"Change a country's music and you change the country's political system." - Socrates

Practicing Conscious Leadership

We've got our work cut out for us. This economy presents unprecedented complications and there's not a leader whose plate isn't full. The pressure's on to grow even leaner and more productive, retain key talent, keep morale up, generate capital, service debt, preserve market share, move inventory and exceed analysts' expectations.

Even when the economy was rolling that agenda felt heavy. Now that it's struggling it feels even heavier, a distinction without much difference. Either way we're not exactly boogying to the music inside us.

This is a wonderful time to explore new possibilities. Suppose we pursue the idea that we can restore the economy and rebalance our lives. When did we first doubt that anyway? Why is work so much about grunt, fret and fear, and so little about manifestation, passion and purpose? What if either style has the same chance of creating a highly profitable company? Buoyed by that thought, what would we do differently to reshape the game for everybody?

Soul Search

Executive life is exhilarating, challenging and rewarding, making it a most worthy venture. But for many of us it is a world apart from our deepest dreams and passions. As leaders we accept that disconnect as modern reality and make the best of it. We love a good challenge and strive to make a meaningful difference, which our roles provide the opportunity to do.

But deep down it often feels more like a survival dance than a sacred dance. Which addresses an intriguing byproduct of the current economic crisis: we are quietly engaged in a national soul search. The question many people are asking is, after all is said and done are we intrinsically better off having relentlessly chased those record earnings the past couple of decades? More to the point: will we build the same model again following this respite, or is there another way we can profitably serve and deliver?

This doesn't challenge the critical importance of generating a robust economy. Rather, it invokes a reevaluation of the skewed emphasis on 90-day reports and whether that's the most important contribution leaders can make in shaping a better company, community and planet. Not to mention the ultimate impact the Wall Street engine has on productivity and creativity. This whole reflection gets framed up divisively in our talking-head wars, however that's not the discussion here. This is an impartial inquiry, not a conservative versus liberal one.

Corporations at the Center

Corporate leaders are at the center of this deliberation, not unduly but because business arguably has more power to influence change than governments, churches or universities do. We are coming off an era where the economic tone has been one of relentless double-digit growth and record earnings. But the jolt of the September 2008 meltdown leaves us to ask, where are we economically and culturally after all that? We all agree profits rock. They provide the oxygen a company needs in order to sustain and grow. And we all want abundance in our lives. But what the heck, have we explored whether it is possible for a company to make gobs of money in a culture founded on compassion and purpose? One that thrives on shared values, living principles and widespread human creativity, and where intention and the earth community are as much a part of the dialogue as market dominance and shareholder value?

Here's the real deal for leaders, and it is quite practical: without extraordinary unity how are we going to achieve that pressing agenda noted earlier? Data crunching and rightsizing our way through the recession is about survival, a lower sight line than we deserve for ourselves. If we want to reemerge as great organizations, how about we embrace a new kind of success story? One that actively engages and honors people while simultaneously crunching numbers and strengthening market position. Inspiring people to come together in service to a magnetic cause guided by compassionate and effective leaders. I find nobody who feels people will perform less if we step consciousness up a notch or two.

A cultural transformation of this scope won't happen by its own volition, nor will it grow from the middle with any sustainability. It is a leadership issue. People look upward for direction, no matter their position. From President to maintenance personnel, everyone gets their cue from the person(s) above them - not only regarding tasks, measurements and deadlines, but the way the company vibrates. The top leaders establish the cultural system under which every organization lives, breathes and operates.

The New Competitive Advantage

Shaping an inspired culture is more than a provocative deliberation: it is vital to the bottom line. Many leaders are raising the ante on corporate culture because they understand it is the source of sustained profitability. Think of the number of people you know who choose to do business, particularly repeat business, based on their experience with the company and not the product or service offering itself. In other words, the "felt sense" of the entire exchange from beginning to end. Add in the growing social emphasis on green business, renewable energy, organics, global ethics et al - and the trend towards conscious capitalism is unmistakable.

These matters can't be faked. People feel a company's values, principles and purpose, both internally and externally. Relating to Socrates' quote, those characteristics become the music – the deep tone of an organization that everyone hears, and which shape the human experience associated with all transactions, whether per occurrence or cumulative.

Millennium Culture

In the previous article we noted that executives constantly track and adjust to market and technology changes, but most have lagged in making a comparable investment in the shifts people are making. Enormous effort and capital have gone into operational upgrades since the millennium, yet the infusion of cultural advancements has fallen behind. The 2010 census will show us how different we are demographically from 2000. Culturally, we are remarkably different as well. Just as technology has progressively evolved, people all over are reshaping their worldview, a societal movement that informs us that a new employer-employee social contract is sensible, judicious and timely.

