What is Conscious Leadership and Why Does it Matter?
Becoming More Conscious
Picture an iceberg. As you probably know it floats with only a small portion of the ice sitting above water. The tip of an iceberg can be a metaphor for how we show up, speak, act and behave in the world - our ‘outer game’. However, the bulk of the iceberg lies below the surface. This is a metaphor for our personal ‘inner game’ which includes our life principles and core values, our assumptions and beliefs about how the world should work, and the conclusions we have made about our personal identity. Our identity is our self-made definition of who we are in the world and how we should be, behave, act and react. Our automatic patterns of thought, formed since childhood, show us how to operate ourselves in any given situation.
In The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner-Klemp, the authors describe this as “at the effect of” which means that the cause of my condition is outside me. It is happening to me. I am being acted on by external events and forces. In this state of consciousness, we are placing the cause of our own well-being on external factors rather than ourselves. In this way our subconscious mind is running the show beneath the surface even though we don’t realize it. We act unconsciously without understanding how our meaning-making system is in charge. Our resulting autopilot behaviors kick in, even though they may not be serving us well any more.
Becoming more conscious comes from the realization that our habitual patterns of thought and conclusion can shift from their automatic setting to become an object of our awareness. We can shift from being dependent on them (they control us), to managing them (we control them). This is a significant step in adult development and one that many leaders are fully capable of achieving.
Consciousness is about being fully present, awake and aware of what is going on in our minds and hearts, giving us the mental ability to manage any external event with grace, compassion and capability.
Aha #1 We create our own reality. We do not have to be victims to it.
Consciousness is learning to become aware of our own meaning making system which takes in our experience of the world and draws conclusions to make sense of it all. Our meaning making system is our structure of mind, or internal operating system (iOS) as Adams and Anderson call it in their important 2015 book called Mastering Leadership. Neuroscientists call it our neural networks, otherwise known by psychologists as mind-maps. Our consciousness makes decisions for us after analyzing, filtering and comparing our experiences with our memories.
For every event that we experience as we go through our day, our brain filters it through our mental catalogues and memories of past experiences to try to find a match to help it decide how we should respond. This filtering includes a check against our longstanding belief structures, our system of core values and principles, our biases, judgments, assumptions and our past experiences in order to give the experience meaning in a way that makes sense to our addicted way of thinking. Our mind creates what it believes to be an acceptable story to give meaning to the event. All this neural activity happens in mere tenths of a second.
The challenge with this process is that our mind maps and the stories we have long told ourselves are both incomplete and inaccurate and often no longer serve us well. We formed many of them in childhood and have these narratives and belief systems on cruise control. The narratives we use, check against and constantly create are actually our inventions (plausible though they may be). These inventions of any particular situation are, we firmly believe, The Truth about it. And we will defend it as the truth. This means that in reality we are always creating the world that we experience because of our interpretation of what actually happens. Because of the unique lens through which we see and experience the world.
Aha #2 Our thoughts create our emotions, not the other way around.
We are, therefore, completely accountable for how we see the world, for how our own stories and thoughts make us feel, and how we behave as a result of our unique meaning-making process. The event or situation never determines that. This remarkable revelation means that if we nurture our own self-awareness and consciousness, we get to choose how we see and experience the world. If we can create some space to slow down and reflect on our thinking and feeling that’s a result of our meaning-making process, we can catch ourselves before we come to a conclusion. In other words:
Aha #3 We can be the witness to all events that occur and our own thoughts and feelings.
What we have been subject (or victim) to, can become an object of our awareness. We can place our attention on the seat of consciousness, witness to our own patterns of thought, able to ‘see’ them and therefore able to choose a different response than our ingrained reaction. We are not our thoughts or emotions; our true self is the one witnessing them.
What is Conscious Leadership?
Therefore, developing conscious leadership is to practice being aware of ourselves, how we think, how we view the world. It is a practice of being mindful to our own experiences internally, being a witness to our default patterns of response, and being able to create the option to choose a different path. In Viktor Frankl famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”.
Aha #4 We can choose different thoughts and responses.
In Mastering Leadership, Adams and Anderson describe masterful leadership as Conscious Competence. This means the cultivation of our consciousness of our inner game – mind, body, heart, soul – which drives our outer game of competence. They describe, in the core argument of their book, that “More conscious leadership catalyzes collective leadership effectiveness, which transforms business performance”.
Reflection and inquiry into one’s own leadership is part of conscious leadership. Those leaders who continually develop themselves to keep up with the external forces acting on themselves and their organization are conscious leaders. A conscious leader understands how he or she shows up in the world and understands the impact they have in the organization, with their boss and senior executives, with peers and with their direct reports. Conscious leaders are skilled in self-awareness and self-management, especially of their emotions.
