When combined with power and responsibility, unconscious leaders take action that results in harmful effects on the system, and the perpetuation of broken systems, making it harder for us to move on from our past and create a future we desire
The biggest crisis in the world today is not what fills our headlines - climate change, genocide, terrorism, environmental degradation - but a lack of wise, systems-minded leadership. As we appear to be ever-more surrounded by expanding and accelerating problems to which our existing answers are inadequate, and a newly-inaugurated US president who seems to amplify what is broken, we have to ask ourselves: what are we doing wrong?
Broken systems are founded in unconscious mindsets; in particular, the cumulative actions of large numbers of people who don't see that we are one interconnected system and who act as if what they do has no bearing on other parts of life. Trump is just one example of this but, in reality, this state of unconsciousness exists within all of us. It is reminiscent of an earlier, more egocentric way of being and seeing the world, where we were driven by our survival instincts; where we saw life in terms of winning and losing, and where the more people I could have in my gang, the safer I was against yours.
Fortunately, many of us have woken up and are moving on from such short-termist and self-interested points of view, with many more following on besides. We live in a world where it is now commonplace to ask questions about the meaning I derive from my work, how my values influence my buying choices, how I am connected to my community and what my purpose is in all of this. We are becoming natural systems thinkers, able to see, with the help of technology, how connected we all are. We recognise that our decisions create ripple effects far beyond our immediate sphere of influence. Increasingly, we are being prompted to consider and take responsibility for our everyday actions, from our personal recycling habits to the way we expect our companies to make a sustainable profit.
While many people across the world practising this kind of conscious self-leadership helps to create a shift in our global systems, there is still a need for conscious leaders within the major systems themselves. Leaders within politics, education, business and the environmental systems are all subject to the same kinds of unconscious, instinctive actions as any of us. When combined with power and responsibility, unconscious leaders take action that results in harmful effects on the system, and the perpetuation of broken systems, making it harder for us to move on from our past and create a future we desire.
What are the pre-requisites, then, of conscious leadership and how can we act as conscious leaders within systems, whichever position we may occupy?
First and foremost, we start with ourselves. This is the requirement to ‘know ourselves'. Recognising that we, at our core, are instinctive beings who habitually cling on to our positions and the fundamental rightness of our own views, helps us to develop the conscious awareness of noticing when this happening to us and choosing differently.
There is an old Hungarian proverb that says, ‘every man sees the world from the bell tower of his own village'. Fundamentally, conscious leadership is grounded in recognising that there are other views apart from ours that hold equal validity, and that we can join these up to form bigger, better perspectives on our world and its problems. The ability to take the perspective of another lies at the root of conscious leadership. When we do this as leaders, we take on the possibility to unite our multiple intelligences and come up with wiser, systemic solutions that utilize the best of our combined thinking and offer improved outcomes for all of us. To do this, however, we need to get out of our own way, and it is this quality which is so sorely lacking in many current leaders who make their decisions about themselves, their ego and their own power, rather than about the greater whole and the greater good.
Similarly, in the way they conduct themselves in relationships, conscious leaders are less prone to the knee-jerk, win-lose reactions of their less conscious colleagues. Conscious leadership is not a leadership of winning. Conscious leaders might ask themselves: winning for whom? Notions of ‘us' and ‘them' naturally fall away when we regard each other as allies in solving problems that affect us all. Even the idea of competitors can be reframed as ‘future potential partners' by conscious leaders. It becomes about winning for all of us.
When we regard the world as one interconnected whole, when we see consciously into the systems around us, we are naturally pulled into considering: Where might I contribute towards this? As a conscious leader, our responsibility towards the whole increases. We become less inclined to act in ways that benefit us while causing damage to others, elsewhere, and more inclined to think together with others about the ways we might contribute, add value and support life. This is a form of collective responsibility that is a hallmark of conscious leaders, and all conscious leaders are naturally attracted to it. They lead others within their systems by asking the kinds of questions that gets everyone to look past their individual selves towards the bigger picture.
As we evolve and are replaced by the next generations, we find that these kinds of qualities naturally emerge in the population, and the so-called Millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000) are no different. Many within this upcoming generation of leaders have been born with this ‘human upgrade' already in place. They naturally see, through their digital savvy and experience of a tech-enabled world, how their actions affect others they have never seen. Conscious Millennials are natural systems thinkers and they ask questions about sustaining and supporting life, and their role within it. They are the conscious leaders of our future - and because of them there is hope. Our role right now is to encourage existing leaders to develop as conscious leaders so that the systems that the next generation inherits have the capacity to flourish.
Gina Hayden is co-founder of The Global Centre for Conscious Leadership and a Director of Conscious Capitalism. Her new book, Becoming A Conscious Leader is out now.