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Mindfulness Leadership

Minding Leadership

As the dawn of the third millennium awakens, recognition for a new way of leading is emerging, a mindful way of leading. This progressive approach to leadership embraces emotional intelligence, social intelligence and spiritual intelligence in navigating the complexity of today’s business world. Fortunately the recognition of skills and practices that support such leadership has emerged in unison.

Intelligence and expertise, as we have traditionally defined them, are only the threshold-level skills for leaders in today’s business environment. The concept of leadership has evolved to include Emotional Intelligence (EI), Social Intelligence and Spiritual Intelligence as major predictors of success. The definition of EI in the workplace is not dissimilar to how the concept is ordinarily understood and refers to the effective handling of oneself and ones relationships with others. Leaders in particular benefit from high EI since they represent the organisation to the public, interact with the highest number of people within and outside the organisation, and set the tone for employee morale.

Scientific research examining EI as a predictor of effective leadership is gaining momentum. Current literature on leadership training shows an increased focus on authentic leadership and EI in developing leaders. Defining and measuring EI competencies has proven essential in developing highly effective leaders. EI, and how leaders handle themselves and their relationships, is increasingly described as a leadership competency. Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who authored numerous books on the subject states that “no matter what leaders set out to do - whether it’s creating strategy or mobilizing teams to action - their success depends on how they do it. Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should”.

Research conducted in the field of emotion has provided insights in both how to measure the impact of leaders’ emotions, as well as methods leaders use to manage their own and other people’s emotions. This research shows that being conscious of, and understanding the role of emotions in the workplace separates the best leaders from the rest - both tangibles (better business results) and intangibles (higher morale, motivation and commitment). When leaders drive emotions negatively they undermine the emotional foundations that allow peoples’ potential to burgeon. These negative emotions - especially chronic anger, anxiety or a sense of futility - powerfully disrupt work, and redirect attention from the task at hand.

Emotional, social and spiritual intelligence embraced in this emerging approach to leadership fit neatly within the broader concept of mindfulness, another concept to have received a growing amount of scientific interest, primarily due to its ability to enhance overall well-being and stress-coping. Mindfulness is a term used to describe a particular way of paying attention: in the present moment, non-judgmentally. This innate capacity can be systematically cultivated, refined and applied and is a skillful means of developing EI. As a result of the intense conditioning of the mind, we predominantly react out of habit, living our lives on auto-pilot - in other words mindlessly - forfeiting the opportunity to consciously respond out of free choice. Research has shown that when one is less mindful, emotions occur outside the field of awareness and influence behaviour on a subconscious level, which has obvious and severe consequences in leadership. Enhanced skilful action results from the clarity of perception that mindfulness offers. Goleman considers mindfulness a crucial emotional skill.

This generically useful skill benefits leaders by providing an opportunity to notice what would ordinarily be habitual, automatic, reactive behaviour. This makes it possible for them to choose a more conscious response. It takes courage to deal with a crises or the unknown. It is so easy to default into conditioned, habitual ways of reacting. Many leaders shut down so as to not have to deal with the discomfort, or otherwise try to prove to others that they know what they are doing. Not being able and willing ‘to turn towards’ this uneasiness and the difficult thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that arise frequently results in leaders driving themselves and others too hard, for the wrong reasons, in the wrong directions - and are often completely unaware of the damage they have done.

Mindful leaders turn inwards seeking to identify what is it that they are personally responsible for, and what they then need to do. A key facet of mindfulness is this capacity for self-awareness. Literature confirms that highly mindful individuals are more attentive to and aware of internal (self-psychological and physical) constructions, events and processes as well as external (others and context) than are less mindful individuals.

