Conscious Leadership in Action

Barret C. Brown

Barret C. Brown

Barret Brown is a researcher interested in “how leaders and change agents with a very complex and rare meaning-making system design and engage with sustainability initiatives.” I recently read a summary of his PhD thesis and it lists 15 competencies related to successful leadership in sustainability. As I resonated so much with these, I thought I would list them, and offer a small commentary on each one.

1. Ground sustainability practice in deep meaning

Honor the work of sustainability as a spiritual practice, as a sacred expression. See sustainability work as a vehicle for transformation of self, others, and the world. Act in service of others and on behalf of a greater Other (e.g., universe; spirit; consciousness; god; collective intelligence; emptiness; nature).

This is interesting as I tend to shy away from talking about spirituality, although last year when I was in Chile presenting on complexity i was asked the question “Where is the love?” For me when I teach people I help them move from a predominantly mechanistic mindset, one of subject-object separation, to a mindset of the appreciation of relationship and wholeness. This is a move from an egocentric worldview to an ecocentric worldview and I leave it up to those I speak to to reach any further conclusions about their relationship and embeddedness in our world.

2. Intuitive decision-making and harvesting

Use ways of knowing other than rational analysis to harvest profound insights and make rapid decisions. Be able to easily access this type of information alone or collectively, and facilitate individuals and groups to do so.

This is wonderful to see as I teach Jung’s four ways of knowing; thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition. In most academic and business environments the only valid way of knowing appears to be thinking, but more and more I see an openness to exploring other ways of knowing and using both halves of our brains.

3. Embrace uncertainty with profound trust

Willingness to not know, to wonder into the mystery of what will emerge next. Able to humbly rest in the face of the unknown, ambiguity, and unpredictable change, and not need to “push” for an immediate answer or resolution. Deeply trust oneself, co-designers, and the process to navigate through uncertainty.

When you let go of mechanistic certainty you have to embrace uncertainty. I have written recently about Generation Flux and how entrepreneurs are embracing chaos rather than being frightened of it and trying to control it away. I have also written much about trust too, and see much of my work here in Brazil helping people to develop a sense of trust in others, since without it complex projects are more than likely to fail.

4. Scan and engage the internal environment

Able to quickly become aware of and aptly respond to psychological dynamics in oneself so that they do not inappropriately influence one’s sustainability work. Deep attunement to emotional, shadow, and personality-driven forces; able to “get out of the way” and be “energetically clean” when engaging with others.

This to me is reminding us that transition starts with ourselves. We have to development mindfulness to first be aware of our own dynamics before we can truly impact on wider organisational and social dynamics of the systems in which we are a part.

5. Inhabit multiple perspectives

Able to intellectually and emotionally hold many different perspectives related to a sustainability issue, without being overly attached to any of them. Able to argue the position of and communicate directly from different viewpoints. Be open, curious, and inviting of new perspectives, especially those that challenge or counter one’s own.

I agree, and for this reason i spend a lot of time discussing the notion of mental models and how they affect our thinking. When we become aware of our own mental models, then we can start to enter into creative conversations rather than just having combative conversations where we feel the need to win.

6. Dialogue with the system

Able to repeatedly sense into what is needed to help a system develop (e.g., make it more sustainable), try different interventions (e.g., prototype; experiment; seed ideas), observe the system response, and adapt accordingly (c.f., Snowden & Boone, 2007). Able to look at the system, through the system, and as the system as part of the dialogue.

If there is one thing that impacted me profoundly in doing my masters degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College it is having a profound sense of the concept of a system. To reach this point I had to drop many pre-conceptions and go through a huge transition which meant struggling with philosophies which were alien to me. Here we see the need to develop profound sensemaking skills, in order that our mental models do not prevent us from comprehending authentic systems rather than counterfeit systems.

7. Go with the energy

Able to identify and take advantage of openings and opportunities for system changes that are well received by members of the system, thereby building on momentum and moving around obstacles. Also, able to identify blockages or tensions (in individuals, groups, or systems) that hinder progress, and inquire into them.

Again, this is where a course in mindfulness can attune us to the world around us as opposed to being trapped by our egos, preventing us from seeing the more subtle aspects, relationships, emotions and motivations of those around us.

8. Self-transformation

Able to consistently develop oneself or create the environment for self-development in the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive domains, as well as other areas. Based upon deep self-knowledge, including personality dynamics and shadow issues. Able to create communities and engage mentors that consistently invite/challenge a deeper self to come forth.

This matches my comment in point 7. Perhaps a trend which is yet to emerge is developing mindfulness in leaders. I have begun to touch on the steps we may go through in this self-transformation via my model of the four elements; earth, water, air, fire.

