by Valita Jones

Excerpt from “Jones, V. (2012). In Search of Conscious Leadership: A Qualitative Study of Postsecondary Educational Leadership Practices (Doctoral dissertation). State University, San Diego”

The purpose of this study was to examine the leadership practices of postsecondary educational leaders who are practicing what can be described as responsible and accountable leadership or conscious leadership. Eight senior postsecondary leaders participated in face-to-face interviews designed to identify conscious leadership qualities and practices. All of the participants took a Conscious Quotient Inventory to measure their global consciousness and awareness. Data from the interviews were used to answer four research questions designed to investigate what they were doing on a daily basis and why they have become more responsible and conscious leaders.

A delimitation of this study was that the emphasis placed on using conscious leadership as a leadership framework was fairly new, thus educational leaders were not formally familiar with a conscious leadership practice. A limitation of this qualitative study is its ability to generalize the results to a larger population. Interviews were primarily conducted within the Western region, therefore limiting the generalization to differing perspectives nationwide.

Findings suggest that participants incorporated a variety of conscious leadership practices into their daily practice. The leaders demonstrated an awareness of (a) a social systems orientation or approach to leading; (b) patterns and themes that informed the work environment; and (c) the benefits of a shared or participatory leadership practice.

Preparing postsecondary educational leaders to become more observant of their work environments as dynamic living systems, adds value, in the form of increased skills and can potentially aid leaders in creating meaning and bringing order to continuously transforming workplaces. Results provided insight into responsible and conscious leadership practices and offers direction for developing future conscious leaders.


Social changes are setting the stage for transformation and change within postsecondary educational institutions (Penn & Zalesne, 2007). The implication of sustaining conscious leadership practices within postsecondary educational institutions is related to understanding educational organizations as interconnected and living systems. This interest provides researchers with an excellent opportunity to study an emerging leadership framework being applied as a practice, which has the potential for researchers to identify different ways of leading that is relational based and social in nature. It is also requires leader to aware and conscious of being conscious. In other words, you must recognize that you move through levels of awareness as you are practicing leadership activates. In an effort to practice a more balanced leader approach that is shared, cooperative and collaborative, you must be privy to the rules of engagement as a conscious individual. Understanding your level of consciousness quotient assist in keeping you in balance and functioning from a healthy leadership perspective. Student Affairs offers a window into examples of postsecondary educational leaders who are more relational in their leadership practice.

Over the years, the profession has adapted to the needs of the institutions they served, and the professionals have attempted to understand and define themselves. With a long history of managing change and volatility, student affairs divisions have provided examples of how invaluable they are and now have a rare opportunity to model how to meet the demands of a diverse and globalize student population (Blimling & Whitt, 1999; Jones, 2001). Therefore, it is only natural for professionals within the student affairs occupation to offer a model of effective leadership practices.

The development of a new leadership practice that can respond to these changing ways of relating and organizing within educational environments is warranted. Influencing how postsecondary education emerges within these dynamic, fluid, and changing educational environments is critical for effective leadership practices to unfold. If the impending issues facing the profession of postsecondary education are truly to be addressed, leadership consideration must be a serious part of the solution. Postsecondary educational leaders must become more adept in their leadership practices by developing improved leadership acumen. The knowledge gained through the process of interviewing the eight participants highlighted how each of them embraced qualities of what this authors is calling conscious leadership and made sense of the practiced of it on a daily basis.

Conscious Leadership

Conscious Leadership a leadership practice that is effective within an integrated and networked environment. It is grounded in the sociocultural knowledge of reciprocity, which allows leaders to perceive patterns in the environment, see the interconnectivity of multiple problems, and subscribe to a participatory leadership style, which incorporates the idea of shared responsibility and problem solving. It is a new conceptual framework for leadership, where leaders have learned to become more aware, make better decisions, are conscious of their actions and are reflective, while focusing on the praxis of the practitioner, the person, and practices. Thus, the framework embraces consciousness as the critical component. Consciousness is not just about awareness; it is about accessing a vast field of possibility. “Since there are no fixed truths or completely definitive knowledge, and because situations and circumstances change, the human experience may be best understood as an ongoing effort to negotiate contested meaning” Gambrell, Matkin, & Burbach, 2011). It is about transformative learning, which demand that a higher cognitive functioning level present (Gambrell et al., 2011).

