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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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On Changing your Mind

Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. People who change their mind a lot are often called indecisive, are branded as uncertain or that they “waffle.” These qualities are associated with a lack of confidence, or even worse, a lack of leadership. Political careers have been ruined because candidates have been branded as “flip-floppers”; business careers have been tainted because a CEO came in saying they were going to do things one way and ended up doing them another. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this criticism is more than warranted. But the culture behind our reaction to someone changing his or her mind is dangerous.

By creating or continuing to perpetuate a culture that demands “consistency” and criticizes changing our minds, we risk people not only neglecting to be introspective and analytical about their choices, it also keeps people on the same wrong path because they are too afraid to admit that they have discovered that another path is better.

Why are we so fearful of the openness and curiosity it requires to cultivate a culture where changing one’s mind is acceptable? Why is this considered courageous instead of what is to be expected in a non-static world? Part of it is that we associate our decisions with our identity. In a way, this makes sense, as we have convictions and we feel a certain necessity to stick to them. But imagine if you still believed the same things about the world that you did when you were a kid. Why would anyone, when thinking rationally, believe that what they believed at the outset of learning something, or the first conclusion they made about something, would be the best and most accurate way to think about it? And yet we hold our beliefs to be unwaveringly true, and in the face of opposition, so many times, rather than considering the contrary, we only hold on tighter.

Admitting you were wrong, or changing your mind, is perhaps the strongest you could ever show yourself to be when it comes to leadership. To be able to say – I thought one thing. Then I learned something new. And now I think something different – shows that you are thoughtful, iterative, and understand complexities. As the world changes, shouldn’t we continue to grow and learn and change our mind as new information presents itself that there are better ways?

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make decisions, that everything should be thrown into disarray because people keep changing their mind all the time and can’t make a final decision. It just means, be open, be iterative, be curious, don’t be so sure of yourself, and admit when you’re wrong, and change.

 “That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Practice: Challenge yourself to look at all sides of a decision, even when you think for sure you know the right answer. Even if this is something that you’ve already decided upon a long time ago, revisit, and see if you still believe now what you believed then and if there is evidence to back up a better decision than the one you made. Allow and encourage others to do the same, and do not think of people as unreliable if they come to you and say that they have changed their mind.

The Role of Empathy in Leadership

The most powerful way to use empathy is as a tool to better understand the people we work with, the people we interact with, and the people we are trying to serve. This will allow us to avoid the trap of “good intentions” that don’t produce good results, but rather strip away our own perspectives and reactions and really hear what is being said to us. Cultivating empathy – true empathy – is an essential attribute of the modern leader. But empathy can often be confused or conflated with sympathy or “I want to help people,” and even worse, is often written off as a characteristic that is inherent within people, and not something that one can hone and practice.

An interesting piece written in the New York Times recently argued that people choose how empathetic they want to be, and are generally more empathetic to people or groups they identify with. With that in mind, as you are practicing cultivating your empathy, it’s important to recognize if you are withholding empathy unconsciously because you are interacting with a person or group that is unfamiliar.

According to scholars there are three types of empathy – affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. Affective empathy is our emotional response to other people’s situation, or the feelings that are roused in us when we hear of another person’s happiness or struggles. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is our intellectual ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions. Compassionate empathy combines both emotional and intellectual understanding someone else’s feelings, but it requires a next step, which is, when appropriate, being moved to take action.

There are a lot of simple ways to practice empathy that you can do on a regular basis.

Active (Radical) Listening: One of the most obvious and sadly most under-used ways to practice empathy is through active or radical listening. This is listening with the intent to understand and to actually hear what the person is saying without injecting your own interruptions, reactions, or thoughts. When practicing radical listening, work on listening instead of waiting to speak. Catch yourself when you start to think of things to say in response and try to clear your mind so you can really hear what the person is saying. Don’t jump to give advice, play the devil’s advocate, or make excuses. For the moment, just listen. Eventually, when it comes time for you to talk, allow yourself to be open and vulnerable.

Cultivating Curiosity: Curiosity is a great way to expand your understanding of the world and work on your empathetic tendencies. Doing this requires asking real, thoughtful questions with a genuine desire to understand on a deep level. This also requires going out of your comfort zone, to explore outside your scope of reference. This could be talking to people you don’t normally talk to, reading things you don’t normally read, and going places you don’t normally go.

Finding shared identity and values: Empathy is very much about finding common humanity, about recognizing that in our own different ways, we are all just trying to get by. Even when you disagree with someone, trying to identify what values and identity you share will help you to find common ground and bring you closer together. In mediation and negotiation, using this form of empathy can help people understand where the other person is coming from, even if they don’t agree.

Even more than disagreement, there is also an important reason to empathize with your “enemies.” Oftentimes, assumptions and miscommunication lead to conflicts that don’t need to be. I was in a national security meeting recently in which someone said during a moment of epiphany “we wonder why single women with young children in foreign countries pick up their lives to move and join ISIS. They must be radical terrorists. But could it be that the current reality of their lives is so dire that joining ISIS actually offers an improvement to their current situation?” And many times that answer is “yes.” Rather than vilifying, blaming, or incarcerating, trying to understand the root of why a person is acting the way that they are is a good way to get to the root of an issue, rather than reacting to its outcome.

Empathy is the opposite of the golden rule – it’s not assuming that everyone wants the same thing as you and then doing unto them what you would want done to you. It’s listening and understanding what they need and want, outside of yourself.

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The Tenets of a Modern Leader

There is a lot of hype around leadership these days. Most institutions have some sort of leadership training, articles are published regularly about different facets of leadership, many self-help and life coach sites are devoted to developing people as leaders – it’s the new buzz word. But there isn’t a cohesive message amongst these different mediums about what being a leader actually means, what it entails, and what a global vision and definition of the modern leader is. This site is meant to provide a definition of leadership, set expectations for what it means to be a modern leader, and to equip everyone with the tools they need to be a successful leader.

Leadership is a state of mind, not a status or a title. You can be a leader at any stage of your career, any position within an organization, and even as an individual as you go through your daily life. Leadership is a set of skills and qualities that you need to hone and intentionally practice on a daily basis, it is an iterative and constantly evolving process for every individual. It is the constant commitment to development of yourself, of others and of the world around you.

Leadership is a personal philosophy, and it is internal as much as it is external and involves the emotional as much as it does the intellectual. The skills of the modern leader include authenticity, empathy, emotional intelligence, curiosity, loving kindness, openness, gratitude, human-centered approaches, collaborative, social awareness, transparency and commitment to sustainability. This site will be dedicated to breaking down all the different qualities and skills necessary to be a great, modern leader, along with practices you can work on to hone those skills.