Conscious Leadership in Engineering

Thursday, February 20, 2020

by Amy Yin, Software Engineer at Coinbase



Context: I gave a “Conscious Leadership in Engineering” workshop at droidcon San Francisco and the conference organizers loved the content. They reached out and asked me to write for their blog and share more about Conscious Leadership. 

Conscious Leadership is a popular framework created by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman for growing in self-awareness. I have been in engineering for 7+ years and started working with a conscious leadership coach to help me further my career. My coach and the framework have helped me grapple with some of my trickiest problems around career, which were all rooted in my approach to values, relationships and identity. When most folks start to learn Conscious Leadership, they usually start with the first two commitments:


At DroidconSF 2019, I put on a workshop called “Conscious Leadership in Engineering” and found there was an enormous appetite for this topic--it was standing room only and the Droidcon community asked deep, challenging questions about the framework and really grappled with the material as I presented it. This article retells the essence of the workshop, which focused on the first two commitments:

#1 I commit to taking full responsibility for the circumstances of my life, and my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. I commit to support others to take full responsibility for their lives. 

#2 I commit to growing in self-awareness. I commit to regarding every interaction as an opportunity to learn. I commit to curiosity as a path to rapid learning. 

In Fisher East conference room, I start with an example where I am “below the line” and physically create a line in the room. I start with the facts, which are things a camera could observe. Some other frameworks refer to this as a “neutral circumstance,” since there are no problems with the bare facts.


Facts: What could a camera record?

At work, I have started a new “labs” style team and tell my boss that we will ship our first project in two months. Morgan, a software architect at my company, says my proposed architecture for the project is too risky and touches too many of the sensitive parts of the code; he does not put his stamp of approval on my design doc. I spend 3 weeks presenting 3 - 4 different designs and their tradeoffs to Morgan. We implement the solution that Morgan labels as “least risky.”

None of these facts are a problem in themselves. (I step above the line). From above the line, there are only situations, no problems. My posture holds my arms out, open and curious. I am more interested in learning than being right. I am the creator of my experiences. However, (I step below the line) I am here, below the line. Below the line, there are PROBLEMS, and I create problems for myself by spinning up stories, tightly held. I am at the effect of...conservative Morgan, the legacy codebase, the crazy timelines, my career ambitions, my inability to persuade Morgan, my hands-off boss.

The Drama Triangle

I jump into the “drama triangle,” which is a set of three large red cards, with the words VICTIM, VILLAIN and HERO spelled out. Below the line, we spin on all three corners of the triangle, doing a dance of self-awareness until we tire ourselves out. Drama is so juicy and energizing; I light up with humor and playfulness in the drama triangle because it’s an invitation to ham up the situation and get on my soapbox.

“I can’t believe Morgan is blocking my design! We have been going back and forth for weeks and are losing valuable development time; aren’t we supposed to be moving fast as a startup? Doesn’t he want us to ship fast and experiment?”

The VILLAIN card: Who/what is to blame?

I ask the audience--who is to blame, who is the villain? Morgan! I step on the VILLAIN card. and who is the victim? Obviously poor me! We all play these games in our head; conscious leadership is about stepping back and consistently naming the victim and villain, because every good villain needs a victim and it’s very fun to think of an ambitious, talented senior engineer like myself as the victim.

“I should have never promised to deliver a project in two months. I’m new to this codebase and team--what was I thinking? Now my team is under so much stress and it’s my fault.”

Every Villain needs a Victim

I ask the audience--who is the villain? Me. I am playing in self-blame mode. and who is the victim? Also me, so I put one foot on VILLAIN and one foot on VICTIM as I blame myself and am at the effect of my own ambitions and shortsightedness. And who is the other victim? My team. They are at the effect of me and the timelines I set out, since in the drama triangle, victims have no choice or say in the matter :)

“Why did my boss let me promise these timelines? This codebase sucks; I can’t believe we are building a multi-billion dollar business off this. How the heck did the engineers build such fragile architecture? It’s impossible to iterate and try new things out!”

I throw the blame around, trying to find fault in everyone and everything around me. 

“My friends aren’t even asking me why I’m so stressed! My college didn’t prepare me to assess risk on projects! Ruby on rails is slow!”