This type of learning takes place through a deliberate process which mediates an epistemological shift, rather than a mere change in behavior. Thus, conscious leadership can be thought of as a transformative learning paradigm. In transformative learning situations, “values, beliefs, and assumptions compose the lens through which personal experiences are mediated and made sense of” (Merriam, 2004, p. 61).

Conscious leadership emphasizes contextual understanding and critical reflection, while concurrently validating meaning and developing reason. Conscious leaders are described as being self-aware and self-governed and can infer a universal standard for adequate leadership functioning. Conscious leaders have mastered self-knowledge (Akbar, 2006) and are aware of their relations to others, are conscious of their thoughts, words, and actions and they lead in responsible and accountable ways. The more conscious a leaders is, the more access they will have to information and resources, to better inform decisions and choices and therefore the leadership practice. A conscious leadership practice acknowledges and embraces the quantum principles and systems orientation of organizations. Opportunities for expanded research can prove viable in creating meaning about how the influence of a quantum physics and systems perspective is critical to a conscious leadership perspective. Practitioners and educators have the capacity to observer these dynamic interworking in action as an effective leadership practice, thereby using this information to mediate a paradigm shift for change and transformation, and more improved workplace professional development.


Eight educational leaders from both two and four year colleges and universities were identified as participants. The following demographics provided a general description, while protecting each participant’s identity: (a) generational age range, (b) highest educational degree, (c) ethnic identification, (d) gender identification, and (e) work locations. Invitations to participate in the study were sent via email to 45 senior level educational leaders, who served in leadership roles at both two and four year postsecondary institutions in Southern California. Eleven educational leaders responded with an interest to participate but three were unable to meet the interview timeline. One educational leader, who was not able to participate, requested to meet with the researcher after the data was collected to hear about the results. Each of the educational institutions where they work served a diverse population of students. Of the eight participants, each serves in one of the following roles: Director, Associate Dean, Dean, VP and President.

Five of the leaders have taught in academia and have conducted research prior to moving to an administrative role. Each leader has been working within higher education institutions for more than five years and oversees departments within the divisions of student affairs or academic affairs. Four of the leaders worked at community colleges and the other four worked at universities. Of the eight educational leaders interviewed, four were females and four were males. The overall ages for the educational leaders ranged from Generational X to Baby Boomers, and range in age from thirties to sixties. Their ethnic make-up included African American and White. Attempts to recruit more diverse participants were unsuccessful. Of the three that were not able to meet the interview timeline, one was Indian American, and the other two were Latinos.

Research Questions

Four open-ended research questions were developed to aid the inquiry process. Learning some primary facts about how leaders become and practice as responsible and conscious leaders is warranted. Four research questions will guide the study:

1. How do postsecondary educational leaders make sense of conscious leadership?
2. How is conscious leadership demonstrated on a daily basis?
3. How does context influence conscious leadership practices?
4. What implications does a conscious leadership framework have for conscious leadership practices?


Qualitative research methods guided the design and execution of this study (Creswell, 2009; Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2011). Purposeful sampling strategy was used to identify candidates for the study. Eight postsecondary educational administrators who work in two and four-year private and public colleges and universities were included as participants. Networking and snowballing were used for specific purposeful sampling. “Initially, the follow selection criteria were used to select potential participants:

1. The participants have been in leadership roles as senior postsecondary educational administrators for at least five years.
2. The participants self-identify as experiencing a transformation in their leadership style or practice that is more relational and systems oriented.

