Mindfulness and compassion form part of the foundation for how we can lead, and cultivating both skills is important. This article shines a spotlight on mindfulness and its application to leadership (for more on compassionate leadership click here).
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment without judging it. It is a skill that we develop and get better at with practice.
Being mindful is like intentionally turning on a torch when there is a power cut and shining the light on the situation so that we can clearly see what is going on. We can be mindful of different things in the moment and shine our light on factors external to us (e.g., the environment, situation, people) and on factors inside of us (e.g., our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, memories).
Being mindful means paying attention to what is happening in the moment with an attitude of observation and curiosity without judging or evaluating anything as good, bad, right, wrong, pretty or ugly. We accept whatever there is, as it is, whether we like it or not and without wishing it to end or be different. We observe as though we are a detective, documenting the information and evidence without tampering with it.
So mindful leadership is the practice of leaders waking up to the present moment; focusing their attention on what is going on in themselves, others and a situation; accepting it as it is without yielding to judgments and distractions; and acting intentionally rather than automatically or impulsively.
Here are some anonymized real-life examples that people in leadership roles have experienced:
It is easy to get carried away by the demands and competition of the fast-paced corporate world where there is pressure to do more and do better. This is fuelled by our complicated brains that are hardwired to spot things going wrong and preoccupied with making problems go away. If we never pause to breathe and look up from what we are doing, we start functioning on automatic pilot, reacting not responding. The experience of leading can become tiring and burdensome, and bring significant costs to teams and businesses. This is where mindfulness can help.
1. Awareness and connectedness
In order to lead effectively, leaders need to know themselves well; what pushes their buttons, and what their strengths and limitations are. Mindfulness can increase leaders’ self-awareness of the pattern of thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physiological sensations that they experience in different situations, be it in a stressful meeting or when writing a difficult email. It also improves their ability to observe other people’s patterns. Through mindfulness, leaders can learn to bring an attitude of curiosity to whatever they notice in themselves and others without judging it, ignoring it or getting lost in it.
Leaders are often having to take in a lot of new information quickly and make decisions, however it is not always easy to maintain clarity of thought. This is because of external pressures (e.g., other people’s opinions) and internal pressures (e.g., leader’s personal beliefs, emotions, biases) which may cloud the leader’s judgement. Mindfulness allows leaders to notice when they are getting lost in all this noise and to gently and kindly turn their attention away from this. With practice they can learn to pay attention instead to what is happening in the moment as it is, without blinkers on biasing them to see what they wish to see or shielding their vision from what they do not want to see.
Flexibility is a skill that enables leaders to adapt to systems and markets that are constantly evolving. Rather than remaining attached to their own perspectives, mindfulness allows leaders to remain open and learn from others and navigate towards the most effective solutions at that point in time.
Mindfulness also helps to develop psychological flexibility, because leaders can learn how to observe their difficult emotions and thoughts in the moment without over-identifying with them and letting them control their behaviour. They can observe having worrying thoughts and choose not to become preoccupied by them. They can recognise their emotions arising in the moment and the practice of accepting and not fighting them can prevent them from escalating.
Dealing with setbacks and failures and supporting the team to stay afloat during trying times is a core aspect of leadership. Mindfulness allows leaders to notice surges of negative thoughts and emotions during stressful times, and how this is influencing their behaviour. The skill of non-judgement can enable them to accept and understand that this is a normal response. Leaders can be mindful of what is going well even during periods of stress and sharing this broader perspective with the team can enable them to develop resilience to weather the storm and bounce back more easily. Mindfulness can enable leaders to remain conscious of how things are changing and to take action based on what is needed at different times for individual employees, the team and wider business.
Employees value having leaders that are present, listening, seeing them, and attending to their needs. Mindfulness enables leaders to manage their busy and distractable mind, to notice when they are paying partial attention or listening more to their own thoughts rather than to what the person in front of them is saying. Leaders can learn to notice when they are pulled away without getting frustrated with themselves for getting distracted. They can then purposely re-connect back into the conversation by actively listening and being fully there with the person. This can make it easier to understand others’ perspectives, retain the information gathered, and be clear on the plan of action going forward.
Having to frequently multi-task and switch attention can make it challenging to focus on one activity, especially if the mind starts to ruminate on everything else that needs to be done. Mindfulness can help leaders to notice when they are engaging in behaviours that are hindering their focus (e.g., checking emails during meetings) and to purposely change their habits (e.g., putting their phone away during meetings). This can help to improve and sustain their concentration.
7. Respond not react
Mindfulness can help leaders keep an eye on whether their reactive mind is taking over in times of stress, causing them to be more impulsive and lose sight of their values. They can learn to slow down their reactions by connecting with their breath and their body. Doing so re-introduces the element of choice, where instead of reacting mindlessly, leaders can respond wisely based on their principles of the type of leader they want to be. This skill also applies to leaders making intentional choices and decisions on a day-to-day basis and checking that they are not rash and emotionally-driven.
Being mindful can allow leaders to find their path towards compassion. They can purposely choose to relate to themselves and others with empathy and understanding in times of stress, and do so with warmth and kindness rather that criticism. Mindfulness can enable leaders to realise when they and their teams are getting caught in unhelpful patterns of behaving and thinking that are making the situation worse. They can purposely choose a compassionate approach that aims to find the most helpful courses of action, even if these are not the easiest ones.
Mindfulness can free up space in a leader’s mind from the busy-ness and constraints that negative thoughts, emotions, and judgments can bring. This may allow them to think of solutions more easily, have more capacity for creativity, and to move towards innovation and new possibilities. It can allow leaders to acknowledge when fear of change and failures are restricting their freedom to try different things and to consciously focus their attention on different perspectives such as how failures can be opportunities for learning and growth.
This article offers an introduction to mindfulness and how it can enhance your leadership skills and experience. Understanding that this concept exists is the first step. To truly discover whether mindfulness benefits your leadership in nine, one or more ways, the second step is to practice it. How you can do this will be the topic of my next article.
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