Many of us are familiar with the quote by John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, that an organisation can only be as conscious as its top leader. We’ve seen this wisdom come to light elsewhere, for example in the research by Frederic Laloux, who found that a CEO or company founder with a more highly evolved, integrated and conscious worldview is necessary for role modelling a certain way of being so that the organisation can follow suit and enjoy the freedom to be more alive, diversified and agile.
I find that I have become fascinated with conscious leaders, by how they think and choose to act and lead. I felt an urge to take a deeper look into how they ‘work’, from the inside out. How do they see the world? How do they lead their organisations as a result? And what caused them to evolve to become this way? My fascination comes from a deeply felt sense I share with many others that business has the potential to be a huge force for good in the world. Its power lies in its universality: business is an integral part of our everyday lives across the globe. If we were to conduct ourselves even marginally differently in business (not measuring success only by profit) and responsibly (keeping an eye out for how we are impacting and creating benefit for the greater whole, the stakeholders beyond ourselves), then we have the potential to make a remarkable difference in the world through the medium of business.
In the way our organisations are currently structured in the main, with top leaders at the tops of pyramids, the power to do things differently lies in the hands of the leaders to influence the cultures in their organisations. While this may change in the future, currently this is our reality. Therefore, how can we map the qualities of leaders already operating in a more conscious way in mainstream business and, through this, create a blueprint for a better way of leading that others, who are also fascinated by the promise and the possibilities, can follow?
My question led me to interview over twenty conscious leaders around the world, from as far afield as the United States, Africa, Europe, South Africa, India and the United Kingdom. What emerged from our fascinating conversations was a collection of qualities, that I’ve bound together in a
book, which these leaders share that speak to the potential for a more evolved kind of leader who is suited to wisely and successfully leading in the new world. This is a world that is waking up: highly connected and ever more conscious, demanding more transparency, more meaning, more purpose, the greater integration of values, the pursuit of wholeness and more responsibility and accountability for the effects we are creating in the world.
These leaders use their expanded awareness to run their organisations, and their lives, differently. This extends to the cultures they create in their organisations, how they source insights, how they encourage collaboration and co-create in order to continuously innovate, and how they use their own levels of presence and awareness to lead and have a different kind of impact on others. Their influence as conscious leaders extends to the effects they have on the world at large: how they look to transform society, for instance, or innovate with the purpose of having a positive influence on the future of the world.
A Model of Conscious Leadership
As I spoke to these leaders, their qualities seemed to fall naturally into a four-zone model, one that mirrors to some degree Ken Wilber’s I-We-It-Its model and the work of me and my colleagues at The Global Centre for Conscious Leadership.
In this model, the qualities of conscious leadership can be mapped into four broad zones:
- Strong self-awareness and self-mastery (in particular the ability to distance ourselves from our ego-based reactions and live more consciously, through choice; to be whole by integrating our values and our purpose into our lives, and to be more authentic; and the ability to hold multiple perspectives at the same time without being attached to any of them)
- Being conscious as we conduct our relationships (including being present and listening deeply and generously; speaking courageously and taking a stand; being comfortable in devolving power, control and responsibility to others; and creating opportunities for collaboration and radical partnerships across previously perceived boundaries of competition)
- Systems insight (meaning a highly developed level of awareness of the interconnectedness between ourselves and all of life, which leads to strong systems intelligence and insight; and the tendency to thinking about creating benefit and balance to the larger system and taking responsibility for the long-term effects of our actions)
- Collective responsibility (experiencing an inner calling and sense of responsibility to contribute to the greater whole and create a positive impact, through the areas we believe need attention and reformation).
While there is a range of qualities that sits within each of these four zones of conscious leadership and which are mapped across conscious leaders, the above broad areas give a flavour of the type of qualities these leaders exhibit.
It seems, in talking to them, that the trick is not to fall into the trap of perfectionism about achieving all of these qualities, but rather to aim for being inspired by bringing these to light in ourselves. We are dynamic beings on an evolutionary journey. It seems not to matter where we start (although beginning with creating some distance and choice from our ego-based behaviours is a good starting point). For the rest of these qualities, we are all likely to be drawn to some more than others and we can listen inwardly to ourselves as to where we’d like to develop next and follow that trail.
