John Mackey on Conscious Leadership: The Hero’s Journey

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John Mackey on Conscious Leadership: The Hero’s Journey - GCFCL
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I recently attended the Success 3.0 Summit in Boulder, CO, where I had the pleasure of hearing John Mackey (co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and co-founder of Conscious Capitalism) speak specifically about his views on conscious leadership. What I enjoyed most about John’s keynote was that he took a balanced, pragmatic and business-like view of conscious leadership. Not for John an airy-fairy, loved-up view of being a conscious leader: in fact, he made a point of addressing the audience (some of whom were, in my view, in some danger of veering towards taking an airy-fairy and loved-up view of conscious leadership) by starting his speech with a warning that conscious leadership requires work, discipline and the challenge of picking yourself up when you fall down.

John is probably the business leader most frequently mentioned in connection with conscious leadership (he has done a great deal to promote and define it), and in his talk he outlined the qualities he sees that sets the conscious leader apart from other leaders.

Being conscious

It goes without saying that the first of these is that we need to be conscious, which doesn’t mean that we’re simply walking around and breathing, but that we are aware of the interpretations that we’re making, aware of how our consciousness is interpreting things. It’s pretty much a bottom line requirement that we have an awareness of what’s motivating us, right now, and why we might be feeling something at any particular time.

Evolving ourselves

It’s one thing to be aware but, hand in hand with this, comes the responsibility that if we want to see things happen differently in the world, then the change starts with us. And so conscious leaders carry with themselves the responsibility to first make themselves different, to change their own way of being. This mirrors Gandhi’s famous guidance that: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Qualities of conscious leaders

2014-11-02 15.57.45What qualities and virtues do conscious leaders aim to emulate and embody? These are qualities such as being connected with a clearly identified purpose (often bigger than themselves that makes them service-oriented), connected to their values and able to live these authentically, having a highly developed capacity for love and care, able to take stands and live these stands with integrity, being emotionally and systemically ‘intelligent’, and being spiritually evolved (in my view, this is seeking to continually evolve ourselves and expand our awareness).

Four intelligences of conscious leaders

2014-11-02 15.58.02In terms of intelligence, John defines the conscious leader as having three additional intelligences beyond intellectual or analytical intelligence. These are: emotional intelligence, systems intelligence and spiritual intelligence. Daniel Goleman’s work is well-documented in defining emotional intelligence (EQ) – our capacity to understand and manage ourselves together with our ability to read and empathise with others and manage our relationships. In Whole Foods Market, recounts John, EQ is considered to be the highest indicator of individual performance.

In Spiritual Intelligence, John borrows from the work of Cindy Wigglesworth but also talks about the importance of being connected to a higher purpose, having discernment and ethics, an abundance of love, care and compassion, and the need for us to metabolise the timeless qualities of the Good, the Beautiful and the True.

He defines systems intelligence as both the ability to think intelligently about systems (such as seeing the bigger picture, anticipating consequences and seeing the system through the data – ever more important in the complexities of today’s world) and being able to ‘feel into’ the system – having a intuitive sense of the interconnectedness of all things.

Standing for a greater purpose

Conscious leaders see themselves and their responsibility as extending beyond their immediate world and so they have a sense of service towards something greater than themselves. Being in service of this purpose leads them towards servant leadership, as defined by Robert Greenleaf, and an attitude of love and care extends naturally from here. “Simply understanding that you’ve been called to service, love extends from you,” is the way John puts it.

Organisations based on love

2014-11-02 16.05.54Therefore, the conscious leader is able to extend this sense of greater purpose and service out to the world at large, and builds his or her organisation around this. John is at pains to ensure that Whole Foods Market thrives on a culture of love and care, not fear. People are promoted on the basis of emotional intelligence and their capacity for love and care. Appreciations are given at the start of meetings (even at Board level), as concrete transformative ways to promote a culture based on love and care and to reduce fear. “Love is what binds people in relationships,” John says. “When there’s fear, people contract and you can’t be creative when you’re contracted.” Keeping people open, connected and taking risks without fear of retribution is a critical factor for businesses to continually innovate in order to flourish and compete.

