S1 E11: A World in Crisis Calls for Conscious and Courageous Leadership

As the world faces many serious problems, from climate change to global health crises, we need leaders who serve humanity in a conscious and courageous way. This week’s guest host, Dr. Y. Falami Devoe, is joined by leadership scholar Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi to discuss what steps we can take as individuals and communities to train and develop the kinds of leadership we want to see in the world.

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Episode Notes

Listen and Subscribe to Dr. Y. Falami Devoe’s podcast …And the Conversation Continues on Youtube.

Learn more about the programs offered by Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change.

Follow Antioch University on Facebook and LinkedIn to be notified when the new Professional Certificate designed by Dr. Tirmizi, “Advancing Conscious Leadership” is launched later this summer. 

Learn more about Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi and Dr. Y. Falami Devoe.

Recorded July 2, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released July 21, 2021. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.

The Seed Field Podcast’s host is Jasper Nighthawk, and its editor is Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland for their contributions.

Guest Bio

Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi is a Professor of Leadership, Management, and Service at Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change.  His teaching and research focus on leadership, employee and organizational well-being, and social entrepreneurship.  Previously, Aqeel held a professorship with the School for International Training (SIT) where he taught advanced graduate courses focusing on leadership and change, organization development, NGO management, and social entrepreneurship.  His leadership practice included chairing/directing SIT’s graduate programs in management and co-directing the Ford Foundation’s IFP Leadership for Social Justice Initiative.  Prior to that, Aqeel held a faculty position with the Suleman Dawood School of Business at LUMS where he taught in their MBA program.  In addition, he directed and facilitated a series of executive programs for the Rausing Executive Center, focusing on leadership development, team building, and general management.

S1E11 Transcript

[00:00:06] Jasper Nighthawk: Welcome, and thank you for joining us. You’re listening to The Seed Field Podcast presented to you by Antioch University.

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With every episode of The Seed Field Podcast, we celebrate and share stories of those who embody the spirit of our founder, Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. This week, we’re lucky to have a guest host, Dr. Y. Falami Devoe. Falami holds a PhD from Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change, and she currently teaches in our Individualized Master of Arts program.

We’re excited to have her guest-host The Seed Field Podcast, in part because she’s currently launching another Antioch-related podcast. This one is called, …And the Conversation Continues, and it features conversations with thinkers around the Individualized Master of Arts program that she teaches in. Today, Falami is taking over the hosting duties for The Seed Field Podcast. Falami, thank you for working with us this week.

[00:01:14] Dr. Y. Falami Devoe: Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

[00:01:17] Jasper: I’ve had the honor of listening to an early cut of your conversation with Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi. I just think you guys had such a great conversation. I’m really excited to share it with our listeners.

[00:01:30] Falami: Jasper, you missed it, we had a blast. It was very exciting. [chuckles]

[00:01:34] Jasper: Well, I’m really excited to get to it, but I was thinking for our listeners who maybe are less steeped, who don’t have a PhD as you do in Leadership and Change, I was hoping that you could just tell me and our listeners really quick, what leadership studies is all about and the kinds of topics that you guys are thinking about, and really who leadership studies is for?

[00:01:59] Falami: Right. That’s a wonderful question because not everyone walking down the street has this PhD in Leadership and Change. It’s typically a very specific content area. I’ve been asked that question a lot after I completed my doctorate. Having this leadership background and this– What is leadership studies? Well, it is really for folks who are about wanting to create and lead change in their communities and in their organizations, in their schools, and in their businesses.

The Graduate School of Leadership and Change offers students the opportunity to learn, to have this interdisciplinary approach to understanding all the different types of leadership theories. There’s transformational leadership theory, there’s authentic leadership, there’s spiritual leadership. There’s all these different, many leadership theories that we learned about. Then what’s most important is, okay, so what do you do with this information, the practical side, and creating change and leading change in one’s individual community?

[00:03:12] Jasper: I love that idea of grounding the practice of leadership in more theoretical concerns, and research-based concerns. I think that your conversation, you and Aqeel, get right into it. I’m really excited to take a listen and share that with our listeners.

[00:03:30] Falami: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much, Jasper.

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[00:03:43] Falami: Greetings. My name is Dr. Falami Devoe, and it is a great pleasure to serve as a co-host for today on The Seed Field Podcast. As host of …And the Conversation Continues, I engage in conversations that invite guests to explore a range of social justice topics, and so I am elated to have this conversation today with my former professor, Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi. I am a proud graduate of Antioch University’s PhD in Leadership and Change.

