People // May 2023 Leading the Way
One Hundred and One talks to former Australian rules footballer and entrepreneur Luke Darcy, and psychologist and world authority on lateral thinking, Dr. Michael Hewitt-Gleeson about the power of conscious leadership to propel businesses forward gently and meaningfully. Share this on LinkedIn, Twitter
Dr. Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, Co-Founder, School of Thinking | Luke Darcy, Former Australian rules footballer and entrepreneur "What is conscious leadership and how can it transform businesses?"
For those not familiar with your work, tell us a bit about yourselves.

Michael: I’m a writer and cognitive neuroscientist. I started the School of Thinking with Edward de Bono in New York 40 years ago, teaching thinking as a skill. We were teaching ‘thinking instructors’, so it was very much a conscious leadership model. Previously, I was in the military, where we learnt a form of conscious leadership, and I then went on to get my PhD in Cognitive Science looking at Conscious Salesmanship. Selling had always been seen from the salesman’s point of view, particularly in the American model, which Australia followed. It was always a case of ‘Did you make the sale?’ I looked into switching it to awareness of the customer’s point of view. 

Luke: Well, that’s a hard act to follow! Seven years ago, my friend Matt Wadewitz and I started a business called Aleda. We played junior footy together, but he broke his ankle in our last game and subsequently became an educator. He was revered around Australia for what great education looks like. His school were managing out 25 kids, so he went to the principle and asked to teach them. Through conscious leadership, he was able to engage them in a way that they hadn’t been before; they weren’t troubled kids, just disengaged. From being managed out, all of them went onto finish year 12 and 80 percent went onto tertiary education. Matt went on to coach teachers on how to engage kids more effectively. 

As a father of four, I became obsessed with what Matt was doing. You see the impact of great leadership in education, and you see the reverse when you don’t. The idea of getting great educators together to get the best outcome for students is what we should all be doing. Over time, we’ve applied the same approach of collaborative learning and conscious leadership to sports, business and the arts, and that’s where I have the privilege of meeting great thinkers and leaders like Michael. 

What is conscious leadership?

Luke: It starts with being self-reflective. You can’t lead consciously unless you know yourself consciously. Conscious leaders live the actions that they want others to display. From that starting point, they care, collaborate and listen, while still being able to be the ultimate decision-maker, but in a way that positively impacts their social environment. It’s not about the outcome they want, but what’s best for the whole team. 

Michael: In the School of Thinking, we say, “Thinking is the skill of leading yourself, while leadership is the skill of helping other people to lead themselves.” Like all skills, they can be learned and developed. It’s not just a gift. 

Is this a relatively new phenomenon? What has led us here and how has conscious leadership shifted the leadership paradigm?

Michael: Well, it started as far back as the Romans, who were the first to teach leadership consciously and organisationally. It wasn’t about one gifted leader; it was formal training that could be replicated. The Roman Army gave us the Roman Empire, which was one of the greatest leaps in civilisation, and today the military still uses the same basic principles of command leadership and conscious leadership that were taught by the Romans. 

Luke: I played sport at a time when you got personally abused every day. If you could cope with it, you had a role and if you couldn’t, you were out. In fairness, they didn’t know any better, and we laugh about it now, but I think most of us realised it wasn’t the best way. Today, the best coaches, leaders and social venture entrepreneurs realise that if you genuinely care for the people around you, they’re happier, more productive and lead better lives. It’s better for you and better for business. So, there has been a big shift away from that hierarchical approach where all the power lies with the boss. Today it’s about empowering everyone to work together. 

To what extent is conscious leadership a synonym for mindfulness?

Luke: Mindfulness has become far more mainstream. As a 25-year meditator, it’s a passion of mine but 15 years ago, it was uncommon in sport to have meditation as an option. In the western suburbs of Melbourne, it was right out there! It was a bridge too far. Now everyone you speak to understands what mindfulness is or is practising meditation, using apps or being taught. Today, we’re getting western diseases like anxiety and depression, which were not acknowledged 1,000 years ago. According to the World Health Organisation, this will be the greatest challenge facing us by 2030, so the movement towards slowing your mind down must be a big part of how we overcome it. 

What are the benefits of conscious leadership?

Luke: The evidence that conscious leadership is more sustainable is overwhelming. If you’re conscious of how you lead the people under you, self-reflective on your own skills and take constant learning as an approach to the way you lead, the people around you feel valued and that they have a voice in their own environment. I can’t see it going backwards, certainly not in sport – I don’t think anyone enjoyed the old method. 

