Applications of Conscious Leadership
I facilitated a conversation recently among a group of seven nurses and CNAs, along with the nursing supervisor and nursing director. It is a group I’ve been meeting with twice a month for about 6 months. The intention of the meetings has been to invite them to take ownership of co-creating the culture they want, to take responsibility for how they are showing up, especially in those moments of reactivity in themselves or in the people with whom they work.
At one point, a nurse said “I wasn’t going to speak, but I just need to say this … when I come to my supervisor and tell her that I’m overwhelmed and need more support on the floor, I don’t want to hear a response of ‘you don’t have anything to complain about … our nursing coverage is much higher than most facilities even when we’re short handed.’”
“I don’t feel heard when you say that, and I get even more frustrated. I want to hear that you understand how overwhelmed I am, how frustrated and disappointed I feel to not be able to provide the quality of care I want to.”
This nurse is describing a moment in her work day when she has a human need for empathy.
The human need of empathy
When our emotions are surging— whether in joy or frustration— we have a yearning for another human being to be present to us, to understand what is going on in us. Not to try to fix us, or make us better, or to try to distract us from it, but simply to be present to us.
Empathy has many close cousins, the simplest of which is the need to be heard. How rare in our work day (or anywhere else for that matter) do we encounter another person who is willing to give us their attention and to listen with understanding. Ahh … to be understood … another close cousin of empathy.
Amazingly, when we are heard, when we are understood, when we get nurtured with the empathy that we need, then we have a sense of being valued, of mattering.
One of the challenges around the need of empathy
We don’t name it, we don’t ask for it, we don’t coach others in how to give it, we aren’t taught the common ways that people “ask” for empathy.
Very often in the workplace, when staff is reaching out for empathy, the supervisor or manager instead hears it as complaining, or whining, or making excuses, or simply “bad behavior.”
Another nurse spoke up, “I appreciate that I can call the nurse supervisor and ask her if I can just vent for a few minutes so I don’t explode, and she gives me the space to do it, and afterward says ‘I can really hear your frustration of how hard it is to work with this patient.’ … That helps a lot. Otherwise, I think I would probably take it out on my co-workers and on the patient.”
When I asked a CNA who had been quiet to check in, she paused for a moment, and said “I don’t really have anything to say … I’m here … I’m doing my job … but I’m not really here.”
I asked her, “Are you saying that you’re getting your job done, but that there’s stuff going on in your life that’s keeping you from being as present as you would like?”
“Yeah, it’s not about what’s going on at work … I’m fine here … it’s even good to be here. But I’ve had so much going on …” She went on to name three people close to her that had died in the last month, one of which had literally died in her arms. “The people here are so supportive of what I’m going through … they give me a hug and say ‘I’m sorry’ … it really helps.”
The need for empathy is pervasive …
We’re more likely to get that need met when we recognize it, and ask for it. In fact, these are milestones of development in becoming a Conscious Leader.
Of course, unless there is someone available to you who is skilled in empathic listening, then you might not get the quality of presence that nurtures the need of empathy. Empathic listening is one of four core skill sets within Needs-Based Communication (NVC), and part of the foundational training for a Conscious Leader.
If we are to meet the human need for empathy in our workplace environments, then we also need structures that support people in their need for empathy. For the group of nurses and CNAs I mentioned above, one of their key structures is the bi-monthly meetings that we have together. They are also encouraged to support each other. To notice when a colleague is in a reactive state, to invite the person to pause and take some deep breaths, and to meet their colleague with some empathic listening.
As another example, in my prior IT business, we had a designated room called the “Gold Room” that was set up with comfortable seating and warm colors where people could go to step out of the work environment for a moment to connect with themselves or with another person.
Empathy is a core human need.
I invite you to learn to recognize it and name it.
I invite you to learn the skill of empathic listening to nurture it.
I invite you to create structures within your work environment that are conducive to empathic connection.
An Invitation to Become a More Conscious Leader
For hundreds of generations including our own, we have been conditioned to a “domination” mindset of leadership that puts the needs of one human being above another. Whomever the person in power — the king, the boss, the teacher, the parent, the priest, the government official — their choices and their will are imposed on those they lead.
The domination mindset of leadership is based on fear: "do what I say, or else I will use my power to harm you (“punishment”)."
And I have language that I can use so that you — not I — are responsible for the harm I do to you: “you deserve it."
The more benevolent leaders in this mindset emphasize giving you something you want (a "reward") if you do what they say.
Either way, the person in power is using the extrinsic motivation of rewards and punishments to manipulate and coerce the people they lead to do what they say.
At the core of this domination leadership is a mindset of “I matter — and you don’t.”
Over the millennia this domination mindset has been built into our language, our thinking, our culture, our families, our institutions, our laws, our policies — perpetuating the mindset so that it becomes pervasive, invisible and subconscious. We say ”that’s just the way the world is” … “that’s just what a leader is.”
“Conscious” leadership sees another way.
It flows from a mindset of “I matter AND you matter” that is based on trust and care.
I am reminded of a children’s book by Douglas Wood called Old Turtle and the Broken Truth. The story highlights the contrast in living from the “broken” truth of “you are loved …” with the “whole” truth of “you are loved … and so are they.” In the broken truth, we see ourselves as being more valuable than others. In the whole truth, we see each other as equally valuable in our humanity.
For the conscious leader, people are valued intrinsically because each person has a sacred dignity which is grounded in a divine core.
Conscious Leadership, as I am defining it,
Conscious Leadership challenges the underlying and hidden mindset from which all domination leadership flows.
Namely, if human beings are valued, then any use of coercion, manipulation, rewards, punishment or harm diminishes the value and dignity of the human being, and has no place.
Instead, a conscious leader leads by igniting people’s intrinsic motivation to contribute and belong to something bigger than themselves which they mutually value.
If human beings are truly valued,
For example, when an organization values the human need “to be heard,” you would observe people having conversations that value being heard, as well as organizational structures and processes that value being heard.
For instance, you would see leaders avoiding the tendency to dismiss what another person is saying by labeling it as “complaining” or “whining.” And meetings would include a structure such as rounds where each person has an explicit opportunity to speak and be heard.
The first step toward conscious leadership then,
I value you and your human needs as much as I value myself and my own human needs.
To embrace the mindset is to move toward it, starting from wherever you are. It’s the yearning to lead from this new mindset that propels the conscious leader forward in her own development. It’s the openness to embrace the new language, the new thinking, and the new way of being that this mindset invites.
What matters is not to be a conscious leader, but to become a more conscious leader. It means an ongoing commitment of authentic self-discovery to see where domination still lives within you, and to consciously practice new thinking and new language in alignment with “I matter AND you matter AND we matter.”
What does leadership look like
What does leadership look like that refuses to use coercion, manipulation or punishment to get work done? What does “strength” look like in such a leader? What does “accountability” look like in this environment?
I hope to shine a light on such questions in the weeks to come to create more clarity around what it means to be a conscious leader.