Dr. Tirmizi, or I like to call him, and for the rest of this podcast, I’m going to call him Aqeel. Aqeel is the professor of Leadership, Management, and Service. He has over 25 years of international experience in consulting, teaching, research, and practice focusing on leadership and management. His teaching and advising focus on globally responsible leadership, employee and organizational wellbeing, social innovation, and social sector leadership. I am telling you, he has a lot to offer today. I’m very excited to ask questions and just have a bit of conversation with Aqeel. Welcome to The Seed Field Podcast, Aqeel.

[00:05:09] Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi: Falami, thank you very much. It is wonderful to be reconnected, and I very much look forward to our exchange today.

[00:05:16] Falami: Yes, me as well. Thank you. Thank you so much. As I said, I’m an alum of the Antioch University Graduate School of Leadership and Change, and there I received a vast amount of exposure to leadership theories and faculty scholars like yourself, Aqeel, who have expertise in many different areas, from critical race theory, from psychology, and organizational management.

Aqeel, during my time there in our program, I learned all different types of leadership theories from transformational leadership theory to authentic leadership. However, I really clung to servant leadership. Actually, I don’t know if you remember this or not, I actually wrote up in one of my papers, arguing that holistic health coaches are servant leaders. This is one of the things I admire about you and your focus on servant leadership. Can you talk a little bit about this leadership theory and how it became important to you?

[00:06:21] Aqeel: Absolutely. I think it’s just important to remember, as you noted in your comment, there’s just a lot of wisdom out there. In that sense, servant leadership theory is a very important, a very time-relevant theory, but I just wanted to emphasize, not the only theory.

Let me talk about my personal and professional interest in this theory. As a student of leadership for over two decades, I was always intrigued and drawn towards leadership ideas, which put service and humanity at the center. Frankly, that is one of the reasons why I was, I’m still am, drawn to the idea of servant leadership.

When we look at some of the specific, empirically tested ideas that have emerged and that folks both on the research side and the practice side that they are working with, they include notions such as empowerment, accountability, humility, emotional healing, creating value for the community. Those are all the reasons which go back to that notion of human-centeredness, and this is why I believe servant leadership is a little different and also is just very important, given the times that we are living in.

In a recent publication, when I wrote about servant leadership, I started that with a quote from Mr. Nelson Mandela, and I would just like to quickly go ahead and share that quote, because I think it brings out the essence of servant leadership and what differentiates it a little bit. He used the following words, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived, it is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” I think it is this difference we have made to the lives of others, which I think is important and a differentiating factor and that is why my interest in this particular leadership theory continues today.

[00:08:27] Falami: I so love that. All that resonates with me, particularly, this notion you said of service and humanity at the center. Times like these, that’s, for me, I believe it’s so important in progressing our society. Then the Nelson Mandela quote, in making a difference, you made in a difference in the lives of others, wow, absolutely. Then I think about leaving legacy. Many servant leaders have left a legacy, and that legacy has been how they have led and made a difference in the lives of others. I totally love that. I’m going to use that as I’m working with clients, and I’m putting this information into my courses, so thank you. I appreciate that.

Let’s talk a little bit about, Aqeel, we’re talking all about this leadership and leadership and change and different leadership theories. Let’s talk about the importance of training and developing leaders. Talk to me a little bit about that.

[00:09:34] Aqeel: Absolutely. A couple of things come to mind. We have for a long period of time made this assumption that we can train and develop leaders. As someone who has been in this business for a long period of time, I think that assumption is correct. However, that assumption demands and requires that couple of conditions be in place for it to be met. One of those is that on part of organizations, for instance, that there is this willingness to invest in training and development opportunities over short, medium, and long term. That’s condition number one.

Condition number two is when those resources are available for the individual to say that I’m going to make a commitment to that developmental process. I think when those conditions are met, the journey of training and development can then begin. I use the word journey intentionally because really embracing and practicing those terms in terms of work of leadership and change is not easy.

Daniel Goleman, under his umbrella of emotional intelligence, gave us a lot of good vocabulary in terms of training and development that is applicable to our conversation. A couple of things that Daniel Goleman and his colleagues have talked about, they include self-awareness and self-regulation. Training and development journey in the context of leadership begins with that commitment to self-awareness and self-regulation.

Sounds simple, but when we say self-awareness, it requires a certain amount of investment and courage to learn about our blind spots, to identify some of our developmental opportunities. Self-regulation, at the same time, demands from us that as we put some of the ideas and the commitment to change that we make in ourselves, in our teams, and in our social system, we will stay with that commitment to practice even if we make mistakes. Again, those kinds of actions require a lot of courage on the individual’s part over a period of time to improve one’s leadership practice.

