In my previous posts on mindfulness, I mentioned how mindfulness consists of two components, awareness and acceptance.  “Awareness” is usually easier for us to understand since we often use “mindfulness” as a synonym for “awareness.” However, “acceptance” can be a harder concept to grasp. For that reason, I’m revisiting the topic to illustrate how it is relevant, especially to leadership development.

When we expand our awareness, we can do one of two things with whatever we are newly noticing: critique it, or accept it. Remember that acceptance doesn’t mean we approve of something; it just means that we don’t evaluate or judge it. Many leaders relate easily to critique but have a harder time with acceptance.  This makes sense – a core part of their responsibilities is to assess and fix problems and ensure organizational effectiveness. But this manner of thinking may not serve them when it comes time to develop new leadership capabilities in themselves.

Leadership development is about the work of change.  There is a nuanced but very important difference between changing because we have to or should, and changing because we choose to. When we attempt to initiate change in ourselves beginning with critique, we start a dynamic that may make change even harder. Something about my current M.O. is “negative,” and therefore I must turn it into something “positive.” When we must do something, we create an unstated consequence for not changing: “or else.”  In The Mindful Manifesto, authors Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell refer to this as “a subtle form of self-aggression.” And if we sense aggression, a natural response to this is to protect ourselves, to resist, to fight back. When we approach ourselves with acceptance first, we remove the judgments around our own behavior and what we “must” do or not do. Framing change as a forced requirement can feel constraining; framing change as a choice is empowering.

I had a client who wanted to be more assertive in meetings with his CEO. He noted his thoughts in the moments when he was not as assertive as he wanted to be. This gave him a new awareness about the assumptions that guided his decision-making, such as, “Even though I have double-checked my data, I’m worried that I have made a mistake. I don’t want to risk looking bad in front of the CEO.”  However, his first response was, “I can see that this thinking is illogical, and it’s silly to come to these conclusions.  I must change my thinking.” I said, “What if you suspended your judgment about yourself and your thoughts? What is different?”

During our next conversation, he said, “I can see how I jump into judgments about what needs to change because it’s my job to evaluate and hold myself, my employees, and our work to a certain standard.  And we usually meet those standards.  But not meeting those standards could have consequences – no bonuses, or someone could even get fired.  When I create judgments around myself on things that I must change, this creates extra stress around change. I might even criticize myself more if I am not successful in changing.

When I was able to look at myself without judgment, whether or not me or my thoughts changed was no longer so important.  And that made it much easier to change my mindset to something different because it was a choice, not a necessity. Now when I go into meetings, I think, ‘I have done my due diligence, so the chance of mistakes is minimal. But even if I made a mistake, it will not be the end of the world.’ And consequently, I’m much more assertive about speaking up.”

The first step of change is awareness. But, ironically enough, the second step may be acceptance.  In practicing acceptance, we help ourselves set the stage for change to be achievable, not challenging.

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