Conscious leadership: in search of prosperity

This article was previously published as a chapter in the book Leadership Talks (2010), edited by De Baak Management Centre in the Netherlands. It proposes that there is no future for any organization without a conscious leadership.

Enric Bernal
Co-founder and partner, Pinea3

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011

PEOPLE CONTINUE TO ASK: ‘Will the economic crisis be going away anytime soon?’ Well, I hope not. I hope it will stay with us a bit longer until we all learn the lessons that we have to learn from it. Recently, I heard a radio commentator on a radio programme saying something like: ‘We have to take measures so that if a similar crisis comes to us again in the future, we will be prepared’. While many of us might be saying things like this, there is something fundamentally wrong in the way this person was talking. The so-called ‘crisis’ did not suddenly arrive without warning; the crisis is the system’s reaction to previous actions. Actions made by all of us, not by any evil third-party entity. As active contributors we need to assume our share of personal and collective responsibility.
   In periods of crisis people tend to look for strong leaders with clear answers and decisions; people who appear to know where we ought to be headed. But, significant problems like the ones we face today are not simple enough for any one person to solve. We need leaders who raise questions as well as, and perhaps even more than, providing answers. We need leaders who will challenge us to face problems in order to learn and grow from them. To make progress in solving the current set of problems requires more than just leaders who provide answers from on high, but also leaders who help us change our attitudes, behaviours, and values. This is a different concept of leadership that will also affect the correlated social contract because we need to redefine our civic life and the meaning of citizenship. We need to bring this renewed consciousness into our organizations.
   The topic of this article is conscious leadership and when I use the term leadership I am not only referring to the organization’s highest ranks; but to everyone, at every level. Leadership should be made available to all those who want to empower themselves to act as agents of transformation because we can all be leaders whether as a leader of a team, a division, a family or in our own lives.
   Today’s issues need a more conscious leadership that develops a more holistic approach to organizational issues. Elevating the level of organizational responsibility is the best way to improve an organization’s prosperity and performance and in this article I propose a clear, three-step methodology for doing so.1

Is leadership a value-free concept?
Perhaps we think of leadership as being value-free and there are many scholars who will side with this connotation, since this perspective lends itself more easily to analytic reasoning and empirical examination. However, the concept of leadership itself carries with it implicit norms and values. We cannot say that we both desperately need new leadership while also proclaiming that leadership is value-free. Ronald Heifetz argues in his book, Leadership without Easy Answers,2 that all the leadership theories developed over the past 80 years have their hidden values and this is so whether we talk about trait, behavioural, or situational theories of leadership. Further, recent supposedly value-fee, theories such as the transformational, charismatic, and authentic leadership theories, also all have implicit values within them.
   Conscious leadership explicitly implies that core values and principles should be part of the construct of leadership and as such it should be a focus for future leadership research. While there is not a universal set of core values and principles that everyone can agree with, the concept of conscious leadership assumes that leadership cares about the organization’s economic well-being as much as it cares about its social implications (internally and externally), and the environmental impact of its business and practices. This triple-bottom-line concept is a good starting-point for identifying an organization’s core values regarding both its economic well-being and the social and environmental implications of its activities. The United Nations has bravely proposed measuring companies against a triple bottom line—economically, socially, and environmentally.3 These measures are known as the ‘3 Ps’: Profit, People, Planet.
   This article postulates that the most successful 21st-century organizations will be those which consciously embrace the triple bottom line and hold themselves and their teams, accountable to its values and principles.
   If leadership has not been operating as a value-free process, then how did we end up in such a globally chaotic state during the past few years? The answer is this is much more a crisis of values than one of economics and ‘the crisis’ will continue until we change our behaviours. We have to modify our value set and incorporate new values into the ways that we approach business as a whole.
   Twentieth-century success meant making as much money as we could, as fast as possible so that we could retire early and then supposedly enjoy life. This is an old paradigm, through which the corporate world promoted consumption at all costs in order to meet the expectations of analyst–investor quarterly results. However, there is another way. There is a way of understanding life and business which redefines the term success by putting short-term gains into perspective with more balanced longer-term returns together and sustainable prosperity, The term prosperity should not be restricted to economics as it was in the old paradigm; prosperity should also be defined in social and environmental terms. We need to leave behind excessive consumerism and its attendant ills and instead connect to a new era of recycling and alternative energies.
   In the 20th century, our concern with people was how they fit within a set of job descriptions, instead of jobs that might fit people’s needs. We promoted competitive advantage by off-shoring and low-cost manufacturing instead of promoting Fair Trade and accounting for bottom-of-the-pyramid considerations. In the last century, we embraced rationality in management. We forgot to include emotions, intuition, love and spirituality in management concepts and this leaves us now in to find their place in 21st-century management practices. To succeed in the 21st century, we will need to develop a more harmonic approach of cooperating and co-existing in the world, and accept higher levels of personal and organizational responsibility. Lastly, we will need to empower ourselves and our organizations to behave with a higher value set than we did in the last century. What we need is more conscious leadership.

