Big Brain. Little Brain

Our lives are forever changing and in flux. This seems truer now than ever before, for everyone everywhere. Odds are your vision of the future this time last year was nowhere near your current reality, and the people you’re looking to for guidance were not even on your radar twelve months ago. Great leaders emerge in times of crisis because they are able to respond well in unexpected situations. What happens now around hybrid working models, approaches to business, leadership, and increasing employee autonomy, will change the way we work for the next 30-years. This is simultaneously daunting and exhilarating.

We are in the midst of a metamorphosis. Profound shifts are affecting the way we work, how and why we do things, and the purpose and meaning we bring to our organisations and wider social systems. There are myriad factors contributing to this metamorphic moment.  We only need to look around to see there is immense stress in all systems. According to a recent global Gallup poll, 2020 was the most stressful year in recent history! This stress ripples out into our workplaces and wider social systems. Stress in those systems then permeates across industrial, political, and financial systems. In turn, this stress is mirrored across the ecological systems upon which all of life depends. Wide-spread stress is painful but it ripens the conditions for breakdown and breakthrough, ultimately resulting in transformation.

These increasingly complex and volatile times demand organisational and leadership development that enables future-fitness, agility and resilience in ways as yet unseen. Research shows that it’s common for most leaders to react poorly in high-stress situations. Rather than remaining calm and curious, 53% become more closed-minded and controlling, and 43% more become angrier and more heated during times of crisis. Reacting poorly is a choice. It’s a choice not to be the steady, reassuring presence your employees are looking for, and the consequences of your reaction reverberates throughout your organisation. Making the decision to be agile and open-minded is one thing, being able to follow through is another. When you have a lifetime of adhering to what’s comfortable, safe and known, you have built up a momentum of habit.

“Nothing will change if you believe your suffering is more important

than what change has to offer you.”

― Debbie Lynn

Change Upon Change Upon Change

The number one most important thing facing our leaders today is the capacity to embrace complexity and transform the organisation amid turbulence. Leadership today is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, it could be described as something akin to retrofitting an aeroplane in mid-flight, while keeping the ground crew, flight crew and all the passengers on-board happy amid outside rising turbulence. Change upon change upon change – volatility, complexity, uncertainty.

This new normal requires a shift in our way of thinking. It requires a shift in consciousness no less. This shift in leadership consciousness is from a narrowing-down, reductive perspective that compartmentalises the organisation like a machine. Outdated thinking created silos, units of command-and-control hierarchies, with predictable and measurable cause-and-effect linear relationships to be managed and controlled through carrot-and-stick levers. This mechanistic mindset is born out of a militarised mind that has created a worldview of separateness, hyper-competition, scarcity, fear, and control. Its roots span way back in human history, yet it became overly dominant in business during recent decades. Aspects of this reductive machine mindset may have served us during the Industrial Revolution. However, as a dominant paradigm, it is wholly unfit-for-purpose for the world of work and 21st century business.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
― C.G. Jung

2 Core Capacities of Conscious Leaders

We are now witnessing a new leadership consciousness emerging. This new way of leading is able to sense into the parts as well as the relationships between the parts. The whole organisation is sensed as a complex living system.  This capacity to sense the organisation-as-a-living-system draws upon two core capacitiesself-awareness and systemic awareness. We must learn to cultivate, practice, and deepen these natural capacities in order to become a conscious leader.


Self-awareness has two dimensions to it – horizontal and vertical. The horizontal dimension of self-awareness is the quality of attention we bring to each moment, in the here-and-now, which has two aspects to it – presence and purposefulness. The purposefulness we bring to each moment depends on the power of our intention.  How engaged are we in what we are attending to? What is our agenda for engaging in the thing?  Can we – through our intention – allow ourselves to attend whole-heartedly to this moment?  This power of purpose is not an ‘outer’ grasping for a desired outcome. Rather, it is an inner-outer alignment found through our own inner-coherence and deep inner-connection with who we truly are.  This purposefulness is simultaneously a daily practice, a path we learn to walk, and an inner sense of discernment and right action that provides direction.

This purposefulness contributes to creating flow inside us and also through our relations with others. It is much more than a well-crafted mission-statement or values poster stuck on the wall. It is something that is lived in each and every day through practice, discernment and coherence. This relates to the second aspect of this horizontal dimension of self-awareness: Presence.  If purposefulness calls upon the power of intention, then presence is the power of attention.

