My Google search for leadership turned up 499,000,000 results. It’s a well-covered topic with every nook and cranny explored.
What more is there to say?
There is general agreement that leadership models are changing dramatically. To be sure we’re still in the grip of the old command and control leadership paradigm with most organizational cultures still reflecting the mindsets of authoritarian leaders.
There’s more talk than ever about We cultures, but Me leadership is still holding the reins of power.
That is why I have come to believe that the single most important ability any leader has to develop is self-awareness.
This may seem obvious, but based on my observation, I’d say conscious leadership is in fairly short-supply.
A quick working definition of self-awareness is in order. Simply put, self-awareness is the ability to be self-observant in the moment of what one is thinking, feeling and how those internal processes are translating into behavior. The ability to be present in the moment is the only way to effectively do this.
The self-aware leader is always tuned into his/her own contradictions. This requires a deep understanding of how personal motivations are linked to decisions, especially those that have external impact. The conscious leader makes a steadfast commitment to understanding the beliefs, assumptions and expectations that drive her/his behavior. The self-aware leader understands that every decision made reflects an inner process that must be conscious.
The self-aware leader practices self-reflection. This requires a commitment to honestly self-appraise behavior.
How did I behave in the meeting with my senior managers last week?
What was it that Ben said that triggered a defensive response from me? How can I express my feelings more productively the next time around? Should I follow-up and clarify with Ben one on one?
When I discussed the new project, did I spend enough time asking people in the meeting questions and getting their perspectives?
Leaders also need to imagine the future. Imagining the future goes beyond traditional skills of organizing, planning and projecting. It requires the leader to envision where they want to head, why they believe it is the right direction and what the impact will be on those around them. It also requires developing one’s innate intuitive messaging.
The self-aware leader knows what he/she knows and knows that they don’t know. Three emotions play an important role in supporting the leader to do this: curiosity, humility and confidence.
The self-aware leader not only makes a commitment to continuous learning (about self and beyond) but understands the necessity to provide ongoing development for his/her employees. This must go beyond traditional “training” so that new learning isn’t dwarfed by regressive cultural influences.
The Universal Pattern of Successful Leaders – So Far
In What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith, coach to many multinational CEO’s, listed 20 habits that Goldsmith says executives need to break:
I could certainly add to this list and some might say Goldsmith’s twenty no-nos read like a common leadership profile. While more leaders are getting the message that certain behaviors are perceived as unpopular in today’s culture, many are still tweaking change around the edges.
What they’re failing to realize is change is not just about changing behavior; ultimately it is about transforming being. “Being” isn’t a term most of us use to describe experience, especially in business settings. But the self-aware leader understands that the constellation of his/her behaviors reflects their inner state of being. This state of being is often in the dark – unknown – out of conscious awareness.
The problem for many in senior leadership is that they become attached to what they perceive as a “winning strategy” – their own and those they see around them. The winning strategies box relies on two things: unconscious actions and self-deception.
The only way out of the winning strategies box is constant reinvention (that emanates from within) and an ability to reframe one’s operational context.
Attachments to winning strategies and fixed contexts can keep leaders tethered to the past and obscure the view to the larger picture. What’s required according to “Fifth Discipline” author Peter Senge is the ability to “shift the mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes.” This must apply to the self, others and the entire system in which an organization functions.
Today’s leaders are reinventing everything but themselves, and this is why so many attempts to revolutionize business fail.
The Conscious Leader’s Checklist
The master said to the businessman: “As the fish perish on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water-you must return to solitude.” The businessman was aghast. “Must I give up my business and go into a monastery?” “No, no. Hold on to your business and go into your heart.”
(Kenneth Goodpaster, former professor, Harvard Business School )
This little parable illustrates the objections we often hear from people when considering that obligation to an inner life is an inherent contradiction to the external realities of a life in the arena of business.
Recently, I read an article that questioned whether certain types of leaders even need to consider something as superfluous as emotional intelligence to be “successful” and “effective.”
Considering that all business, regardless of its type, is conducted through people, I wondered how much knowledge the writer had about the basic nature of human dynamics. Anyone who is conversant with trends in human dynamics, psychology and increasingly management theory, knows that neuroscience is gradually beginning to influence academic and popular thinking about the basics of human nature.
Because we now know that the brain is primarily a social organ, it becomes harder to justify that business relationships can be conducted from only one region of the brain! This may be the subject of debate, but not of fact.
So what do conscious leaders need to consider?
As Peter Senge points out:
“The cultivation of virtue follows from the development of consciousness. Development literally means “de-enveloping” or opening up. Internalizing such virtues does not come from the “outside in,” taught to us as moral codes to be followed blindly. These are virtues that we experience and follow naturally as our consciousness opens up, de-envelops. This constitutes a very different approach to leadership development than practiced in most organizations. It is neither quick or simple. It demands deep commitment and disciplined practice.”
Nothing less than this will usher in a new paradigm of leadership.
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication
I’ve enjoyed every word of this post of yours, smiling, sighing in resonance, “hurraying” for kinship on this path of paradigm shifting. Thank you, I will print it out for some people I work with as a mediator, conflict coach and dialogue / nonviolent communication trainer. I’m hoping to find it a little place in my master’s degree final paper on self-awareness and impartiality in mediators.
I particularly enjoyed the clarity and concision of 1) your definition of self-awareness (I will quote you on that!!); 2) the 3-point list of What to look for and also 3) the list of 20 habits you’ve quoted yourself. I also love the way you strung everything together. It’s a real gift to me!
Question: is it possible that the wrote by Senge should read “It is Neither quick or simple”?
In gratitude and kinship,
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
LOVELY to make your acquaintance. So pleased that you resonated with this article and that you are willing to share it with others.
I hope you will find a way to work on self-awareness in your degree work. There is simply not enough work being done on what self-awareness is – and
how to develop it. This is a problem I’ve faced since beginning to work on Emotional Intelligence in the late 90’s. While self-awareness is recognized
as the foundation of developing emotional competencies, few people understand what that means. How do I become more self-aware is the question most
We also are in sync with the work on nonviolent communication. I assume you are referencing the work of Marshall Rosenberg. If so, one of my favorite quotes from
his work is “People in touch with their needs make bad slaves.” So for me, helping people to understand the needs that drive their feelings and behaviors is part
of the work of building self-awareness.
Comments like yours make this work so worthwhile. Thanks again – and I hope you’ll become a regular reader.
PS Yes – thanks for the gentle correction – done!
I meant “the QUOTE”… I think I may have gotten auto-corrected!!! 🙂
Hey Louise – What a great article on a fascinating and much-needed blog.
FYI: I just linked it as related content to “Reframing Change for World Leaders,” #3 in the “What kind of world do YOU want?” series on my ADD-focused WordPress blog (where I introduce Jean Latting and Leading Consciously). I hope my readers will click over for your take on world change.
Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC –
(blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and ADDerWorld – dot com!)
“It takes a village to transform a world!”
Glad you appreciated the article!
Appreciate the link back to such important content!
Hey guys – I just linked this article to “Lessions from a Young Blogger,” part of the “What Kind of World do YOU Want?” Series on my ADD-focused WordPress blog. I would REALLY appreciate it if you would visit to be able to click over to the blog of the eleven year old boy I profile to encourage his voice. THANKS.
Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – ADD Coaching field co-founder
(blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and on ADDerWorld – dot com!)
“It takes a village to transform a world!”
thanks for linking the article and happy to do that!
Appreciate your continued support…
Thanks, Louise – for your endorsement as well as your willingness to support “the young blogger” — AND, your willingness to take a minute to comment. Hope you get some traffic form the link.