How can mindfulness make you a better leader?
I have been involved in leadership programs for many years, and have often noticed that on them, very intelligent, aware and senior people still surprise themselves by discovering uncomfortable truths about themselves, especially triggers or personal ‘hot spots’.
They often feel the need for self-management tools, especially for use under stress. They understand that the ability to manage strong emotional impulses along with honest self-awareness are essential ingredients for a long and sustainable career in a senior role, but are not sure how to develop those skills.
Mindfulness can help them achieve this in the following ways:
A way of simply noticing you are not in the right state to take action right now.
Often people under stress want to do something; the first reaction to stress in the fight-flee-freeze response, is to fight.
Anger has a quality of feeling ‘right’. However when a leader has frequent aggressive outbursts, they tend to alienate others and build a culture where things are hidden from them. They become the proverbial ‘loose cannon’.
A way of quickly calming down, so when action is needed in the moment it has a quality of authentic passion, without ‘crossing the line’ to abusive behaviour.
Managing the ‘curse’.
People who have natural positive qualities such as strength, sensitivity or vision tend to come with specific ‘baggage’.
It is a key theme in my book that these qualities, or archetypes, need to be understood and regulated. Mindfulness is an ideal training to become aware when your own ‘bag’ has yet again come along on the psychic ‘conveyor belt’ to cause you that familiar trouble.
For example, if a leader has a natural ability to intuit others’ needs and is highly sensitive, then that same leader may well also run down their energy quickly from the demands of their job, especially if some crisis is looming. Such a leader can use mindfulness to detach themselves, make appropriate decisions (especially overcoming any bias they may have towards avoiding necessary confrontations) and be aware when they need to ‘re-charge’ themselves.
The leader with the gift of strength can use mindfulness to manage their anger and think before they act. The visionary leader needs to assess if their passion for values and big picture is the appropriate approach; often such leaders do better to engage their people on operational matters and be more sparing on sharing their philosophical insights.
Mindfulness gives the ‘space’ to do this.
Building the muscle and using it.
Mindfulness is an important ‘training’ to become aware of your thoughts and to have a choice whether you wish to engage in those thoughts (and the corresponding emotions that go with them) or if you wish to simply notice the thoughts and have the freedom not to engage with them.
Learning this skill makes for a key leadership talent: ‘keep your head, while those around you may be losing theirs.’
The muscle in this context is the ability to choose your response, rather than have your emotions take you over.
Using a specific mindfulness technique.
This is using the muscle in potentially threatening situations. During certain pivotal periods in my business career, I have been able to use a very brief mindfulness technique in meetings, when I notice myself becoming overheated.
It only takes a couple of seconds to do this – and having learnt the techniques through quiet practice I can quickly apply them in the heat of real life situations.
This makes me confident that I can turn challenging situations around, even though I am very passionate and forceful. The maxim from the world of comedy applies here: ‘bend it – don’t break it.’
Once a leader has learnt mindfulness they then have access to what I call in my book the Conductor archetype. Leadership development is about firstly learning a broader skill set, so that the leader can confidentially oversee the experts within their organisation.
The leader doesn’t need to be an expert to do this, but use their intelligence to work out the ‘big picture’ threats or opportunities that these same experts often seem to miss.
To do this, a leader needs to gain a wider skill set. A leader from a finance background needs to learn about sales and marketing; a leader from an HR background needs to learn more about finance (and so on).
After this ‘skill based’ transition into a broader skill set, the leader needs to know when their own bias is having a negative impact on decisions and the culture of the organisation.
Mindful self-awareness will help that finance expert to balance their natural caution with a wider view of how this can undermine necessary progress. It can help the sales specialist to consider genuine threats and take a longer-term view.
It can help the HR person to take charge, stop advising and start deciding. Mindfulness provides the perspective, breadth and balance needed to meet the many different challenges of leadership.