A Time for Conscious Leadership

Periodically I Google the term conscious leadership, tracking its emergence into the modern dialogue. We inherently understand traditional leadership and its imperatives: strategy, tactics, motivation, market share, financial performance and so forth, but what practical value does a premise like consciousness offer to a business? Indeed, what does the term mean?

In a nutshell it’s about people, and modernizing the way we engage and inspire our most important asset. It’s also about the larger earth community and assuming our share of responsibility. Whatever reaction the term conjures up for you, its power lies in creating a culture that is innovative, purposeful and productive - leveraging the organization to successfully execute its business strategies while helping serve a planet that increasingly calls for our attention.

It turns out that conscious leadership is a hot topic. The result of my search was 5,350,000 hits. That’s a convincing indicator of the times. The practice is gaining widespread attention and is gradually finding its way into the executive suite. I am reminded of Jean Houston’s observation that we are living in the “parenthesis,” a between time where the old is phasing out and the new hasn’t fully arrived yet. Ushering it all the way in is our next great work as leaders.

Significant Times

We all know this is a highly unsettling period. Balance sheets, jobs, retirement portfolios, consumer confidence, credit flow, housing and social services are all strained. A stunning number of government, religious and business leaders have marched across our TV screens the past decade conducting the familiar walk of shame. Surveys continually report that trust in leadership is at an all-time low.

At the same time more people than ever are attending spiritual retreats, reading books like Purpose Driven Lives and The Secret, going on Vision Quests, buying organics and recyclables and taking service volunteer vacations. Meditation, yoga and daily inspirations have gone mainstream. Such emerging consciousness signals a widespread cultural awakening and marks peoples’ desire to live more authentic and purposeful lives.

Our leadership role in navigating the rough waters ahead is critical. What could be more valuable than to understand what inspires our people, and to greet them where they are so we can move powerfully together into the next chapter?

What Now for Leadership?

As I write this, Job 1 is to outlast the recession and position ourselves for new growth at the other end. Leaders naturally ask, where would a soft topic like conscious renewal fit into an executive mandate focused on survival?

Actually, in many ways our success hinges on that answer. At this point we’ve exhausted most data-driven strategies. Clearly, mining the spreadsheets and engineering the bottom line are a permanent responsibility, but ultimately it is people that will make us great again. How will we inspire our people to deliver our organizations back to greatness; to innovate, cooperate and execute with uncommon effectiveness? From the heart of that inquiry, is there any reason not to explore a topic so hot that it generates over 5 million Google hits?


With many leaders, the conversation gets more lively as they learn what the term conscious leadership means. They are accustomed to the language of competitiveness, restructuring and return on equity, but not so to the fiscal advantages of reawakening the human spirit and embracing shared values in the workplace.

So we begin by making it relevant. As an evolving principle, conscious leadership’s definition is still forming. But what it connotes to a business is the next evolution of familiar leadership practices like Strategic Visioning, Quality Improvement, Team Building, Organizational Development (OD), and so forth. Its distinction is that in addition to discovering optimal strategies and processes and pushing them through with technology and incentives, it also engages the whole human – expanding beyond people’s functional roles and inspiring them to surpass existing levels of thinking, performing and innovating.

Its beauty is that it takes the outputs of strategy sessions and initiatives like OD and infuses a cultural element that leverages the vital human side of the equation. People achieve more when they share values and principles that serve a common purpose and invite their highest contributions. To guide them there is to engage their souls in addition to honing their technical and professional skills.

Such Language!

Of course, “engage their souls” evokes the same initial reaction as “consciousness” does. Your response may be that such matters are out of place in business. But chancing redundancy here, a Google search of corporate soul produced 2,970,000 hits today. Why is that? For one, there is a deep sense running through us that we’ve lost our soul. The illusion of vast wealth exhaustively pursued every 90 days at the eventual expense of jobs, houses, a thriving middle class, a healthy planet and so forth hit the wall in September. Reality has struck. And all along, our souls sensed it was coming.

