Now emerging as a term, conscious leadership is distinct from other leadership models, mindsets, and trends. Thus far, the literature has focused on some competencies and skills that can be valuable.
And yet, conscious leadership is different. In short, a conscious leader is someone who leads from an interdependent awareness.
Emerging Trend or Expanded Consciousness?
Conscious leadership recognizes the nature of being as interdependent. Consider the human body, for example, as mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of our cycle of life.
We largely remain unconscious of this interdependent experience of being. Yet, through our interactions in the world via our embodied interpretations, we give meaning to our existence, identity, and purpose.
More than additional competencies, greater effectiveness of skill, and a deeper understanding of emotional, spiritual, and systemic intelligence, conscious leadership involves a different consciousness of being.
Otto Scharmer of Theory U speaks of this as a transition from ego-systems to eco-systems.
A few thinkers—Fred Kofman, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, Otto Scharmer, Ken Wilber, Barrett Brown, Robert Kegan, and Susanne Cook-Greuter, as well as the authors of 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp)—offer new paradigms and learning to distinguish consciousness in leadership and business context.
Vertical Learning to Expand “Seeing” and “Being
In Conscious Business, Fred Kofman defines the term as “fostering peace and happiness in the individual, respect, and solidarity in the community, and mission accomplishment in the organization.” Through greater consciousness, defined as “aware, awake, and mindful,” we recognize who we are, what we do, how we do it, and the effects of our [inter]actions.
Expanding consciousness may be the most important distinction in conscious leadership. Unlike previous leadership models and mindsets:
conscious leaders embrace change with a capacity to evolve. They seek out blind spots to cultivate an interdependent awareness, integrate diverse perspectives, and employ varied competencies to serve multiple commitments.
Learning to expand consciousness reveals its inherent paradoxes: learning and unlearning to create spaciousness, and surfacing unconscious blind spots to make us more conscious.
The outcome is a shift beyond conventional learning designed to understand new knowledge or develop new competencies (lateral/horizontal learning) to vertical learning, which transforms awareness, perception, and the way we discern and interpret reality.
In sum, conscious leaders embrace vertical learning to cultivate “seeing” and “being,” which precede knowing and performing.
Twelve Tensions That Evoke Awareness
What does it mean to expand consciousness? How can we evolve from ego-systems to eco-systems? The paradoxical nature of conscious leadership demands awareness of unlearning.
Instead of new knowledge or skills, I offer twelve tensions—paradoxes, polarities, and contradictions—that evoke awareness.
Navigating these tensions cultivates an interdependent awareness with specific qualities, competencies, or practices (bolded in each section). Combined, we can experience the emergence of a new vocabulary and pedagogical framework for being conscious leaders.
Tension 1: Resolve/Openness
This first tension navigates the heart (sensitivity), mind (curiosity), body (resilience), and will (courage).
Conscious leaders possess a steadfast curiosity to cultivate openness, particularly within their organizations—surfacing blind spots, encouraging power-sharing, embracing transparency, presencing compassion, and experimenting with ideas in a rigorous and resolute manner.
With moral fiber and the courage of their convictions, conscious leaders are resolute and can switch views and modes as required by the situation or context. They possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will—a blend identified by Jim Collins in 2001 (Good to Great) with his concept of “Level 5 Leaders.”
In his Theory U framework, Otto Scharmer explores a process to support this tension by suspending our reactive mind to experience sensing for presencing our heart, mind, and will.
Tension 2: Knowing/Learning
Confronted by changing norms, knowledge, ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds, conscious leaders venture into the unknown, which can be most disorienting. This uncertainty reveals a tension between “learning and knowing.”
Our fixation on “knowing” offers the refuge of “certainty” in the face of the unknown.
With the “openness” from Paradox 1, the shift from knowing (being right) to learning (being open) requires cultivating what Fred Kofman calls ontological humility. This means:
… acknowledging that you do not have a special claim on reality or truth, and that others have equally valid perspectives deserving respect and consideration.
Developing mindfulness to remain in the present moment—allowing our mind-consciousness to relax and to stop worrying about the past or anticipating the future—to cultivate ontological humility.
Mindfulness dissolves fixations on “knowing” and “certainty” to question beliefs, surface projections, and examine pitfalls.
Tension 3: Exertion/Renewal
Conscious leaders tap into and exercise energy aligned with a higher purpose.