Examples of Conscious Leaders
As business is a powerful influencing force on the world at large, it makes sense to develop as many conscious leaders as possible because of the benefits they can bring by transforming organisations, their employees, their stakeholders and their systems. This is probably the quality that is most prevalent in conscious leaders working in business: their ability to see how business itself can be the vehicle for transformation of humanity.
I unearthed some incredible examples of leaders who were acting, through business, in the world in this way. When I was speaking to them, even at distances across the world, I was forever changed by the experience as they expanded my perceptions and I saw the possibilities of what we could, collectively, become. Sometimes, I was virtually moved to tears when I wrote about the natural and unaffected reverence they have for life and the way this plays itself out in how they run their businesses and their lives.
There are leaders like Tom Chi, an inventor, innovator and founder of Prototype Thinking LLC, who has previously been head of project experience at Google X. Tom is concerned with how what he and his teams are working on right now in business is going to add value to humanity in a thousand years’ time. He has a heightened service orientation about how our conscious acts of creation – in effect, what we ‘make’ as human beings – might be of service to humanity as a whole. There is an openness and a willingness to share discoveries for the greater good rather than keep his secrets close to his chest in order to win over others.
Tom says: “There are conscious acts of bringing things together in service and in new combinations of service that have never been seen before in the universe, that all conscious beings have access to as a tool. We get to choose what percentage of our lives is spent on that tool and what percentage doesn’t get anywhere near it. We also get to choose when we apply these tools of creativity, and at what scope of compassion and consciousness we do it. Do we try to do it for seven billion people for 1,000 years, or do we do it for ourselves or for a smaller set (for example, for our company for this quarter – a very micro perspective). It’s actually even more micro – most people do it to serve just a subset of their ego, not even their full ego. Our normal operating size is usually smaller than one person!”
This is possibly the most exciting application of conscious leadership for the world. It is less about managing the current state in a more conscious way, and more about creating a future that is aligned to what we’d like to see being brought about in our reality.
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Another conscious leader I interviewed is Laura Roberts, CEO of Pantheon Enterprises, a conscious chemical company. When we think of some of the more unsavoury characters of business who have negative effects on the world, then chemical production is probably there alongside destruction of rainforests and rampant industrialisation. Laura is determined to change this. She is ultimately driven by her higher purpose of revolutionising the chemical industry and this extends to Pantheon’s higher purpose. This purpose is about changing the way the chemical industry operates, from generating chemicals that are pumped into the ground and the atmosphere with little regard to what happens next, to planning for and producing chemicals in ways that are more conscious, responsible and sustainable.
Laura says: “Right now, we are living on one huge Petri dish of chemicals and we have no idea how they’re all interacting, but they’re all ending up back in our bodies and certainly throughout the ecosystem. It’s not sustainable and we and can do better.”
Her purpose provides a bigger context for her to draw upon as she makes decisions about who to collaborate with, what it means to compete and how this drives innovation in the entire industry.
“There might be a competitor out there trying to do the same thing we are, and maybe they have more traditional chemistry and our chemistry is more innovative and disruptive. And they might have held the marketplace for a long time and we are coming in with a potential loss in their market share. We all have wins and losses and it’s about the way we respond. How can we potentially partner with that competitor to create a better result? We live in a world of possibility. We can ask ourselves: what is still possible even though the current circumstances look like this today? You’re trying to have bigger conversations because really you can make just about anything happen if you push possibility conversations more often and role model this.”
Laura and Tom represent just two of an abundance of examples of conscious leaders who bring the qualities of a more evolved form of leadership to life. We can learn loads from their examples and be inspired by how we might bring some of these qualities into our own lives and leadership.
These leaders ultimately represent a new definition of success, one defined by measures such as making a difference, acting with significance and human happiness. They have built a foundation of traditional measures of success, but have taken this to a new level in the way they now regard being successful. It is a selfless sort of success, one that is defined less by personal glory and more by the way they seek to contribute to the world around them and make an impact. In the process, these leaders are changing the narrative, from a dominant paradigm in which success is about ‘me’ to one where it is about ‘us’.
Bringing to light these qualities so that we may experience an inner recognition of them in ourselves, and connecting us up with many others who are experiencing the same kind of recognition, is the purpose of the book I wrote on this topic. It is in service of a possible future where many more conscious leaders around the world run their organisations differently and positively impact the lives of the thousands of people working in those organisations, and which ultimately can have an uplifting effect on the world.
Becoming a Conscious Leader: How to Lead Successfully in a World that’s Waking Up by Gina Hayden is out on November 30.