When we think of a leader, what often comes to mind is someone with a strong character, powerful, smart, ambitious- someone who shows you the way about how things should be done- but we should ask ourselves if those traits are still the ultimate attributes of leadership. I certainly challenge that view.
As a life learner of the concept of leadership and success, and by intensely researching the traits of great leaders and linking this knowledge with my experience as a professional coach, I realized that there is something more profound in their mindset, something beyond the quest for power and ambition. Regardless of their path of life, what differentiates the extraordinary leader who has the biggest and long-lasting impact on societies versus the one that merely displayed a power show in front of the scenarios but with the time it vanished like a small dust particle in the vast desert?
I have spent more than ten years in the corporate business environment. During this time, I came across a number leaders from all kinds; using the definitions from Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee from their book Primal Leadership (2002): from the very directive and autocratic ones, all the way to the charismatic, democratic and laissez-faire ones. I´m trying to recall when did a boss really caused an impact for me and my career. I realized that I could count them with one hand and I would even have many fingers left.
The reality is, the concept of leadership has been a misleading one for me. For years I have been taught that a leader is someone who has to guide the masses, who knows and understands what and when things need to get done; But when I reflect on what is it what made a leader to have a real impact on me, the image that comes to mind is clear: I admire those leaders who trusted in my capabilities and guided me on a way I felt I was developing and growing. I appreciated those conversations that were not just about judging and evaluating my performance and having to prove to them how I am capable to solve certain problems; but those that had a more personal touch. Where I felt listened to. Where there was an air of mutual respect and where my thoughts and ideas were welcomed. That’s when I realized that a real leader is somebody that can connect with their people; someone that can listen, and acts like a coach who looks after development and not after performance.
A conscious leader is somebody that builds influence based on trust, open communication and strong cooperative relationships. Someone that does not seek after the end game, but enjoys the process of getting there and is capable to transmit that energy and passion for the journey- and not only for the destination. As leaders, we do not need to have all the answers and solve all the problems; there is no such thing as being a master. The accumulation of skill and experience is not all that matters; it is also crucial to be able to develop self-awareness and compassion towards others.
Specially in times like the ones we are living today, when organizations are suffering with staffing people- following the great resignation crisis that hit America on mid 2021, recent statistics performed by Bankrate in their 2021 Job Seeker Survey show that more than 55% of Americans in the workforce are thinking about changing their jobs. This trend combined with the increasing numbers of Americans who claim to be dissatisfied in their jobs is taking a heavy toll in the US with productivity loses which amount $450-$500 billion USD a year according to a 2021 Gallup Survey.
When we look at the main drivers of people quitting their jobs, we find out that the big majority still lists “limited career progression”, “inadequate leadership” or “not being valued and appreciated” as one of the top reasons. This is not an American phenomenon but a worldwide trend. Looking at a recent survey made by Michael Page, a top recruiting company in Switzerland- a country known for having one of the highest salaries in the world- have listed that the top reasons of people leaving the jobs are related to lack of training and development opportunities, and dissatisfaction with their leadership and management.
This leaves us with a sharp message: We need to change our paradigms about classic leadership and embrace conscious leadership for real; not only as a nice catch phrase to say at leadership meetings and fancy gatherings, but to truly get in the path of becoming a conscious leader by starting with developing our own self-awareness.
Now that I think about it, it sounds quite logical. To be able to lead others, one should be able to lead one-self first. If you cannot keep your house in order, your thoughts straight, and your principles clear- how can we expect others to do so?
And I suspect, this is the journey of our lifetime. It is not a one -time conquer, but an everyday discovery. And the same applies when leading others. The pathway to trust and to build strong long- lasting relationships requires daily work, and to develop skills that are more compassionate rather than assertive.
For example, it should be the primary goal of a conscious leader to develop the capability to help people in becoming self-aware of their own capabilities; by displaying curiosity, asking exploratory, open-ended short questions that help peoplerecognize their personal vision.
The Underrated Characteristics of the Conscious Leader
When you ask people to list the top five leadership traits, most people would come with the following keywords: influential, powerful, charismatic, confident, communicative, problem solver. However, if we aim to become conscious leaders, we need to develop other kind of traits that are not often associated to leadership.
Listening is the master of the skills. Unfortunately, it is as well one of the most underrated ones in leadership, especially in highly competitive environments where it seems like the louder you scream the better you are. Listening is often seen as with being quiet, introvert and receptive- traits which do not match with the typical image of strong and assertive leaders. However, active listening is a very powerful tool, that if used with enough awareness, could bring people to higher levels of understanding and unity.
In our role as leaders, it is of most importance to develop exceptional listening skills, which is the ability to be able to fully focus your attention on what the other person is saying without getting into distractions.
Research has shown that when active listening is present in the organizational culture, the levels of trust and cooperation are much higher than in organizations where employees feel that their opinions and ideas are neglected.
In a world where information flows at incredible speed rates and when the pressure to become faster at adapting changes is the norm, the art of patience seems to unfit with the desirable characteristics of a leader. However, by observing the main traits of the greatest leaders of our history, we can find in many occasions that one of the fundamental characteristics they had was developing a long standing patience.
To develop patience requires a great level of self-awareness. Patience is defined by common language as the capacity to accept and tolerate any kind of problems, and situations that do not develop as expected. It is done so without anxious feelings and therefore you remain emotionally stable. Leaders that show greater levels of patience are the ones that end up succeeding on long term objectives and ideals.
