Applying Concepts of Mindfulness to Your Leadership Style
We have been hearing the term "mindfulness" increasingly over the past decade. It's something that I've certainly identified with, and I hope to be able to communicate how just a few elements of this concept can be integrated into your leadership style.
A Few Mindful Disclaimers
First, let me say that I am not an expert on the topic. My interest in mindfulness derives from personal experience, meditation practice, and literary exploration. For me, when I practice mindfulness in leadership and in daily life, I notice that I am more assertive, caring, and calm. It helps me to listen with less judgment, and make decisions that are based on the mission. It requires a lot of practice, but fortunately, every moment is an opportunity.
Recognizing that mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism, please know that an individual's religious beliefs do not and should not need to change in order to embrace elements of mindfulness into your leadership style. Also, do not interpret mindful leadership as being passive, ambivalent, or indecisive. It is quite the opposite. Being mindful is about active participation, transparent decisiveness, and rigorous self-reflection.
Finally, my last disclaimer: Nothing is more important than recognizing every human’s equality, autonomy, and creativity. Unique qualities within each leader – regardless your leadership role – make organizations and communities move. The three mindfulness practices that I present here are only intended to pique your interest.
What is Mindfulness?
Let’s start with the simple basics: Merriam Webster defines mindfulness as "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis."
To give this definition life, we need to place it in context and origin. Mindfulness is quintessential in the practice of Buddhism and has reached many facets of Western life. We are familiar with some of the more common implementations of mindfulness such as yoga, breathing exercises, guided meditation, and even smartphone applications. These are all helpful ways to integrate elements of mindfulness into daily life, but what about leadership and the delivery of human services? On a clinical level, we have mental health treatment models, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which incorporates mindfulness practices to assist patients in the alleviation of symptoms. The founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Marsha M. Linehan, states, “This emphasis in DBT on a balance of acceptance and change owes much to my experiences in studying meditation and Eastern spirituality. The DBT tenets of observing, mindfulness, and avoidance of judgment are all derived from the study and practice of Zen meditations.” This paper from the Accredited Counselors, Coaches, Psychotherapists and Hypnotherapists, a professional organization outside of London, provides a great summary of mindfulness practices and their application to direct service. You can easily find literature to support the efficacy of such treatment models. However, the focus here is on how being present, self-aware, and compassionate go hand-in-hand with strong leadership.
Being present is tough; tougher than most might think. As I take the very-crowded Lexington Avenue subway every morning in New York City to get to work, I note a variety of methods employed with the intention of avoiding being present, with my own actions included. I read my Kindle, careful not make eye-contact, as distraction to make the commute fly by. But every once in a while, I finish my book mid-ride with nothing else to read – and I'm forced to take in my surroundings, as I avoid the temptation of the mindless time-suck known as Candy Crush (I have yet to remove it from my phone…small steps). As I look around, I see plenty of other people playing games on their phone (many people still play Candy Crush; I’m not the only one), watching Netflix miniseries (no judgment; I have my favorites), completing crossword puzzles, or simply singing loudly to their new favorite jam. What else do I see? Well, to be present, we need to change the question to: What else am I experiencing? I'm feeling the cold air from the A/C blowing on my face (it's summer at the time of my writing this); I'm hearing the announcements on the train, the few voices chatting about their day ahead, the roar of the metal wheels on the metal tracks, and the groan of another unsatisfied passenger. My thoughts include curiosity about those around me and about what I need to accomplish for the day. My emotions vary: anxious for a new project or excited to see coworkers and to tell them another story about my dog's evening antics. The experience is made up of all of our senses, emotions, and thoughts at the present moment in time.
There is so much to experience in every moment and this has a clear connection to being a leader. Being present means being fully immersed in what your team is communicating to you. Not just focusing on the words, but noticing the intent, passion, and emotion present; without judgment. With so much to take in during these moments, it makes it difficult to think about your next move, how to respond, or how to protect your ego; and that’s a good thing.
Can you think of a time when you felt that the person listening to you was present in physical form only? It may feel dismissive, minimizing, or insulting. That is not how we want our teams to feel. We value their expertise and time and being present recognizes this.
Being Present – Small Step Challenge
The next time a colleague or team member walks into your workspace to talk to you, stop what you are doing, turn to face them, and be present in your engagement. Then, try to notice something about them that you have not noticed before. Perhaps you'll notice a slight change in facial expression when they have an idea, or they show a level of enthusiasm that you have not seen before. Perhaps they smile when they are trusted with autonomy. Try to not respond immediately and allow some thinking time during the brief moment of silence. It may help to minimize everything on your computer’s screen, place your phone face down on your desk, and keep you fidget spinner out of reach. Remember that your team members and colleagues are experts at their trade and deserve your full attention. How will you be able to make sound decisions without their trust and support?
