The term “mindfulness” is used in two different, but related, ways. The first is with respect to my intention around how I act or respond. For example, I want to be more “mindful” about my diet and eat less processed food and more vegetables. Or I intend to be more “mindful” in my interactions with work colleagues, so that I interrupt less and listen more. The second use of the word “mindfulness” means the specific practice from Eastern traditions of bringing our attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. The thing that connects the two definitions to each other is the brain.
When “mindful” means changing our response or actions, this requires being fully engaged in the present moment. This engagement allows us to be aware of our thoughts, choices, and actions as they unfold, and to think or behave differently, if we choose, rather than succumb to old patterns. Being present is at the heart of developing new capabilities, including leadership skills. To be an effective leader, you must be in the Here and Now.
But, as I explained in a previous post, research shows that the default mode of our brains is to be distracted from the present moment, not engaged with it. So if we try to be more aware in this moment, our default brains work against us. However, if we undertake a regular mindfulness practice, we can actually change the default state of our brains to a more aware, present state. We develop the ability to be in the Here and Now. If you want to be a “mindful” leader, the best way to get there is with a regular mindfulness practice.
“Mindful” leaders have an ability to be fully present, which in turn allows them to be self-aware and self-regulating. Research-based studies show that individuals who practice mindfulness have improved focus and attention and are better able to handle challenging circumstances. In addition, when we are present, we are more connected and engaged with those around us.
To illustrate the last point, in my mindfulness events, I ask audience members to pair up to participate in an exercise of attentive listening (also a necessary leadership skill). One person tells a story of a recent positive experience, like a vacation. The other, the listener, cannot interrupt but can ask questions about the storyteller’s experience. Each person takes a role as storyteller and listener, and each round takes about five minutes. After the exercise is done, I ask audience members to describe what the experience is like of being truly listened to. The responses are things like “caring” and “engaging,” and that they feel “respected,” “acknowledged,” “valued,” “appreciated,” and “connected.” The impact of working in a culture that can be described with words like these is being taken seriously.
In one study, reported in the Harvard Business Review, employees who felt that they worked in a caring environment reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork and showed up to work more often. And a separate study, also reported in HBR, found that leaders who project warmth are more effective than those leading with toughness and skill, and this is thought to be because employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind. And in the recent Gallup publication, State of the American Manager, more than 50% of employees who “strongly agree” that their manager is approachable and open are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. When we choose to be present, we choose to be available to and connect with those in our environment, to great effect.
Being a mindful leader means practicing being present. When leaders are able to be present, they are self-aware, focused, resilient, and connected, qualities that benefit themselves and their teams. A mindful leader is a capable leader.
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