Conscious Leadership or Leader Consciousness?

20 Mar

Up until a month ago, the term “conscious leadership” was new to me. However, as I’ve immersed myself in the literature and community, it’s become clear that while it may be a new term, it was not a new concept. I’ve been studying the great contemplative traditions for a long time and they in turn have exploring the boundaries of consciousness for thousands of years. So, while the term may be new, the truth it points to certainly isn’t. The benefit comes from the fact that conscious leadership is taking these mystical insights, integrating them with the best research and theory from organizational and leadership studies, and wrapping them it all up in business language that Westerners can stomach.

I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it also means that some things might be lost in translation. The sheer complexity of consciousness studies is awe-inspiring. The history of the great mystical traditions is overwhelming by itself. Then you add the important insights from philosophy of mind, and more recent contributions from good old cognitive-development psychology, and you have this massive amount of great information to pull together. And this is before you add all of the crappy information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who says that you shouldn’t even bother trying to define words like “consciousness” or “leadership.” Trying to define the words you use is an important exercise. It forces us to make difficult choices and create elegant solutions. So, for the purposes of this article, I’d like to offer my own definitions of both and see where that takes us:

Consciousness – The state of being aware of sensory forms (both internal and external).

Leadership – The process of intentional influence of one person upon others.

You’ll notice a few things. First, they are short definitions. This is because I believe that simplicity amplifies meaning. Second, notice that neither of these definitions includes a moral dimension. This is because I believe that the distinction between TRUE and FALSE is much more relevant than GOOD versus BAD. Third, the two primary verbs are awareness and influence. When we put these two definitions together, we start to see that conscious leadership is primarily about the ability to be aware and the ability to influence based on that awareness.

Now, most leadership models would have you believe that you need to be aware FIRST, then you influence others (this would be accurate linguistically because “conscious” modifies “leadership”). This would certainly fit the hero-style leadership models of the past. The leader is worshiped as an omnipotent deity and the central lever when it comes to organizational change. But we know that this is only one side of the coin. The primary focus on the individual is often shorthanded as “leader development” and the collective focus is often called, “leadership development.” The whole of the field is then called, confusingly, “leadership development.” Clearly, we need to do a better job with our definitions.

The field of conscious leadership seems to be a bit confused on this point. Conscious leadership is used almost exclusively to mean the individual awareness of a leader. I would like to submit that there should be an equal focus on “leader consciousness,” which would be the collective counterpart. As much as I respect the efforts of thought leaders in conscious leadership, I think it sells itself short if it just repackages ancient wisdom. It’s a noble service on it’s own, but it won’t really contribute to the leadership literature if it doesn’t expand its questions. What would collective leader consciousness look like? How would it operate? To me, these are far more interesting questions.

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One Response to “Conscious Leadership or Leader Consciousness?”

  1. chrcowan March 21, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Leadership requires followership and that followership must be voluntary, but “voluntary” suggests that we leave out cases in which the follower is either coerced or is unaware that they are following. That’s why I stick just to “influence,” which I’ll grant you, has its own problems of definition.

    To me, “leader consciousness” would be more akin to “leadership culture,” which would have a few features. One, the boundaries and definitions of leadership (i.e. intentional influence) would constantly be under review. The decision-making power of the group would become something to look at; something that the group is consistently moving from subject to object. We might see very clear role definitions with clear autonomy for decision-making (I’m thinking Holacracy could add some thinking around this).

    Two, we would need to better understand the dynamic interplay between the consciousness of the leader and the consciousness of the group being led. Here I’m thinking there is an opportunity to advance situational leadership models using research and insights from Spiral Dynamics and others. Leader/member/group match is a hugely rich topic and one that I would love to hear more from the conscious leadership perspective.

    Third, “leader consciousness” could also signify that a more democratic process by which any individual within the organization can grow in seeing more “leadership stuff.” That is, “leader consciousness” is actually just a kind of awareness. What was formally leadership subject becomes leadership object. For example, they become aware that their copy-writing skills are actually an important expression of influence. Leadership is then democratized across a much broader spectrum of abilities and experiences, which allow those of us in leadership development, to focus more on cultivating an individual’s natural expression of leadership rather than forcing people into a box called “the conscious leader.”

    So, this is kinda a ramble, but I just got my coffee and this tends to happen. I just feel like in my work, I’m trying to move away from epidemiological (you KNOW how to be a leader) and even behavioral models (you ACT like a leader) of leadership development. I think the world is changing far too way to put much faith in the fact that our notions of leadership today will hold up even a few months from now. I think conscious leadership can add an important nuance to what I’m calling “ontological” leadership development, which means that the focus of my development programs are that participants BECOME leaders (not just know who to be one or just act like one). Which I think fits the spirit of conscious leadership and why I’m very interested in exploring these ideas with this group. *end rant.

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