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Conscious Leadership as a Spiritual Journey

Article by Margaret Benefiel (May 2019 eNews)

What is conscious leadership? When I received the annual Elks leadership award my senior year in high school for my leadership in the Elma Sunshine Makers 4-H Club in Elma, Washington, I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about leadership. After all, I had brought the club back from the brink of extinction by talking my friends’ mothers into being project leaders, I had recruited my mother to chaperone our club at 4-H camp every summer in the rough open-air cabins, and I had encouraged club members’ participation in the county fair to the degree that our club had one of the highest number of blue ribbons in the county.

What I didn’t know was how much the adults and other club members were putting up with my shadow. The adults wanted to encourage my leadership so they covered for me when I was insensitive or when I dropped balls. The other club members wanted a 4-H club so they let me boss them around. I thought I knew it all, so I wasn’t open to mentoring from the adults around me. I was an unconscious leader.

As Parker Palmer defines leadership, “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.”  In my case, mercifully, it was a relatively small number of people, but project shadow I did.

Now in my sixties, I am still learning how to be a more conscious leader. I ask myself: “What is driving me? What part of my leadership is ego? What part is attunement to the Spirit and acting in service to the Spirit’s desire for the group?” I need people to help me see my blind spots. I meet regularly with my spiritual director. I turn to my coach when I need her. Leadership is a spiritual journey for me as I repeatedly bump into my limitations. I’ve learned to see these bumps as invitations to turn to God and grow in awareness and love.

Like individuals, organizations can also be conscious or unconscious, or more frequently, some combination of the two. In my leadership at Shalem, I ask: “What is driving us? What part is attachment to the way it’s always been? What part is desire for self-perpetuation? And what part is attunement to the Spirit and acting in service to the Spirit’s desire for us?” Like individuals, organizations suffer from blind spots. What will help us see them? Shalem board and staff have found Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change process helpful in surfacing our organizational stuck places. And, thanks to my spiritual director, we have found a process of identifying the costs and benefits of a particular change, as contrasted to the costs and benefits of staying the same, to also be helpful. Becoming more conscious as an organization is also a spiritual journey. We begin to see our collective attachments and we learn to let go. The more we let go, the more we experience freedom to respond to the Spirit’s invitation to love and to serve.

Leadership is a spiritual journey. To the degree that I allow it, leadership provides the invitation to become more conscious and more open to God. And to the degree that we as an organization allow it, bumps and growing pains provide the invitation to become more conscious as an organization and to move beyond our stuck places. When we see greater freedom, greater selfless service, and greater love, we know we are on the right track.

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SK Fishback

Your reflections on your high school leader self invite me to reflect on how I was held back as a young leader too and had so much room to grow. I so appreciate you sharing about your younger self and sharing some of the tools that have helped you to grow and get unstuck. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!