The dangling Google question then is, what will we do in the presence of that reality? Apart from the urgent temptation to rebuild the same way we arrived, what if we were to reevaluate our leadership intentions and pursue profits that make our souls proud? Do you believe that is possible? In Patricia Aberdene’s book, Megatrends 2010, she systematically demonstrates the bottom-line value of Conscious Capitalism. Doing good and giving back pays off, she empirically illustrates. When we are good to our people and good to the planet…profits and shareholder value strongly follow, consistently outperforming companies who lag in their social worldview. This is real, and it is right on time.


The mistake is to assume that what’s being suggested here is out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new. That a utopian notion of deserting hard actions and putting warm fuzzies in their place will magically deliver us to positive metrics. Not so. This is about expansion, not displacement. Both the mind and the soul can sense a good bottom line opportunity when they see it. In fact, together their power is unlimited.

The suggestion is this: to expand our leadership practices to not only craft winning formulas, but to reawaken the soul, the spirit, the intuitive – whatever you choose to call it. This is where the creative energies reside and they are ready to bring forth innovative and cooperative new solutions if we simply learn to open them up. Doing both with equal discipline, crafting winning formulas and eliciting soul-based contributions, will exponentially improve the odds of becoming a great organization.

Center of Gravity

“Much of today’s leadership is tactical and specific, focusing on external manifestations such as vision, drive, creativity or charisma. However, these outside factors cannot capture the essence of leadership. Leadership is something deeper, more fundamental. As much as we try to separate leadership from the person, the two are totally inseparable.”

Kevin Cashman, Leadership from the Inside Out

Conscious leadership is about shifting our own internal center of gravity and leading outward from there. The organization as a whole is a community of people with a common purpose. Great leaders unleash that whole. From sales and manufacturing, to research and development, to technology, finance and deal making…people make everything happen. And it is no revelation that people want to experience a sense of purpose and balance while making a significant contribution. The leadership call today is to tap into that yearning and do so with the same organizational effectiveness that we do everything else. Leaders who gravitate back to a vital doing-being balance in their own right, and enliven their organization in kind, will set free a vast human potential - one that is truly waiting to emerge and serve.

Hey, the fact is we already spend a great deal of time on people. Consider Peter Drucker’s observation: “Executives spend more time on managing people and people decisions than on anything else, and they should. No other decisions are so long lasting in their consequences or so difficult to unmake…”

The question is, how effective are our current people practices and when was the last time we genuinely revised them? Many human capital techniques evoke a sense of separateness through the use of forms, scoresheets, efficiency measures, performance ratings and so forth. We tie these metrics into a series of motivational tactics and financial incentives, often fear-based. In this approach, people are depicted as something to be measured, costed and ultimately decided upon, and the leader’s effectiveness is statistically captured in kind. When you think about that, it’s no wonder the number of people that are disengaged has reached historical levels.


If we fell behind operationally the way we have culturally we wouldn’t have survived the last decade. Imagine if your company had ignored the onrush of technological advances, global market shifts, accounting drills and such that have consumed us just since the millennium. We would have been out of business long ago. Executives constantly track and adjust to industry trends to keep their companies operationally healthy and competitive, but most have lagged in comparably integrating the dynamic shifts people are making across society. We are as different in our ways compared to the turn of Y2K as technology is. Yet while investing enormous capital and energy into operational advancements since then, we’ve underinvested in the power of infusing cultural advances into the organization. Now’s the time to rebalance that, which is the exciting work of conscious leaders.

Most of us were raised in the modern Wall Street era; one heavily skewed towards deal-making, wealth creation and short term heroics. There is no argument that profits and wealth serve the greater good, however we have been living in a distortion. Moreover, the overzealous pursuit of shareholder earnings is currently out of steam, out of money, and out of social favor. Learning a new way of leading is the natural next step, and it is not about taking our eye off the bottom line. It is about serving John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line: People, Profits and Planet. Leading organizations that are healthy, productive and profitable in every way. Because this is new and different, it involves a leadership learning curve. The portal into Houston’s parenthesis is wide open and the instructive literature and teachings are emerging all around us. We can all learn to shift our leadership practices to strive and achieve differently than in the recent era. Our biggest challenge is in the area of permission. Will we have the courage to grant ourselves permission to join this emerging movement, or will we hold back for fear of….of what, exactly?

Ah, this is where the real conversation begins.

Practicing the Practice

In our next article we will explore that conversation, as well as looking at specific ways in which leaders are practicing conscious leadership and forming new successes in the process.