We concluded that article asking the question: will we (leaders) have the courage to join this emerging movement, or will we hold back for fear of....of what, exactly?

Let's delve into the question of what we fear, or what it is we think we fear.

I. Show Me the Money

The most common fear CEOs express is ROI: where is the payoff? How is a so-called "soft" initiative justified financially?

That one's relatively easy. The immediate impact of reengaging people is to mitigate the persistent challenges of turnover, absenteeism, burnout and low morale. The hard costs associated with turnover and replacement alone are major, as we know. More extended studies show their added impact on productivity, quality, innovation, customer retention, health plan costs, and the silent effect on corporate brand - that collection of experiences connected with a company's transactions, services and collective voice.

Solving the core issues of turnover and disengagement significantly reduces the cost of doing business, and profits rise accordingly. But besides reengagement itself, one of the most pressing problems today is attracting and retaining key talent and labor, from leaders and managers to workers at every level. Executives would do well to consciously transform their cultural system. People will follow the laws of attraction and join organizations where the new story is coming to life.

In fact, the innumerable ways employees impact the bottom line imposes a question that should raise more fear than the one being asked about ROI: what is the cost of not creating a more dynamic culture? What competitive risk are we taking by underestimating this issue?

II. Would Tuesday Work for You?

Another commonly expressed fear is that a cultural initiative takes too long and may distract us from other priorities. Executives looking for the quick fix ask whether we can transform the culture on a Tuesday because there's too much on their plates if it takes longer than that. Ironically, it is nothing for leaders to expend 24-36 months phasing out old technology platforms and constructing a new enterprise system, but when it comes to a cultural initiative they lean on shortcuts and du jours. Just as there are no quick fixes in technology, there isn't one for our most important asset, people. The term conversion informs both sides of the equation: operations and culture. Many organizations have brilliantly focused on the former yet are well behind on the latter.

III. Did You Mean Me?

This is actually the biggie. For an organization to infuse a cultural shift the leaders must live and model a new way of being, not delegate it. A sustaining shift cannot take hold with the leaders on the sidelines. Embarking on the personal transformation essential to leading such a transformation presents a larger reluctance than either the ROI or quick fix flag leaders typically raise. It is paradoxical that the higher up we go the greater the fear we have. There's more to lose, more to be criticized about, bigger mistakes to be made, and more time that can be lost to such "non-producing" activities as leadership growth and cultural transformation. These unfounded fears put the brakes on many a conscious leadership exploration.

So let's get even more real. The foundation of a successful cultural shift is authenticity. Forgive the broad brush, but that's not the model most of us have seen. Our society has been steeped in tabloid worship and skin-deep virtues and we are all familiar with this routine: look good, spin the message, bolster the numbers, control the image, avoid blame, change the subject, etc. There's no faulting anyone for this; we're all engulfed in the same model together. And even the best of our many effective leaders were raised in a paradigm that focuses more on competition, personality, wealth and ideal image than on integrating the whole human into our competitive strategies and growing authentic relationships with our stakeholders and the world.

This Isn't So Hard

The simplicity in this calling is that consciousness lives inside each of us. Deep down, we're all about values, dreams, purposeful action, making a difference, serving the whole and making great things happen. Every leader knows that about her/himself.

The new story of leadership is to create high-performing organizations grounded in good juju. It's the missing piece in many a tired culture. Here's what goes on every day at your place of work: people handle tasks, duties, projects and problems. They debate, explore, co-create, break, fix and reinvent. They meet deadlines, miss deadlines, communicate, commiserate and celebrate. The difference-maker is how the cultural system operates through all this. Is the work environment authentic and inspiring? Does it share a larger purpose? How deep and genuine are the values? Do people trust one another? Does everyone tell the truth? Does the culture unleash people's best gifts and talents through thick and thin, or does it stifle human greatness in the pressure cooker of quarterly earnings reports? Is this a great place to work?

Authentic leaders see above the fray. They consciously establish cultural values, principles and standards that raise the organizational sense of being in the daily slog of doing. They hold a great vision, a cause that serves a higher purpose for the enterprise. In Socrates' quote above, they change the music – the deep tone of meaning - and in so doing they change the company's culture. The new breed of leaders understands that culture is reemerging as the primary competitive advantage of the millennium.

More leaders are emerging who see the economic value of cultural reawakening. Collaborative energy plus unified effort, guided by a compelling cause and inspired by conscious leaders who hold a clear vision for success -- equals extraordinary results. Go for it. Your people are eagerly awaiting this new brand of leadership, your customers will respond in kind and with revenue, and the market will duly reward you for the success you create.