On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Debra Sunderland discuss what conscious leadership is and why more creative agency owners are waking up to it right now.
Episode 104: Why Conscious Leadership and Why Now, with Debra Sunderland
Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. If you've been a little unsure as to what conscious leadership is, what it's all about and why it's needed today, more than ever, you're really going to love today's conversation probably as much as I will. My guest is Debra Sunderland. She's the founder and lead coach at Sunderland Coaching. She's also represented by my other business consciousness leaders. So definitely check her out there. Debra, welcome to the show. I am so excited and have been really looking forward to this conversation for a while.
Debra: Thank you, Kelly. Me too. Let's do it.
Kelly: So, the funny backstory or serendipitous backstory, is that the way that we kind of found each other, or the way that I found you, I guess I should say, I ran a Google search because I was curious one day, what comes up on Google when you search, what is conscious leadership. And so out of that curiosity, out comes on position zero Deborah's website, what is conscious leadership, and it was a really great definition. And then I started clicking through. I found and learned a little bit more about Deborah. And as I'm reading her story, I was like, my mouth kind of hung open. I got chills. And I was like, wow, we have such a similar upbringing, such a similar path, a similar journey. Would you mind sharing a little bit about that? I feel like I definitely felt such an instant connection before we even met for the first time on Zoom.
Debra: I have chills right now as well. I remember that moment. And my mouth dropped when you started to share your story. And for me, it was having parents who didn't take good care of me, how a child would like to be treated, taken care of, and my mom was ill, and continues to not take good care of herself. And it came out towards me and my brother. So, I ended up being the one who protected both of us. And crazy stories like my mom, taking us to go shopping, and she would steal whatever she wanted. And then we would go, be taken off to the police station. And then the students at school that I went to would know about it, or my parents would be fighting, and the police would come to mitigate and take care of us or we'd go running out of the house at night to be safe from my mom and dad trying to kill each other with knives. So, it was like living in a warzone pretty much every day. And I never knew what was going to happen. And I realized that I had to become ultra sensitive to my wisdom, of my intuition, my feelings, be one step ahead. It helped me be safe. It helped me achieve it, brought me to being the winner, seeking acceptance from the outside of my life. And it's so foreign, because I really learned to love my parents. But they're just doing the best they really could. And I believe we all are. We're really just trying to do the best we can. And the best thing I can do is love them and love myself and keep loving myself. And that's what I've been learning through that whole journey.
Kelly: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Yeah, it's interesting. So, just want to kind of put a pin in this idea that, listen, none of us had a perfect childhood. Some of us just had a little bit more of a difficult time than others. And I know that that's a very light and blanket statement. But the reality is none of us escaped that childhood unscathed. Right? There was either neglect or abuse or this or that. And, unfortunately, that's normal, right? Like that's, in some way, how we learn how we develop coping mechanisms, all these different things. But something that you said, was that you sought it externally. So, this idea that I need to validate my sense of self from the external versus having that self-validation or that inner validation. I think that's really important, because I don't think a lot of people even if you're pretty self-aware, I don't think a lot of people really think about that. And realize that, how that comes out, and how that shows up in the way that we talk or think or behave. So, can you talk a little bit more about that? That validation sense and like how that shows up for leaders?
Debra: Yeah, so I love that. So, for those of you who are Enneagram trained or know about that, I'm just going to mention that. I'm a three on the enneagram which means I'm a winner. I'm an achiever. I'm not going to fail. And many leaders, many CEOs are in that type. They're going to win. They want their team to win.
Kelly: Was that like a two or a three?
