Defining “conscious leadership” is like nailing Jell-O to a wall: it seems doable in principle, but it’s hard to execute. I thought I’d have a handle on it by now; I’ve been meditating since 1986, including living for a decade in residential spiritual community, sitting more than 50 meditation retreats, and sequestering myself in a yearlong isolated retreat in a cabin I hand-built in the mountains.
Meanwhile, for the past 16 years I’ve run an executive coaching firm to help senior leaders make better decisions, awaken emotional commitment in their teams, and accelerate business results by sharpening their minds and broadening their hearts.
Yet with all that work, I’m far from enlightened, and still find that it’s tough for me and my clients to articulate exactly what conscious leadership is. So I’m going to discuss it here by negation, in terms of what it’s definitely not.
If you’re striving for conscious leadership, then I propose you start by ensuring you’re not making any of these five deadly mistakes.
Deadly sin #1: Thinking you’re conscious
Game over. If you start convincing yourself you’re conscious, you’re on a losing streak. Way back in the day, Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” More recently, Charles Darwin wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” But my favorite teaching on this is from the movie “The Usual Suspects” (1995): “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
Imagine your consciousness as a cosmic onion, with endless layers that can be peeled back through eternity. Now you’re getting close to understanding the flaw of thinking you’re conscious. At the end of a Zen retreat few years ago I announced, “I want a refund because I’ve had the same insight for the fourth retreat in a row.” Of course, I was kidding — though a bit disappointed, too. We have an infinite capacity for self-rationalization, and it never works in our spiritual favor. Neil Burton writes in “Hide and Seek, the Psychology of Self Deception” that, “Human beings are not rational, but rationalizing animals.”
If you want to be a conscious leader, start by actively resisting the urge to buy into your own belief that you’re conscious. The very act of thinking that you’re conscious is an invitation to fall into delusion.
Conscious Leadership Antidote #1
Find two or three trusted people who will act as your BS detector – peers, coaches, or friends. It’s too easy to buy into your own story. Consciousness is personal growth, but collective effort.
Deadly sin #2: Trying to avoid judgement
Here’s the bottom line: you have a mind, so you’re genetically obligated to make judgements — to define and interpret reality. Being non-judgmental isn’t the same as abandoning judgment. How on earth are you going to lead without judgement?
Consider Mark for a moment. He’s an underperforming CFO. I say that because he’s tactical, he micromanages his people, he doesn’t challenge his peers’ financial assumptions, and his team is slow. I like Mark and I embrace and respect him as a man and friend, and in my judgment his performance is inadequate. If he doesn’t up-level his work, I’ll fire him.
If we take leadership competencies — strategy, team building, execution, talent development, innovation — and boil them down to a “leadership reduction” we get judgment. Judgement is discernment; it’s a leader’s demonstrated values, priorities, boundaries, and clear intentions. You’re not much use in leadership if you can’t make judgment calls on difficult decisions. Where conscious leaders get trapped is in being judgmental.
When you’re judgmental, you’re projecting your unexamined values and unconscious standards on someone, and you’re morally evaluating them by your bias.
Conscious Leadership Antidote #2
Of course, we’re guided by our values, but these values are most often unconscious. Take time to clarify your values so you’ll have conscious choice when your value-lens colors your relationships, interactions, or decisions. That will help you leverage discernment to mindfully observe a situation in the present moment and without an emotional narrative and make decisions with wisdom and perspective.
Deadly sin #3: Trying to make people happy
The shtick that happiness is an inalienable right is a bogus trend that reeks of first-world privilege and marketing. Wanting to be happy is a rookie mistake on the conscious leadership journey. Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. And trying to make others happy — employees, customers, investors, peers — is a Sisyphean task. Happiness is fleeting and situational; when sales are up or when a new hire works out on the team, then you’re happy. But situations constantly change.
Buddha boiled our causes of unhappiness to two sources: there are things I want that I don’t have — more team cohesion, faster sales growth, better marketing data, more engaged leaders, etc. — which he called “craving.” And there are things I have that I don’t want — debt, new competition, conflict on my team, demanding investors, restrictive regulations, etc. — which he called “aversion.”
Craving and aversion affect all of us all the time, and make happiness fleeting. So the work of conscious leadership isn’t to make ourselves or others happy, but to learn and teach contentment — the art of embracing reality as it is.
Conscious Leadership Antidote #3
Take up a mindfulness practice, like meditation. It’ll teach you to deal with ever-changing reality, accept the (seemingly) unacceptable, and shift from happiness to contentment. Oh, and you’d do well to memorize Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Deadly sin #4: Working to be fearless
Surely you’ve been convinced, as I was (by Zig Ziglar, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Tom Hopkins, and others), that your life is limited by your fears. My relationships, work success, creativity, and even spiritual connection were determined, I was told, by my ability to eliminate my fears. Oh, and we’re told that our full potential will be realized when we conquer our fears.
Well that’s ridiculous. Fearlessness isn’t an option. Sure, push the boundaries of your comfort zone, but don’t think you will be fearless; being fearless is a misguided objective that’s immature and delusional, not conscious. Fear is biological. It is a survival imperative so deeply woven into our neural system that it practically defines what it means to be alive.
Of course, fear holds us back. It’s the gatekeeper to power. But you don’t have to banish your fears to be a successful and conscious leader. The objective of a fully engaged life is courage, not fearlessness. Courage is walking toward what you’d rather run away from; conscious leaders press forward not without fear, but in its presence. As Aristotle said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”
Conscious Leadership Antidote #4
Learn to label your fearful thoughts. When you name them, you can tame them. “Fear of the unknown” is a terrible label because it’s so broad and nonspecific. But, “fear of looking like an idiot if I can’t get the team to buy in to my plan” is clear and pointed. Once you name it, you can make a reasonable plan to move toward it.
Deadly sin #5: Trying to kill the ego
News flash: The ego isn’t an enemy! Our ego is a collection of habitual responses to the tension, threat, and demands of relationship and society. Your murderous intentions toward the ego just add to our overfed self-loathing, inner violence, and self-rejection. None of these sound like they’d make you a more conscious leader, do they?
The objective of moving toward conscious leadership isn’t to kill the ego, but to reframe your relationship with it. Consider this: your ‘ego’ is a protective mechanism that’s acting defensively because it doesn’t have proof that you’re capable of taking care of yourself. Sounds far-fetched? Well, you aren’t to be trusted because you’re dishonest with yourself; you lie, break promises, and cheat yourself. You can’t bullshit yourself. To develop a more cooperative ego, you have to consistently follow through on promises and commitments; what Don Miguel calls “being impeccable with your word.”
Conscious Leadership Antidote #5
Your challenge as a conscious leader is to say what you’re going to do and do what you say. Be honest. Start making a real practice of saying ‘no.’ And, make a habit of conscious responses over automatic reactions. Our ego reacts as quickly, efficiently, and defensively as possible. By definition, this isn’t conscious. So you’ll have to do real work to engage your world with awareness and not just react from old conditioning.
Conscious leadership is a worthwhile journey
Being a conscious leader isn’t a certificate program, it’s a lifestyle — one that lasts a lifetime. Make the commitment, and reflect on these deadly sins as ways to check in and change course if you notice yourself doing them. Above all, continue to ensure your growth and evolution by being kind to yourself in the process.