Conscious Leadership



My Google search for leadership turned up 499,000,000 results. It’s a well-covered topic with every nook and cranny explored.
What more is there to say?
There is general agreement that leadership models are changing dramatically. To be sure we’re still in the grip of the old command and control leadership paradigm with most organizational cultures still reflecting the mindsets of authoritarian leaders.
There’s more talk than ever about We cultures, but Me leadership is still holding the reins of power.
That is why I have come to believe that the single most important ability any leader has to develop is self-awareness.
This may seem obvious, but based on my observation, I’d say conscious leadership is in fairly short-supply.
A quick working definition of self-awareness is in order. Simply put, self-awareness is the ability to be self-observant in the moment of what one is thinking, feeling and how those internal processes are translating into behavior.  The ability to be present in the moment is the only way to effectively do this.
The self-aware leader is always tuned into his/her own contradictions. This requires a deep understanding of how personal motivations are linked to decisions, especially those that have external impact.  The conscious leader makes a steadfast commitment to understanding the beliefs, assumptions and expectations that drive her/his behavior. The self-aware leader understands that every decision made reflects an inner process that must be conscious.
The self-aware leader practices self-reflection. This requires a commitment to honestly self-appraise behavior.
How did I behave in the meeting with my senior managers last week?
What was it that Ben said that triggered a defensive response from me? How can I express my feelings more productively the next time around? Should I follow-up and clarify with Ben one on one?
When I discussed the new project, did I spend enough time asking people in the meeting questions and getting their perspectives?
Leaders also need to imagine the future.  Imagining the future goes beyond traditional skills of organizing, planning and projecting.  It requires the leader to envision where they want to head, why they believe it is the right direction and what the impact will be on those around them.  It also requires developing one’s innate intuitive messaging.
The self-aware leader knows what he/she knows and knows that they don’t know.  Three emotions play an important role in supporting the leader to do this: curiosity, humility and confidence.
The self-aware leader not only makes a commitment to continuous learning (about self and beyond) but understands the necessity to provide ongoing development for his/her employees. This must go beyond traditional “training” so that new learning isn’t dwarfed by regressive cultural influences.

The Universal Pattern of Successful Leaders – So Far 

In What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith, coach to many multinational CEO’s, listed 20 habits that Goldsmith says executives need to break:

  1. Winning too much.
  2. Adding too much value.
  3. Passing judgment.
  4. Making destructive comments.
  5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However.”
  6. Telling the world how smart we are.
  7. Speaking when angry.
  8. Negativity or “Let me explain why that won’t work.”
  9. Withholding information.
  10. Failing to give proper recognition.
  11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve.
  12. Making excuses.
  13. Clinging to the past.
  14. Playing favorites.
  15. Refusing to express regret.
  16. Not listening.
  17. Failing to express gratitude.
  18. Punishing the messenger.
  19. Passing the buck.
  20. An excessive need to be “me.”

I could certainly add to this list and some might say Goldsmith’s twenty no-nos read like a common leadership profile. While more leaders are getting the message that certain behaviors are perceived as unpopular in today’s culture, many are still tweaking change around the edges.
What they’re failing to realize is change is not just about changing behavior; ultimately it is about transforming being. “Being” isn’t a term most of us use to describe experience, especially in business settings. But the self-aware leader understands that the constellation of his/her behaviors reflects their inner state of being. This state of being is often in the dark – unknown – out of conscious awareness.
The problem for many in senior leadership is that they become attached to what they perceive as a “winning strategy” – their own and those they see around them. The winning strategies box relies on two things: unconscious actions and self-deception.
The only way out of the winning strategies box is constant reinvention (that emanates from within) and an ability to reframe one’s operational context.
Attachments to winning strategies and fixed contexts can keep leaders tethered to the past and obscure the view to the larger picture.   What’s required according to “Fifth Discipline” author Peter Senge is the ability to “shift the mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes.” This must apply to the self, others and the entire system in which an organization functions.
Today’s leaders are reinventing everything but themselves, and this is why so many attempts to revolutionize business fail.

The Conscious Leader’s Checklist

The master said to the businessman: “As the fish perish on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water-you must return to solitude.”  The businessman was aghast.  “Must I give up my business and go into a monastery?” “No, no. Hold on to your business and go into your heart.”

               (Kenneth Goodpaster, former professor, Harvard Business School )

This little parable illustrates the objections we often hear from people when considering that obligation to an inner life is an inherent contradiction to the external realities of a life in the arena of business.
Recently, I read an article that questioned whether certain types of leaders even need to consider something as superfluous as emotional intelligence to be “successful” and “effective.”
Considering that all business, regardless of its type, is conducted through people, I wondered how much knowledge the writer had about the basic nature of human dynamics. Anyone who is conversant with trends in human dynamics, psychology and increasingly management theory, knows that neuroscience is gradually beginning to influence academic and popular thinking about the basics of human nature.
Because we now know that the brain is primarily a social organ, it becomes harder to justify that business relationships can be conducted from only one region of the brain! This may be the subject of debate, but not of fact.
So what do conscious leaders need to consider?

  • Relationships – In the growing global Zeitgeist, relationships are being touted as the new global currency.  That sounds good, but it tends towards commodifying relations between people.  What the self-aware leader needs is to learn more about how to be intimate in her/his relations with people. In his book, Leading Consciously, author Debashis Chatterjee writes, “An organization is a web of intimate relations. This indefinable energy of intimacy is a factor that determines the effectiveness of leadership. The ability to listen, the virtue of patience, the art of accommodating and understanding a person in context are the attributes of intimacy.”
  • Empathy – Perhaps this category should be listed first, because empathy is the foundation of all relationships for the self-aware leader.  But empathic awareness is a state – a lens – through which the self-aware leader is seeing and acting in the world.   In his compelling book, The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin writes, “The progress of civilization has been a constant struggle between empathy — increased human connection — and entropy, the deterioration of the health of the planet. It is, quite literally, a race against time. We are on the cusp of an epic shift. The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy.”  The self-aware leader rejects the long-held view that human beings are detached, autonomous agents only interested in pursuing a self-serving agenda. Rather, the self-aware leader is operating from a vision of a shared, interconnected world where human nature is essentially collaborative.
  • Righteousness – Greed, the least researched human emotion (so far) is a mighty driver for many leaders. Righteousness, which means taking ethically right action, guides the self-aware leader in everything he/she does. At its heart, right action means that the leader acts in accordance with one’s being.  It is challenging to imagine this as a guiding principle in today’s business culture, fraught with politics, dishonesty and even corruption.  The higher calling of righteousness requires that the leader be in harmony with the virtue and integrity of the inner self.  In the external world, this discipline is often a leader’s greatest challenge.

As Peter Senge points out:
“The cultivation of virtue follows from the development of consciousness. Development literally means “de-enveloping” or opening up. Internalizing such virtues does not come from the “outside in,” taught to us as moral codes to be followed blindly. These are virtues that we experience and follow naturally as our consciousness opens up, de-envelops. This constitutes a very different approach to leadership development than practiced in most organizations. It is neither quick or simple. It demands deep commitment and disciplined practice.”
Nothing less than this will usher in a new paradigm of leadership.


Thanks for reading,

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication

Leave a Reply