Greater awareness expands sensitivity, demanding greater balance. Creating space to calm and clear the mind, remove the noises and distractions that can drain us, discern nourishing consumption, and slow reactiveness via conscious breathing releases energy that supports our presence of mind and body.
Unlike other leadership models, conscious leadership honors somatic, neural, and mental energy and develops breathing and grounding practices to rejuvenate the sensing (intuitive), sensitive (heart), and rational (cognitive) self.
To regulate energy, conscious leaders practice compassion, which begins with self-compassion. More than a feeling or sentiment, compassion is an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object, in the self or in others.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh views compassion as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.”
Tension 4: Analytical/Intuitive
The binary battle between the rational and the emotional can confuse experiences and ignore critical information. Kofman reveals our conundrum:
On the one hand, emotions can derail our thought processes; on the other hand, without them there is no reason to think. Emotions are absolutely necessary for rationality… We need to develop equanimity to stay centered in the midst of challenging circumstances.
Emotions are immediate and can be informative. When we employ mindfulness to relax awareness, compassion to discern the source of suffering, and openness to examine concealed thoughts, we cultivate the discipline to delay immediate gratification and slow our impulsiveness to focus our attention.
Attention is how we gain access to the world. Staying with our experience of the world allows a deeper revelation of its nature. With discipline and attention, we begin to discern how our thoughts create our emotions. The integration of emotional intelligence, intuitive wisdom, and analytical insight expands being human.
A Kantian maxim of the Critique of Pure Reason rings true: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”
Tension 5: Candor/Care
Conscious leaders prefer candid conversations that are meaningful, truthful, and relevant.
The book 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership distinguishes candor as truthfulness, openness, and awareness, which together, provide a level (openness) and accuracy (awareness) to communicate truth-telling.
Truth-telling with clear and explicit language avoids euphemistic pandering that undermines accountability and trust. Commitment to candor also invites candid input and feedback, which are critical to increasing awareness that reveals blind spots.
The power of candor lives in care as thoughtful reflection through deep listening to witness and recreate another’s concerns, reflecting on questions such as:
- How will this communication serve them?
- Are they ready to hear it?
- Do I possess the skillful means to deliver it?
Deep listening is an ongoing practice of suspending self-oriented, reactive mental activity and opening one’s awareness to the unknown and the unexpected.
Tension 6: Principle/Practice
If your why (principle) is broken, so is your how (practice). We must know why we are doing what we are doing, which involves discerning principles and practices.
- Principle is a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth.
- Practice is the action or process of performing or doing something.
Consider the principle that mindfulness cultivates non-reactive awareness.
Supporting this principle involves practices such as creating a dedicated space and ritual (time of day) for consistent sitting. Then, practice “pausing” before speaking to cultivate reflective awareness.
Rather than fixed normative ideals, principles and practices are context-dependent based on evolving criteria or values.
Conscious leaders question principles and test practices in a rigorous manner to cultivate dignity—the worthy, high, and honorable condition inherent in being human.
Tension 7: Intention/Action.
Our whole life has to be our message —Thich Nhat Hanh
Physicist and thinker David Bohm describes visible reality as influenced by and connected to intention, which manifests as purpose. Conscious leaders understand the vital wholeness of intention and action to access our deepest meanings, purpose, and higher motivations and to communicate them to others.
In Buddhist psychology, intention involves the unconditional responsibility to participate in co-creating reality and acknowledging our participation in its manifestation. Author Alice Walker exhorts us to “Keep in mind the present we are constructing. It should be the future we want.” Gandhi asserted that we should “be the change we want to see.”
Conscious leaders view the integration of intention and action as a practice of integrity: to constitute being—our thoughts, language, and actions—as our word.
Tension 8: Structure/Creativity
Entering organizational life offers a chorus of demands, information, systems, technology, and processes. Without structure to prioritize efforts, discern direction, or align intentions, we cannot develop the commitment sufficient to establish workability to co-create.
Ironically, this lack of structure traps us.
Structures provide design for our lives. Structures give us the space for something we wish to create. Then, we are free to create however we’d like.
Conscious leaders honor sufficient structure—physical and attentional—to create time and space to evaluate concerns, prioritize what matters, and ensure a quality of presence for creating possibility.