The researcher contacted potential participants initially through e-mail at their respective colleges and universities. The e-mail introduced the researcher and the research study. Interested participants were asked to respond to the researcher directly by phone or e-mail. The researcher responded to all interested participants with an e-mail confirmation. Included in this confirmation was information about the research study purpose, confidentiality and consent procedures, and several potential dates for the actual interview. After the desired number of participants was successfully identified, the selection process concluded. All participants signed a research consent form before beginning the interview process. Inquiry for this study was inclusive of in-depth semi-structured interviews and information gathered from Brazdau and Mihai’s (2011) Consciousness Quotient Inventory (CQ-i, beta version) to investigate the leader’s awareness levels. Interview questions were shaped from the six primary dimensions of consciousness from CQ Inventory. Information was collected from eight postsecondary leaders through two processes; first an online questionnaire (CQ) and second, through face-to-face interviews. Brazdau and Mihai (2011) believed that consciousness can be measured. After each participant responded via email that they agreed to participate in the study, a link to the Consciousness Quotient Inventory (CQ) was forwarded to them. The leaders were asked to complete the online questionnaire and have it available for the researcher at the time of the interview.

The inventory results were used to provide the researcher with information about the awareness level of each of the participants, from the perspective of the six dimensions of consciousness: (a) physical consciousness, (b) emotional consciousness, (c) mental (cognitive) consciousness, (d) spiritual consciousness, (e) social-relational consciousness, and (f) self-consciousness. In general, the reporting of the CQ Inventory scores and summaries were used to assist in providing some context for the conscious awareness of each participant.

One in-depth interview was conducted with each of the eight qualified participants to gain descriptive and detailed information about their leadership practices, at two and four year postsecondary institutions. It was important to make sure that the participants were knowledgeable about leadership practices specific to postsecondary education administration, be familiar with systems sciences, have an understanding of consciousness, and cognition, and recognize what it meant to be cooperative and collective as a leader. The majority of the interviews were conducted within a 60 minute time frame; however two of the interviews were completed within a 120 minute time frame.

The questions were organized around the six dimension of the Consciousness Quotient Inventory (CQ-i, beta version) in an effort to provide alignment to the data collected from the online inventory. As responses were being recorded, attention was paid to identifying preliminary evidence of a conscious leadership context and applied practices. The second method of data collection involved face-to-face interviews with each of the eight postsecondary educational leaders. Thirty-seven questions were originally developed, however, after beta testing; two of the original questions were disregarded, leaving the final count at thirty-five. The interviews took place over a period of six weeks.

The in-depth interviews began by prompting responses to the thirty-five questions. Interviews were conducted at locations that were convenient for the interviewees. Two of the participants were interviewed in their homes and the other six participants were interviewed in their offices. The interviews were recorded using Sony digital recording device and were stored within four separate digital folders. Data from the interview questions were transcribed using NVIVO 9, qualitative analysis software. Transcription of the data was completed by the researcher, in an effort to personally spend more time with it, and become familiar with potential patterns, themes and codes. Transcription took place over a four week period of time. After the data were transcribed the researcher listened to the audio recordings several times, seeking additional insight and understanding. Additionally, examination of responses for indications of conscious leadership qualities and behaviors, such as self-awareness, clarity of focus and purpose, and heightened intuition, were taken into consideration

CQ-i Assessment Results

Results from the inventory informed the level of conscious awareness levels for each leader, taking into consideration the six domains of consciousness, as they are expanded or contracted, dependent upon the amount of information being introduced and processed. For example, how aware one is of their feelings and or thoughts at any given time could be indicated by the responses provided on the instrument. Leaders 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8’s final summary and recommendation were basically identical, thus allowing the opportunity to report out the findings from a collective perspective. However, Leader 3’s results were vastly different and needed to be reported independent of the others. This participant’s overall global consciousness score was relatively low in comparison to the other participants and resulted in a dramatically different perspective for most of her domain and the overall global consciousness score.