Debra: It's three. 3s and 8s typically are leaders of companies, not always, but typically in HR, the active controller, they're called. And so, the reason I mentioned that is, we have all learned, we've been taught since we've been going to school, maybe invite our parents to be winners, to be achievers to get that A, to reach something in order to get to the next level, to graduate from high school, to go on to college to get to the company you want. And we're always looking outside for that. And then we have this temporary head of I made it, oh, I made it. Oh, I made it. And there's this angst typically, that is driving, driving, and it's never enough. And I felt that insatiable, and I felt that as a child, I had this pit in my stomach. I was first chair violinist, I was the best track runner, whatever it was, but there was this thing inside of me that would never let up. Because I was looking out here. And I've noticed with leaders, when I really get to know them. And I'm talking about multibillion-dollar company leaders all the way down to startups. They'll have the same want. It's, can I be accepted? Am I enough? And do I have enough? And the ones who really strive to have enough and be enough on the outside usually are the ones who are seeking that approval, like myself. And until I learned that it won't be enough. And it has to be me. That is enough and believe that, feel my feelings, accept myself, learn. And that we're all reactive, all of us, like even when I think about my parents just now as you talked about them. And everyone has a reactivity, right? No matter what it is, we all have a reactive mind to keep us safe. They're just being reactive. It's no different. They just maybe did extreme things, but they're just being reactive. And that's how we all are and looking outside of ourselves is a reactive phase. It is a can I be safe out here if someone measures me or deems me as being the gold star, and you can move to the next level. And so, letting go of that, and really doing the inner work of how am I enough? And do I have enough right here right now? The presence of that being in the present moment is what really changed me and the work that I do with people right now.
Kelly: Yeah. So how does that translate, right? So, we're talking about self-awareness and deep personal work and all of that kind of development. Right? How does that translate into conscious leadership? And maybe also why more people are even waking up to conscious leadership right now?
Debra: Yeah, thank you. So conscious leadership is about being present. It is about being very aware, conscious, the opposite of being in a coma, which I very well know that I was put in a coma because I had a brain injury. And I woke up to consciousness, being aware of my feelings, being aware of my body intelligence, being aware of my thinking. What am I telling myself? And so I've just been floating along and being reactive to my behaviors. I've lived pretty much my whole life. So, I believe now, which I love, seeing the growth of consciousness around even the younger generation. And they are my story, my belief, my experiences that I'm going to say 40 and younger have seen an experienced people my age and older suffering. They see us trying to get there and they can. There's an energy around that as kind of icky, and they can feel it. It's not that they don't care for those people. But they're like, I don't know what that is over there. But I don't want it. I don't want it and I want to do things differently. And so, they come up with this word, purpose. But I think it's even been kind of like, I don't know, diluted, where people think it's about, I'm going to serve a company or underprivileged, or whatever it is, for once a month. But that's not what these younger people are saying. They're saying, I want to live who I'm called to be. And so, I see that yearning inside of them. They're really searching for how I can have that? How can I be who I am because I'm being told one thing over here at school, like this is what I got to do to be here. But yet, it doesn't really align with me. And so, when I work with Vanderbilt and Belmont University here, and when I talk with these younger people, they're so curious. And so, consciousness to me is can I get curious as to what's here right now? And what can I learn right now versus just being reactive? And when we're conscious, we want to look at the results if we're not getting the results we want, especially now, people are feeling more fearful than ever. People are overwhelmed. People don't have clarity. They've never had to navigate a situation that we've all been in, how do we do this beyond Zoom, not be on Zoom, be together not be together. And now we're getting a different round of the variance. So, when people try to figure out what to do, I'm out of reactivity, we will never get the result we want. So, seeing how people can step back, take a deep breath and look at like, how could this be for us? Just like our childhood for me and you. It wasn't for us? Or it was for us in the time it wasn't. And we don't believe COVID is really for us. But really, I want to encourage people like, how is it really for us to slow down and look at what hasn't been working, even though we've been a hugely successful nation? And how do we shift around being who we want to become and become with each other versus what we accomplish? Right?