Where is my profit?
Some organizations continue to look, first and foremost, for profit in economic terms and although some momentum remains in this approach, with each passing day these sources of profit will disappear. Customers in the new era will not legitimize companies that only focus on increasing their profit without showing social and environmental respect.
   Some organizations still look for a “magic pill” to solve all their problems, as if they were fighting evil viruses. These organizations don’t see themselves as part of the problem and even less as part of its causes. They just want their normality back while they blame just about everyone else—the banks, the government, high employee turnover, competitors, or maybe even the low cost of foreign manufacturing. I have even heard some organizations turn to blaming their customers. All that I can do is wish these organizations good luck in their fight against imagined evil viruses.
   Companies that insist on finding their sources of revenue the old way will continue to experience the symptoms of the “crisis” as if it was a disease of the “old species”. They operate in a two-dimensional world: the pursuit of profit against an axis of time. What is missing for these organizations is the axis of consciousness. New sources of prosperity—triple-bottom-line prosperity—can only be attained by organizations that elevate their level of consciousness to a higher position. The alternative of taking such a path is to accept the decline of the organization. For those who accept the idea of needing to embrace a higher consciousness, what to do then? How should organizational leaders proceed and what are the next steps to raising the level of consciousness of the organization?

Living organizations
Before discussing what to do to reach higher levels of prosperity, it is important to establish a common concept and language to illustrate the path forward. As such, organizations can be thought of as living organisms4 with a life cycle in which they are born, develop, mature, and eventually die. Most Fortune 500-type companies don’t last longer than 50 years, as they are not able to adapt to the changing environment. This analogy of considering organizations to be living entities has been successfully used by others. A prominent example is Arie de Geus with his best seller, The Living Company,5 in which he proposed the keys to managing for a long and prosperous organizational life. De Gues identified four critical characteristics for organizational longevity, one of them being the company’s sensitivity to their environment in order to be able to learn and adapt.
   When we accept the concept of living organizations, then by extension we can speak of an organizational state of health. At any given time, an organization can be in a different state, which can dramatically affect their performance. Like a human body, when an organization is ill or wounded, it does not perform at its maximum potential. An organization that is interested in achieving higher levels of prosperity will first need to be in a healthy state. From this point of view, all organizations need to embrace a healing process of some sort. Who today would dare to say, ‘My organization is as healthy as it could possibly be. We are performing to the maximum of our capabilities’? As with the human body, organizational health—good or bad—is a continuous process. It is not something that is done once and then forgotten. Health should be promoted for the entirety of an organization’s life.
   Why do we talk of healing instead of curing? Healing refers to inside-out actions which lead to living a healthy life and it has very little to do with the removal of symptoms. Healing is a systemic approach that encompasses every aspect of the being. Healing is about harmonic alignment, wellness, and wholeness. On the other hand, curing is a much more utilized western term and refers to using external actions to fix the internal problems. In other words, the magic pill that is sought to fix our problems while this often means merely addressing the symptoms and not the fundamental causes.
   Typically, people enter the health care system when indications of illness can no longer be ignored. They tend to look for a cure for a specific issue when it arises, rather than maintaining good health through regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and other actions that contribute to our overall state of wellbeing. Similarly, organizations will only react when the symptoms of under-performance are too painful to ignore. In response, CEOs will be replaced, factories will be closed, and major restructuring will be implemented. Instead, what are the equivalent wellbeing exercises for organizations? How does an organization eat a healthy diet and practice yoga?
   The reality is that there are a number of actions that an organization can put in place to embrace a healing process and work towards prosperity. These actions address the four key elements of a living organization’s being: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. For example, a company should balance the pursuit of financial health (physical), with the development of efficient decision-making processes (mental), with the harmony of people’s personal interests (emotional), and with the respect to the community (spiritual).
   The process of healing and steering the organization towards a healthier and more prosperous state is a transformational journey that happens in stages. At each turn, we elevate the level of consciousness a notch higher. Organizations are not likely to make a quantum leap from a low to a high state of consciousness. Like the human body, the organizational system evolves by attaining these stages of health. Donald Epstein proposes in The 12 Stages of Healing6 that there are 12 stages of consciousness that a person must go through in order to heal to their maximum potential. Similarly, an organization’s ability to heal is directly proportional to its ability to ascend a spiral of consciousness. Each strand of this spiral represents a crisis and, yet, growth is not possible without it. As in human life, suffering is needed to learn and grow. If we want to reach higher levels of health and prosperity in our organizations, we will have to embrace crises and take them as opportunities to learn, grow and transform.