Space is an underappreciated source of creativity. Perhaps 0.0000000000000000000042% of the universe contains matter, leaving 99.0000000000000000000058% of space to reveal its fullness.
In a way, structure provides the spaciousness or negative space (in “design” theory) that frees us for creativity.
Intentional structures cultivate space between events to restore, space in our speaking and listening to breathe, pause and reflect; physical space free of clutter for cultivating our attention and vision; space on our calendar to invite the unexpected; and space in our meaning-making-mind to unhook and allow words and concepts to pass without reacting.
Tension 9: Individual/Community
America’s tombstone [will] be inscribed with “Death by rugged individualism.” —Brené Brown
Brown developed this issue in a 2017 article, writing, “As members of a social species, we derive strength not from our rugged individualism, but from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together. Our neural, hormonal, and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence.”
Conscious leaders transcend the individualism embedded in “independence” to cultivate interdependence.
Author and thinker Margaret Wheatley speaks of the ”basic building blocks” of life as relationships, not individuals.
Nothing exists on its own or has a final, fixed identity. We are all ‘bundles of potential.’ Relationships evoke these potentials. We change as we meet different people or are in different circumstances.
Community learning and connection support vulnerability, which evolves consciousness. With self-inquiry, we discover a new relationship to our whole—cognitive, affective, and experiential—self and our world.
Ironically, in community, we discover our self as an evolving process.
Tension 10: Parts/Wholes
Conscious leaders have a holistic view of business. Holistic thinking is the inquiry of a complex whole. In business organizations, holistic thinking considers its purpose, values, culture, function in its environment, stakeholders, process, and structure to inform strategy.
Envisioning wholes involves clarity and wisdom to discern complexity, navigating individual, cultural, and systemic awareness, such as content and context, ego- and eco-systems, and shadow and light.
Viewed as “whole/part,” Arthur Koestler coined the term holons, which are both a whole and part of a larger whole. Whole atoms are parts of whole molecules, which themselves are parts of whole cells, and so on.
Philosopher Ken Wilber views “reality as a whole, not composed of things or processes, but of holons” or holarchies, linking all fields of scientific [exterior] and cultural [interior] knowledge.
This view gives us pause. With only a partial awareness of phenomena, humility with inquiry reveals unfolding wisdom.
Tension 11: Future/Now
Among sentient begins, Humans are unique: We are aware of our existence, aware it will end, and aware of a past.
Conscious leaders operate from an interconnected and impermanent view that extends far beyond their own role as leaders. They recognize the future possibility emerging from each “now” before them. Future is not a someday phenomenon but a now possibility.
This vision, a way of “seeing” and “being,” perceives acorns of future oaks. In this way, conscious leaders embody the wisdom of a teacher and the foresight of a creator to cultivate potential, the root of which means “future power.”
Such a temporal awareness honors the interdependent nature of being with an openness and clarity that acknowledges the past and future to emerge in the present “now.”
Tension 12: Arising/Passing
“Everything that has a beginning has an end” —the Oracle, Matrix Revolutions.
Conscious leaders understand this cycle of existence.
It involves honoring arising/emerging, experiencing/accepting, and passing/ceasing. This applies to all phenomena: rocks, chairs, buildings, flowers, animals, feelings, concepts, and business processes, products, and sectors.
Conscious leaders acknowledge the importance of endings to allow for new arisings. As stated by Kofman, “Endings make things unique and valuable. They highlight the preciousness of experience. They remind us to stay conscious at every step of the process.”
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh encourages the reflective awareness to be with impermanence.
Flowers decompose, but knowing this does not prevent us from loving them. In fact, we are able to love them more because we know how to treasure them while they are still alive. If we learn to look at a flower in a way that impermanence is revealed to us, when it dies, we will not suffer. Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality.
A Commitment to Evolving Consciousness of Leadership
These twelve tensions evoke an interdependent awareness, revealing the depth of conscious leadership as distinct from other leadership models or mindsets. With the Theory U framework, Otto Scharmer cultivates the transition from ego-systems to eco-systems.
What’s really needed is a deeper shift in consciousness so that we begin to care and act, not just for ourselves and other stakeholders but in the interests of the entire ecosystem in which economic activities take place.
Conscious leaders embody the paradox of the humble visionary: reducing ego to expand possibility.
Reading Time: 11 min. Digest Time: 19 min
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.
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