The 4C’s of Conscious Leadership

May 9, 2020 by dev_team


Four questions that drive innovative, practical action through and beyond COVID-19

Guest post by Julie Jackle, Principal @ Growth Axis

Original Post

As I speak with dozens of CEO’s and their teams while navigating my own leadership of a business and household with small children being homeschooled,  I am humbly reminded that there is nothing more powerful than a crisis to shine a flashlight on what matters or what we have ignored for too long.

The dangerous pattern I see is that leaders are choosing to invest more narrowly in self-preservation mode despite their strengths — and ignoring their areas of “weakness” or blind spots.

As a leader, what you do and don’t do will multiply. Particularly in times of crisis, all eyes are on you to teach others how to respond consciously vs. react. A crisis offers a powerful invitation to balance your strengths (or stop overdoing your strengths) and intentionally choose better.

This 4C’s model of top competencies for effective leadership offers a practical four-step method to serve your organization’s health and bottom-line impact: Calm, Clarify, Connect, Create.

Check yourself now with the following to see where you and your teams have work to do.
Question to Check Yourself Question to Check Yourself Choose Yes/No?
CALM Am I feeling present and grounded? Do I provide a calming presence for others? Click for CALM practices
CLARIFY Do we have a rallying cry? Are we focused on what truly matters? Click for CLARIFY practices
CONNECT Am I being open and authentic? Are we adapting our working norms to connect and align? Click for CONNECT practices
CREATE Do I have dedicated creative time? Are we challenging the status quo? Click for CREATE practices
Get started with your team today!

Download 4C’s Reference Guide

In the pages that follow, I’m excited to explain these concepts in more detail, why each matters in leadership and share practical advice for your thoughtful consideration.

1. Calm

“When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But, if even one person stayed calm, it was enough.” 

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Global Zen Master and Peace Activist

Why It Matters:

Coronavirus brought us into an unprecedented global pandemic with no playbook. This has sent many into an emotional “fight or flight” – that is, preparing for battle with a virus we cannot see while simultaneously navigating numerous day-to-day uncertainties. Having tools to calm and emotionally regulate ourselves have never mattered more. It is only when we are calm (or quickly able to recover) that we can broaden our focus from a narrow survival and self-preservation mode in order to wisely adapt to an environment that has fundamentally changed.

Equally important is how leaders must recognize that their teams want to know if they can feel safe and calm. It is imperative that leaders do their personal work to calm themselves and role model verbal and nonverbal behaviors for others; remember, communication is only 7% what you say whereas the rest is how you behave.

Suggested Practices:

  • One-minute breath for calming yourself “inside out”: Take three rounds of 4-7-8 count breaths: Inhale 4 counts, hold your inhale 7 counts and then exhale 8 counts. This cadence has a unique ability to slow, calm and ground — and serves as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Neuroscience shows that when our “fight flight freeze” instinct is triggered, just 60-90 seconds of breath can help our clear, rational mind to kick back in. That’s because stress causes the amygdala to hijack the prefrontal cortex and in this process, there’s about a 60 second delay when nothing gets to the prefrontal cortex. Yet if we take that time to breathe, we’re less capable of doing stupid things by allowing our conscious brain to catch up!
  • Recruit a thought partner: Someone who you can share your own uncertainties and emotions with confidence. One of the hardest parts of being a CEO or top executive is feeling the need to have it all figured out. Consider recruiting someone who can support and serve as an objective thought partner. Additionally, this partner can help in times of anxiety that often leads to what’s called, “leadership regression.” It occurs when we move from our wise leadership to self-preservationist instincts.  People we trust who don’t possess any secondary agenda of their own can catch us early when it’s needed and coax us back to our high integrity, generous self. Bottom line, your thought partner acts as an invaluable safety net.
  • Practice gratitude: Consider a Friday team call to celebrate “small wins” this week, for example, to share thanks and foster positivity around you. Doing this in a team environment where people are acknowledged and own their progress provides powerful fuel to stay engaged — and even incentivized to celebrate more next week! When we’re grateful for our effort, it seems easier to keep going!

Calm Quick Self-Assessment

Check Yourself: Am I feeling present and grounded?
Check Your Impact: Do I provide a calming presence for others?

2. Clarify

“Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening. You know, you need to be clear. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen. You have to be clear. Then you have to be confident about your vision. And after that, you just have to put a lot of work in.” 

– Diane Von Fürstenberg, Founder and Chairman of DVF

Why It Matters:

A leader cannot empower a team if any uncertainty in direction or about priorities exists. In times of crisis and ambiguity, good leaders rise up and clarify what truly matters. This means connecting back to clear fundamentals: A company’s purpose and shared values that informs its goals.

Suggested Practices:

  • Tune into your purpose: Reconnect to what matters most by anchoring in your organization’s purpose as a guide. When we serve from purpose, we’re more capable of accessing our intrinsic motivation and unlimited energy. The purpose always can be revisited to check if it’s still valid and drives people forward. And if there is no passion or energy in your purpose, then start the conversation of how it’s to be recast. Context is always changing around us and our purpose may need to change with it.
  • Establish a rallying cry: It’s a inspirational message that is powerful, memorable and scalable to help anchor your team in its most important priority. An effective rallying cry combines simplicity and substance, like Apple’s “Think Different” motto or Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. You can discover your rallying cry by asking these questions of yourself and your team:
    • What is the most pressing need for your “customers” (both internal and external)?
    • Given our purpose and the current needs of customers, what is our top priority?
    • How can this be stated simply that inspires and empowers people to act on it?
  • Say no to say yes: What will you not do to achieve your top priority? As former Prime Minister Tony Blair once said, “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” This means narrowing your list from ten shifting priorities to the top one or two, recognizing that people have real limitations of professional capacity at this moment in history. Good leaders can help teams say “no to say yes” to what truly matters.

