Matt Lehrer, CEO of Teamwork Athletic Apparel, made it a practice to give low-interest loans to his employees — more than 500 loans over 15 years. To get a loan, employees had to create a household budget and share their goals for the loan. But Matt turned down a loan request from a single mother of three who wanted the money to help her ailing mother. Why? Because he was practicing true conscious leadership.
As he coached his employee Anna through the application and budget process, they realized three things: she was motivated by shame, she couldn’t afford the loan, and she needed the money because she was under-utilizing her skills. Rather than giving money right away, Matt had a frank discussion with Anna about how she could be more connected in caring for her mother and relate more honestly with her sisters, how to better manage her budget, and how to increase her income by utilizing her strengths. Anna’s initial disappointment cleared away as she worked with Matt, improved her skills, and increased her income. Her efforts helped her shift from the mindset of a victim to one of empowerment.
Matt was practicing conscious leadership; he used his distance from the issue to perceive the situation clearly, he extended the discussion beyond his and Anna’s comfort zones, and he honored her intrinsic value. While 35 percent of workers in America claim they’d give up a pay raise — forgo money — to see their leader get fired, they’re not referring to the likes of Matt. Employees, investors, and other stakeholders are aching for leaders who can be clear, creative, and human-centered. In other words, they’re aching for conscious leaders. I’ve witnessed this hunger as an employee, as a leader, and as an executive coach, and I’ve been addressing how to satisfy it by weaving my two decades of leadership insights together with three decades of spiritual practice.
What Is A Conscious Leader?
A conscious leader organizes and influences people to achieve meaningful results, but with a particular spirit and mode of conduct. More than being mindful, leaders become conscious when they nurture and practice three pillars of consciousness: wisdom, love, and courage.
These three elemental virtues represent a triune intelligence that shows up in biology and neurology (head, heart, and gut), in sociology, and in many wisdom traditions. In our quest to evolve as conscious people and leaders, we can’t just focus on one or another of them. Conscious leaders activate and align their thinking (wisdom), caring (love), and doing (courage).
The Three Pillars Of Conscious Leadership Wisdom
When I ask folks to describe wisdom, they typically mention such things as intellect, education, learned knowledge, and being smart. But for conscious leaders, wisdom shows up as a clear, inclusive, and integrated understanding of ourselves, other people, human and social circumstances, and the complexity of our problems. Simply put, wisdom is the ability to dive below the surface and reach beyond the obvious.
A leader who cultivates wisdom reaps the benefit of discernment. If, for example, you can drop below the acrimony of two team members in conflict and detect their deepest motives, you’re using discernment — wisely separating what’s important or true from what’s not.
Love is a powerful emotion, and in conscious leadership it’s also a verb. This pillar is our doorway to expressing connection and to practicing inclusion and service. I propose that love is wanting to do things for others, not because we have to or because we owe something, but because we’re responding to an impulse to serve the wellbeing of another. This heart-based quality feeds intimacy and care and yields trust and engagement.
At work, when we’re told to “be a professional,” we’re being trained to harden our hearts and retreat into a safety of cold and distant detachment. Love doesn’t exclude conflict, corrective action, or firing someone. Allowing love to open the shutters to the heart enables us to engage in challenging interpersonal exchanges while maintaining safety and connection.
Please don’t confuse courage with brave action or foolhardiness. Courage is an embodied engagement with action even as your gut is gripped in anxiety and doubt. You might as well forget about being fearless, because the basic mood of the ego — our self-centered identity — is fear. Courage is walking toward what you’d rather run away from.
Fear is the corollary to our deepest desires. Desire for control feeds fear of failure and powerlessness. Desire for connection and inclusion feeds fear of rejection and being unloved. Desire for expression feeds fear of humiliation and worthlessness. Courage is our commitment to acknowledge these fears, and take action nevertheless.
How To Cultivate Wisdom, Love, and Courage
Conscious leadership, like emotional intelligence or strategic thinking, can be cultivated. I’ve drawn on biology, psychology, leadership development, and wisdom traditions to identify leadership competencies that form the bricks within each pillar.
The catalysts and hindrances of conscious leadership
Each pillar of conscious leadership has practices that help catalyze that virtue and natural hindrances we must continually practice releasing.
In the chart above, the elements below the plus signs are both the practices and the fruits of the pillar they support. The elements below the minus signs are hindrances that get in the way of increasing the pillar virtue. All these elements are natural aspects of our experience, and practicing conscious leadership is neither inventing nor exorcising these polarities. Rather, we get to energize the ones that support consciousness, and shine light on the inevitable hindrances that arise. The negative elements are ego-driven survival tactics that keep the pillar from being fully expressed if we don’t become skillful at noticing and releasing them.
We’ll cover one pair of dualities from each pillar to see how they hinder and catalyze wisdom, courage, and love.
(-) Hindrance: Denial
The refusal to acknowledge that something is wrong is a coping strategy to deal with emotional conflict, stress, or threatening information. When I was told that an employee of mine was stealing funds, my first reaction was, “I don’t believe it!” It shocked me, it ruined my opinion of that person, and it deeply challenged the accuracy of my judgment. I actually needed a brief period of denial to pause, digest the information at my own pace, and think carefully about how to move forward.
“Ignorance is bliss” is the motto of denial. When I deny reality, I don’t have to experience my negative emotions like frustration, fear, powerlessness, rejection, insecurity, shame, or hopelessness. But where wisdom is seeing reality as it is, denial is a narrow vision full of blind spots. So while a brief period of denial can be psychologically helpful, ongoing denial isn’t part of conscious leadership. A mindful attitude is.