Intention + Attention = Flow

Purposefulness + Presence = Flow (aka, heightened Self-Awareness)

The presence we bring to each moment depends upon our capacity to sense, to be fully available, alive, undivided, fully-here, listening attentively, intimately engaged with everything that is said or unsaid – the whole gestalt of what is here in this now moment.  This requires us to be aware of our own triggers, blind-spots, emotions, and inner-constrictions that can distract us from being fully present. Otto Scharmers, in his Theory U, notes that we are flickering between absencing and presencing all the time. Simply spend a few moments in silence noticing your own awareness, and you will quickly become accustomed to how you are sometimes distracted and sometimes present. When we are absencing, we are tuning-out of the moment, getting caught up in our own inner-dialogue, only seeing what we want to see, and projecting ‘our stuff’ on to the other, rather than really tuning-in and being present to what is emerging.

To cultivate presence, we have to notice our own stuff and connect more deeply within and also all-around-us with the present moment, unencumbered, undefended, authentic, humble, curious and courageous. We often do this quite naturally when engaging in a new activity, playing a sport or musical instrument, or going on holiday to a new place.  The challenge is being able to call upon this quality of presence amidst the hum-drum of back-to-back meetings or during a difficult conversation with a colleague while meeting a deadline.

The Vertical dimension – the worldview we bring to the present moment. This worldview is the lens we see the world through. This can shift from being a narrow limited view into a more expansive and relational view, as we move up the Vertical dimension.  This is about learning to open-up to more of life, undefended, open-hearted, coherent and whole.

Self Awareness (Horizontal Dimension) = Presence + Purposefulness

Self-Awareness (Vertical Dimension) = Worldview Shift in Consciousness

We all have an immense capacity to sense reality. Yet, much of the time we are tuning-out a large part of reality in order to cope with the complex, fluid and emergent nature of everyday life.  Habits, old-wounds, unconscious biases, judgements, and inner-constrictions all filter the way we see the world.  Our ‘inner-stuff’ influences how we see the outer world.  As the novelist Anais Nin insightfully wrote, ‘we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are’. We are managing, controlling, filtering and limiting our experience of life all the time.  Yet, we can open up our control-filters as we expand our worldview.  This is a ‘vertical’ shift in consciousness, that allows for an expanded perspective, that deepens our inner-outer connectivity with life.

Systemic Awareness

As we open-up our self-awareness both horizontally (presence and purposefulness) and vertically (worldview expansion from machine into living-systems) we open ourselves up to more of how life really is.  This is an emancipatory process, and yet can be painful and challenging, just like any process of change and transformation.

As we begin to open-up, we learn to sense into the relational and systemic nature of how life is, and how our organisations are. Beyond the superficial confines of our org-charts, silos, power-plays and politics, we can start to sense hidden ordering forces in ourselves, in our team dynamics and across the organisational system.  This systemic capacity to sense and respond to hidden dynamics, flows, blocks, nodal points and emergent dynamics within the organisation-as-a-living-system is crucial for allowing the organisation to adapt and evolve in these turbulent times.

Systems Thinking has been on the rise in leadership consciousness for some years now, yet systemic-awareness is more than systems-thinking. Systems Thinking refers to the shift from mechanistic thinking to a way of thinking that perceives the inter-relation of the parts within the whole system. It understands that all systems are nested within other systems. This shift also represents the shift from overly dominant left-brain processing to a more integrated left-right brain awareness, where we see the parts along with the relationships between the parts that contribute to the organisation-as-a-living-system. Systems Thinking is a shift in thinking that takes place at the head level. We open up our mind to see things differently, to see the inter-relations, the patterns and dynamics at the systems level.

“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

— Peter Drucker

Next Level Leadership

Systemic Awareness refers to a shift in our relationship with the system. In Systems Thinking we are looking at the system from outside the system looking in. With Systemic Awareness we are now in-the-system. From within, we open our awareness to the seen and unseen tacit flows of knowledge, feedback and relational energy that is constantly fluctuating throughout the system. You might even call this the ‘stuff’ that people in the organisation bring into meetings, conversations and relationships.

Systemic Awareness embodies the way we listen or attend to others, the judgements or cultural bias we filter through, and how these factors contribute to the way we participate in the system. The history of the organisation, any trauma it may be carrying, and also the cultural and historic systems it’s inter-relating with all form part of the rich systemic picture we become more aware of. We transcend the level of observation to the level of immersion – a shift at the heart and body level. This relates to Otto Scharmer’s Open Heart and Open Will level of his Theory U, as it involves us opening-up and crossing a threshold within ourselves to be more vulnerable, available and open to sensing hidden dynamics in the system.

“Once the mind commits to a story, the facts become secondary. Truth bows to bias.”
― Nicolas Lietzau

The "Little" Brain

There is an intricate web of energy binding us all together under the same sky, unifying us beyond the perceived separateness of our personal human experiences. All of our hearts are beating as one. At first glance, you may think this sounds like wishful thinking. However, scientists are now learning that this statement is true – the human heart acts as a separate “brain”. Most of us learned in school that the function of the heart is to pulse and push oxygenated blood through the body via the circulatory system, but it is so much more than that!