Blame, blame blame! The accusations fly around. The level of ridiculousness climbs until I have said everything I can say from the VILLAIN and VICTIM cards.

HERO: Temporary Relief

“Well, I don’t even care about this project anyway. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t succeed. It’s just a job, not my life, and I would be better off if I didn’t identify so intensely with my job.”

I ask the audience--where am I now? I am desperate for relief and step onto the third card, HERO, the avoidant, fixer card. HERO is a common mode we all play, when we try to fix symptoms rather than the cause. That could range from pretending I don’t care about the issue at hand, thinking about something else, avoiding the topic, drinking, general distraction. 

“What if this means I am a bad engineer? That I picked the wrong industry and won’t be successful in tech? I’ll never be trusted to lead a team again!”

After some temporary relief on the HERO card, I jump right back onto VICTIM and VILLAIN. 

“Maybe if I start crying in front of Morgan, he’ll let me do it my way. I’ll just make him feel guilty for not being more helpful.”

HERO again tries to fix the surface level problems but what’s the real problem here? What are some of the main stories keeping me below the line?  


What is my 100% responsibility?

The Drama Triangle comes from the first commitment around 100% responsibility. From below the line, the commitment reads “I commit to blaming others and myself for what is wrong in the world. I commit to be a victim, villain, or a hero and take more or less than 100% responsibility.” The drama triangle helps me acknowledge when I’m more interested in finding fault and focusing on problems rather than seeing how I create the circumstances of my life. It encourages me to bring my darkest, most unconscious thoughts to the surface, where they start to melt from the light. Drama loves a dark, moist, closed container and does not last long when critically examined in the open. In this example with Morgan, Morgan is over there, doing his job as an architect of gatekeeping the codebase; in my world I make up problems and stories that Morgan is ruining my career and that any roadblock in the execution of this project is a reflection of my ability to get what I want in life. The Drama Triangle gives me a stage to use hyperbole and exaggeration to help me see how silly and entertaining I can be when I am below the line.

From above the line, “I commit to taking full responsibility for the circumstances of my life, and my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. I commit to support others to take full responsibility for their lives.” Above the line sounds beautiful, cathartic, welcoming. Wouldn’t we all choose to be above the line? Absolutely, but what would it take for me to get above the line?


Stories keeping me below the line

I ask the audience, what are some of the main stories keeping me swirling in the drama triangle? The audience throws suggestions out, “that you MUST ship in two months.” “the project is a reflection of your leadership.” “Morgan should approve my original design.”


Curiosity about my stories

Commitment #2, Curiosity, comes into play. Right now “I commit to being right and to seeing this situation as something that is happening to me. I commit to being defensive especially when I am certain that I am RIGHT.” I make a fist--I am holding tightly to the belief that Morgan should let me move fast and break things, that he is wrong to slow me down. From above the line, I start to get curious. Why does Morgan want to move slower? What is Morgan getting from stretching this design phase out? How is this opportunity perfectly designed to help me grow as an engineering leader? The fist starts to loosen.

In my experience working with myself and others in the Conscious Leadership process, 99% of the time, we are not willing to shift and we stay below the line. However, the process helps us soften and grow in self-awareness. I begin to see all the ways I keep myself swirling in problems that I manufacture. I look for more ways in which I can apply curiosity rather than defensiveness. And overall I become less reactive.

This is a small taste of my favorite introductory tool of Conscious Leadership. The framework goes much deeper and has many different tools for each of the 15 commitments which have noticeably changed how I approach myself, problems and relationships. I felt very honored by the Droidcon community for participating so fully and giving me a space where I could open up and let the drama fly high. I was even more touched by the volunteer, a man we will call John, who stepped up to workshop a problem real-time with the group. I admire John for practicing vulnerability and getting on the drama triangle about a previous manager he didn’t like in front of 70+ strangers. We created deep intimacy in a large group in less than 40 minutes. 

If you would like to learn more about Conscious Leadership, please feel free to email me at amymyin [at] I am a software engineer at Coinbase and additionally work with both external groups and individuals who want to use Conscious Leadership to grow in self-awareness.