9. Create developmental conditions

Able to create the initial conditions (e.g., environment) that support and/or challenge development of individuals, groups, cultures, and systems. Able to sense what the next developmental step might be for others or a system, and create fertile ground or an intervention that increases the likelihood of development or the emergence of novelty. Requires a general understanding of how individuals, groups, and systems develop.

I think here we need to rethink our work environments especially. There is a huge amount of scope for getting employees out of their normal work environments and into much more creative ones, be them workshops or out in nature. We can begin by thinking about how we hold dialogue in our organisations, and if there are not better ways to really help communication flow, for example by hosting world cafes etc. In my lectures I offer students a few simple guidelines for holding group conversations, and so even simple techniques can be extremely powerful.

10. Hold space

Able to effectively create the appropriate (e.g., safe; challenging) space to help a group progress (e.g., work through an inquiry; build trust; self-reflect), holding the tension of the important questions. Able to hold the energetic potential of what is needed in the space, and/or what is needed for development of the individuals and collectives involved, thereby creating the environment for the emergence of answers/outcomes and developmental movement.

This is a great phrase, hold space, and one that I wonder if many people use. It is often not a case of teaching people, but allowing them to experience what they need to experience in a safe environment. Leaders do not always need to have all the answers, they can lead by standing back and simply holding the space.

11. Shadow mentoring

Able to support others to see and appropriately respond to their psychological shadow issues and their “programming” (e.g., assumptions; limiting beliefs; projections; stories). This is not psychotherapy work, but the use of basic “maintenance” tools like the 3-2-1 process (Wilber, Patten, Leonard, & Morelli, 2008) to address shadow issues.

Totally agree and much of this relates to our mental models and also conditioning from a very young age.

12. Systems theory and systems thinking

Understand the fundamental concepts and language of systems theory. Be able to apply systems thinking to better understand sustainability issues and support the development of systems. (c.f., Bertalanffy, 1968; Laszlo, 1972; Senge, 1990)

As per my comments in point 6, we have to learn to avoid the trap of counterfeit systems thinking  which I would attempt to summarise as forcing things to belong together. Authentic systems thinking I think of as seeing how things belong together naturally.

13. Complexity theory and complexity thinking

Understand the fundamental concepts and language of complexity theory, especially as it relates to leadership. Be able to apply complexity thinking to better understand sustainability issues and support the development of complex adaptive systems.

I think the danger is that sometimes students taught complexity theory end up becoming more confused than before they first began studying complexity theory. I was struck by a comment from a world leader in complexity science from the Santa Fe Institute who said that their biggest failing was not being able to communicate the concept of non-linearity. Teachers of complexity science still have some way to go I feel in helping students go through what I call the Transition of Consciousness, from linear thinking to non-linear thinking.

14. Integral theory and integral reflection

Understand the fundamental concepts and language of integral theory. Be able to use integral theory to: assess or diagnose a sustainability issue and design an intervention; tailor communications to different worldviews; support the development of oneself, others, groups, cultures, and systems.

Integral theory is most widely associated with Ken Wilbur. I am in no position to comment on his huge body of work as I have not studied it. I myself have been taught about wholeness by philosopher Henri Bortoft (as well as other great teachers as well) who was a student under the physicist David Bohm, a great influence on Peter Senge. I would say that it is important to enter into this space somewhere, and it does not matter where, be it Wilbur, Bohm or Bortoft.

15. Polarity management

Understand the fundamental concepts and language of polarity management. Be able to recognize and effectively engage important polarities such as: subjective-objective; individual-collective; rational-intuitive; masculine-feminine; structured-dynamic; challenge-support; and big picture-details.

Again, I would not want to claim any expertise in polarity management, but my deep explorations of the teachings of Henri Bortoft has led me to my own dynamic comprehension of the One and the many. Bortoft’s philosophy is one that comes from hermeneutics, European phenomenology and the scientific works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I think what makes Bortoft so accessible is that his writing is designed to guide you into the dynamic way of seeing, which is a shift of attention into the sensory intuitive mode of knowing. This is not easy, and both Henri and Margaret Colquhoun, a Goethian scientist, told me that it took them some years before they really made the breakthrough into this way of seeing and knowing. This is why we have to practice mindfulness. Some of the things that are most worth knowing can not be transmitted as information, they have to be experienced intuitively.


Barret Brown Ph.D. Dissertation on Conscious Leadership in Action

In this article I did not want to list too many of my own articles which go into all of these topics in more detail. If you are not familiar with my own writings, please start by looking at my Key Articles section which lists many relevant articles.

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