Michael: The benefits can actually be measured. According to Gallup, two years before lockdown, Australia scored 24 percent in employee engagement. If you’re interested in making your business more profitable or seeing a much better return on payroll, it’s simply a no-brainer. There’s a massive opportunity for conscious leadership at the top of businesses and leaders need to lead by example and rigorously follow through rather than just sending out a flavour-of-the-month memo. 

What steps can people take to be conscious leaders?

Michael: One of my favourite examples is Larry Page of Google. He’s not a businessman, didn’t go to business school, but he started something called Google Time where one day a week Google employees can do something other than their job. Play, talk, experiment, meditate. One of the things that’s come out of it is Google Ads, which has become the single biggest money-making engine in the history of (the) business, making Google the most valuable company in the world. So, apart from Google Time being useful in reducing anxiety and improving employee wellbeing, it’s also damn profitable. This is an example of a conscious leader structuring an organisation in a way that allows conscious leadership values to flourish. It’s shocking to me that more Fortune 500 companies don’t do it. 

Luke: We’re passionate about getting leaders together to share, connect and collaborate, because it helps them become accountable for their own journey of improvement. Actively seeking out others and being part of a growing club that wants to learn is a powerful step on this path. If you operate in a silo, then nobody will challenge your thinking. We’re not here to tell you how to run your business, we’re here to accompany (and challenge) you in the learning. 

What three qualities do conscious leaders have?

Michael: Firstly, virtuosity. If someone buys you a violin and gives you a book, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to play. What’s required to go from the theory, knowledge and even latent talent, is literally hours and hours of training. Anyone can be a conscious leader when things are easy but what about when there’s a real test? Without virtuosity, people can’t practise the skill. Secondly, generosity, which is allowing people to make mistakes and come up with their own ideas, and finally, a sense of humour. This is perhaps the most important thing that goes on in the human brain. It creates the right mood, reduces stress and allows you to think outside the box. 

What’s the single biggest obstacle to embedding conscious leadership?

Luke: The biggest obstacle is getting the most senior decision makers to value it. All of the research, polls, evidence and studies show that for every dollar spent engaging your workforce, the reward is five or six times. Look at Google having a full day a week with nothing to do except think about getting better. Why do they do that? Because they know it works. 

What leaders do you look up to and why?

Michael: One is Jack Welch, who ran General Electric in the 80s. As a 100-year-old company, making everything from light bulbs to locomotives, it was very top heavy and hierarchical. Jack was big on the idea that people on the payroll should be making the greatest contribution, not him or the C-suite. I was based in New York and watched him do a lot of organisational restructuring, getting rid of businesses that were draining resources and bringing the whole company with him. He was also big on training and GE had its own leadership academy at Crotonville-on-Hudson, just down the Hudson River from West Point. I remember Jack telling me, “I could never get the media to understand the role that training executives at Crotonville played in our transformation.” He was dedicated to training, development and the brain power of the people and he became famous for the number of GE executives who went on to be CEOs of other Fortune 500 companies. 

Another example here in Melbourne is the plumbing company, Reece. Run by the Wilson family, Peter Wilson is the current CEO and the whole company is marinated in conscious leadership, which started with his father. Reece is renowned for its quality customer service and really walking the talk. When conscious leadership is not just a catchphrase, but a way of life, the results can be incredible, and Reece is now growing rapidly in the US. Sally Capp, the current mayor of Melbourne, is another great example of conscious leadership, particularly in difficult times. 

Luke: Over the last 12 months, I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing so many amazing leaders for my podcast, Empowering Leaders, that it’s hard to pick one. In the UK, I recently sat down with Andy Cohen, who as Executive Chairman of J.P. Morgan Global Wealth Management, is in one of the most senior finance positions in the world, with hundreds of thousands of employees under him. He lives and breathes conscious leadership; you walk into that office, and you just feel it. 

What impact can conscious leaders have on businesses? Do you have any real-world examples you can share?

Luke: We work with a 24-hour bottling plant with four divisions. The CEO couldn’t work out why Division A was 30 percent more effective, equating to efficiencies of several hundred thousand dollars a year, while Division D was lagging. We observed the leaders, and it turned out that Division A’s leader was just a really engaged, conscious leader. He would walk down the line and thank his people at the end of every shift and put on a sausage sizzle once a month out of his own pocket. There was less sick leave, less stress leave. Division D’s leader was a well-meaning guy, he just didn’t have the conscious connection. We were able to train him and although he felt nervous and awkward that first day thanking his people for doing their job, they felt cared for and appreciated. Ange Postecoglou, coach of Scottish Premiership football club Celtic, shakes hands with everyone in the organisation every day before he sits down at his desk. It’s a small thing, not a sophisticated theory, and anyone can do it. It might not be who you naturally are, but you can learn it by sharing the practices of what conscious leaders do. 

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