As that is happening, going back to my first condition one more time – I think it’s important. That’s why I’m emphasizing it – that from organization perspective or in a community setting, those who have decided to support that training and developmental journey, on the one hand, they have to provide resources, including mentorship, where relevant, but on the other hand, they also have to stay patient because leadership improvement is not something that happens overnight. It takes a little bit of time. Along the way, there are sometimes challenges, there are sometimes mistakes. When the right signals are in place, that certain amount of mistakes and experimentation is encouraged and welcomed, individuals respond to those signals.

I’ve spent a couple of extra minutes on this question. I hope it is okay, but I think it is very important two or three day-long workshops, training programs, and interventions, they are important, but in many cases, not sufficient to support the kind of improvements that we are interested in and the kinds of improvements that we want to sustain so that leadership practice- it sort of shifts or changes the way we decided to change, and then can bring the kind of results and improvements that we are expecting in our communities, teams, and organizations.

[00:13:18] Falami: I so love this conversation, Aqeel, and particularly talking about, for that thinking about the sustainability. What’s going to be sustainable? Then I started thinking about, so what does it look like because oftentimes managers or leaders have to be evaluated at particular points in their career. Does it look like evaluation tools are changed or assessments are changed to match this self-awareness? How can questions around self-awareness and mindfulness be included into this process of evaluating the growth of a leader?

That’s something that sparked in me, as you were talking, about– because oftentimes, it’s like, did this person show up on time? That quantitative type of information. What about using some deep qualitative data that looks at how this person has progressed in their journey, as you said, in this leadership journey, that includes self-awareness, that includes the mindfulness? That’s just what I’m thinking there. What are your thoughts?

[00:14:44] Aqeel: No, you’re absolutely right. First of all, there’s certainly progress in terms of how we approach this work. You and our audience would know that the so-called 360-degree approaches, they have been around for about 20 years now, and they are extremely valuable. For any listeners who may not be familiar with it, 360 degrees simply implies that focal leader is in the center, she or he is evaluating herself or himself and then key constituents around them, including their supervisor, peers, relevant members of community, they are invited to give feedback, and that’s why the term 360 degree.

Now imagine that when you do that as opposed to 30, 40 years ago when a supervisor was sitting down once a year and evaluating someone, this approach is fairly rich. Now, coming back to your question, many of these approaches are primarily quantitative to bring the efficiency that we value, but then to fully capture what may be going on in a particular context, I don’t think we need to shy away in terms of further supplementing those good tools that we have at our disposal with more open-ended and qualitative approaches.

I think a little bit of additional thoughtfulness, which again goes back to the two commitments that I have talked about previously, could really further strengthen some of the progress that we have made in terms of how we generate feedback, which I think is the spirit or a heart of your question, Falami, which is so central to the right kind of feedback is just so central in terms of identifying meaningful improvement opportunities. Thank you for that observation and that good question.

[00:16:38] Falami: You’re welcome. That kind of goes to my next question in thinking about, I’m going to ask you a couple of questions about this. What do you think are humanity’s pressing challenges and crises, if you will? What kind of leaders are needed to address those challenges?

[00:16:56] Aqeel: Again, another important question, Falami, there are some obvious crisis and challenges that we are all aware of. Every day, we are hearing about the climate challenge, then our news channels are continuously reminding us about inequities and injustices that continue to prevail. They have been surfacing in a variety of ways ranging from how we police our streets to how we pay for hard work in many industries, gender disparities, extreme political divisions across countries and regions is another challenge. We saw some of the manifestations of that in the US Capitol.

I think something that is perhaps not on our radar directly is the challenge of the failing global governance. That challenge became evident in how the world responded to or failed to respond to the COVID 19 crisis. These challenges, the world is aware of those, and climate change, we have been talking about it for about 30 years under the UN-sponsored conversations and exchanges around the world. A few years ago, the world landed on what we now call the 17 UN-sponsored Sustainable Development Goals. I think the list of challenges is absolutely very long and also many of these challenges are very, very urgent.

I guess some of my hope and optimism comes from that even when we look at the seven SDGs, SDG number 17 is actually inviting the world to work together. It is very much partnership-focused. This brings me to the second part of your question, which is, what kind of leadership is needed to respond to and address some of these challenges? I think when we look at these 17 SDGs, or just my understanding of some of the big challenges and crises that I talked about a minute ago, it is clear that actions and approaches that are collaborative, that are purpose-driven, that are holistic, that are human-centered, these are the kinds of approaches that will work that will help us begin this process of healing and moving forward and creating a more just world.

