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Ethical business

What makes a great leader stand out

I have spent the last 18 months interviewing business people for my Conscious Leaders podcast and I wanted to share reflections on what makes them stand out.

The podcast itself is all about embracing and promoting a modern, alternative approach to leadership. I started it because my research highlighted that leaders love learning from their peers. My guests are CEOs or founders who are doing something radical or innovative in the way they lead their people. For example, the founder of Riverford, Guy Singh-Watson, featured on a recent episode as I sought to explore their employee ownership model.

Through this podcast, I try and to  avoid ‘corporate speak’. I have focused on down to earth, gritty, real stories about what’s working and what’s been tough.

Here are five traits that I think make them stand out as conscious.

They listen

These leaders are curious and keen to understand people, not just at a superficial level but at depth. They want to know what makes their leaders and employees tick, so go to lengths to really get to know people well and build strong relationships with their teams.

They lean into discomfort

They face up to difficulties like poor behaviour at work and offer direct and compassionate feedback to individuals to help them improve. As American TED talk star and leadership coach Brené Brown puts it: ‘clear is kind. It is easy to let things slide but conscious leaders know that the ‘difficult conversations’, when handled skilfully, really help people grow.

They give away power

They are not interested in taking the glory, they are prepared to be wrong and question their own decisions so that they can become better people.

Progressive leaders are all about empowering others and facilitating their growth. Short term, this is not the fastest way to lead because it takes time for someone to develop. They are prepared to take this time.

They have deep faith in others’ potential

We all know bosses who criticise, doubt, gossip, make sweeping judgements; but conscious leaders seem to offer people a deep sense of faith. They have an inherent belief in others to step up and perform. This stance helps people grow more naturally into their new capacity (as they are seen to be more capable, they start to walk it too).

They provide a sense of safety

There is nothing like knowing that, if you take a leap at work and fall, there is someone to catch you. We know from the research by Google that the key to high-performing teams is psychological safety- knowing that you will have equal time to speak up and be heard, and that both success and failure will be seen as opportunities to learn.

In short, conscious leaders are self-reflective people leaders who help people flourish. They may not shout the loudest but they are there facilitating, nurturing and allowing their employees to thrive.



5 Months 1 Week

I had the very great privilege to work with a Servant Leader. Servant Leadership was initiated by Robert K Greenleaf in the USA in the 70's based on a book written by Herman Hess entitled 'Journey to the East'. Folk can find out about SL on the net, and the neatest way to sum it up is a poem:


Sometimes you just connect, like that,
no big thing maybe
but something beyond the usual business stuff.
It comes and goes quickly
so you have to pay attention,
a change in the eyes when you ask about the family;
a pain flickering behind the statistics
about a boy and a girl in school,
or about seeing them every other Sunday.
An older guy talks about his bride,
a little affectation after twenty-five years.
A hot-eyed achiever laughs before you want him to.
Someone tells about his wife's job
or why she quit working to stay home.
An old joker needs another laugh on the way to retirement.
A woman says she spends a lot of her salary
on an au pair
and a good one is hard to find
but worth it because there's nothing more important than the baby.
In every office
you hear the threads of love and joy and fear and guilt,
the cries for celebration and reassurance,
and somehow you know that connecting those threads
is what you are supposed to do and business takes care of itself.

James Autry (Ex CEO Reed International), poet

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Ruth Farenga

Ruth Farenga is founder of Conscious Leaders (, a consultancy that helps leaders build a calm, collaborative and productive workplace. Day to day, she's a facilitator and professional coach to leadership teams. In her spare time she loves the outdoors, craft beer and trips in the campervan with her partner and husky. 

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