Mindful Leadership in Action
...finding focus in a deluge of distractions
Extracts from our Learning Guide: Mindful Leadership in Action:
brain-training for attention, focus and clarity
by Bill Cropper, Director - The Change Forum © 2013-14
The February 3, 2014 cover of TIME magazine heralded the arrival of The Mindful Revolution. To Buddhists, it’s old news. To bankers: maybe novel. In the wake of other widely-influential concepts like Peter Senge’s Personal Mastery and Emotional Intelligence spearheaded by Daniel Goleman, Mindfulness seems set to also slip into mainstream management thinking.
Research on benefits for business leaders, point to increased ability to sustain attention, heighten presence and handle stress. Apart from contributing to leader performance and business bottom-line, it seems mindfulness is also good for our health and well-being. That’s why so many are bringing it into their leadership lives. Not just to improve personal productivity, but to learn how to be less stress-prone, more even-minded and more emotionally balanced.
Despite its long tradition in Buddhism, there’s not much really mystical about mindfulness. It means being able to put aside distractions, be present, focused, and in-the-moment, so you can engage with whatever you’re doing right now, or whatever is unfolding in front of you.
We’ve all experienced times when we can do just that. We get into flow and we’re so focused that distractions don’t bother us. With the busyness, pace and pressures of 21st century workplaces, you’re more likely to come across the opposite. Our minds are full-to-bursting with all manner of thoughts, feelings, wishes, worries – distractions that detract from being mindful.
A full-mind isn’t the same as being mindful. A big part of being mindful is seeing how thoughts prevent us being present. But it’s not a matter of blanking-out thoughts. It’s about learning to control them. It’s also about seeing how thoughts or mental models create our ‘reality’. Being able to distinguish actual reality from thoughts we project on to it that distort it, is a good rational start-point for mindfulness.
Exercising mindfulness, we can be more fully in control of our feelings, thoughts and actions, and make better choices. The first step in managing a crisis, analysing situations or making decisions is a mental one and mindfulness can help.
When you think of the host of complex challenges leaders face today, it’s easy to see why a bit more mindfulness may be useful to help navigate those turbulent workplace terrains. Here’s a few:
Achieving more presence and focus by being more mindful begins by recognising just how much time we spend in what’s been called a mental state of continuous partial distraction.
In this new work landscape, many leaders are looking for ways to still put in a peak performance without succumbing to such pressures, and sacrificing sanity, humanity and well-being. They want to be visionary. They want clarity, and to be present and connective. They want to be emotionally balanced, less-stressed. In fact it’s more than ‘want’ – they ‘need’ to be, to handle this brave new world. That’s where mindfulness as a tool for leaders comes in.
There’s another reason why mindfulness matters... As we repeatedly point out in our leadership clinics: “Before you lead outwards, you need to look inwards.” To lead others, you first need to understand yourself. Without knowing themselves, leaders can’t connect well with their teams or build positive and resilient workplaces. Mindfulness opens up an inside-path to get better results with people on the outside.
If you sit still long enough to reflect on it, the cost of a lack of focus is huge if you think of what we miss, or how we act when we’re distracted. For example, how many accident reports contain classic lines like “I didn’t have my mind on the job” or “I let myself get distracted for a moment”?
Being able to focus is a game-changer for teams, leaders, life and learning. As one neuroscientist put it, “Attention is the holy-grail”. In his new book on Focus, Daniel Goleman says a main task of leaders is directing attention of others to the right things. To do so, leaders need to learn how to put aside distraction and focus their own attention.
So what are we minding when we’re being mindful? We think there’s 5 Mental Markers that each provide a potential start-point for embarking on mindfulness:
We explain these 5 Mental Markers in more detail in our FactFile-37: Mindful Leadership in Action
Many of us see mindfulness as inactive, passive and impractical; as a mainly meditative practice reserved for Buddhist monks and their acolytes. It’s true. They are quite a bit better at meditation than most of us.
While research shows meditation is certainly a very effective path to it, mindfulness does not have to involve lengthy and rigorous meditation routines, where we trance-off and cleanse our mind of all thoughts – a popular misconception about mindfulness meditation. Nor does it mean retreating into a meditative huddle or ‘omming’ around work serenely, wearing a saffron-coloured tie.
Mindfulness is a natural quality of attention and focus that all of us can bring into our everyday work-life. It doesn’t have to entail sitting still on a cushion with incense burning in the background. But it does require the ability to achieve a mental stillness of sorts that many leaders fear, since it implies not doing things.
There are many ways to build mindfulness practice into your working-week without having to set aside time to practice meditation. For instance:
Any kind of meditation, including mindfulness, is all about the discipline of retraining your brain for attention, says Daniel Goleman in his latest book, Focus. Everyone’s heard of neuro-plasticity these days: how our brain re-shapes according to what we do (or don’t do) with it. New neurons are attracted to whatever part of the brain we use to strengthen it. It’s a bit like going to the gym to develop muscles. .
Whatever methods – plus or minus meditation – you still need to train your brain by doing mental exercises like some of the above – that make you and your brain re-mould your circuitry for more focus, presence and attention rather than just react on auto-pilot all the time.
The aim of mindful leadership is to slow down and focus on what’s in front of us, so we can deal with it adeptly. Mindfulness can help leaders:
People generally seem to resonate with leaders who are emotionally intelligent, present, positive, compassionate and connective (see FactFiles 27 & 29) – all attributes that align with mindfulness.
Many authors on mindfulness claim too much for it when they make nebulous, mindfulness-mends-all type assertions like “more mindful managers may have averted the global financial crisis”! Yet again, perhaps changing our mind is the first step on the journey to changing our world?
Mindfulness might certainly help leaders at least find a haven of clarity, balance and focus in a maelstrom of uncertainty, and attend to what really matters most in all workplaces: their people
Article copyright © Bill Cropper - The Change Forum 2013-14
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