The Mindful Leader

Practicing leadership-oriented mindfulness allows you to create an environment of intentionality in the way you make decisions, interact with others, and view the world.  You may have rolled your eyes at the oft over-used term, but while the recent commercialization and commodification of mindfulness has unfortunately diluted its meaning to the general public, that doesn’t take away its intrinsic value and worth – if you practice it mindfully.

It’s important here to distinguish leadership-oriented mindfulness from personal mindfulness and collective mindfulness, also important practices, that will be covered at a later date. Leadership-oriented mindfulness is noticing, understanding why, and acting upon as part of the practice of being a more effective leader. It can be helpful to think of two buckets of leadership-oriented mindfulness, internal mindfulness, or decision-making self-awareness, which I’ll explore more in this piece, and external mindfulness, or the realization and appreciation of others as entities in and of themselves as well as understanding how others experience you, which I’ll explore in a future article.

Viktor Frankl, psychologist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, talks about the space between stimulus and response, and how in that space lies the power to choose our response. Cultivating mindfulness allows us to access that space; allows us to choose our response; allows us to be intentional in our actions.

I recently participated in a mindfulness coaching program with Executive Dharma, and they synthesized down those automatic responses into three categories – complying, protecting, and controlling. Their idea is that in interactions, our innate reactions fall into 1) complying, because our sense of self-worth and security come from being liked and accepted, conforming, and living up to others’ expectations and so our reaction is to agree and go along with; 2) protecting, because our self-worth and security comes from being right and so our reaction is to be aloof, cynical, hyper-rational, superior; and 3) controlling, because our self-worth and security comes from accomplishment, personal achievement, power, and control and so our reaction is to try to take matters into our own hands.

They argue that we default into these categories when working with people, and that while it’s not necessarily a bad thing to make a choice based on being in these categories, it’s important that you realize why you are making the choice to begin with.  Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winning founder of behavioral economics and author of Thinking Fast and Slow  (whose On Being interview last week is a must) would agree that our “fast-thinking” reactive response is at the opposite end of our “slow-thinking” proactive response and bringing an awareness to that dichotomy is essential. One helpful mindfulness practice in your interactions is to try to notice and see what you do that is an intentional choice versus what you default to because it is natural and comfortable. The way you react might be the right way to go, but did you actually mindfully choose to react that way?

The thing about intentionally though, is that in a vacuum it holds no intrinsic value. Daniel Goleman, guru of emotional intelligence, recently argued that without emotional intelligence, mindfulness is mostly meaningless. And I tend to agree. Being grounded in the present doesn’t mean very much on its own, there needs to be a values-based “why” behind our intentionality in order for it to be relevant. One practical way to practice the merging of mindfulness and emotional intelligence is through reflection and discernment.

Harvard Business Review recently published a great article about regaining the lost art of reflection, defining the practice as “examin(ing) underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information.” It’s particularly easy not to make time to reflect and to justify not making that time in our age of hyper-stimulation and over-consumption. But reflecting is what ties leadership-oriented mindfulness all together. Being mindful in the moment works in the short-term for immediate reaction, but reflection as a part of your mindfulness practice is what cultivates long-term, future-oriented strategic thinking that can shift from being reactive to being proactive.

All benefits aside, we can’t just throw around mindfulness as a platitude and expect it to solve all our leadership woes. Practicing mindfulness is actually really hard work that takes commitment and intentionality. Practicing mindfulness also doesn’t mean that you are always going to make the right decisions, or that it will save you from failure, perhaps at best, it will help you fail better. What it will do is help you slow down, allow you to notice, create the conditions for you to make decisions based on intention, and create the space for you to reflect on those decisions to make better and more informed future decisions.

There are also a lot of different ways to practice mindfulness, from creating moments of silent meditation, to mindful practices employed in meetings, to finding totems that remind you to pay attention (at Thich Nhat Hahn’s monastery they prime you to remember to pay attention every time you hear a bell), and there are many different ways to integrate reflection practices into your routine, from morning journaling to critical incident reflection to implementing frameworks for debriefing situations. Figuring out how to integrate mindfulness into your life in a way that works for you will help you to regularly make it a practice you employ.

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