Scientists now know that the heart possesses its own intrinsic nervous system—a network of nerves so functionally sophisticated as to earn the description of “heart brain.” Containing over 40,000 neurons, this “little brain” gives the heart the ability to independently sense, process information, make decisions, and even to demonstrate a type of learning and memory. In essence, it appears that the heart is truly an intelligent system. Research also reveals that the heart is a hormonal gland, manufacturing and secreting numerous hormones and neurotransmitters that profoundly affect brain and body function. Among the hormones the heart produces is oxytocin –  the “love” hormone. Not only have we expanded our scientific understanding of the function of the heart, we now are discovering that our hearts do, literally, beat as one. Our hearts have a resonance field that can impact and influence the hearts of the people around us.

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”
― Jonathan Swift

6 Ways Your Big Brain Lies to You

As the evidence grows for heart-based thinking, we are simultaneously learning to be cautious of believing everything our mind tells us. This is because our brain deploys hacks and shortcuts to make sense of all the information we receive and attend to. In particular when we are tired, overloaded and under pressure (when we feel threatened or out of our comfort zone) our brain will deploy shortcuts. These hacks and shortcuts (referred to as cognitive errors, in psychology) can lead our brains to basically tell us lies. These lies result in errors in our thinking, decisions and interpretations. In turn, this distorted thinking can show up in the way in which we behave, the actions we take, and the actions we avoid.


When we face one challenge or negative outcome, we may become convinced this will be repeated in all similar future situations. For example, You didn’t get this job offer, so you won’t get the next one. Every situation presents its own unique opportunities and challenges. Focusing on each situation in its own wholeness and uniqueness, allows specificity and relevance to occur, which is far more meaningful than over-generalising.

Emotional Reasoning

This happens when we allow our feelings in one situation to map similar situations. We then take that interpretation to be the truth. For example, You are feeling unworthy right now, which must mean you are worthless. It’s important to remember that we are not our feelings. Feelings are transient chemical reactions that come and go. Therefore, it’s important to be able to step aside from how we are feeling and recognise that our emotions are part of what we are experiencing, but they do not define who we are.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

This is where we choose to see things only in terms of black and white. For example, either everything is totally awesome or it’s a total catastrophe. We know life is far too complex for situations or events to be either of these two extremes. It’s so important to be able to unpack and discover what lies within the shades of grey because this is where more accurate meaning and interpretation can be realised.

Mental Filter

This is when we only recall negative outcomes, events or interactions that have happened to us during the course of our life. We shut out anything positive that occurred. It can be easy to fall into to this trap when we feel downtrodden and things feel challenging. We stop ourselves from thinking of all the great things we have achieved so far and how we felt during those times when we’ve achieved or done something different. We wallow in our own despair. A great tip here is to keep track of all the wonderful things you have done (big and small), either in a journal format or in photos that are easily accessible, for you to remind yourself of your accomplishments on a daily basis. Our brains need to be reminded often. Psychologists call this the primacy effect.

‘Should’ Statements

When we attempt to motivate ourselves by dwelling on the things we think we should be able to achieve, we make ourselves wrong. We judge ourselves critically and often unfairly. For example, I should have reached a certain level in my career by now or I should be exercising seven days a week. By allowing this language of thought to repeat, we can severely limit and disempower ourselves. Delete the word “should” from your thinking. It only serves to keep you small.

Mind Reading

When we make quick assumptions and conclude what someone else is thinking, without demonstrable evidence, we are attempting to mind read. For example, getting upset if someone has not replied to a message straightaway. We may jump to quick assumptions that are often narrow, inaccurate and misleading. Do not believe everything you think.

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
― Christopher Hitchens

Critical Thinking - Leaders who 'Get it'

Good judgment depends on the ability to think critically and strategically.  This can be broken down into multiple essential functions, including the ability to plan ahead in a way that is thoughtful and organised, the ability to organise information into a coherent and logical narrative, and the ability to understand cause and effect. The most important aspect of critical thinking is the capacity to anticipate consequences.  At the basic level, this is the Universal Law of Cause and Effect. We are not only considering the immediate, mid-term, and long-term consequences of a decision. The best leadership mind anticipates consequences more expansively, perceiving a multidimensional outcome and, immediately, the range of complex secondary and tertiary outcomes that will spin-off in response to each level of change.

A leader’s thought process needs to be dominated by reason and facts, not emotion.  It is equally important for a leader to know the effects that stress and emotions have on their own thinking. Conscious leaders are able to discern when irrational forces are overtaking dispassionate logic.  This is harder than it might seem since we are all subject to unconscious mental forces that can distort thinking without revealing they are at work. Critical thinking requires the ability to compare current situations to similar ones encountered in the past, using the richness of previous experience with problems to inform present assessment.  This necessary use of past experience must be tempered by alertness to unconscious biases and fears.  Doctors are taught to be aware of the “last grave error syndrome” – the tendency to overcompensate because you screwed up last time. Just because you missed a case of heart disease doesn’t mean every patient you see now needs excessive cardiac testing. 

