In A World That Needs More Conscious Leaders, Here's How You Can Become One

There is no particular framework to being more human- but there are certain characteristics that are shared by conscious leaders, which I outlined in my book, #Time4Humanity. Here's a primer on them.

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The Great Resignation, hybrid working, burnout- these are just a few of the challenges requiring companies to future-proof their cultures to handle the rapid rate of change being experienced in business and society. Traditional corporate models are no longer fit for purpose, and leaders are finding themselves hampered by lackluster employee enablement, inadequate management support, poor cross-functional collaboration, as well as too little ownership and accountability.

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Employees have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic craving meaning and purpose in their work. They are hungry for trust and social cohesion, searching out organizations with healthy cultures that tackle the most pressing issues of our time. That does not mean everyone wants to work for a company whose sole mission is to "do good," but most people want to work for a company that knows what it stands for, and treats its people, customers, and the planet well. Yet, trust in business is at an all-time low, with some studies suggesting that only 15% of the global population are engaged at work.

In healthy organizational systems, people want to make a full contribution, because they know that they are doing something that will be valued and have an impact as part of a whole. But when organizational health is absent, so are the people. Individuals who are unsure of their place or their role in the system cannot be fully present, and so, they do not bring their full selves to work. Trust and motivation are missing or unreliable, and stress increases. As such, if organizations are to make a conscious effort to create new ways of working that will lead to higher engagement, productivity, and better outcomes for customers, it will require a reset in mindsets, a realignment to values and purpose, and a commitment to working with the culture of the organization.

However, changing cultures is not something that can be done overnight. It has to start with sustained, deep commitment from the leaders at the top. In fact, the word "culture" remains one of the most widely used –but least understood– words in business lexicon. The vast majority of what you hear about culture is actually focused on the business environment. Most "culture surveys" and diagnostics only measure aspects of the organizational climate. And while this climate is very important, it only gives lag indicators, a way of looking backward, and determining the big picture of how leaders have done. If climate is like weather (the environment), i.e. how things are showing up, then culture is the meteorology that produces the weather. It is much deeper, providing leading indicators that predict future success.

Gaining an understanding of the underlying culture and how the values really play out in the system is critical for accelerating change efforts. The B Corporation movement is leading the way in this regard, bringing purpose, values and culture to the fore to help shift businesses from being the best in the world, to also being the best for the world. Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit, upholding the highest, verified environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards. There are currently more than 4,500 B Corps across 150 industries and 70 countries, with one unifying goal– to redefine success in business. In the Gulf Arab states, a region with a population of over 50 million, there is only one B Corp: my company, Marmalade Fish, which is a consultancy firm focused on people and culture based in the UAE. In comparison, Luxembourg, a microstate with 600,000 people, has four.

Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset management firm in the world, has said that ESG is not a fad, but a permanent feature of the corporate world. Business leaders who do not adapt to the new reality, he suggests, risk being overtaken by younger and more innovative rivals in step with the times. "Capital markets have allowed companies and countries to flourish," he said. "But access to capital is not a right. It is a privilege. And the duty to attract that capital in a responsible and sustainable way lies with you." The opportunity that thus lies for entrepreneurs and business leaders is to start creating the shift by practicing more conscious leadership. We have become accustomed to traditional management models with linear approaches, but leaders in business, government, and civil society are facing fresh challenges that require us to evolve and explore a different way.

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There is no particular framework to being more human- but there are certain characteristics that are shared by conscious leaders, which I outlined in my book, #Time4Humanity. Here's a primer on them:

1. Self-awareness Conscious leaders understand themselves at a deeper level– their strengths, vulnerabilities, and biases. The key to their self-awareness lies in understanding the dominant paradigms in which they grew up. They are also aware of their own core values in life, and they demonstrate a high level of humility and readiness to be guided by different cultural norms, as well as recognizing that other cultures often have better ways of doing things.

2. Global curiosity Conscious leaders have a deep curiosity about different cultures, and a will to understand how they operate. This requires personal openness to a diversity of experiences, and a readiness to embrace humanity as a whole. Curiosity creates a drive to break down barriers, challenge traditional thinking, and be willing to learn from failure. The curious leader fosters creativity and experimentation, and is always ready to ask "why?" and "what if?"

3. Empathy Conscious leaders appreciate cultural norms and have the ability to walk (and then stand) in someone else's shoes. Empathy is about realizing that we are all connected. This requires the ability to engage people from different cultures on their own terms, rather than standing back and judging them. Empathy inspires leaders to build rapport, to bond on a human level, and to create lasting relationships. By being attuned to themselves and the world around them, conscious leaders are able to escape the confines of the rulebook and parse out the deeper meaning in a given situation.

4. Collaboration Partnerships are required in the future of leadership. Innovation in complex systems requires us to connect with the various stakeholders about the issues that matter to them. This means that single-focus approaches are almost certain to fail. Conscious leaders have mastered the art of broadening and deepening the definition of the problem (the problem beneath the problem) to get all of the relevant parties –who need one another if they are to change any system– committed to participating in the process.

5. Alignment Conscious leaders see the bigger picture. They act as leader coaches and facilitators, probing deeper, and actively seeking out divergent thinking before aligning around a decision or goal. After all, people need to weigh in before they buy in. They align employees around the company's purpose and values– a commitment that transcends national and cultural differences, although it is certainly not about achieving unanimity, and nor should it threaten to suppress individualism.

The essence of leadership has always been about sensing and actualizing the future. The Indo-European root of the English word leadership is "leith," which means "to go forth" and "to cross a threshold." It is about crossing the threshold and stepping into a future that brings the world together in a new form of conscious leadership. In that sense, the question for leaders is not "what can we do now?" Instead, it is "who do we need to be?" in order to create the shift.

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