The world of conscious leadership has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. In 1995, when I first started doing executive coaching and cultural transformation in organizations, hardly anyone was talking about conscious leadership, consciousness, mindfulness, presence, or compassion in the workplace. Rarely did you find an organizational leader or team meditating, practicing yoga or gratitude, or talking about emotional intelligence.
Now it seems like every few days a major publication has an article on some aspect of conscious leadership. The top business schools in the US offer classes on the touchy-feely aspects of leadership that are packed and praised. Cutting-edge companies have yoga and meditation rooms and talk openly about mindfulness and being present. Many believe that the secret sauce of their success is relating openly, honestly, compassionately, and consciously. Fear-based forms of motivation are being replaced by a deep understanding that people want to actualize, grow, and develop, including in consciousness and relationship. Old paradigms of leadership are being replaced by new ways of leading and living that are proving to be more sustainable on an individual and collective level.
We’ve come a long way in the past 25 years. What might the next 25 years bring?
The Terrain of Conscious Leadership
At The Conscious Leadership Group, we adapted the following model (originally created by Michael Bernard Beckwith) that maps the terrain of conscious leadership from the past to the present and from this moment to the emerging future. It consists of exploring four states of leadership: to me, by me, through me, and as me.
TO ME describes a state of leadership in which people believe that they are victims of people and circumstances around them. They place the locus of control outside of themselves and think that something “out there” is the cause of their suffering. From this threatened state, they blame, feel helpless, or try to fix the problem temporarily. You know you are in this state if you are dealing with the same issues over and over again or prioritize being right over being curious.
BY ME describes a state of leadership where people recognize that they are the creator of their experience. While conditions and circumstances can be difficult to navigate, By Me leaders are not at the mercy of them. They stay open and curious, and learn and find ways to permanently resolve the challenges they face. By Me leaders take 100 percent responsibility for the results around them. They ask, “How did I contribute to creating this result?”
THROUGH ME is a state where leaders surrender their own personal agenda and begin to collaborate with an awareness greater than themselves. They ask the question, “What is life’s greatest expression that can come through me?” In this state, leaders listen for guidance and are open to new possibilities life offers. They become devoted to serving the whole world. Curiosity deepens even more in this state and leaders get comfortable questioning all of their beliefs about how their lives and the world need to be.
AS ME (which we won’t discuss much here) is a state where the ego has a direct experience with being unified with everything else. There is no separate “I” in this state. Reliably, one feels in concert with the way the world is and can see the equality of all perspectives. This state is difficult to describe because as soon as you speak about it, you limit what it is.
“Life happens to me”
Experience: Blaming and complaining
Beliefs: There is a problem. Someone is at fault. Someone should fix it.
Key Questions: Why me? Whose fault is this?
Benefits: Experience separateness, drama as entertainment, and adrenaline high. Supports empathy towards others.
“I make life happen”
Experience: Curiosity, appreciation
Beliefs: Problems are here for me to learn from. I created the problem, I can solve it.
Key Questions: What can I learn? What do I want to create?
Benefits: Personal empowerment. Define your wants and desires.
“I cooperate with life happening”
Experience: Allowing, flow, wonder, and awe
Beliefs: I am the source of all meaning I experience. Things are perfect, whole and complete. Life handles all apparent “problems.”
Key Question: What wants to happen through me?
Benefits: Non-attachment. Unlimited possibility, plenty of everything.
Most people practicing conscious leadership are just beginning to be able to shift from To Me leadership to By Me leadership. To Me leadership describes a state where people believe that they are at the effect of conditions. The shift to By Me requires the choice to take radical responsibility for one’s life. Leaders and organizations moving from To Me to By Me choose to end blame and criticism, value learning and curiosity over defending the ego and being right, and speak openly and honestly in a way that invites deep dialogue and ends gossip. These leaders look for win-for-all solutions and no longer play a scarcity-based, zero-sum game. Fear, in all of its forms, ceases to be the underlying motivator driving individuals and groups. Some key tools for creating By Me cultures are mindfulness, candor, taking responsibility, feeling authentic feelings, and striving for impeccable integrity (to name a few).
Collectively, we have work to do to continue the shift from To Me to By Me. It’s no small task to transition from living in victim consciousness to living in empowered creator consciousness. This requires taking responsibility for all the results we create so that we’re no longer passively living at the mercy of people, circumstances, and conditions. Instead, we commit to curiosity and openness, working and living from a spirit of play, and aligning with our zones of genius.
We think it is very important to continue to build mastery and transition from To Me to By Me. But as we look to the future of conscious leadership, we expect to see some teams master By Me and thus be ready for a movement to Through Me leadership. The movement from being a To Me leader to a By Me leader is the shift from victim consciousness to creator consciousness, from being passively affected to embracing agency and choice. It is about being a more aligned, free, and empowered self. But it is still from the perspective of self; it’s about me and us: my/our family, my/our company, my/our community, my/our world.
