an infrastructure for secure, trusted transactions and communications on the internet. Once again, I was a CEO.

Fortunately, the second time around, I knew to define myself less by the identity of “CEO.” I worked a balanced fifty hours a week, which gave me better clarity and judgment. I built a team I could trust instead of micro-managing. I learned to alternate leading from the front and from behind depending on the situation, keeping my ego in check. I was able to spend more time with my kids and even developed wellness rituals like meditation and yoga I maintain to this day.

Here might be a good place to end the story, right? After my psycho-spiritual crisis, I picked myself off the floor, made serious changes, and rebuilt my life. I had learned the lesson that so many CEOs struggle to internalize. But, as is often the case, my reflections, while transformative, were only the beginning of the work ahead of me.

It turned out that even in my second turn as a CEO, I still was acting from a place of needing to prove myself—to save my reputation from the damage I had done before. I was meditating and exercising, but I still prioritized my ego. And, most importantly of all, I felt like something was still missing. As so many of my clients have, I felt unfulfilled.

Once again, I stepped back to analyze my life. As Valicert’s CEO, I had been able to start mentoring other entrepreneurs. Though intermittent at first, the work I was doing with these CEOs interested me so much more than my own responsibilities as CEO. I was drawn to analyzing how their unconscious motivations drove their behavior, and I wanted to help them improve their leadership, just as I had dreamed about as a teenager in the army. After six years at Valicert, including two years overseeing it as a public company, I cultivated my successor and then resigned.  

I had spent so long working towards becoming a leader in the tech world. I had sacrificed so much. And yet, when it came down to it, what I needed more than anything else was to walk away.

Looking back, this decision was so much more than just self-preservation. Leaving my role as CEO was the leap of faith that set off an entirely new chapter of my life, one in which, every day, I know I’m waking up and serving my life’s greater purpose. Now, having completed a Ph.D. in transpersonal psychology, working one-on-one with CEO clients, and publishing a book on my insights on spiritual intelligence and leadership, I finally feel like I’m devoting myself to my calling. For the first time, my passions for psychology, spirituality, and leadership can all harmonize beautifully.

My story, though somewhat complicated, does frequently come up with new clients. They themselves were drawn to leadership but now find themselves facing the challenges that come with it. I share with my clients (and I hope that, at the very least, you might take this one message with you as well) that every struggle brings with it an opportunity to awaken from the delusion of separation and recognize our true spirit. This process can take years—especially embodying and living the truth of our realization—but it’s a fundamental part of our journey as humans on this planet Earth.

For, when we realize our interconnectedness, we can access the divine spark that emanates from our true nature. I’ve seen it again and again through my clients as I help them foster their spiritual intelligence. And now, I’m fortunate enough to hear from leaders from all over who picked up my book, read my story, and saw a bit of themselves in its pages. I hope that by sharing my story here, you, too, might feel inspired to develop your spiritual intelligence. It’s true the path might feel daunting at times, as it requires letting our old egoic identities die. But, it is through such egoic deaths that we can find an ever more fulfilling rebirth. Take it from me: the journey is well worth it.


Yosi Amram is a licensed clinical psychologist, a CEO leadership coach, author of Spiritually Intelligent Leadership: How to Inspire By Being Inspired, and a pioneering researcher in the field of Spiritual Intelligence. For more information, please visit https://yosiamram.net/

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