What is ‘conscious leadership’ – and why do we need more of it?
Where are organisations going wrong on the people dimension right now?
One must always be careful to use the word ‘gaslighting,’ but unfortunately, there’s a lot of it around. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by Amazon’s expensive TV adverts that paint a rose-tinted picture of what life is like for the company’s grassroots staff. In January, we saw the first-ever strike at a UK Amazon fulfilment centre, with Coventry workers telling the BBC that their toilet breaks are timed and – in even more damning testimony – that the centre’s robots “are treated better than us”.
Clearly, there’s a huge disconnect between what the company can afford to depict in its commercials and what employees are experiencing on the ground.
It’s often said that Big Tech is an easy target in these sorts of debates – but it seems to almost wilfully invite criticism. The message we hear over and over again from workers in the sector is, “We don’t want to go to outer space, like our founders do. We just want to be able to work in dignified conditions and feed our families.” Yet in global, Big Tech workforces, layoffs in the tens of thousands are rolling through Amazon, Microsoft, Google, PayPal and Meta alike. We’re hearing about Google employees being suddenly unable to access company systems, because their jobs have been cut dead.
In my book #Time4Humanity, there’s a chapter titled ‘When ‘progress’ isn’t.’ And that’s very much what we’re looking at now. Humans were promised that, amid the growth of artificial intelligence, we would have greater scope to express creativity, philosophy and ideas. But with the advent of ChatGPT, could some of those opportunities be out of the window, too?
Are companies that strive for endless growth and maximum efficiency at any cost really what the world needs right now? Let’s have a greater awareness of what business isn’t. After the way recent layoffs have been handled, I don’t think employees will put up much longer with being described as ‘family members,’ while being treated without compassion. You haven’t adopted me – you’ve hired me. And, while family systems can be complex, they don’t tend to summarily dismiss members by email.
What should organisations be doing better?
Ramping up trust and integrity. We’ve all become accustomed – to the point of our eyes glazing over – to buzz-phrases like ‘cultural transformation.’ So, what we must do is reframe this as an evolution, designed to ensure that the values playing out in our workplaces are much closer to those that employers are espousing. And that those values aren’t just shared in inductions and companies’ annual reports – but are fundamental drivers of how organisations work.
I’ll offer two stories. In the first, I was coaching a leader who told me that her boss’s motto was: “The business of business is people.” My client had no children, but had owned a beloved dog. When her dog was about to die, she was away working in London while family in Manchester looked after the dog. When she told her boss, “I really need to go back to Manchester to see my dog,” he said: “You must think very carefully about what’s more important to you, here.”
In the second, I was on a recent Emirates flight out of Dubai and noticed there was no vegetarian option on the food menu – even though the UAE has declared 2023 a ‘Year of Sustainability,’ because it’s set to host COP 28. When a crewmember asked me for feedback, I explained why now would be a good time to introduce a non-meat option – but she said: “I haven’t heard from my manager in three years, so I don’t think that message would get through.”
No wonder there’s so much cynicism and scepticism around at the moment.
Do you have any examples of employers that are doing better?
There are many viable solutions to these issues, and I think we see a high yield of them within the B Corporation movement. According to certifying body B Lab, there are now more than 6,000 B Corps across 89 countries, working in almost 160 industries. What I like about the B Corp movement is that it’s independently verified – so there’s no place to hide. Put simply, you must be tangibly values based and transparent about what that means, or you won’t make the grade. And crucially, a big part of the movement’s ethos is that making money and doing good in the world aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.
In 2016, my company Marmalade Fish became the first certified B Corp in the Middle East. The second was only certified last year – so the region still has a long way to go. When we applied for certification, we thought we were in good shape, but the questions we faced were incredibly rigorous and really made us think. Importantly, retaining the B Corp stamp requires you to apply for recertification every three years – so the process demands continuous improvement on your environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures.
How do you define the ‘conscious leadership’ that you talk about in your book?
I’m going to resist giving a step-by-step framework for being more human! We’ve all become very accustomed to – and, indeed, rather jaded about – ‘Five Ways to…’ ‘Seven Habits of…’ and -type, procedural maps for embodying certain combinations of positive behaviours.
In its simplest form, conscious leadership refers to the ability to bring one’s entire self into the position. Indeed, the English word ‘conscious’ is derived from the Latin conscius: con (‘together’) and scio (‘to know’).
My broad approach to this is that conscious leadership is accessible to anyone, anywhere, who has self-insight and is willing to step up and lead in a different way – and to think of leadership as a verb.
I know of a 12-year-old who has expressed conscious leadership, and I’ve heard of a 100-year-old who has given it, too. It’s not something that people necessarily demonstrate – but practice. That’s a crucial distinction. It’s often said that positive cultures are what should happen in organisations when no one’s watching, and much the same applies to conscious leadership. In my book, I talk about the need to get people to stand in front of rules, rather than hide behind them. So, that’s definitely one facet. And conscious leaders are always looking for opportunities to make small, micro-choices that, collectively and over time, accumulate in ways that help to empower people and make a difference.
Leadership is awareness, and awareness is leadership.
If conscious leadership can’t be defined in procedural terms, can it be learned? And if so, how?
Part three of my book looks at the concept of The Awakened Future, which is all about turning the lens that’s constantly scanning outwards back onto ourselves. And while more organisations are realising the need to develop ‘self’ before focusing on team cohesion and company culture, many still refer to these as ‘soft skills’ – I’d rather use the term ‘crucial’ or ‘critical’ skills.
But in the end, these are human skills. And because they are innate within us, we can expand our capacity for deeper listening. We can better understand emotions, and broaden our scope for bringing opposing vibrations as and when appropriate – whereby you can be kind and powerful, humble and confident, assertive and flexible. My vision of conscious leadership is that, as I build a peaceful connection with myself, I’m more likely to manifest that outwardly in all my relationships. My sense is that that’s where we're shifting now.
Voices from our community: Samie Al-Achrafi is founder and CEO of Marmalade Fish and author of #Time4Humanity