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Are You An Unconscious Leader?

October 14, 2020 in

AUTHOR: Eric Bean, PhD

Right now, where are you? I do not mean geographically or in an overly spiritual sense. Rather, what emotions are you currently experiencing? How is your mental state? Are you present, past, or future-focused?

Now think in terms of interactions with your teammates. How are you when you enter a meeting with various individuals? If there is conflict with someone, you might enter the meeting closed off or defensive. If you two are in a good space and there are high levels of trust, you might enter the meeting open, calm, and excited.

These questions are important because they reveal if you tend to live and lead consciously or unconsciously. Knowing where you are emotionally, mentally, and physically at any given moment is a key quality of a conscious leader.

Above the Line Leadership

The concept of being “above the line” or “below the line” has been applied to many domains requiring high performance, including elite athletics (for example, see Tim Kight’s work with Ohio State Football) and leadership. In Jim Dethmer and colleagues’ model, a leader who is operating above the line is open, curious, and committed to learning.

Above the line leaders have a conscious awareness of their mental and emotional states and are attuned to any internal changes as a result of something happening in the external environment. The above the line leader emphasizes learning and growing over being right.

On the other hand, a leader who is below the line is closed, defensive, and committed to being right. This leader is usually driven by emotional impulses, reactive to the emotions of others, and acts from a threatened state of mind. The below the line leader will look to find fault, place blame on others, and remain largely problem focused.

Conscious Leaders Thrive, Unconscious Leaders Survive

Why does this matter? Because conscious leaders tend to thrive, while unconscious leaders merely survive.

Building conscious awareness isn’t easy because we need to actively act against our natural instincts. Our brains are programmed to perceive threat, but they struggle to tell the difference between threats to our survival and threats to our ego.

Any perceived threat can drive us below the line to engage in conflict (or avoid it), place blame (absolve ourselves of responsibility) and close us off. When we’re in a threatened state of mind, our only focus is on survival. We will fight, flight, or freeze in an effort to survive. We prioritize our survival over creative problem solving, collaboration, and (obviously) fun!

Surviving is not thriving, and most organizational leaders desire a work environment that is engaging (i.e. fun, fulfilling, and challenging), collaborative, and creative. Those characteristics can only come from doing the hard work to bring ourselves above the line.

How to Become Conscious

While it can be easy to reflect on our mental and emotional states after an event, it can be difficult to build self-awareness to know our mindset in the moment.

Gaining present-minded awareness requires the ability to internally check-in. I was once coaching a leader who shared with me that at times, he would get so focused on work that he would forget to eat, drink, or even take a bio-break for hours on end. He would just go from task to meeting to another task to another meeting.

The ability to internally check-in may not seem especially challenging, but many people simply don’t do this game-changer because they have not consciously developed the practice. They stay focused on the external environment (the meeting, the task they are working on, etc.) and are unconsciously driven by their emotions. They suffer consequences to their health while limiting their effectiveness as leaders because they lack awareness.

Try This Check-in Process Before Your Next Meeting:

First, take a deliberate, deep breath. If you have shifted your attention to your breath, you have successfully shifted your attention away from the external environment. Consider a four-second inhale where the chest and shoulders remain still and the diaphragm expands (i.e. push the belly out on the inhale), followed by a 5-second exhale. Making the exhale longer helps reduce blood pressure, expels more toxins and carbon dioxide, and helps the muscles relax.

After you have taken one or two deliberate breaths, do a quick body scan of any tension or emotions you may have. Are you feeling pressure or anxiety or guilt? Also, consider your state of mind. Are you agitated or at ease? Identify, not only how you are thinking about an emotion but also where it is showing up in your body. When helping clients build their emotional literacy, we identify adjectives to describe the various intensities of the emotion as well as where that emotion is felt in the body.

Recently, a coaching client has been getting a bit short with his team members and once we landed on the right adjective (irritated), we then looked at where irritation manifests itself in his body (in his case he felt it in his shoulders). The key here is to build awareness of the many different emotional signals that occur in your body, in your thoughts, and ultimately in your behavior (or body language). This awareness can help you quickly ascertain where you are and give you the opportunity to consciously shift back above the line. So, before your next meeting check-in internally by taking a few deliberate breaths, then become aware of any lingering emotions, and intentionally shift to being open, curious, and committed to learning.

Need Help?

Becoming a conscious leader requires a commitment to better understanding yourself, your triggers, and your patterns. If you’d like help in becoming more conscious and leading others to be more open, curious, collaborative, and creative, reach out to the Human Capital Services team at HigherEchelon.

In our Resilient and Adaptable Leader© program and corporate leadership training, we guide leaders to greater self-awareness and self-regulation by exploring their thinking patterns and emotional habits and then we teach skills to manage both. We reinforce this shift in awareness and the associated skills through executive coaching.

Dr. Eric Bean is Director of High Performance at HigherEchelon, Inc. where he works with a range of public and private sector clients to improve performance under pressure, develop leaders, and optimize culture. He is an AASP-certified mental performance consultant, ICF-certified coach, and holds a Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from Michigan State University.

Check out Eric’s Coaching Through Stories Podcast and subscribe!