Conscious Leadership:

The Retitled and Expanded Version

by Pieter Oosthuizen and Charlotte Rotterdam

The practice of Conscious Leadership, in essence, challenges the leader to re-examine and re-evaluate the very notion of self and the worldview that necessarily follows from our conceptions of self.  If our image of self is very narrowly defined, we tend toward more fear-based views of the world around us; when we invest in the idea of a self with more permeable boundaries functioning within an interdependent world, our worldview becomes more fluid and contextual. Instead of arising from fear and self-preservation, our business decisions are inspired by collaboration and possibility. In an interdependent world, the driving force is creative collaboration rather than straight-up competition, and sustained authenticity is the ultimate achievement.

The conscious leader cultivates the largest possible contextual view, one that is able to hold dichotomies and paradoxes, and is willing to embrace seemingly irreconcilable views. Fundamentally it holds the conviction that right action does not lie in the black and white of rights and wrongs, but rather emerges where the larger context and the uniqueness of the specific circumstances intersect. Thus, conscious leadership has to do with an ability to live and lead without recipes. We might call this larger view ‘transpersonal’ because it arises in the ability to honor, yet be able to see beyond one’s own habitual frame of reference. The transpersonal view is further based on the realization and experience of an interdependence of all things; thus different viewpoints are not ‘wrong’ but simply views from another angle of the network.

From the transpersonal perspective the leader understands that every decision must be viewed as having an impact beyond the scope of its original situation. The business is viewed as an organism within a larger ecosystem of which it is an integral part. By the same token, our individual ideas and actions are constantly informed by the surrounding environment and the field of consciousness we participate in, consciously or unconsciously.  The leader finds benefit in becoming conscious of this interplay, welcoming it, and utilizing the richness of it to further organizational goals.

From the view of interdependence a sense of responsibility naturally arises, because we see that our challenges and triumphs are intimately connected to those of others. Conscious leadership is a willingness to take on this responsibility and to find the most effective ways of acting in the world for the benefit of all. This then points us to the leader’s commitment to develop and foster personal integrity and authenticity.

How do we cultivate this consciousness? We begin with the willingness to examine ourselves, our values and long-held beliefs. Usually our areas of discomfort or fear are markers for where our view is narrow or rigid. Part of the cultivation of conscious leadership necessitates a willingness to sit in this discomfort, to truly experience our emotions and thoughts as they arise without instantly trying to label, fix or change the situation. We take on our obstacles, not in order to obliterate them, but in order to breathe greater acceptance and compassion into them. Conscious leadership is not a one-time endeavor; rather it challenges us to take on every situation of our lives, professional or personal, as an opportunity to expand our view, deepen our experience, and practice compassion.

This sustained effort and curiosity to learn about ourselves in relation to people and events results in ever increasing awareness of self, and how we operate in the world.  We gradually start to get more perspective on how we function mentally, emotionally, and psychologically (and even physically) – what our particular personality drivers are, and what past experiences or beliefs they are rooted in.  The lens through which we observe the world and the way we process information is conditioned by a complex system of filters and beliefs that we have spent most of our lives assembling: our so-called ‘frame of reference’.  This frame or network comes into being primarily through conditioning: past experiences and belief systems we inherit mainly from our parents and the culture we are embedded in. Our minds filter new information through this existing network of beliefs, values, and past experience in order to judge the relevancy, urgency, meaning, and appropriate response. Thus our decisions are actually in large part products of our existing worldview.  Nothing wrong with that: it is simply how the mind operates. However, this entire process often happens in an instant, and usually, unconsciously. The challenge here is to make the process more conscious.

How do we become more conscious of this process? Through practicing deeper self-awareness, we gradually gain insight in the underlying values and beliefs that influence our judgments, and how they came to be.  Sometimes we run into deep-seated issues that have a lot of emotion attached to them, but again, bringing the light of our awareness to the shadows in our psyche provides us the opportunity to engage with them and eventually integrate them. With this kind of insight we are less compelled to react in predictable ways: we move away from conditioned responses, and toward more conscious choice of how to act in relation to any given situation.  Since we are less reactive, we experience more ‘space’ in which to consider the larger context of a situation, and the option to respond in new and creative ways.

As business leaders, the benefits of this kind of awareness are multiple, at the very least resulting in better relationships, more flexibility, more creativity, and potentially less stress.  These alone should have significant impact on the bottom line.  And maybe it is not that much of a stretch to start thinking of organizational cultures in the same way.  In other words, if we can view our own psyche as a kind of a field in which all these processes of meaning-making are taking place, we can extend this view to seeing an organizational or staff culture as a field in which similar processes are taking place on a communal level.  A culture usually contains all kinds of overt and covert agreements, shared beliefs and values, assumptions, and even shadows, just like an individual’s psyche.  Leaders gain tremendous advantage by understanding the underlying dynamics, drivers, hopes, and fears of their organization’s staff culture. This insight becomes invaluable when communicating new directions to staff, developing strategy, devising effective incentive and compensation packages, increasing efficiency and productivity, and creating a healthy, flourishing staff culture that is aligned with the goals of the business.

In talking about conscious and sustainable business leadership, we have created a model of breaking out and looking separately at all the ‘intelligences’ involved in leadership practice: Emotional-; Moral-; Cultural-; Ecological-; and even Spiritual Intelligence.  But inherent in conscious leadership is the understanding of integration rather than separation: thus integrating all these aspects of intelligence, really aspects of leadership, into a daily reality of showing up in our work as leaders, fully present, fully committed, well-intentioned, and ready to take responsibility for ourselves, our relationships, and the impact of our decisions.

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