In search of prosperity
The first step towards a higher level of consciousness is not outwardly focused. Looking for and caring for customers, and the environment, will be a definite outcome of the process, still it must start with an inward look. This is why prosperity cannot be purchased; it has to be lived and experienced. Organizations have to first develop an awareness of their own state of health. What is working and giving energy currently to the organizational system, and what is not? As self-awareness is the key to taking the first step in any leadership development programme, so, too, the organization’s governance needs to analyse and understand the different parts of its being.

  • Are the values, the mission and the purpose of our organization well founded?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How well do we cooperate between divisions and departments?
  • Is our vision inspirational and shared?
  • How do we express our truths to the market?
  • Is the organization’s foundational moment giving or taking energy from our current operation?
  • How are emotions lived in the organization?

   As an organization begins to answer these and other important questions, it will become aware of potential blockage points to higher levels of performance and success. As in a personal development programme, higher levels of organizational consciousness will inevitably bring us to choose certain areas to be worked on and developed further. Therefore, the very first step towards prosperity is for the governance body to increase its awareness of how their organization is run, where the energy flows smoothly, and where it does not. This crucial first step provides a self-diagnosis of organizational performance in terms of energy.
   The second step towards prosperity consists of developing the organization’s capabilities and commitment for change. This process starts by assuming that we have some degree of influence over what happens to us and that we accept our share of responsibility for the situation, even if it is minor. There will always be excuses for us to avoid taking responsibility and while it is fair to say that we are not always in control of what happens elsewhere in the world; still, the question is: do we really not have any influence over other events? For those of us tempted to say, ‘No,’ I would ask you if there was anything that you might do to that could worsen a situation? If the answer is ‘Yes’—there are ways of making things worse—this implies that we do have a certain amount of influence. We are empowered. This necessary self-empowerment will help us to look for solutions instead of focusing on blaming external factors and others.
   During this phase the organization’s governance body needs to identify and empower a group of key senior and middle management individuals, to embrace the change at hand and to play the role of internal transformation agents. Organizational change is about modifying behaviours, which implies the modification of values and beliefs. Without a shift in vales and beliefs, organizational change programmes are often unsuccessful. Many of us have seen or lived through organizational change initiatives and know that without a group of empowered transformation agents from within, the changes will not stick. How many agents of change are required to create the critical mass needed to shift the balance? The answer obviously depends on the scope of change, the size of the organization, and the timing or resources we are willing to invest.
   The third step towards prosperity is to provide a catalyst and to facilitate a sustainable transformation of this living organization. With an accurate diagnosis and after having empowered our core team of advocates for change, we can advance and focus more specifically on all the necessary alterations for truly transforming and healing our organization. The length of this phase depends on the organization’s current state of health, as well as how much change is desired. This is potentially a long phase as organizational change is not something achieved in a few weeks, nor can transformational change simply be purchased. This deeper focus is an experience that the organization has to undergo in the first person., There are no short cuts to transforming an organization, changing corporate culture, improving inter-personal cooperation, or to establishing a sustainable business model that is respectful of the environment and social needs.
   In summary, the transformation journey towards healthier organizational states and higher levels of prosperity happens in spirals where at each turn the organization is becoming healthier. Organizational healing can be achieved through:

  • developing organizational self-awareness about its own state of health;
  • empowering a group of internal transformation agents that will enforce the change objectives throughout the organization;
  • spreading the change plan and rolling-out the necessary workshops in order to reach the critical mass necessary for change to occur.

   Conscious leadership is about challenging the status quo to face the problems in order to learn and grow from them. It is about bringing transformation into organizations that otherwise will be outperformed by their competition. It is also about elevating the level of consciousness to the standards of our century. Doing so will benefit not only organizations but also the greater world and our own individual societies.

   1. E. Bernal, J. Cos and X. Tarré: Pinea3, Living Organizations, at
   2. R. Heifetz: Leadership without Easy Answers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1994.
   3. Sustainability: from Principle to Practice. München: Göthe-Institut, at
   4. E. Bernal, J. Cos and X. Tarré, op. cit.
   5. A. de Geus: The Living Company. Boston: Harvard Business School Press 2002.
   6. D. Epstein: The 12 Stages of Healing: a Network Approach to Wholeness. Novato, Calif.: Amber–Allen Publishing and New World Publishing 1994.

Enric BernalConscious leadership: in search of prosperity

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