What is the difference between “mindful” and “conscious” leadership?

By Carl Lemieux and Lauren Deckelbaum 

The words “mindfulness” and “consciousness” are increasingly appearing in contemporary leadership training programs and organizational discourse, and for good reason. These ancient concepts and coupled practices have wide reaching, empirically validated and impressive workplace outcomes, such as improved decision-making, a reduction in destructive leadership behavior, stress, turnover intention and more.

We have, however, witnessed the well-intentioned transformation of these two terms (mindful leadership and conscious leadership) into misused buzzwords, and want, therefore, to bring additional clarity to the definitions of and differences between them.

While there are many different and valid definitions and opinions out there, we at Mindsmatter adopt the following:

Our Definition of Conscious Leadership:

Conscious leaders seek to make a positive impact on the world, in large part, by intentionally helping others grow and derive meaning from their work, while living and leading with an acute awareness of the deep and complex interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings and their environment.

Our Definition of Mindful Leadership:

Mindful leadership falls under the umbrella of conscious leadership and is one component, or practice, supporting conscious leadership.

A mindful leader is committed to the development of their internal state in order to live more fully in the present moment. Mindful leaders practice staying present through deeply attending to the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and context of each moment. (To note, in our book on vertical growth, we further elaborate upon this definition. If you’d like a free summary of our book, we invite you to let us know via community@mindsmatter.com. We will happily email one to you).

1) More on conscious leadership:

  “We often describe unconscious leaders as reactive. They react from a “story” about the past or an imagined future, and their personality, ego, or mind takes over.”

― Jim Dethmer, author of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success

1.1) How to become a more conscious leader:

Incorporating decades of work with international executives, this book on conscious leadership offers a practical framework for how to become a more conscious leader. The framework involves exploring, befriending, and choosing when to shift thoughts, emotions and coupled behaviors in order to generate socially responsible actions. The authors create a simple tool for checking if a behavior is conscious or unconscious: 

A black line. 

We invite you to watch this short video on the powerful line:

At any moment in time, you can ask yourself, am I above or below the line?

1.2) The conscious leader has learnt to be with uncomfortable emotions.

When we are triggered by challenging emotions, we naturally seek control, develop tunnel vision, and engage in either aggressive (“fight”) or avoidance (“flight”) behaviors.  These strategies may have been helpful in our distant past, when faced with life threatening challenges (such as a lion, for instance), but are no longer serving us in our contemporary, relatively safe world. The mammalian (or “limbic”) part of our brain, largely automatic and fear-based, often brings us “below the line”.  As we will see below, mindful training, a tool for becoming a more conscious leader, offers one path to develop our level of awareness and regulation, which allows us to learn to be with and accept uncomfortable emotions, as opposed to being triggered by and automatically reacting to them.

1.3) How conscious leaders impact the world:

Again, conscious leaders have learnt to be with uncomfortable emotions.

Let’s take fear as an example of an uncomfortable emotion: fear drives unconscious leaders to make choices at odds with their highest, most deeply held, conscious values. That is because fear-based behavior leaves a toxic residue that impacts more people than we have visibility into. For example, an overwhelmed boss, A, under a lot of pressure, might unconsciously humiliate her direct report, B, who then, also under a lot of pressure, might unconsciously disengage from his direct report, C, who might then unconsciously pay less attention to her daughter, D, at home, because of the stress at work. Due to the lack of emotional support from her mom, daughter D might then bully someone or make a dangerous decision. Leader A has no visibility into her impact on daughter D.

This chain reaction between everyone’s unconscious behavior impacting others in unpredictable ways will continue infinitely. Remember, conscious leaders seek to make a positive impact on the world. The less we are conscious of the unpredictable and sometimes invisible impacts of our behaviors, the greater the negative ripple effect on our environment.