Adams and Anderson go on to describe how great leadership is connected with the deepest parts of ourselves and is about character, courage and conviction. Great leadership requires mindfulness; a maturity of self-knowledge, a wisdom of our approach to life at psychological and even spiritual levels. It demands a humility to know and accept all of who we are, including the parts we don’t want to admit to.
Aha #5 Being more conscious means we become a more evolved, mature and effective person.
In The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, the authors describe being above or below the line. Conscious leaders are above the line. They are self-aware enough to know when they are operating above or below the line. Unconscious leaders operate below the line. The line separates to stages of adult development, stages which Adams and Anderson call Reactive (below the line) and Creative (above the line). Leaders above the line are open, curious and committed to learning (especially about themselves). Leaders below the line are closed, defensive and committed to being right. We can have a strong center of gravity above the line, and still find ourselves below the line when we are stressed or triggered.
As adults, both personally and in leadership, developing an increased level of consciousness progresses in distinct stages. This is known as Stage Development or Vertical Development. Our opportunity as leaders of people, organizations and countries is to open our minds to the well-known concepts of Stage Development and begin to expand to a higher level of consciousness in five distinct steps:
How Do We Evolve to a Higher Level of Consciousness?
There are five steps to take to begin this fulfilling journey:
2. Exploration and Understanding
3. Reflection and Self-Awareness
If you are reading this article, you have already begun step 1. By reading other articles and blogs on Consciousness or Stage Development your awareness of the possibilities that life can offer you become more visible.
Exploration and Understanding
You may then want to deepen your understanding by reading a book or two. I recommend Robert Kegan (In Over our Heads, The Evolving Self or Immunity to Change), Adams and Anderson (Mastering Leadership), Dethmer et al (The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership), Bill Torbert et al (Action Inquiry) and if you are interested in consciousness and spirituality, I recommend The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.
Reflection and Self-Awareness
Now you have an understanding of stages of adult development and consciousness, you may have already begun some self-reflection on your own ways of thinking and how your meaning-making system functions. By noticing your thought patterns, your triggers and your reactivity you can begin to see the value in developing the ability to choose your responses. At this point you can start cultivating your ability to be consciously aware, connected to your inner voice of wisdom and coming back to the current moment.
There are assessments available that can either measure your stage of development or point to it. One such assessment that is increasing in popularity around the world is The Leadership Circle 360 Profile. This impactful instrument does not measure your development stage directly but points to it as it shows your strengths across two distinct stages which they call Reactive (problem-reacting) and Creative (outcome creating). Your profile will also show you the best direction for your development as a leader. Other assessments can measure your stage of development directly. One is called the STAGES Assessment by Pacific Integral and the other is the Leadership Maturity Assessment known as the MAP Assessment.
If you complete an assessment you will also get at least one debrief session with a licensed practitioner. For this type of personal work, you will need the help, support and guidance of a leadership coach. This can be a profound and positive experience.
Aha #6 We can reveal our deeply held limiting beliefs and change them with coaching help.
One of the core aspects of development is the process of revealing your deeply held limiting beliefs with a coach and changing, replacing or managing these beliefs. Two of the most common limiting beliefs is I’m not good enough and there is something wrong with me. When this is the basis for your internal dialogue, you are held back from moving into higher levels of conscious awareness. With beliefs work you can let these view points go and release yourself to a more liberated state.
You will go through a process of self-discovery, greatly increase your self-awareness and have the support for your journey to higher consciousness. This journey towards the best version of yourself may evolve to a spiritual level where we truly find ourselves and understand our connection with everything. Mindfulness habits such as self-reflection and meditation can be a strong support and influence on your growth and transcendence.
Why Does It Matter?
As humans we are designed to grow, develop and expand into our most essential selves, to fulfill our personal promise in the world, our purpose as a human being and as a leader.
In his 1998 book, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, Bob Kegan discusses the fit between the complex demands of life (20 years ago now!) and our mental capacities, and shows what happens when we find ourselves, as we so often do, in over our heads. Today, the increasing speed of change, the number of technical and other types of disruption, the geopolitical uncertainty, the growing complexity in the world, the volume of information, the maze of communication methods and the evolution of organizations has our heads spinning in excitement and overwhelm. We are in over our heads more that we were 20 years ago, and we don’t seem to be keeping up with the pace of change. We cannot fix or change this growing external complexity, so our only recourse is to increase our own by achieving higher states of consciousness.
If we can do this person by person, leader, by leader, company by company and country by country we can more effectively solve what seem to be unsolvable problems, we can learn to manage rather than try to fix polarities, we can treat all others with empathy and compassion, we can learn to lead with love rather than fear and awaken us all to our inherent unity*.
* The Purpose statement of The Leadership Circle Organization is: We exist to evolve the conscious practice of leadership, to steward the planet and to awaken us all to our inherent unity.