Clarify Quick Self-Assessment

Check Yourself: Do we have a rallying cry?
Check Your Impact: Are we focused on what truly matters?

3. Connect

“If there are cracks in the team’s functioning, it will fray quickly in times of stress. It seems obvious, but when people are under extreme pressure, they revert to interpersonal styles that tend towards preservation over collaboration. If your team dynamics aren’t in a decent shape, the crisis will amplify the dysfunction.”

– Jeff Cava, Chief Human Resources Officer at Nike

Why It Matters:

Connection is formed through authentic communication and bonding rituals. In his seminal book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that the most important variable to human health is being in community with others – not diet, exercise, geography or genetics. Bottom line, you can define the health of a community by the strength of the connections between members.

It is especially critical for teams to maintain and elevate connection in times of crisis so people feel safe and belong to something larger than themselves. In our current crisis, this has been made even more challenging as we work virtually and many experience unprecedented emotional strain. It is important to have a strategy to navigate these dynamics – and create a reaffirming community where your team can do their best work.

Suggested Practices:

  • Get an emotional pulse: Prior to starting a meeting, for example, inquire what people need to say to be present that acknowledges the emotional difficulty of this “new normal” transition. Recognizing that we’re human beings (not human “doings”) and bringing our authentic selves requires continual pulse-checking, and reflection. To this end, recognize who may be “going dark” or exhibiting strain. The aim of high performing teams is to maintain their relationship for psychological safety — and as obvious as it seems, it’s more critical to connect throughout the organization in a meaningful way than ever before.
  • Communicate often: Set up Monday morning (or daily) team huddles to align on top priorities and needs of each other. Share both what you do and don’t know. This engenders trust and reduces distraction. Communicate more than you normally to foster a sense of safety and connection. This means incorporating new quick call/text approaches to the missing “water cooler” conversations.
  • Develop working agreements: Update your team’s working “norms” to navigate and respect individual and collective needs — as well as team values. This may require shorter, more frequent meetings to stay connected and aligned. Stay flexible in the way that teams want to work for their maximum impact.Especially be clear on how the team needs to respond when things are not going well. It’s not just how we should be, but how we want to respond when it’s not going well. Talk about what’s happened in the past when the team has been under pressure and if that has served it well – or not. Not being in person, for example may change how teams choose to approach healthy debate or disagreement.

Connect Quick Self-Assessment

Check Yourself: Am I being open and authentic?
Check Your Impact: Are we adapting our working norms to connect and align?

4. Create

“Entrepreneurs have a mindset that sees the possibilities rather than the problems created by change.”

– J. Gregory Dees, Founder of Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University

Why It Matters:

Leaders often stop what they consider “peripheral”’ or “out-of-the-box” activities in times of crisis to focus on survival. Yet, this is a time when developmental or creative activities may be the most vital – and the opportunity to own your entrepreneurial mindset to adapt, flex and see challenges as fuel for invention is imperative. Only when we’re practicing conscious leadership is the potential to unleash creativity more possible.

It’s a time in our world when things are re-shaping around us — thus, creativity may be required to reconceive how you stay relevant and perhaps do things differently and better.

Suggested Practices:

  • Take people out of their comfort zone: Encourage teams to reimagine what creative change might be possible and also required to be relevant. It’s a time as a leader to take self and team beyond comfort zones to connect with bold creativity. This takes some courage to explore territory that you may never have thought you’d consider.
  • Dedicate the time: We get caught up in the transactional details of our professional life so with intention, make space for a creative practice. Conduct a dedicated weekly team meeting to catalyze creativity, for example. Morning is the best time to bring your freshest thinking! And protect the time fiercely.
  • Ask new questions: Powerful questions themselves can unleash new creative thought. Such as,
    • What is our position in the marketplace and how do we want to adapt in this pandemic?
    • What can we put in place to make bouncing back easier?
    • How should our culture and identity change?
  • Facilitate new thinking: Consider an external facilitator that can support you and the team in unleashing its creative thinking. The extra help takes pressure off you to lead a creative process that effectively and efficiently catalyzes new ideas. The support also can help to drive accountability, alignment and any possible follow-on action.

Create Quick Self-Assessment

Check Yourself: Do I have dedicated creative time?
Check Your Impact: Are we challenging the status quo?


“I’ve seen leaders who immediately stopped any leadership or personal development at exactly the point when their people were under the most stress and most pressure, when their performance would be even more important. That is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking. People development and team building are not peripheral activities. They are key.”

– Manley Hopkinson, McKinsey & Company, Sr. Advisor

In summary, I invite you to choose conscious leadership that wisely adapts to our world. The purpose of these practices is to support your ability to choose and serve as a conscious leader – it is one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself, your team and our collective future that’s being born in this moment of time. Additionally, the idea of a practice is not to set a bar that says you are “perfect” — it’s rather like a consistent exercise practice. We can choose to get up every time we fall. There are no perfect leaders for this time – only conscious ones.