Kelly: So it sounds to me that it's kind of like conscious leadership and the idea that people are waking up to this now. It's like, for some people, the way that we've historically been going has worked, but that some people are a very small percentage. It's not most people. It's a small percentage. So, what that actually indicates is that the way that we have been operating as individuals and as organizations is not sustainable, right? So, if we boil it down, conscious leadership is about trying to create sustainability within the self and the organization. Like that's probably if I boil it all down, that's what we're after. And, some people talk about it in the context of valuing the people, the humans in the organization, valuing the planet, any kind of impact from that standpoint. And profit, not profit over those things, profit as part of those things. If it was sort of like a little Venn diagram, maybe profit, might even be the bottom circle. But somewhere in the middle, where there's overlap is something called sustainability. Right? And so yeah, I just think that people are realizing that we can't keep going like this. Right. And, you mentioned that it's more people, younger generation, like 40 and under, right at that cusp. But I also notice in my coaching work that it is people who are actually a little older than that, that are also starting to wake up because they're in a little bit of a different mindset. They're not looking at the folks older than them, and saying, like, oh, I don't want to continue to do that. They're actually having some kind of experience themselves, where they're starting to do what you said, which is to dial up that curiosity. Why don't I feel happy? Why do I feel like I'm not sure if I am doing this? I thought it was going to be more beautiful than this. I thought I was going to be happier than this. Right? So, they're starting to ask those questions. Yeah. Just curious, what do you think about that?
Debra: Yeah, they definitely are. Some of those for sure. I see that there. My experience has been that they're still very still attached. They might be curious, but it's really hard to let go. If you're making billions or millions, it's really hard to let go of trying, maybe the opposite, even of thinking and feeling and doing. But yes, I agree. And I love that you brought that up. Because I mean, I think you all have a note about consciousness. So, when we're not conscious, we're living in fear. We're living in toxic fear. We're living at oh my gosh, be careful, watch out, that might be wrong, you are wrong, or I'm wrong. And so, we will never create a result we want from that space. And so, I think some of these older people are looking at me like, oh, my back hurts. My body hurts. Now, I just had a heart attack and I'm 50 years old, or and they're starting to realize that they've been storing a lot in their bodies even and that's taking a toll on them. And there's always this little niggle in them looking for some sort of fulfillment. And I've actually coined a word. I don't know if we talked about this last time but it's called genius-ship. So, my work is to move us from excellence, which I believe is killing us, to consciousness, to waking up to, we're more than achieving and winning to our genius that we all have this purpose, calling, skill, talent all lined up beautifully, because we're all unique like no one else. And if we are put into that, if we create that for ourselves and our people, the sky's the limit and talk about creating something greater than we could just by trying to achieve something. Talk about sustainability and engagement. Right? So that's my desire is that we start to really wake people up to consciousness, taking radical responsibility for I think, feel, respond or react, we're going to react, how do I like to continue to move through that to responsiveness? And then can I start to wonder, what am I doing here? Like, what's my purpose? It's got to be more than achieving. And I do see people asking and looking for that.
Kelly: I love this idea that excellence is killing us. Did you write this book yet? That's the title of the book.
Debra: Actually, I'm going on sabbatical in September, and I'm going to be working at it.
Kelly: Amazing. I didn't know that. But hopefully, that is the title.
Debra: That is totally the title. It's called Excellence is Killing You.
Kelly: Oh, my God. That's really interesting. I really didn't know that. Yeah, because that for someone who identifies or has previously identified to be clear, as total perfectionist, total type A, everything that you've said and so many people listening and watching can identify with us, right? You are the leader, or potentially owner, or both of an agency or some type of marketing creative technology firm. Right? And so, have you ever stopped to wonder, what is it that's actually driving all of that? For me, I can only speak for myself. But for me, I have come to realize that it was my need to prove to myself and to the world that I was valuable and worthy. I needed that affirmation. So, my drive, like you talked a little bit about that thing underneath, right? My drive was to prove worthiness because I didn't get it as a child. I wasn't taught that I was worthy for just simply who I was. For me, it was like, if you get the straight A, if you are captain of the sports team, if, if, if, right? If you do all these things, conditional love, then I might love you. In my case, it was like you could do all those things. I'm still not going to do it. But that's a whole other conversation.
Debra: Yeah. I know that one, too.
Kelly: Yeah. But this is the thing, right? Like we are inadvertently taught and it's not our parents’ faults, right? Like, that's probably what they were taught. It just is. But it is a good question like, what is the driver behind you owning an agency or taking the initiative to start something to start as a practitioner and say, yeah, I could do this, I could prove to everyone really to myself, but prove to everyone that I can do this. And I'll get that external validation back to what we were talking about before.
