Most leadership books and training programs focus on how leaders can achieve more---do more, better, faster, with spectacular results. We've become obsessed with continuous improvement at increasing speed, with resulting rising stress levels to leaders and their followers and deteriorating relationships.
Mindfulness as both a leadership practice and workplace culture holds the promise to bring back balance and better health. Coaches, working with leaders, can be a great catalyst for increasing their self-awareness, self-management and help bring a leadership style of calmness to the workplace.
Most contemporary management and leadership literature is a predictive recasting of 19th and 20th century institutional thinking--multitasking, bigger, better, faster; planning, analysis and problem solving. In other words, work on steroids.
While it is true that the effectiveness of leaders is determined by the results they achieve, those results are an outcome of the impact the leaders have on others. Behavior is driven by thinking and emotions. Thinking and emotions can be a result of mindfulness or mindlessness.
Neuroscience research clearly established that we act, decide and choose as a result of inner forces, often unconscious, and the brain's reactive and protective mechanisms often rule us. Research also points to the existence of emotions being contagious and viral in the workplaces, often initiated by the emotional states of leaders.
If leaders believe they don't have the time to work through all aspects of a problem they are inclined to be narrow in perspective and take cognitive shortcuts, and become more impulsive and reactive. Their actions, in effect become "mindless" and automatic.
Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist and author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, contends that a corporate culture of cognitive shortcuts results in oversimplication, curtailed curiosity, reliance on ingrained beliefs and the development of perceptional blind spots. He argues that mindfulness practices enable individuals to jettison judgment and develop more flexible feelings toward what before may have been mental events they tried to avoid, or towards which they had intense averse reactions.
Michael Carroll, author of the Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation applies the key principles of mindfulness and how they could apply to leaders of organizations. He argues that mindfulness in leaders and their organizations can heal toxic workplace cultures where anxiety and stress impede creativity and performance; cultivate courage and confidence in spite of workplace difficulties in economic downturns; and lead with wisdom and gentleness, rather than only with ambition, relentless drive and power.
To become mindful leaders and tap into that power, they must:
- Let go of their belief in themselves as technical and problem solving geniuses and embrace the notion of becoming mindful partners. This requires building an awareness of and becoming more open to nuance and subtlety;
- Be open to the concept of an unknown future. What we plan for today may not work tomorrow. To succeed in an unknown future, leaders must acknowledge mistakes quickly when things are not turning out as they predicted; be flexible enough to make changes quickly without defending their territory or ego;
- Become skilled at leading through intuitive reflection in addition to logical analysis;
- Become more open and accepting of the world and others, and their differing points of view, rather than trying to reshape the world in the leader's own image;
- Become more mindful of what is going on in terms of their own thoughts, emotions and body and what is going in context. External mindfulness is being able to sense situations, being aware of the signals and cues in different contexts, and paying attention to them. Internal mindfulness is being aware of one's body, emotions and thoughts and requires the ability and attitude to monitor one's inner reality.
Of course the cornerstone of the these mindfulness practices, is instituting the regular practice of meditation on a daily basis.
Our modern world has become unbalanced, with an excessive focus on doing and speed and multitasking, with little time for just "being" and reflection. Mindfulness can restore that balance to leaders and workplaces. Coaches who specialize in working with leaders in organizations, particularly senior leaders, can shape their coaching practice and methodologies to incorporate mindfulness successfully. The impact can be significant.