Awareness of Self
This concept, as it applies to leadership, is really about intent and ego. In Buddhist teaching, there is no ego; there is only self. What we interpret as our ego is often desire of the things that give us pleasure or avoidance of the things that cause us suffering. When organizational decisions are based upon our ego’s wishes, we often set ourselves up for disappointment…and then more suffering.
Think about a time that you may have made a decision based upon avoiding a difficult situation or to advance our own image. Did the end result contribute to the mission of the organization? Making decisions mindfully requires that we explore the true intent of our actions. Here is a quick example:
Have you sat in a meeting where another colleague seems to be talking only for the purpose of “taking credit” for a great idea or to patting his/herself on the back? Do you think that these comments move the agency closer to the mission or come from a place of compassion? I know that this is something that I have done and it has come from the desire to feel recognized or important. However, if we look at this from a mindfulness perspective, we do not need the individual recognition. As part of a team, accomplishments and mistakes are shared. Competency does not need to be reinforced; your place at the table is already a demonstration of your talents and abilities.
As leadership, if you establish a culture of recognition for accomplishments of all types, your appreciation for others will be noticed.
Awareness of Self – Small Step Challenge
The next time you are in a meeting, before you say something, think about the intent. Ask yourself if your contribution is helpful to the achievement of the meeting’s objective. If so, that’s great! Keep it simple, concise, and allow silence in between thoughts. Try to imagine what meetings at your organization would be like in the absence of ego. There would be no power struggles, efforts to control, avoidance of difficult topics, or dishonesty. Instead, the conversation would be a stream of ideas without judgment and steps to solutions without fear of a damaged ego.
In the mindfulness context, compassion refers to the desire to alleviate others' suffering. It's most likely compassion that has led you to do the work that you are currently doing. Just as we want to see families sustain, individuals grow strong, and children thrive, we also want our teams to succeed, grow, and adapt. We nurture these goals through compassion. You may notice that I used the word suffering quite a bit. This is a common term used in the philosophy behind mindfulness. The term is used to encapsulate our response to negative emotions. When we experience anxiety, fear, frustration, or anger, we are suffering.
No matter how hard we work to alleviate suffering for others and for ourselves, we know that it will always exist. I’m sure that I do not need to remind anyone that even as we work to achieve our organization’s mission, we will encounter suffering. No one can take that experience away, however, we can model compassion by acknowledging, accepting, and embracing challenges.
We have difficult decisions to make; some that may cause suffering to others. How can we approach this from the perspective of compassion? Avoidance of suffering only makes suffering worse. Practice compassion by communicating difficult decisions promptly, honestly, and in a supportive manner…and of course, be present for those who are negatively impacted. When your decisions are made mindfully – with the mission of your organization as the guiding principle – you can trust that the end result will be progress.
Compassion – Small Step Challenge
Think about someone within your organization who seems to bring you grief. Perhaps you notice feelings of frustration, resentment, anger, or bitterness arise. Don't try to change how you feel about this person, but instead imagine them in need and you providing them a helping hand. You may feel agitation in the process, but don’t fight it. Acknowledge its presence and continue imagining how you can help this person. Allow this thought process to continue for 5 minutes or until you have a gentler perspective. Remember that successful organizations rely on collaboration regardless of the personal feelings that distract us from forming strong relationships.
Similar to you imagining yourself alleviating the suffering of someone who causes your own suffering, think about someone in your organization or community who has been treated with inequality. Use your leadership to show random appreciation. Providing compassion to others often helps us to be compassionate to ourselves.
Easier said than done, right? The small step challenges above represent incremental changes to support a style of leadership that is based in a mindful philosophy. Suppressing desire and avoidance and demonstrating compassion for the greater good of those we serve is a life-long journey. I listed books that I have personally found beneficial to understanding the mindfulness philosophy. With that said, I want to leave you with a final challenge. This one is a big step challenge, even though it may seem simple: sit for five minutes with your eyes closed, wherever it is safe to do so, only thinking about your breathing. Don't change your breathing, only pay attention to it. When your attention shifts to something else, bring it back to the breath with no judgment. If you fall asleep, try again when you wake up. If you’re over-caffeinated, simply notice the acceleration of the breath. Meditation is not required to be a mindful leader, however, it does provide the space to practice the concepts described above.
Meditation helps to cultivate nonjudgmental compassion to ourselves and to others. It provides us with an opportunity to bring calm to our ego. Finally, it opens our eyes to new possibilities in leadership.
Mindfulness: A practical guide to awakening. By Joseph Goldstein.
Mindfulness in plain English. By Henepola Gunaratana.
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming suffering into peace, joy, and liberation. By Thích Nhất Hạnh.
Secular Buddhism. By Noah Rasheta.
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