Kelly: So, what you just said, that's what a three is. They're seeking their worthiness from outside of themselves. And they're afraid that they're not valuable.
Debra: Yeah. It's really interesting because I find the same thing like knowing your motivation. And for those of you, I’m just going to make a plug for the enneagram. And to get it assessed appropriately because it really is a great tool to notice through that. What is your motivation? It does really highlight your motivation and how to stretch and grow out of that. I call my 3 as my delusion, my delusion to safety and my delusion to enoughness.
Kelly: I love that. That's an awesome reframe. Because it also takes the attachment to it as like a crutch, like, oh, well, that's just how I am. It's like, well, no, that's actually I'm calling myself out. That's my delusion. And now I'm like, I love that. So, Debra, as we start to wrap up, you mentioned enneagram as one tool, but I'm sure that there are a couple more in your repertoire that you use probably on a daily basis. So, any of that you can share with the audience?
Debra: Yeah, so for sure. You all when we are triggered, we don't breathe fully, our muscular system tightens. It pulls in to protect our body, and we only breathe a very short amount and from that space, we're not able to even think clearly, and then it doesn't feel good in our body. So, I have learned the major thing that has changed my body and my whole being is learning breathing practices. And just one simple thing that I do is breathe through my belly as deep as I can, slow as I can, in the midst of me being triggered, and just feeling the rise and expansion of my belly all the way up through my chest where my nose is, slowly as I can and then even slower, exhale all the way out. And I do those three or four times. And I practice that even when I'm not triggered. Because then I remember oh yeah, come back to your breath, come back to your breath. So that actually does change your nervous system and actually the chemistry in your blood when we breathe. The other thing I do is once I've felt my feelings through, and I'm clear-minded, I asked myself, wow, that thought I had that really got me going, could the opposite of that thought be true, or even truer than what I was telling myself? And that's neuroplasticity, really starting to think of another way. And whoa, it brings you to curiosity, because when we're triggered, we're not curious. We're just right. And it then brings me to a state of peace and calm. Just asking the opposite. Calm slows me down.
Kelly: Yeah. Do you have a specific example in let's say, the last couple of weeks where you used one of these tools, and it totally changed your emotional regulation or nervous system or something along those lines that allowed you to kind of come back to center?
Debra: Well, I've really been triggered, we talked about this earlier, around COVID. And I have found that five people that I know have COVID, and they all have been vaccinated, and I got angry, because I'm like, why are you doing this? If people are still getting COVID, and they're not wearing masks, and so I had fear. I had anger. I had this, like, what are we going to do now? There's nowhere safe to go. Like, I feel myself sparling down. I can't go on here. And there's a limit. And so even this morning, I could feel that this happened last night. So, I said, okay, just breathe. I noticed. And I said out loud. What's here? I said, there's fear here, is one of the main things. So can you just welcome fear and breathe with it? Allow it to be here instead of pushing it away. And there's anger and frustration here. So, I'm kind of just welcome at three, and just be with what is instead of also trying to push away the frustration. And this morning, I woke up later, and I just kept walking and breathing with whatever was there. And I'm a new person for sure. Yeah, I'm able to have a clear-headed conversation now.
Kelly: Yeah, I really appreciate that as the example because I think a lot of people are definitely dealing with that. Definitely, that resonates a lot with me as well. So, it's helpful. And hopefully some people can take that away as well.
Debra: This morning, it popped up on my phone. It's the great resignation, which I know you know of, of these leaders, CEOs who are like I'm out of here. I'm checking this out. Is this too much for me? It's not what I want. I don't want this on my plate. I don't have the answers, whatever it is. I don't want to be a part of this anymore. And my story that I make up around that is that they're going to think that if they leave, things are going to be okay. And then they're finally going to have whatever it is. And my want for us is for you and me, the people who are conscious supporters of this is to support them and like, let's take a step back. What if you still are the answer, but we look at it from a different path. We take a breath and take a look at how this situation is for you as a leader. So I just wanted to share that.
Kelly: I'm really glad that you did. That's a beautiful way to wrap up. Debra, thank you so much for being with me today. I love talking to you and I look forward to the next time.
Debra: Thanks, Kelly. You too.