The Conscious Leader
We’ve all seen the depressing statistics about employee engagement. People are not fully engaged at work, not happy, not being utilized, and not fully using their talents.
What’s a leader to do?
Dr. Shelley Reciniello is the author of The Conscious Leader: Nine Principles and Practices to Create a Wide-Awake and Productive Workplace, a leadership approach designed to apply psychological tools to improve individuals and corporate culture. She works with senior leaders in a wide variety of fields. She has provided services ranging from employee assistance programs, executive coaching, leadership and diversity training seminars.
“What is going on unconsciously is often more important than what is on the surface.” -Dr. Reciniello
What is a conscious leader?
A conscious leader is someone who understands that people don’t leave their psychological selves at home when they come into the workplace and that includes the leader. This kind of leader accepts that all human beings are not rational and that our rational minds are constantly influenced by our unconscious motivations, hidden agendas, unresolved childhood issues, fears, anxieties, fantasies, prejudices, obsessions, and complicated emotions like anger and guilt. Conscious leaders understand that what is going on unconsciously, out of awareness, is often more important than what is happening on the surface. They know that the rational mind, both the individual one and the corporate one, can only be strengthened by dealing with unconscious issues, not by pretending that they don’t exist.
Starting with themselves, conscious leaders seek to make what is unconscious conscious. They want to know the whole story about themselves – what emotional baggage they carry, what defenses they habitually use, how others really see them, what their Achilles’ heels are. They are committed to self-development and increasing self-awareness.
Conscious leaders know that in order to create workplaces where people will want to be, they must understand the psychological principles of people at work and apply them daily.
The Power of Honest Feedback
Give us an example of one way a leader can be more conscious.
A leader who is open to honest feedback is going to really know how others see him or her. They may not like what they hear, but they dig down deep in themselves to understand the root of the behavior in question, and then they can begin to fix it. We have a lot of what we refer to as “narcissistic leaders” — probably the same amount that we have always had, but our culture seems to condone and even admire their grandiosity and bravura. When I work with a leader like that, it is usually because the board or some other entity has insisted that this person curtail their behavior. It is not easy for them to change because they cannot believe that their charisma and success aren’t enough.
I worked with someone like this and I knew that underneath the fascinating façade, he was quite damaged, never felt loved for himself from an early age, so he compensated by creating a larger than life self that he believed would be worthy of love. In the coaching, he worked hard to understand how others saw him and how he made them feel. He began to see what good behavior looked like. So although we couldn’t change the structure of his personality at such a late age, he was able to become conscious of what the right behavior would be and he would mimic it.
He is actively engaged in trying to modify his behavior and his impact on others. He uses techniques like active listening to help him have real conversations with his direct reports. He understands that it isn’t “all about me,” and the discipline it takes for him to listen has been rewarded by the input and ideas that are growing his company. He tells me that he reminds himself of his story every two hours!
Understanding How We Deal With Change
What is one commonly misunderstood psychological principle? How does it relate to organizational leadership?
It is generally acknowledged that more change has occurred in the last decade, largely due to the advances of technology, than at any other time in human history. And there appears to be no end in sight. Principle 8 focuses on the fact that change is a constant in every workplace. Whether the change is initiated by a world event, the marketplace, or comes from within, it will require a particular kind of leadership if it is going to be accepted and implemented on both an organizational and individual level.
Our natural, evolutionary response as human beings is to fear change and to resist it. It represents the unknown and unfamiliar and carries with it the possibility that we will suffer harm. Over time, we have learned that change can also be positive and lead to good things. The complete truth about change is that it is always hydra-headed; it is about both winning and losing. In corporate restructuring, for example, change usually results in two groups, those who will win and stay and those who will lose and leave. But it isn’t as simple as that in reality. For even the people who get to stay often talk about how things were before the restructuring because something was gained but something was also lost.
My mentor, Harry Levinson, used to say it this way: “All change is loss, and all loss must be mourned.” When we do not allow for the mourning appropriate to the occurrence, successful change is jeopardized. Mourning seems like a natural thing to do. Think about the crying and other shows of sentimentality at any high school or college graduation. If leaders jump the gun and demand the swift, dispassionate adherence to change, resistance will kick in and there will be corporate consequences. The recent recession brought dire economic consequences to many, accompanied by anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicide. The extent of the changes that occurred, and the speed with which they happened, did not give people the time and resources they needed to adjust to their drastically altered circumstances.
A swift-moving, action-oriented business model leaves little time for people, whether they are going or staying, to readjust and acclimate to a changed environment. No one is immune and everyone feels vulnerable. The unspoken contract between employer and employee, and the trust that goes with it, are forever broken.