[00:19:21] Falami: I love this. I’m writing so much. It’s just like it reminded me back when we were in class. Thank you. This is just as wonderful. This is wonderful. I understand you are within the Graduate School of Leadership and Change. There’s this new certificate, there’s this understanding of conscious leadership. I want you to talk for me about what is conscious leadership? What does conscious leadership look like? What is it sound like? Tell everybody what conscious leadership is.

[00:19:59] Aqeel: I will say a couple of things about conscious leadership, Falami. One is that many practitioners know about conscious leadership from some of the work that was done under the umbrella of conscious capitalism. That notion of conscious capitalism is in many ways brainchild of the co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey. Now, that is a very important piece of work, which is very business-focused. It is inviting those who are involved in leading important powerful national and global business entities to think about how they operate and engage with the world beyond the so-called profit motive.

John Mackey’s voice is also important because he has put a model out there of co-creating an organization and then running that organization for a long period of time using a certain set of principles. When he wrote about conscious capitalism in his book, he talked about a few other connected pieces which support that capitalism to thrive and sustain. A couple of those ideas included working with stakeholders in ways that we had not worked previously and then idea of stakeholders goes well beyond shareholders and also outside the organizational boundaries as well. This again goes back to when I was answering one of your earlier questions, to this notion of collaboration and then approaching collaboration in fundamentally different ways.

I guess the other piece that I would, again, emphasize based on Mackey’s work is that organizations today, they need to create a different culture to promote the society that we want to live it and society in which these organizations survive. He emphasized, again, paying attention to ideas such as wellbeing and dignity and then in the second book on conscious leadership, the subtitle was Elevating Humanity.

I just want you to, I guess, acknowledge and note some of these important contributions which came from the world of practice. For me, the idea of conscious leadership is bigger than that. If we just stay with this notion of elevating humanity, for example, for a minute, that is just not a concern for the business world. It’s a concern for every sector in which we have organized life and it should be of concern to us in our society at large. In that sense, the theory and practice of what I consider conscious leadership existed long before conscious capitalism was written. Also, its scope is much broader as well because I believe that this notion is relevant to every sector of society.

[00:23:06] Falami: Wow, so exciting to talk about conscious leadership and to understand this approach. Again, I love hearing the consistent theme about elevating humanity that just really resonates with me. I want to know, this seems to be a– and then again, I don’t know how new this is. You were saying about John Mackey. In terms of a fresh approach, this is– What makes a leadership approach fresh versus stagnant? Because we have had various leadership approaches and theories, and this seems to be very fresh. What makes a leadership approach fresh versus stagnant?

[00:23:48] Aqeel: I love this question. Thank you for that, Falami. I’m sure in one of our conversations at some point, I’ve probably mentioned one of my favorite ancient philosophers by the name of Heraclitus. There’s a quote that is attributed to him, and it goes something like that, “You cannot step in the same river twice.” Now, this quote is interpreted in a few different ways, and here is one of the interpretations or my interpretation, that change is around us all the time, and not fully acknowledging this reality makes leadership stagnant. On the other hand, what makes it fresh, is a continuous invitation to innovate. Reinventing ourselves and encouraging those who form the leadership equation with us, that is the fresh approach, that is a fresh way or a different way of approaching our existence and our work together.

In another major leadership theory that you are familiar with, transformational leadership, the late Professor Bernard Bass talked about this notion of intellectual stimulation as one of the main characteristics. Now, when we go back to that theory and we look at the idea of intellectual stimulation, it is simply again an invitation and an encouragement to ourselves to be creative, to do things differently, and improve services, processes, products, and our collective wellbeing. I think when leadership is approached that way, that invitation to intellectually stimulate ourselves as leaders and those who are in that leadership relationship with us, that makes leadership fresh from my perspective.

[00:25:41] Falami: Thank you. I love that. Thank you. I want to go back to the conscious portion, the conscious leadership. I’m familiar with conscious leadership, consciousness. I’m a holistic practitioner. Within our community, there’s this conversation between one being conscious and one being mindful in mind. I want you to talk, how does mindfulness fit into conscious leadership?

[00:26:15] Aqeel: I think there are a couple of important connections over there. As we are coming out of this pandemic to some extent, we’re not fully out of it yet, one of– there’s an important conversation taking place about being resilient and what makes us resilient. Within the context of leadership theory and practice is also an emerging conversation there that what makes leaders resilient and that having that quality or that competency to become resilient is extremely important.

