Which leaders do you admire?

Picture of Queen Elizabeth II and Yvon Chouinard
Queen Elizabeth II and Yvon Chouinard, Founder, Patagonia

On the leadership programmes I run, I usually host an exercise that goes: ‘Which leader do you admire?’ I ask participants to send me photos of their chosen leader and we shuffle them as an ice-breaking activity, to kick us all off on the leadership theme. Each participant receives a photo of a leader that is not theirs; then they find the ‘owner’ of the photo they’ve been given and have a conversation about why this person chose that leader.

What invariably emerges is the realisation that the qualities of the leaders chosen reflect the qualities of the chooser. We admire people who we think reflect some aspirational aspect of ourselves. We see qualities in others that we actually have in ourselves, even if, for the moment, this remains unrecognised or hidden from our view. One of the joys of this exercise, and these leadership programmes as a whole, is that participants get to realise the qualities and values they hold dear and explore how they can bring these out through their leadership. It is an infinitely satisfying exercise to ask:

What are your key values, and how much are you able to enact these in your leadership every day?

Exemplary conscious leaders

Lately, we’ve had two big examples of leaders who have offered us cause to stop and think about ourselves and our choices.

Queen Elizabeth II

First, Queen Elizabeth II. I hadn’t expected to watch the ceremony of her state funeral, but I watched the first minute or two and became captivated as people referred to her dignity, strength and service. The Queen stood unwaveringly for something in life that was far bigger than herself. Because of this, she can be thought of as a very conscious leader. Conscious leaders will take a stand for the greater good and serve that stand with the courage of their convictions, even if they have to put their individual needs on a lower rung of the ladder.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke to these qualities of the Queen in his sermon during her state funeral. He said: 

“People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But, in all cases, those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

It is clear that Queen Elizabeth II was a servant leader and, in that regard, a conscious leader.

Yvon Chouinard, Founder, Patagonia

A second leader recently in the news is the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. ‘Billionaire No More: Patagonia Founder Gives Away the Company’ said the New York Times on 14 September 2022. Chouinard has always eschewed the trappings of success. This is a leader who doesn’t own a computer or a cellphone, who lives modestly and is passionately committed to protecting the planet, a stand that has run through Patagonia unfailingly since its inception. Patagonia is a runaway success story, with loyal fans who buy into Chouinard’s founder values and support the company through their purchases even as, or indeed probably because, it gives away 1 percent of its profits – some $100 million a year – to activist organisations protecting the environment.

Now, rather than succumbing to the pressures of the stock market by taking the company public, with its inevitable squeeze to maximize shareholder profits, the Chouinard family has given the company away to the newly created Patagonia Purpose Trust and the Holdfast Collective non-profit, both of which will ensure that Patagonia continues to be run as a socially responsible business that channels its profits into organisations that work to combat climate change. This way, Patagonia continues to fulfil its purpose on which it was built.

Chouinard is quoted as saying:

“Now I could die tomorrow and the company is going to continue doing the right thing for the next 50 years, and I don’t have to be around.”

Yvon Chouinard, Founder, Patagonia

What can we learn from conscious leaders like Queen Elizabeth II and Chouinard? 

That one of the best things we can do as leaders is to get clear about what is important to us, about what our foundational values are, and channel those, and our energies, into a purpose that is greater than our own self-interest. Aspirational, inspirational leaders, the ones who reach legendary status, stand for something greater than themselves and act in ways that further the common good. By being in service of the greater whole rather than what benefits you individually, you get to take massive action that shows, rather than tells. By contributing in this way, you get to enact your vision about what the world could be, rather than getting dragged down by what it currently seems to be. These are the actions of a conscious leader.

We don’t all have to be the Queen or Yvon Chouinard, however. There are plenty of examples of conscious leaders from every walk of life who are making a difference in their own, even small, ways. Leaders who remain unseen but who still positively impact the lives of those around them.

Think about what’s important to you. What you stand for. What your values are. What you truly care about. What you want to contribute. Then think about how you interact with those around you, and how you can create a positive impact. What decisions do you make that take the greater good and the long-term effect into account, rather than benefit the few (or yourself alone) in the short term? 

Opportunities for impact are everywhere, through actions big or small. The big leadership decision. The small interaction with the person who makes your coffee on your way to work. Impact occurs as a ripple effect from you to the world around you, through the smallest, most subtle deeds. We don’t have to be the Queen.

Interested in more?

If you’re interested in developing your qualities further as a conscious leader, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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