Just like fear, consciousness has an equally infinite domino effect, but with conscious intentions, values, and behaviors positively impacting a whole host of beings. When we keep in mind the fact that each of our behaviors has an invisible ripple effect, we are often inspired to lead and respond more intentionally, in a manner aligned with our values.  Think about it, what could the above chain reaction have looked like if characters A-C practiced conscious leadership?     

As such, living and leading with an understanding of the deep and complex interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings elevates our sense of motivation to lead with intentionality and in a manner aligned with our values. It also increases our sense of meaning and purpose: how we behave will have a large and largely invisible impact on many stakeholders. Therefore, our behaviors matter, and can make a genuine difference in many people’s lives.

Conscious leaders recognize the many beings and elements of nature that they are connected to, whether they can directly see them or not. In significant part, this is how they make a positive impact on the world. 

1.4) How conscious leaders are values-based:

Conscious leaders are aware of and can articulate their deeply held values. Committed to a values-based, higher order of thinking*, they intentionally consider what their highest-selves deem important prior to acting or making decisions. This higher order form of thinking influences strategic plans and daily choices that need to be taken around business, employees, and other visible and invisible stakeholders.

*We invite you to see Harvard’s Robert Kegan, who describes the “self-authored stage” of adult development as an evidence-based example of higher order thinking.

1.5) How conscious leaders commit to conscious leadership:

Authors of the well-researched book on conscious leadership mentioned above also provide a helpful list of 15 commitments to conscious leadership.

Those 15 commitments can be viewed here. Let’s take the “commitment to curiosity” as an example to unpack:

A commitment to curiosity is a commitment to regarding every interaction as a learning opportunity, to treating challenging encounters as your sandbox or learning laboratory. Staying curious means being “above the line”, and not acting from a place of perceived threat to our safety or ego structure.

During challenging encounters, you might take a few deep breaths and ask yourself, how can I get curious here in order to remain above the line? If I behave in X manner, would I be neglecting any of my values?

2) Setting the Foundation with Mindful Leadership:

“Rule your mind or it will rule you.”

– Horace, 65 – 8 B.C

Mindfulness is most associated with the ability to be in the present moment with full awareness of and openness to the present experience, accepting the moment just as it is.

Training the mind to remain present is critical, as, when we are not living in the present, we are caught up in the reactive, mammalian or “limbic” brain, and overthinking about the past or future. Spending too much time in our heads worrying about the future or ruminating over the past leads to mindless behaviors in the present that move us away from our deepest held values, and that make it impossible to practice conscious leadership. When we are present, on the other hand, we have greater access to self-awareness and the equanimity needed for self-regulation, enabling intentional, values-based action, and ultimately, creating the conditions to cultivate conscious leadership.   

Very few adults cultivate presence naturally. Mindfulness skills that cultivate presence require committed mind training rituals, as we are largely unaware of the automatic patterns that take us away from the present moment. Most of us need to actively train our minds in order to notice when we are not present, to see our automatic, unconscious reaction patterns, and then to mindfully begin to change those not serving our deepest held values. During mindfulness training, we develop the ability to observe our cognitive patterns and emotional world, as well as its impact on our behaviors, opening up the path towards higher levels of consciousness. 

Mind training can be accomplished in several ways, including (but not limited to) formal and informal mindfulness practices. 

2.1) Formal and Informal Mindfulness Practices

During formal mindfulness practice we intentionally carve out time to sit down and meditate (here is our guide to formal meditation practice). Meditation teaches us the ability to quiet the mind in order to observe our thoughts, emotions, sensations, context, sensemaking, and patterns. In formal mindfulness practice, we develop our ‘metacognition’: our awareness of our own thought processes. Having this awareness allows us to notice our patterns and discomforts, and then respond to them mindfully as opposed to react to them mindlessly. Mindful responding allows us to align our behaviors with our deepest held values.

