Our conscience seems to be the storehouse of what we believe to be right and wrong. The OED’s definition is “A person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour”
I would like to look a bit closer at our conscience, how it can develop and the implications for leadership. So unless you are a psychopath (and there are an alarming number of psychopaths in business) please read on.
It is hard to talk about the conscience without referring to values. I am not sure whether we are born with a set of human values (thou shalt not kill, steal, harm etc) installed or whether we pick everything up on our way to adulthood. Values change over time. When I was growing up drink driving was seen as being naughty – now it is viewed as unacceptable behaviour. We are far more aware of the consequences and our attitude and values have changed.
Let me take this same principle and apply it to leadership. Business leaders may have moved on since Victorian times, but many still see their primary purpose as providing maximum return to the shareholders that employ them. It is difficult to do anything else if that is what the shareholders want. However, I suspect that many shareholders are as interested in the impact of the business they own as the profits it makes. It is therefore time for business leaders to wake up and understand what these broader aspirations mean for them.
One way of doing this is to devote time to self-awareness activities with a view to becoming a more conscious human being. I could talk about saving the planet, or serving the needs of the human race until I am blue in the face. Unless you understand what I am talking about at a felt sense level my words will be wasted. You will only make changes once you see the implications for real people affected by the way you run your business. Big companies that outsourced their manufacturing to India were horrified when they realised that their profits were being made at the expense of child labour (so were the consumers).
We have laws and regulations to make business leaders do the right things. We have certainly needed them over the years, but they are not the solution. Most leaders don’t exploit their children or pollute their own homes, yet they can inflict these same ills on the wider world. I don’t think they are necessarily bad people, just not very conscious ones. If they were to extend their sphere of consciousness to include first the wider community, then the nation and finally the world (which is a big ask), then they might behave very differently. If they felt the connections between us all and realised that we are all in this together then the act of screwing someone in a business deal would be akin to shooting yourself in the foot. If the majority of leaders thought this way then regulations might become a framework to guide operations rather than a control mechanism to stop abuse.
As a leader, your conscience is a valuable resource to help you do the right thing. It also lets you sleep at night if you listen to it. If you think exploiting the workforce is OK then your conscience will be clear when you do. If you take a more enlightened view of the world, then exploiting the workforce will ping your conscience big time.
I suspect that the further you go down the path of developing your consciousness the more likely you are to realise that we all are connected. In the same way that you wouldn’t want to harm your family, you will feel much less inclined to harm other people. As you grow so the values you hold dear will grow with you.
I can’t change you and I don’t want to. All I can do is invite you to look more deeply at your values, explore your views about the world and perhaps take on the challenge of developing your awareness. You might be surprised about different things look.
For the first time in human history we have the technology and wherewithal to end all human suffering. All we lack is the will power to do it.