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”
― Adrienne Rich

12 Red Flags Your Leader Lacks Critical Thinking

Leaders who can think clearly are able to set aside their own ego as they evaluate a situation. Critical thinking requires the ability to approach a problem with an organised assessment process:  knowing what information to gather, considering alternative explanations and points of view, actively seeking contrary opinions and perspectives, identifying gaps in information and knowledge and identifying a process to fill them. Since problem-solving is dependent on thinking and judgment, these capacities can be assessed by observing how the leader organises their response to a crisis, an unexpected situation or a stalemate. The easiest way to identify inadequacies in a leader’s critical thinking is to look for these specific signs of deficiency:

  • Signs of disorganisation in thinking or speech.
  • Over-focus on details; inability to see the big picture.
  • Lack of clarity about priorities.
  • Inability to anticipate consequences.
  • Failure to consider and articulate second and third-degree consequences of an action or decision.
  • Inability to offer alternative explanations or courses of action.
  • Oversimplification.
  • Inability to distinguish critical elements in a situation from less important ones.
  • Inability to articulate thought processes, including the evidence used to arrive at a decision, other options that were considered, and how a conclusion was reached.
  • Unable to tolerate ambiguity/over-certainty.
  • Difficulty outlining a step-wise process to solve a problem or implement a change.
  • Thinking (and consequently behaviour) driven by emotion or ego.

“Awareness is knowing something exists, critical awareness is knowing why it exists, how it works, how our society is impacted by it and who benefits from it.”
― Brené Brown

Master Your Mind

Critical thinking and judgment are among the most advanced and sophisticated cognitive skills, demanding difficult and fluid mental processes of synthesis, discrimination, and complex analysis. Even the best thinker will lapse to a lower level of cognitive functioning at times of enormous stress, emotional overload, illness, sleep deprivation, or fatigue.  Knowing when your capacity for critical thinking is sub-par is just as vital as being able to do it well. Learning to use the mind the way it is intended allows you to leverage your creative wonder, uncertainty, and the realm of possibility in a way that liberates you from having to control your mind in unnatural ways. To really get what you want in life, you must become a master of your mindset. You do this by allowing yourself to engage in creative questions and dreaming rather than to try to force yourself to hold onto a fixed vision or belief in an unnatural way.

“Creeping into all aspects of life, the desire to constantly compete and accumulate must be resisted if we are to create a better way of life for all.”

— Jeremy Lent

Making the Unconscious Conscious

The level of thinking and behaviour required to address the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous problems we face, has remained fairly unchanged. The dominant narratives shaping change management, human resources, business transformation, leadership development, process improvement, cultural change, and organisational development are still largely rooted in a 18th/19th/20th century mechanistic logic. This logic is no longer suitable for dealing with the turbulent and complex challenges 21st century leaders and organisations now face. It is worth emphasising here that the organisation has always been ‘living’ rather than ‘machine-like’ in the sense that it has always been made up of unpredictable, interdependent, emergent human relationships. The organisation has always been a complex, dynamic and evolutionary ‘living’ system, in this regard. 

By shifting our leadership consciousness, we are merely starting to sense into the organisation as it really is. In The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent creates a panoramic view of how humans have evolved since the beginning of our species, highlighting the different stages in our evolutionary journey as we have changed our thinking, behaviours and patterns of governance to adapt to new challenges. We are most certainly at a point in time when a next leap is necessary, and hopefully inevitable. Part of that shift involves integrating an ancient, non-dual, non-anthropocentric perspective with all that we have learned and achieved over millennia. This brings to bear the full repertoire of knowledge and wisdom to the complex challenges we now face. 

“Regenerative organisations will be tomorrow’s success stories.”

— Laura Storm

We Are One

When we stop seeing ourselves as being the centre of the universe, but as co-participants in Life with all living beings, collectively partaking in that shared responsibility, we can start to relax a little, and get in flow with the life that is wanting to be expressed through our shared humanity, in spite of all its scars and brokenness. That deeper impulse towards evolution is just under the surface, right here within this moment, waiting to break through, and as conscious leaders, one of the most important things we can do is to create the conditions for it to emerge. Conscious Business enriches life. It enriches ourselves, our customers, and the wider stakeholder ecosystem. Conscious Business transforms our role and purpose, from a “what’s-in-it-for-me” approach to a mindset of collaboration, co-creativity, and contribution. Conscious leaders bring vitality and wellbeing to all our living systems. In so doing, we wake up to what it really means to be wholly human – a humbling yet life-affirming endeavour.

“As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security – cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. Ultimately, these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our modern society, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.”
― Fritjof Capra

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