The scores of seven of the leaders placed them in the upper category of the awareness interval, meaning that they are presumably very conscious people with strong connections with higher levels of access to their inner lives. Their Egos can easily access the information within their psyche and they also have a high potential for knowledge. They find it very easy to relate to the outer reality and manage various life situations. Their mental processes operate at an excellent level thus facilitating a high degree of self-knowledge and personal growth quality and quantity-wise. To sum up, their awareness levels are very high, which influences their health. In addition, the high level of emotional and cognitive awareness indicates that they are all well-rooted in reality and make decisions accordingly. They have high scores on the spiritual awareness, social awareness and self-awareness subscales, which show that they are goal-oriented people, who are cognizant of the effects of social relations and observant of their own inner life. High scores on this scale generally indicate a mature, very realist person and this aspect strongly impacts the quality of their lives.

Leader 3’s score placed her in the lower section of the awareness interval meaning that the consciousness level is low with a limited degree of access to her inner life. The Ego can access information within the psyche with difficulty, therefore individuals who score in this range may not have a superior potential for knowledge. It is quite difficult to relate to the outer reality and manage various life situations. The mental processes operate at a low level which is why a high degree of self-knowledge and personal growth, quality-wise, would require sustained and constant efforts. To sum up, Leader 3’s awareness level considered low and that influences her health. It is suggested that if she paid a little more attention to her body it might be helpful. In addition, the below average level of emotional and cognitive awareness suggests that she might not be well-rooted in reality. The low scores on the spiritual awareness, social awareness and self-awareness subscales indicate that she does not have a well-defined purpose in life and may ignore the effects of the social relations and is limited in her interest in her own inner life. Table 1 lists the leaders overall global awareness scores.

Global Consciousness Quotient Scores

In terms of where the leaders would place on a continuum of awareness, Leader 3 scores indicated that they are at the lower end of global awareness, while Leaders 2, 7, and 8 reflect a developing awareness level and finally, those leaders who scored in the 90’s reflected a higher awareness level. Given that the interview questions were designed around the six domains of consciousness from the Consciousness Quotient Inventory completing the inventory introduced terminology that was reflective during the interviews.

Face-to-Face Interview

Five notable trends emerged and were developed into categories: (a) theoretical perspective; (b) epistemic practices of transformation and systems; (c) disposition; (d) socio-emotional/human consciousness capacity; and (e) cognition capacity. An iterative process assisted the researcher in identifying emerging themes and patterns as the data were analyzed and interpreted for meaning. All data were organized and coded using the themes and the interview question topics as a guide. A subset of codes emerged as a metric for evaluation and categorization purposes, as part of an in-depth analysis and understanding of the actual leadership practices.

Interview Results

Data from the interviews were analyzed with the use of the identified themes and codes. Six steps were completed in the data analysis: (a) managed the transcribed data by placing it in a word text document; (b) read and made notes; (c) developed the leadership rubric; (d) identified codes and sub-codes based on the interview questions; (e) used color coded note cards to organize, categorize and classified the responses from interview data; and (f) interpretation of the data. From the initial review of the data, five major themes emerged. Along with the themes and information from the literature review, a leadership rubric was developed to assist with the analysis of the data. Metrics from the rubric allowed the researcher to classify responses as either more aligned with having an awareness level that is undeveloped, developing, or conscious. Participant responses were organized around the five themes and measured against whether a leader was exhibiting qualities that appeared to be indicators of their specific leadership development stage as it related to the leadership rubric.

Analysis Process

Two major analysis processes were used to interpret and understand the data. Nineteen codes were developed….The codes assisted in creating meaning and context for the data, as well as, aided in the analysis and interpretation. A Leadership Rubric for purposes of assisting with the analysis and interpretation of the data. It was structured and organized around the research questions, information from the literature review, types of leadership styles presented such as traditional, transformative and conscious, and the noted themes, patterns and codes that emerged from the interviewee responses. The leadership rubric served as a way to measure leadership developmental stages. It was based on a continuum, that is, from a beginning stage to a more advanced stage of conscious leadership development. In other words, the responses from the interviewee’s were categorized as either in a beginning developmental stage of conscious leadership or closer to a more advanced stage, based on the identified qualities of a conscious leadership framework. Furthermore, the rubric assisted in further analysis and interpretation the data. Information from literature review and the five leadership themes and the codes helped to define the components. The rubric describes the leadership categories and includes an explanation of the qualities or indicators of leadership stage from beginning to conscious. For example, the beginning qualities described leaders who subscribe to a more traditional fixed leadership approach that is more focused on control and is hierarchical in nature.