Awareness is the sine’ qua non of change as it is not possible to change without awareness of what needs to be changed. This self awareness translates into the leader’s capacity to self-manage (even in situations of crisis and stress); if we are self aware and can ‘read’ ourselves, we can read others (social awareness). If we have mastered these three dimensions we have a better chance of successfully managing relationships. And relationship management is the ability to guide and lead others, to handle emotions, to inspire. Key competencies are inspirational leadership, the ability to influence and persuade, the ability to develop others. Leaders that know themselves are far more capable of consistently and authentically making choices about how to respond to people and situations. Coaching and training leaders using mindfulness - based interventions tends to support leaders in being aware of what is arising in their thoughts, in their feelings and their sensations. This allows them to gather valuable information about people, groups and cultures - noticing information that may otherwise have gone unobserved - resulting in increased wisdom and skilful action.

Mindfulness is crucial when the leader needs to know the particular environment in which he or she is working and the people sharing that environment. In a world where human capital has become the currency of organisational success, leaders need to be ‘awake’, aware of themselves and aware of others, to effectively attune to the personal, interpersonal, and systemic needs of their organisations. Mindfulness-based coaching interventions may be a powerful way to cultivate such awareness, through cultivating emotional intelligence and increasingly mindful leaders.

The concept of mindfulness, while having its roots in Buddhist and other contemplative traditions, is often seen as a kind of mental training independent of Buddhism or any religious system. It is often emphasised that to know mindfulness one must practice it rather than study it. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the internationally acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, defines mindfulness as a conscious moment-to-moment awareness, cultivated by systematically paying attention on purpose. It has further been defined as keeping ones consciousness alive to the present reality. The key to mindfulness, however, is not simply attention, but how one attends. The intention one brings to the attention (practice) is crucial. Thus many definitions include two other indispensable elements - intentionality and non-judgment. Hence Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’.

Clinical interventions based on training in mindfulness skills, like MBSR, are described with increasing frequency, and their popularity appears to be growing rapidly. Mindfulness interventions have been shown to lead to reductions in a variety of conditions including pain, stress, anxiety, relapse in depression, and eating disorders.

The ability to direct one’s attention in this way can be developed through meditation. Meditation is often misunderstood and seen as a spiritual discipline or Eastern practice, or even about making your mind blank. Mindfulness meditation is actually about just allowing your mind to be as it is, holding it in awareness, without judgment. As Kabat-Zinn explains, mindful meditation is ‘the process of observing body and mind intentionally, of letting your experiences unfold from moment to moment and accepting them as they are’. Current mindfulness literature describes numerous meditation exercises designed to develop mindfulness skills.

In meditation, the cultivation of mindfulness serves to contain one’s awareness so that awareness and attention can become stable. This in itself brings about changes in the brain and body as a whole. According to recent research, mindfulness training alters the brain centers that regulate emotions. Research and development scientists from a biotechnology firm who received mindfulness training reported less stress after eight weeks, and felt more creative and enthusiastic about their work. These results serve to support the notion that EI competencies can be developed through mindfulness training.

Included here is an exercise that may support you in learning to work in the landscape of your feelings, as well as becoming aware of what is happening behind the continuous doing - attempting to alleviate the pressure. As you begin to negotiate this it may feel like you are taking the blindfold off and entering a landscape never seen before.

At some time in the day spend five minutes sitting by yourself. What this looks like is finding or creating a place where you will not be disturbed. Sit comfortably and begin to notice your breath - just the feeling of the breath entering and departing your body. You may notice the breath by your nostrils, or by the expansion and contraction of your belly or chest. Just notice the feeling - no need to think about this. When you find yourself thinking, notice what you are thinking about, and then gently, but firmly, bring your attention back to the breath.

Work tip
When you find yourself walking at work, become aware that you are walking - walk mindfully. Don’t rush unless you feel you have to. If you do have to, know that you are rushing - rush mindfully.

According to research scientists Boyatzis and McKee there are several reasons leaders can easily lose their edge and slip into mindlessness.
• Job pressures may generate tunnel vision - over-focussing on some things to the exclusion of others.
• Leaders may find themselves focusing on the “should do’s” rather than paying attention to their earnest beliefs, values and desires.
• As a consequence of the continual business risk and the challenge of facing their vulnerability, many choose maladaptive coping behaviours that exacerbate the problem often resulting in them shutting down.

By Craig Henen - Executive Coach and Supervisor, September 2008


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