You know this from your practice as well, Falami, that mindfulness is one vehicle, a very important vehicle, to help us move towards our wellbeing. Leaders who are doing difficult work for them to sustain themselves over a period of time, they have to take care of their wellbeing. For me, whether someone who is practicing specifically conscious leadership or any leadership that is committed to the common good, challenging structures that make this world difficult for certain segments of our population and leave people behind, the stresses that come with that leadership, those stresses quantitative and qualitatively are little different from what may be labeled as general leadership practice.

In that sense, what we know about mindfulness and its linkage to wellbeing, there’s a very important connection there between that and what leaders can do and what leaders can learn and what you can take away from there to improve their wellbeing and then sustain themselves, do the difficult work that many people do and the kinds of sectors that you and I have touched upon a little bit.

I think the other piece that I want to talk about a little bit is that, in many ways, not always, but in many ways, the work of mindfulness is individual-centered so that, your question is making me think about this connection, that as we think about conscious leadership, which in many ways is very much about the collective, then if we were to look at a two-way connection and what can practitioners of mindfulness work, take away from conscious leadership and its focus on collective action and collective approaches so forth and so on. I hope this is answering or touching upon your question a little bit.

[00:28:49] Falami: Yes, it is. That was very good. I think I just have one more question, and I’m going, let you go. What are some steps that folks could take to start practicing conscious leadership? Because I think you would probably agree that everyone is a leader in some way, shape, or form. How can anybody take steps each day to become a conscious leader?

[00:29:18] Aqeel: A little bit of my writing focuses on another related lens. I’ll use that lens to answer this question, and that’s the lens of responsible leadership, Falami, that you also very generously mentioned in your introduction. In my work on responsible leadership, I have argued that in order to act responsibly, and this very much overlaps with the idea of conscious leadership as well, we need to ask ourselves, what are our anchoring principles and anchoring values? And be very clear on those. When you asked me about next steps, as we think about improving our practice, one of the first question that we need to answer is, what main values drive our work? And then being clear on those.

The other piece that I want to emphasize in terms of taking action if you will is that so much of our leadership, and you know this very well, is relational in nature. Taking stock of our existing social capital, and we all recognize that different leadership contexts have very different demands. In most of those contexts, we are dependent on other human beings to help us do important work of leadership. Revisiting this idea of what are my networks? Who are the main stakeholders over here? How am I connected to them? Do I need to expand that network? Am I fully capitalizing on it? I think as we, in a deliberate and intentional fashion, think through that notion of relationships, I think we are a little more prepared to do our work.

Often, I think, going back to another question around risk-taking, courage, and making mistakes, but a more trusting relational environment that we have developed for ourselves, the better off we are in terms of absorbing some of the shocks that may come our way. I think then finally, I would say, as I’ve said to you before, and going back to second condition of training and development, am I ready to take different kinds of action in this world? Am I ready to reinvent myself a little bit? How will that action look at a little different? How will I reinvent myself a little bit?

It takes a little bit of risk, it takes a little bit of courage, but I believe that most of us, most of the time, in most contexts can do that. Then just in a very mindful and an honest kind of way raising that question and then sort of answering it that this is the change I’m looking for in myself and in the world that I’m operating in becomes one of the next steps to improve our practice and lives of those who are impacted by that practice.

[00:32:05] Falami: Thank you so much, Aqeel. There is so much richness in this conversation. I love what you said in terms of, am I ready to take action and reinvent myself for the better? This is such a message for right now, so important. I know that many who have us coming out of, and we’re actually still in the pandemic, but many people that I’m close to really did reinvent themselves during this time period. That just goes to your statement there, ready to take action and reinventing oneself. I am so grateful and appreciative of this time that we spent together. Also, just very grateful for having the opportunity to serve as a co-host here on The Seed Field Podcast. Again, thank you so much, and I’m wishing you all well, and take good care.

[00:33:05] Aqeel: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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[00:33:17] Jasper: If you enjoyed Falami’s hosting as much as I did, consider listening to her podcast, …And the Conversation Continues, on YouTube. 

We’ll also include a link in our show notes. In our show notes, you’ll also find more information about the Graduate School of Leadership and Change and its doctoral and certificate offerings. 

The professional certificate designed by Dr. Tirmizi, Advancing Conscious Leadership, will be launching later this summer. Follow Antioch University on Facebook and LinkedIn to learn when it becomes available.

We post these show notes to our website, theseedfield.org, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.

Thank you for joining us today. Don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.

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