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Bottom-Line Behavior

Conscious leadership: What it is and how to become one

Leading with empathy can open a lot of doors for your employees, and your organization.

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The world is always changing, and the business world along with it. Recently, there has been a trend toward something called “conscious leadership.”

Touted by such luminaries as John Mackey of Whole Food Markets, Eric Schmidt of Google and Anna Roddick of the Body Shop, conscious leadership is a leadership style that focuses on guiding others and cultivating growth by supporting the people who work in the business. Instead of a “me” attitude, a conscious leader takes the more inclusive “we” approach.

An increasing number of business leaders view conscious leadership as an essential priority for both the sustainability and profitability of businesses — whether it’s a Fortune 500 or a small entrepreneurial business. The world has changed and continues to change. Leadership styles have been a bit slow to catch up. Conscious leadership can be the answer to these dynamic and challenging times. You’ll often hear the phrase “people over profits,” but I don’t believe that’s a binary choice. With truly conscious and talented leaders, your business can have both.

So, what does conscious leadership look like? It starts with awareness. Conscious leaders are acutely aware of patterns in their environment — how employees are interacting, whether people are learning and growing, where areas of dissatisfaction are. This allows leaders to concentrate on the issues that, if ignored, damage long term profitability of the company. Conscious Leadership is about seeing what’s in front of you, rather than staring into the future.


Leading from above the line

The conscious leadership paradigm uses a simple methodology. It’s called the line.

Every leader either leads from above the line or below the line. This is the starting point to becoming a conscious leader. If you’re above the line, you’re a conscious leader. If you’re below the line, you have some work to do. Leaders who are below the line are often closed and defensive — it’s human nature to protect your position, but it’s not good business. Those above the line are open and curious, and more in line with their employees, and thus, are more conscious leaders.

But leaders aren’t born above or below the line — and they’re not stuck where they start. Leading from above the line is about self-awareness. In their work on Conscious Leadership and in their book, “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A new paradigm for sustainable success," by Jim Dethmer, Dina Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp, the authors suggest there are four basic ways of thinking for leaders, and they represent a ladder to Conscious Leadership:

  • To Me: This style of thinking is “victim” thinking — a hallmark of a below the line leader. These leaders believe bad things are happening to them and are outside their control.
  • Through Me: The first step to becoming a conscious leader, through me thinking requires a leader to become more curious and begin to notice the impact of their behavior on others. It can be incredibly enlightening when you realize you are not the center of the universe.
  • By Me: At this stage, a leader accepts responsibility for their own actions and the actions and performance of those under them. All conscious leaders operate in this manner.
  • As Me: This is the highest level of leadership and development for conscious leaders — understanding that the “me” is not important and there is a “oneness” about the world in which the leader, their employees and their business are all part of.

As you might imagine, “letting go” is the gateway to moving from below to above the line. But what else can leaders do to become conscious leaders? Here are five steps to becoming a conscious leader:

  1. Awareness is key. Look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. Are you leading from below or above the line? Once you become aware of how you lead, you can take steps to change how you lead.
  2. Take responsibility. Bad leaders blame others. Good leaders know the buck stops with them, and bad outcomes are either a direct or indirect result of their own actions.
  3. Understand the difference between content (what we’re talking about) and context (how are we talking about it). How you talk about a problem will get you much further than simply focusing on the problem.
  4. Be open to shifting your thinking. Learn through curiosity and learn to separate fact from fiction in an honest way.
  5. Be willing to ask the tough questions, of both yourself and of others. Get it all out on the table. When you do, you will find clarity — and the right solution.

Becoming a conscious leader will do wonders for your business, its employees and your future. And the best news is, it’s not rocket science. Honesty, self-awareness and empathy are the keys to becoming a conscious leader. And though they can sometimes be painful, the results are worth it. And it all starts with self-awareness.

(This story was updated to add the book on Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Dina Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp.)



Denise Federer

Denise Federer is a contributing columnist to the Business Observer. She is the founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group with more than 30 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at [email protected].

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