In parallel or as a starting point, informal mindfulness practice also involves training the mind to intentionally attend to the present moment, but while doing something that you already do (for example, mindfully attending to your five senses while drinking a cup of coffee). Here is our guide to informal mindfulness practice, which we also call “mindfulness in action”. In this practice, you are invited to notice when your mind wanders away from your five senses, and when it does, to bring it back to them. The five senses are anchors to the present moment. Most people are surprised by how often their mind wanders and how difficult it is to remember that they intended to attend to their five senses.


2.2) Nine Mindful Attitudes

While developing mindfulness enables greater awareness of automatic thoughts, emotions and sensations, it also cultivates new attitudes or qualities. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned researcher and mindfulness practitioner, speaks of nine mindful attitudes to practice:

  1. Beginner’s Mind 
  2. Non-Judgment
  3. Acceptance
  4. Letting Go
  5. Trust
  6. Patience
  7. Non-Striving
  8. Gratitude
  9. Generosity

These 9 attitudes coupled with mindfulness also serve conscious leadership.

2.3) Mindful Leadership Practices:

Mindful Leadership practices are pragmatic, actionable tools that bridge the gap between mind training sessions (such as formal and informal practices, described above) and the real messy world of leadership.

While both formal and informal practices have undoubted, scientifically proven benefits, there are no guarantees that doing these two practices alone will make you a better leader. These need to be transferable to real life challenges, shifting from unconscious patterns and reactions to deliberate, values-based responses.

Without this bridge, mind training practices will not necessarily foster mindful leadership. Embodying presence, increased self-awareness and the nine attitudes above when faced with difficult emotions is the hallmark of a mindful leader. This embodiment involves going beyond the conditioned reactive reflexes that unconsciously govern our behaviors, in order to instead act from a place of deep self-awareness, emotional regulation, and values alignment.

This mindful leadership foundation can be thought of as the soil from which conscious leadership can then grow.

Mindful leadership is deliberately taught in programs like The Mindful Leader and is made sustainable through both ongoing external coaching and commitment on the part of the leader.     

2.3.1) Mindful Leadership is for Everybody 

Mindful leadership is not exclusive to people with the word “executive” in their job title. It is first and foremost about self-leadership. As Janice Marturano, founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, notes, mindful leadership is “not just about the C-suites. It’s about an individual’s ability to more often influence for better, and less often influence for worse.” Everyone, regardless of their position in an organizational hierarchy, influences others. Everyone is a norm-creating entity with the power to influence an organization’s culture, and to inspire others.

3) A final note on becoming a more mindful, conscious leader

We’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this short blog post, perhaps a first step in your journey towards becoming a more mindful, conscious leader.

Conscious and Mindful leadership development approaches depart from traditional leadership development approaches in one key manner: they suggest a way of BEING as opposed to a way of DOING. They address what we call “vertical growth” (presence, self-awareness,  self-regulation and accountability) in service of what we call “horizontal competencies” (business-relevant competencies that can easily get side-tracked by a threat-based brain such as, for example, strategic planning given way to tunnel vision priorities, or difficult conversations that turn sour).

Becoming a more conscious, mindful leader starts with asking yourself some key questions.

For example: 

  • What do I value most?
  • What am I doing when I am not aligned with my values?
  • What belief system of mine needs to change in order for me to better align with my values?
  • What is my “growth edge” – that would best contribute to what matters most to me?
  • How can I create the time and space for new rituals, such as informal and formal mindfulness practices, in order to slowly rewire my brain?

In closing, every life will impact the lives of others. That is unavoidable.

We will never have full visibility into the numbers of lives that we will influence, directly or indirectly, and regardless of our position at work. 

A daily practice of conscious leadership includes waking up every morning and choosing who we want to be, and then committing to living up to that choice, moment by moment. Mindfulness is one tool that supports this. 

At the CORE of the work to become a more mindful, conscious leader, is a deep commitment to lean into the inevitable discomforts of reality. Counter intuitively, this allows us to foster a deeper, more purposeful life, for ourselves and for others. 

For more tools developing the self-awareness critical for becoming more conscious, we invite you to read Vertical Growth – How Self-awareness Transforms Leaders and Organisations