As consciousness expands in individuals and groups in the coming decades, we’ll ready ourselves to focus on Through Me leadership — at least at the leading edge. We’ll shift our attention from me/us to something bigger. It’s at this point that words let us down and often divide us, so I’ve chosen as innocuous a word as I can imagine: “It.” It simply means there is something beyond the self, something larger and more expansive than me/us. People on this path use words like “the universe,” “god,” “reality,” “awareness,” “love,” and countless others. What they all have in common is that they are not me (though they all include me because I am not separate from It). For the By Me leader, the ego is still very much in the game. We could say that when one moves from To Me to By Me, the self is becoming more mature, evolved, cooperative, and conscious.
As one begins to explore Through Me, one gets less and less interested in me and more and more interested in It. The gateway from By Me to Through Me is surrender, letting go. In my experience, most people have to develop a mature self before they can surrender to something bigger. By Me is the development of a healthier me/us. But once a leader experiences a more evolved and empowered sense of self, they often ask, “Is that all there is? Is it just about me/us getting better? Is it just about learning to be a creator who takes responsibility and manifests the reality they want?”
I believe that the future of conscious leadership looks like mature, healthy, individuated, and liberated selves aligning in powerful teams, and then taking the terrifying and enlivening risk of surrendering to something bigger than the self (or selves). Surrendering to It — or, dare we say, to love.
The conscious leader of the future will be devoted to spending more time cultivating stillness and silence in order to deeply listen to the wisdom that It has to share. Meditation in some form will not be optional.
“The conscious leader of the future will be devoted to spending more time cultivating stillness and silence.”
The conscious leader of the future will surrender to what It wants to do in the world through the leader and her team. For the conscious leader of the future, this is not a weak acquiescence from fear of a higher power, but rather a transformational partnership with something infinitely greater than her biggest idea of what is possible.
The conscious leaders of the future will spend time listening, surrendering, and allowing. They will experience themselves less and less as doers, getting things done in the world (and therefore living at an ever-increasingly frenetic pace) and more and more as the ones through whom doing gets done. They will experience life not as a victim (To Me), and not so much as a creator (By Me), but more and more as a channel (Through Me).
The future of conscious leadership is not for the faint of heart. It will threaten our sense of who we think we are. It will be terrifying at times. And yet it lets us move beyond what we know to create solutions by accessing wisdom beyond our experience. Through Me leaders, the leaders of the future, will see possibilities previously unseen, create aligned teams and organizations that regularly experience wonder and even awe at what is happening around them, and have seemingly limitless energy to play at life and work.
Am I Ready for Through Me Leadership?
It’s important to have mastery over being the creator of your life (By Me leadership) before you decide to surrender to Through Me leadership. We’ve seen clients create unnecessary upset in their lives by skipping over the needed explorations, growth, and integration that By Me provides.
You’ll know you’re developing mastery of By Me when:
Blaming, criticizing, and complaining about others, circumstances, and yourself have largely dropped out of your life.
You are far more interested in learning from any and all people and circumstances than you are in continuing to prove you’re right about your position, your view of a situation, and your beliefs about reality.
You challenge all your stories and beliefs and are willing to see that the opposite of your beliefs and stories could be as true.
You don’t have much withheld or left unsaid in your important relationships. You are fully revealed, with all your meaningful thoughts, feelings, and wants.
You don’t gossip.
You live a life of integrity: you make clear agreements with yourself and others, and keep them or clean them up when you don’t.
You have replaced entitlement and resentment with appreciation, and have experienced a significant positive shift in your ability to give and receive appreciation.
You are comfortable feeling your anger, fear, and grief, and comfortable when others feel their feelings too.
5 Practical First Steps to Explore Through Me Leadership
1. Examine and explore your relationship to It (the universe, spirit, awareness, oneness, love, god, etc.). Through Me leadership presupposes that there is something going on other than and bigger than you. What is that for you? Do you have a reliable connection with that?
2. When you think about the word surrender, what comes up for you? What feelings, thoughts and body sensations? Surrender involves letting go, and for many of us letting go is terrifying. A simple practice for experiencing surrender is the practice of consciously surrendering to sleep each night. Do this by turning off all screens, darkening your room, breathing consciously and deeply, and noticing as you let go and let sleep take you.
3. Cultivate stillness and silence as a lifestyle. Turn off the TV, music, podcasts, and everything else that fills your life with sound. Sit or walk in silence. Cultivate being still, both on the outside and on the inside. The fertile soil of Through Me is stillness and silence.
4. Clear up any and all integrity breaches in your life. In Through Me leadership, you are the channel or vessel, and it is important that the channel be clear and clean. Begin by simply asking, “Is there anything I said I would do but haven’t done?” or “Is there anything I’ve said I wouldn’t do, but did?”
5. At the end of your meditation practice, ask the simple question, “What does It (love, god, spirit, the universe, awareness, etc.) want to do through me today?” Then sit and listen. Learning to live in Through Me presence involves cultivating the ability to listen to that small voice, those whispers, that intuitive knowing that we can so easily skip over.
Jim Dethmer is a coach, speaker, author, and co-founder of The Conscious Leadership Group. He has personally worked with over 150 CEOs to integrate conscious leadership into their organizations. Jim also leads forums for select leaders in Chicago and New York. He has spoken at Conscious Capitalism, the Mindful Leadership Summit, and many other venues. He is co-author of “High Performing Investment Teams” and “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.”