Integrity and doing the right thing

2014-11-02 16.10.12This might come from John’s character, where he is known to be outspoken about issues that he thinks aren’t being handled right by the powers that be, but integrity is also one of the mainstays of being, and remaining, conscious. A conscious leader needs to take a stand and authentically live that stand. They need to be trusted and living in integrity promotes this. They need to remain conscious of when circumstances and pressures threaten to pull them off the path that they’ve committed to, whether publicly or privately. All this points to integrity, which John defines as: “Doing the right thing under all circumstances.” In Whole Foods Market, for instance, lapses in team member judgement are tolerated, but lapses in integrity are not. Furthermore, “If you want integrity in your organisation, model it,” says John.

What do conscious leaders do?

2014-11-02 16.12.36What actions do conscious leaders take in their jobs as leaders? They create a shared purpose that everyone, all stakeholders, can buy into. They are obsessed with making a positive difference in the world. Conscious leaders say things like: “I create the future I want to live into” (Ibrahim Al Husseini, founder of Full Cycle Energy Fund) and “My metric of success is whether I’m making my own and others’ experience of life better” (Luke Nosek, co-founder of PayPal). They inspire others with their purpose and consequently mobilize people, creating workplaces of meaning and high energy. They are invested in
others’ growth and evolution as well – becoming conscious leaders themselves. They are concerned with being their word and making tough ethical choices where they need to. Perhaps most importantly of all, becoming a conscious leader requires a high degree of intentionality and continual practice. “It’s not easy to grow up,”says John, “it means becoming a master of yourself.”

Growing and evolving

2014-11-02 16.25.10However, John continues, we have an ethical imperative to grow and evolve. I agree with him. If we’re not growing and evolving, we stagnating, and how are we useful to life if we are taking and not contributing? Being committed to our personal growth and evolution, and everything that goes with this, is our contribution towards life.

A crisis, says John, is the greatest opportunity we have to accelerate our own evolution. He gave his own examples of personal pinch points requiring him to raise his consciousness and his game. I have my own examples and wholeheartedly agree. It’s seldom comfortable learning the big lessons, but we often don’t grow without them – unless we take personal responsibility for our own ongoing conscious growth and evolution.

How do we then evolve by choice?

John lists a range of ways he thinks we can ensure that we keep evolving:

  • Making sure that we know ourselves and practise self-awareness
  • Discovering our deepest yearnings and following our heart
  • Ensuring that our personal purpose syncs with our organisation’s purpose
  • Looking after our continual learning
  • Striving to evolve our consciousness upwards. Freeing ourselves from dogma and fixed ideas is key to loosening up our capacity to see more of what is real.
  • Find good role models, mentors and coaches
  • Take care of our health – our physical casing
  • Be disciplined about our spiritual practices
  • Study the timeless wisdom of others

At the end of the day, personal growth is a choice

2014-11-02 16.29.43Our greatest challenge is to manage and lead ourselves. It requires honest self-appraisal, self-awareness and the willingness to be wrong about where, previously, we thought we were so right. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the role of the ego in maintaining our status quo. Our courage is shown in transcending this.

When we manage and lead ourselves, we have the opportunity to lead others through our example and through our actions as a conscious leader. When we are invested in something greater than ourselves, this becomes easier and natural to dedicate our lives and our leadership to contributing to others and the world beyond ourselves.

Following the theme of the Success 3.0 Summit, John’s interpretation of our challenge is to:

  • Wake up – Know ourselves
  • Grow up – Do our spiritual practices
  • Show up – And serve

According to John, this is the hero’s journey of the conscious leader.

Do you agree and would you add any other qualities to the journey of conscious leadership?


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