Our businesses, nonprofit organizations and governments all have one thing in common — dependence on effective leaders. Historically, as these organizations have tried to develop leadership programming, most have focused on the “nuts and bolts” of leadership with an emphasis on communication, visioning, team-building and consensus-building. These are all important parts of leadership. However, what seems to be missing the most is not a particular skill set, but rather a mindset that can be taught and developed. Truly effective leaders are conscious, mindful leaders with a minute-by-minute and day-to-day awareness of the immediate and long-term impact of their words and behavior on those they lead.
One of my favorite books on the subject is The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Dethmer, Chapman and Klemp. In the book, the authors ask us to constantly be checking ourselves as leaders by asking some simple questions and making some simple commitments. They all center on being conscious in the moment and challenging ourselves by asking, “Am I open and committed to learning in this situation, or am I so determined to be right that I am closed and defensive?” I have learned that, if we are very honest, this changes many times during the day. It changes with different situations and with different people. The key is not perfection, because we will not always be open and willing to learn - we are human. The key is to be conscious of “where we are” during key interactions. We are, in that moment, slowing down and choosing how we will respond. If our immediate response is defensiveness or justification, we know we are coming from a place of fear, and we feel threatened. However, if we can step back and consciously decide how we are going to respond, we can allow ourselves to be more curious, and therefore more open to listening and learning in the situation. This even applies to situations when we completely disagree with the other party or are unhappy with a proposed solution or outcome. It is at that point, when we move from a focus on being right to a focus on doing the right thing.
We are all hardwired to be on the lookout for threats or danger. For our ancestors, it was a fear of famine or a fear of being devoured by a wild animal. For most of us today, that primal fear is associated with a lack of security or position, of being wrong or appearing to not be in control - not famines and wild animals. The interesting thing that science teaches us is that our brains “see” and respond to these fears in the same way our ancestors responded to those wild animals. Typically, our gut response is winning and or being right. The great thing about our evolution is that we have the freedom to choose our responses - most of the time.
As leaders, we have to be aware of what we are thinking and how we respond — where we are at that moment — before we can choose how we are going to respond. Checking ourselves throughout the day is critical. Once we become more aware of our natural instincts and begin asking ourselves, “Why am I feeling fear right now?,” we can adjust our response to one rooted in learning and curiosity — a conscious leader response. As conscious leaders, we can not only chart a more effective course, we can build trusting teams that will lead to the success we are hoping to achieve. In the long run, we also create a culture where our modeling of this behavior encourages success and teamwork throughout our organizations.