I have been thinking a lot lately about Jim Dethmer's book, "The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership", and the valuable lessons he shares about the masterful art of leading others. Considering his book to be one of reference in leadership, I will, in the following paragraphs, attempt to convey to you the TL;DR of what it means to lead from "above the line".
In the image above, I love how clear and easily visible the horizontal line dividing the earth and the sky is. You can almost touch it. It seemingly separates two different planes of existence. And, reality and its physical laws aside, it's like you're looking at an upper world (the one above the line - the sky), and a lower one (the one below the line - the earth).
This simple idea of a line diving two spaces is one of the most powerful leadership ideas I have ever come across. In the book, this takes the form of two complementary expressions. Thus, an individual can, at any moment in time, be "above the line" or "below the line".
For starters, let's look at this from a purely semantic perspective. And we will, together, slowly discover what the author means by these two expressions. It is important to say, however, that this duality mainly refers to one's actions and mindset. Being "above the line" implies demonstrating certain behaviours and traits. Similarly, being "below the line" demonstrates complementary behaviours and traits. Intuitively enough, the book argues that the best leaders of the world are not only aware of this duality but are also actively seeking to position themselves, at all times, "above the line", where their actions and behaviours best serve others and their companies.
Let's dissect this duality a bit further.
A look at the model
First of all, the model is binary: it is either/or. As mentioned, at any point, a leader is either "above the line" or "below the line". If you are above it, you are leading consciously, and if you are below it, you are not. Consciously is the key word here. In the author's opinion, it is what makes or breaks a leader.
When leaders are "below the line", they are closed and defensive, and when they are "above the line", they are open and curious. Further, when leaders are "below the line", their primary commitment is to being right, and when they are "above the line", their primary commitment is to learning.
Hopefully, it seems clear that the place to be is "above the line". But every leader goes through both states at various times and in various situations. This is a humane thing to experience. You cannot be in either state all the time. Thus, it matters far more that leaders can accurately determine whether they are "above" or "below the line" in any moment than where they actually are. Distortion and denial are cornerstone traits of unconscious leaders and self-awareness and the ability to tell themselves the truth are traits of conscious ones.
Self-awareness creates the possibility of shifting, a master skill of good leaders. Shifting is moving from closed to open, from defensive to curious, from wanting to be right to wanting to learn, and from fighting for the survival of the individual ego to leading from a place of security and trust.
Shifting is the process by which, a conscious leader, realizes that he is, in the moment, "below the line" and takes decisive action to shift his mindset and behaviour to be "above the line".
Why leaders need to shift
From our experience, and probably yours too, creativity, innovation, and collaboration (all keys to high-level problem solving) occur best when leaders operate "above the line". And most leaders work in environments in which creative problem solving is necessary for winning.
People choosing to lead from "above the line" also experience sustainable happiness. Happiness, as it is measured and researched, is essential to long-term health, engagement, and success. Simply put, happy people get sick less, are more energetic and spread optimism around. Thus, happy people are poised to doing great work for all stakeholders involved (themselves, people, company, etc.).
Last but not least, "above the line" leaders are more engaged and create environments with much higher levels of engagement among their team members.
It is therefore mandatory, for the overall health of oneself and the company, for leaders to position themselves "above the line" in as many situations as possible. That's why awareness, followed by shifting one's mindset and behaviour, play such an important role.
Context vs. content
As the road to conscious leadership slowly becomes more and more traveled by each individual, one mention is worth being brought to attention.
As Jim Dether puts it:
All of life is occurring as one big conversation.
Sometimes this conversation is between individual people, sometimes it’s between groups and nations. Sometimes this conversation is between an individual and the universe and often this conversation occurs inside one person. All are valid and all are present.
And all conversations have both content and context.
Content answers the question, “What are we talking about?”. Context answers the question, “How are we talking about the content?”.
Based on the simple model described above, conversations occur either from "above the line" or from "below the line". For example, leaders can talk about the broken production build from "above" or "below the line". Or they can talk about the market share of the company from "above" or "below the line".
In all of these conversations, the content (the what) is pretty straightforward - the production build, the market share, etc. However, in our experience, great leaders pay more attention to the context (the how) of the conversations that are occurring rather than to what is being talked about. This is a mark of leading "above the line". We second the author in believing that any problem is attackable and that related conversations will eventually present solutions as long as they are conducted from an "above the line" perspective (focusing on openness, genuine curiosity and a desire to learn).
A note at the end
It seems pretty clear "above the line" is the winner here. But how do we get there? How do we become conscious leaders, capable of leading from "above the line"?
Well, there are many points leaders can take into account, as the responsibilities of their jobs unfold before them. "Above the line" leaders encourage behaviours such as: taking radical responsibility and ownership, learning through curiosity, openly expressing their feelings, speaking candidly, eliminating gossip in groups, practicing integrity, displaying appreciation for their peers, exploring opposite alternatives, creating win for all solutions, and many others.
However, this is a road of constant practice. If you think you can read this article or Jim Dether's book, and become a conscious leader without practicing, well ... you’re kidding yourself. Becoming a better leader is an ongoing process. And one must also acknowledge that he/she will sometimes fail in this endeavour. Remaining open to learning and committed to improving your skills is the best attitude you can have along this never-ending journey.
Last but not least, I recommend reading the book. It expands greatly upon this simple binary model ("above" vs. "below the line"), and the author provides readers with some practical advice on how to become conscious leaders.