Is there such a thing as “mindful leadership”? Can this training of the mind be an ally for the increasingly complex challenges of leading?
And, what is “mindful leadership”? The word “mindful” in everyday language is not new. It is often used as a warning about something that may be dangerous, or unexpected. For example, one might be told to be mindful of the foreign traffic rules. But as it applies to leaders, being mindful is less about paying attention to external elements, and more about paying attention to what is happening “inside.”
In the years that I have worked with leaders from many areas of our society—corporate, non-profit, government—it has been my experience that the single most important factor in being a successful leader is to “know oneself.” Not in some “new agey” way, but to truly understand enough about our mind, our reactivity, our “filters” to be able to use that information to make us more effective, more compassionate and more innovative. This work of cultivating our capacity to know ourselves can be difficult… but it is the difference between an auto-pilot existence and being there for your life.
The Journey to Leadership
The journey to know who we really are is sometimes long, and often surprising. It can begin with a couple of simple questions. What are my leadership principles? What are those values that are my rudder in the midst of the storms? When I teach Mindful Leadership workshops with the PUR Mindful Leadership, we explore this question as a reflection. We sit quietly, allowing the body and mind to settle into the present, and then I invite the leaders to simply notice what arises when the questions are spoken. I invite the group to allow the first, reflexive answers to be put aside, and just continue to notice what else might arise in the stillness. This practice is then followed by an exploration of one more question: "what do we notice when our actions as leaders do not align with these principles?"
If you care to, give this reflection a try. What did you discover?
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The Three Qualities of Successful Leadership
At the center of the practice of mindfulness is learning to manage your attention. When you learn how to manage your attention, you learn how to manage your thoughts. You learn to hold your focus on what you choose, whether it’s this page, an email, a meeting, or the people you are with. In other words, you train yourself to be more present in the here and now.
There are two key qualities of mindfulness—focus and awareness. Focus is the ability to concentrate on a task at hand for an extended period of time with ease. Focus and awareness are complementary. Focus enables more stable awareness, and awareness enables focus to return to what we’re doing. They work in tandem. The more focused we become, the more we will also be aware—and the other way around. In mindfulness practice, you enhance focus and awareness together. Once you begin applying mindfulness to your leadership, you’ll see that as your mindfulness increases, your perception of “self” starts to change. More specifically, a stronger sense of selfless confidence arises, helping you develop the second quality of MSC leadership.
Selflessness is the wisdom of getting out of your own way, the way of your people, and the way of your organization to unleash the natural flow of energy that people bring to work. Selflessness combines strong self- confidence with a humble intention to be of service. With selflessness, trust increases because we have no secret agendas and followership strengthens because our selflessness sets free our people to be their best selves. Selflessness in leadership manifests itself as humility and service.
But what about the ego? What’s the role of the ego in selfless leadership? It’s small. We all have an ego that longs for attention and recognition. But great leaders are the ones who’ve tamed their ego so that it doesn’t hinder the larger interests of the people and the company they lead. Many of the leaders we’ve talked to worry that selflessness will make them pushovers. But it’s not that simple. A leader’s selflessness has to be combined with self- confidence. If you have selflessness without self- confidence, you will indeed be a pushover. Therefore, selflessness cannot stand on its own. It must be paired with self-confidence.
As we let go of our sense of self- importance, we naturally begin attending more to other people: we show more interest in them and offer more care. In this way, compassion arises as a natural outgrowth of selflessness.
Compassion is the quality of having positive intentions for others. It’s the intention of being of service to other people’s happiness and the desire to help alleviate their problems. It’s the ability to understand others’ perspectives and use that as a catalyst for supportive action.
Compassion is different from empathy. Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, describes empathy as being when you take on the suffering of others and you both lose. With compassion, you are empowered to skillful action. The difference between compassion and empathy becomes clear through the following example. Imagine that you meet one of your colleagues at the office. He looks stressed and under tremendous pressure, on the edge of panic. If you reacted with empathy, you would feel sad for him, sit down with him and feel the stress and pressure together with him. In contrast, the compassionate response would be to put yourself in his shoes for a moment, notice his pain, and then see if you can help him address the challenges he is facing.
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PUR Mindful Leadership Courses and Workshops
Leadership training explores how awareness, reflection, and other contemplative practices influence the development of the fundamental qualities of leading and living with excellence.