(+) Catalyst: Mindfulness
The first task in discussing mindfulness is to distinguish mindful practice and mindful presence: mindful practice (such as meditation) strengthens focus, concentration, and attention. But mindful presence is being aware of and attentive to reality as it is. The former is a helpful tool, but the latter is the real goal.
Mindful practices help us attend to reality. Classic practices include attending to your breath, noting and labeling your thoughts, and distinguishing nuanced physical sensations. These practices teach us to shift our attention from fantasy and history and to gracefully connect with current reality — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Mindful presence is the fruit of the labor of mindful practice that conscious leaders apply to their decisions, tasks, and relationships.
The second task in discussing mindfulness is to agree to let go of the dreamy-eyed version of it where it is a state of perfected equilibrium. Leaders, even conscious ones, are going to be rattled by plans going sideways, missed goals, deadlines overdue, and misbehaving people. Know that you can be angry and mindful, fearful and mindful, confused and mindful, and happy and mindful, and that you can reside in the fullness of the experience without denying it or being overcome by it.
(-) Hindrance: Entitlement
Maybe you’ve heard or thought something like, “I deserve this,” or “She better reply to my email today.” Or maybe, “This flat tire is totally unfair; these are new tires and I shouldn’t get a flat.” And perhaps, “He owes me an apology.” These are all entitlements — a belief that we inherently deserve privileges or a particular kind of treatment. When we’re caught in entitlement we crowd out the needs and circumstances of other people and narrowly focus on our own desires, comfort, and pleasure.
Zen teacher Ezra Bayda writes in “Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment,” “Perhaps the most basic belief underlying all of our feelings of entitlement, our ‘if onlies,’ and even our illusions, is the belief that life should please us, that life should be comfortable. … Yet it’s the belief that we can’t be happy if we’re uncomfortable that is much more of a problem than the discomfort itself.”
As a leader, being caught in entitlement diminishes your connection to and care for others; it makes your heart small and inaccessible. Love is wanting to do good for others, and entitlement diminishes love.
(+) Catalyst: Gratitude
By contrast, gratitude feeds love and is one of the antidotes to entitlement. Mary, a VP of finance whom I’ve worked with, shared this: “When I’m grateful, I naturally focus on the gifts I’m receiving and I’m moved to give energy and care to others. When I feel gratitude, I appreciate what’s already working in our team, even as we’re striving for more.” Gratitude colors our lens of perception toward the positive and reduces our urges to complain and blame. As leaders we’re always striving, but without gratitude that reaching and driving becomes tense and unsatisfying.
Gratitude can be a spontaneous feeling, but it can also be cultivated deliberately. The more you establish your gratitude, the less you succumb to disappointment, and the more people feel encouraged to give back. Oh, and by the way, there’s some that increases resilience, improves self-esteem, improves sleep, reduces aggression, improves physical and psychological health, and strengthens relationships.
(-) Hindrance: Pleasing
It’s human nature to want to be liked and included, and to be afraid of rejection. One way to avoid conflict and improve our odds of acceptance is to be pleasing. Pleasing can indeed reduce conflict, and of course there are times when being conciliatory and pleasing is necessary. As Brian, the CEO of a manufacturing firm, said, “When I make a mistake with a team member, or blow it with my wife, you bet I engage in pleasing behavior.”
But if you consistently hide your passion and brilliance in order to please others, then you’re letting fear define you and, as a leader, you risk having only artificial harmony — a team or relationship that isn’t expressing its discontent, which can lead to passive-
Fear-based pleasing also generates false kindness: not a kindness that flows from the heart and focuses on the best for the other, but a false state that flows from the mind and focuses on the best for self. False kindness is pleasing, and while kindness energizes us, false kindness depletes us.
(+) Catalyst: Authenticity
Being authentic isn’t the same as never changing. Was my self in my 20s more authentic than my self in my 50s? In my 20s I authentically believed that marriage and children were anti-
spiritual (until a spiritual insight changed my heart in my 30s). In my 50s I’m authentically a husband and a father to teenage girls, and I believe that marriage and children are a spiritual gift. Asking which is more authentic is the wrong question.
Rather than defining an “authentic self,” conscious leaders are better served by pursuing “authentic expression.” As we grow and evolve, we change — heck, that’s the very definition of growing. There isn’t any static, unchanging, and elemental Self lodged somewhere deep inside us.
Authentic expression, rather, is a constant flow. As we mature and evolve, we integrate and express various elements of heart, mind, and spirit. Experience, insights, and wisdom shape us over time and different aspects of us rise and fall. The call of conscious leadership isn’t to take up a single aspect of self and protect it until the day you die, but to invite the spirit of change to help you clarify and refresh your values, ideas, and identity.
The Bottom Line
Matt of Teamwork Athletic Apparel didn’t require special equipment to become a conscious leader, but he did have to pay specific attention. Conscious leaders have wisdom about life’s paradoxes, the courage to step out of comfort, and a love that nurtures people. They attend to possibilities, see beyond the obvious, and accept that there’s enough pie to go around, for everyone, all the time. Conscious leaders notice their heart contracting when their ego moves toward gains that come at someone else’s expense.
Leadership of any kind is a discipline of strategy and execution. Conscious leadership adds a discipline of intention. By driving for results while applying wisdom, courage, and love, any leader can become a conscious leader serving and empowering themselves, others, and society.