There is currently a lot of talk about conscious leadership. But what is it? Conscious leadership means different things to different people. In philosophy and science, consciousness is known as the ‘hard problem’. No one knows what consciousness is and how it comes about. So, it’s not surprising there isn’t a consensus view about conscious leadership.
The theories about consciousness frequently contradict each other. Some argue that everything is, to some degree, conscious. Whereas others assert consciousness is an illusion and doesn’t exist. Some theories say that consciousness arises from matter through the structures and processes of the brain. Whereas others claim it’s the other way around, in that consciousness creates matter. There are then numerous theories that combine these perspectives to varying degrees and in different ways. With the philosophers and scientists not agreeing, there is little wonder there isn’t a consensus view about conscious leadership.
For some people working with conscious leadership, it is about leading with higher levels of awareness, to lead mindfully. By leading with greater awareness, it is believed the leader is able to pay attention to all aspects of the workplace and integrate the needs of all stakeholders. Mindfulness also enables the leader to be more aware of the changes in their environment and to be more adaptable. As well as having outer awareness, it is thought that conscious leaders foster inner awareness to ensure they know how their thoughts and emotions are influencing how they perceive and understand the world and, correspondingly, their decisions and behaviour. Other people emphasise that conscious leadership is about leading with a clear and strong overriding purpose. Leading with a clear purpose for the organisation enables the conscious leader to unite diverse stakeholders around a common cause. With higher levels of awareness and purpose, some people argue that conscious leaders are able to lead with greater integrity and responsibility. Therefore, conscious leaders are said to lead with higher levels of ethics, moral reasoning and compassion. The combination of these qualities leads conscious leaders to use business as a force for good in society.
These are all excellent qualities any leader would seek to develop. However, by describing conscious leadership in terms of these qualities, we are really describing the effect rather than the cause. They are how we use our consciousness. These qualities are descriptions of what conscious leadership does rather than what it is. Otto Scharmer (Senior Lecturer at MIT) has said, "the quality of results in any social system is a function of the consciousness from which the people in that system operate".* I agree, consciousness is the source of our performance. It flows through everything we do, individually and collectively. To be able to demonstrate the qualities of a conscious leader, we must first develop our consciousness.
Even though philosophers and scientists can’t agree on what consciousness is or how it is created, psychologists have described how we experience it. They tend to explain consciousness in terms of states, lines and stages.
- States of Consciousness: We experience different states of consciousness, such as alertness, sleepy, dreaming, etc. We can also have ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ (ASCs) brought on by meditation, yoga, dance, alcohol, drugs, etc. A special type of ASC is called a ‘Peak Experience’. This is when we experience intensity of perception, depth of feeling, or a sense of profound significance, to such a degree that it significantly stands out from everyday events. Most peak experiences occur during athletic, artistic, religious, or nature experiences or intimate moments with friends or family members.
- Lines of Consciousness: These are generally different aspects of our psychology, such as cognition, emotion, values, moral reasoning and motives etc. All of these can develop at different rates throughout our lives and, as they do, they become more sophisticated or provide the ability to operate in more complex situations.
- Stages of Consciousness: Although lines of consciousness can develop at different rates, their combination often indicates a person’s current stage in the development of their consciousness. Psychologists have found that adult growth proceeds in terms of periods of transition and plateaux of stability. This combination of plateaux and transitions is the basis of most stage models of adult psychological growth and development.
Recent advances in neuroscience have found our brain continually changes throughout our adult life through a process known as neuroplasticity. This is where the brain actually changes as a result of our experience. Consequently, if our environment becomes more complex, our brains adapt to cope with greater complexity. This new brain physiology leads to our consciousness becoming more complex and we transition to a higher stage, giving us new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Although psychologists researching stages of consciousness development have each focused on a different line of consciousness and how it develops up the stages, their models align with each other relatively closely. Consequently, it is possible to map them all on to a generic model of stages of consciousness development that can be applied to leaders as shown below:
(Developed for a synthesis of the theories researched and created by Abraham Maslow, Clare Graves, Elliott Jaques, Jane Loevinger, Robert Kegan, & Lawrence Kohlberg).
If we want to have the ability to lead consciously in today’s increasingly complex world, we must develop our consciousness and progress up the stages of adult psychological growth. Stage 4 used to be viewed as the height of adult maturity. However, in today’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, most leaders operating at this level are now ‘in over their heads’. In today’s business environment, the qualities of conscious leadership are best delivered from stage 6. Leaders must now endeavour to develop into the post-conventional stages. This can be done by facing increasingly complex challenges. However, this is not a ‘sink or swim’ approach. If we are to overcome the challenge, we first prepare ourselves by working with both the states and the lines of our consciousness and being supported through the transition period.
Conscious leadership is not only doing; it is also being. To lead consciously, we must also raise our consciousness to a higher stage of development.
* Scharmer, C. O. (2018). The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications. Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. Oakland, CA.
31st March 2021