Among the examples of extraordinary leaders which were exceptional on this skill are Mahatma Ghandi, who displayed the determination to walk 390 km- a 24 hours walk- from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to a small village called Dandi, in order to support the abolishment of the salt tax, which eventually triggered the event of the great Civil Disobedience Movement, where millions of people protested peacefully under his leadership and which finally culminated in the Independence of India from the British rule.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela’s patience and determination made him resist any obstacle and pay a condemn of twenty-seven years of prison in order to see his dream come true: The eradication of the Apartheid era in South Africa.
One might ask, how can silence benefit a leader in any way? In western cultures, silence has a bad popularity on the business and political arenas. Silence is associated with weakness, and fragility; perhaps even with lack of knowledge or inability to express. However, in oriental cultures, silence is regarded as one of the highest faculties of wise men.
In conscious conversations, silence is the space where actually the magic happens. Silence allows us to tap into our mind and reach for the solutions and answers we have been struggling to find in the “outside”. Although externally silence appears to have no content per se, actually, it is the space where everything is created. As a leader, giving people the space needed to think, reflect and answer calmly will allow for more meaningful and valuable inputs, as opposed to erratic non-sense responses triggered by the pressure to talk.
The problem solver vs the curious explorer
Typical leaders see themselves as problem-solvers by excellence. This is the one single quality that most people would agree belongs to a leader. It is one of the qualities most people get paid for. The bigger the problems the leader can solve, the bigger the economic rewards the person receives, and the bigger the recognition. However, when it comes to really understanding the reality of organizations and the real underlying feelings of the people, providing the answers to all of their questions and giving advice would rarely surface the root causes of the real problem.
The reality is, there is never a one single side of the story, a solution that fits-to-all, like most businesses like to think about. The issue with the problem-solving minded people is that in the urge to jump into action, they neglect to see the full picture, and to step back and try to understand what is really going on. Assertive personalities do not hesitate to act and although action is important, if applied in the wrong direction can lead to less desirable results.
What would happen if instead of jumping directly into the solution mode, as leaders, we would simply stay open and curious, and try to discover the real causes by maintaining an explorative mind?
Stepping back to look at the whole picture is a way to bring awareness to the current situation and this helps us maintain our feet on the ground.
In a research led by Dr. Jay Hardy, assistant professor in the College of Business at Oregon State University, it was found that people who showed strong curiosity traits on personality tests performed better on creative tasks than those that did not showed a strong curiosity trait on the test. Also, people who scored higher in having interests for exploring unfamiliar topics and learning something new, were more likely to come up with creative solutions to solve problems.
After all, curiosity and problem-solving are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, a curious and open mind, will often lead to a better capacity to solve all kinds of problems. The key is not to get trapped on the egoistic self- rewarding solution mode, where the emotional need of control is bigger than the willingness to really understand the truth of things.
Conscious leaders are driven by a vision and steer their lives in the direction of reaching that vision
If you don’t know what do you want or where you are going, how can you be certain you are living your best life?
I have asked myself this question since a very early age. I was around eight years old, with my mother driving me home after school. I observed the dense traffic and the faces and expressions of the people; some looked like they really are enjoying the ride and others looked rather anxious and angry. I kept thinking about it for many years after: all of us are going somewhere; although I’m not sure everyone really has paid attention to where they are going.
Where I am going? To look for this answer, I understood, is the true essence of what life is all about. With the years I realized that I was not the only one in search for this quest and that it is as common as the sunset. Most of ancient and contemporary leaders and world thinkers actually placed that question as a central quest to understand their human existence.
Most people think that their destination is driven by external things that happen “by chance” around them. Very few are really capable to see that their own life is a consequence of their own personal choices (or the lack of thereof). A conscious leader understands that they are the captains of their boats and they have the capability to steer their life in the desired direction. Not only do they understand the value of having a vision to seek after; but also encourage others to look for their own personal vision and to work towards it.
What does it take to listen over to our consciousness first and take action towards what we really want? That’s one of the fundamental questions we should ask ourselves when we are willing to become more conscious about who we are and what is the impact that our leadership is having in others.
It is no secret, that becoming a conscious leader requires patience and courage. It is certainly not easy, to look at ourselves from the inside out. We prefer to look for imperfections in others, to claim that our cause is noble and righteous, and blaming whoever thinks otherwise. Our positions of power give us that opportunity to demand authority and respect, but that doesn’t mean that we have really gained it.
You might have the notion of being a good leader; but the best indicator to know that is to the degree in which the people closest to you really trust you. Can they rely on you when things are harsh? Can you keep your core stable despite the turbulences, and the catastrophes? Can you bring sanity and order in the otherwise chaotic world we live in? This is a self-reflection worth doing.
The seed of conscious leadership starts with self-awareness and the search for the truth. A conscious leader is an authentic leader, who can recognize the shortfalls but as well be honest about it with others. It is someone that has the humility to give more attention to the others first, and make an effort to understand others without the lenses of judgement or convenience.
To become a conscious leader requires to develop traits that have been often neglected on the traditional archetype of a leader; but those characteristics are crucial to cultivate higher virtues like compassion, justice and truth.
Being an authentic character is hard in our society. It means to show yourself in the open, to become vulnerable. It means to go beyond the comfort zone. You cannot become a conscious leader when you are not telling the truth about yourself. You might reach higher positions in a hierarchical status at work or in a social circle, but it will be a fragile foundation which won’t last.
After all, being conscious means being present; and being present is the ultimate state of human experience.