The developing stage offers evidence of a shift and adoption of a leadership paradigm that is more transformative and open to change. Leaders in this stage notice the importance of leading from a relational aspect and promote integration and connection as the organizational culture. Leadership development styles that adhere to a more advanced stage of the continuum are more aware, are critical thinkers, understand the interconnectivity of things and people, have control over their thoughts and emotions and have adopted a systems theory perspective. A sociocultural leadership practice is the norm.

Table 2 provides the leadership rubric continuum with examples of each level of development.


Understanding significance, within a defined context, is especially important as it assists with the creation of meaning. This study was based on four research questions which explored elements of conscious leadership practices and how they were embedded within current postsecondary educational leadership practices. Data were collected and analyzed from responses of one-on-one interviews in order to answer the four research questions. Five leadership themes emerged from the initial analysis of the data. The themes assisted in guiding the analysis and interpretation of the data: theoretical perspective, epistemic practices in transformative systems, disposition, socio-emotional/ human consciousness capacity, and cognition capacity. Moreover, the themes helped in organizing and interpreting the multiple perspectives and streams of knowledge that emerged.

Several trends and patterns emerged as the analysis of the data took place. Two of the most noticeable were related to (1) leaders’ life purpose as it relates to leadership practice and impact as a leader; and (2) effective communication. First, the majority of the leaders stated their purpose in life was to be of service and help other’s reach their potential. Second, all eight of the leaders discussed the importance and value of effective communication, especially as relates to meeting the mission of the educational institutions. This speaks to the leadership practice.


This qualitative study focused on exploring the leadership practices of eight senior postsecondary educational leaders at both two year and four year colleges and universities. Learning how these educational leaders made sense of responsible leadership, i.e. conscious leadership, how it was demonstrated on a daily basis, and how context influenced their leadership practice provides a starting point into the understanding and practice of conscious leadership. Findings from this study offer insights into the applicability of a conscious leadership framework as practice, especially as it relates to educational environments, which are becoming increasingly integrated, networked and interconnected. Understanding significance, within a defined context, is especially important as it assists with the creation of meaning. Emphasis is increasingly being placed on developing leaders who are more thoughtful, self-aware and conscious, and who themselves are accountable for their individual leadership practices (Church, 2010; Chopra, 2010, Fry & Kriger, 2006; Wheatley, 2006).

Leaders will need to be formally trained on how best to become more thoughtful, self-aware and accountable leaders. It will be important for educators to adopt an evolutionary perspective about the value of a conscious leadership curriculum, especially as it relates to preparing leaders to develop their self-awareness, understand the potentiality of social capital in a leadership practice, and learn how to see the value of a conscious leadership practice within increasingly interconnected and networked environments.

Building leadership development programs that incorporate a conscious leadership framework can aid in appropriately preparing leaders for complex and rapidly changing organizations. Important also is the emphasis being placed on training and developing viable pools of individuals to move into critical leadership roles who see the potentiality of living social systems, and are able to see patterns and themes in unpredictable and complex environments.

A conscious leadership framework can be a great strategy to improving overall leadership congruence in leadership practice, but only if we are conscious, purposeful, and intentional in our works. Conscious leadership is a renewal of indigenous knowledge and embedded in the cultures of ancient humanity. A conscious leadership model can assist with ushering in the social and institutional renewal that is needed. We have always been social in our communication and actions; therefore, it only makes sense to practice a leadership model that is inclusive, cooperative, and collective in nature. A conscious leadership practice is just that, a practice. After all, practice leads to mastery.

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