What does an ideal leader look like?
Wise? Formidable? An incredible listener? The soul of a monk with the action orientation of a superhero?
Whew. That sounds like a lot of pressure.
While these virtues are wonderful, it can be difficult to imagine what such lofty goals look like on a daily basis.
So how then does someone become a more ideal leader? What are some real-world strategies you could use tomorrow to make a greater impact?
What Is Mindful Leadership?
For this article, I turned to expert Cory Muscara, who lent me a working definition: Mindful leadership means meeting the needs of yourself, your constituents, and your organization with presence, emotional flexibility, curiosity, and openness to new ways of thinking.
Mindful leadership has been associated with improved focus, higher-quality relationships, creative thinking, and innovation. There are many science-backed ways that mindfulness can enhance your ability to lead.
6 Steps Toward Mindful Leadership
Truly masterful leaders are always on the lookout for effective ways to improve themselves and their organizations. Pick one or two of the following strategies, try them for a full week and record how effective they were for you.
**I’d recommend placing multiple reminders on your iPhone to keep up with your practice. Make each strategy into a formal goal and plan to use it every day. It’s essential to keep the strategy at the top of your mind, so you actually do the work throughout the week.
1. Listen, Not Just to Respond, but to Understand
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” —Stephen R. Covey
We’re all guilty of it. We smile and nod at the person speaking. We even get the gist of what they’re saying. But instead of fully paying attention, we’re busy preparing our own brilliantly hilarious responses. It’s a natural tendency, but when our attention is split, we miss out on many communicative signals.
People often say much more with their body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone than with their actual words. Sometimes when someone says “I’m fine,” what they really want is for you to inquire more deeply. Good leaders are mindful of these cues. They are present, attentive, and fully engaged with the person speaking.
Mindful listening is a wonderful way to improve the quality of your conversations. It ensures that other people feel heard and acknowledged.
For this strategy, the goal is to approach your conversations with full attention and curiosity. Don’t be on your phone when someone is speaking to you—look them in the eye and keep your focus on what they are saying. Notice when someone’s furrowed eyebrows, crossed arms and irritated voice signal their true feelings. Absorb the entirety of the speaker’s communication with the intention to understand. Then respond with appropriate kindness and compassion.
Practice mindfully listening to people for a full week and take notice of instances where it helped you to communicate more effectively. Don’t be surprised if your relationships start to improve and you feel more connected!
Added bonus: Research suggests that being present is a fundamental component of charisma and persuasion. Attention is a valuable commodity in the modern world, and it’s attractive when someone offers you their full attention. This mindful listening practice can help you form higher-quality relationships and may even help your career.
2. Practice Self-Care
“Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship… Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” —Parker Palmer
Good leaders strive to do right by their constituents. They care, and they want to serve the greater good.
Unfortunately, this altruistic drive can lead people to overschedule and overextend themselves. Leaders often say yes to helping everyone, neglect their own well-being, and end up burning themselves out.
However, it's impossible to pour from an empty cup. You can’t optimally take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. Being mindful of helping yourself can actually be a great act of compassion for others.
For this strategy, pay attention to your own sense of well-being for a full week. Take notice when you’re exhausting yourself trying to help others and adjust accordingly. Decide that you’ll say no when you need to preserve energy. Actually take one of your sick days and relax. Exercise. Spend time with friends. Engage in a breathing practice. Fully detach from work when you’re not there. Keep your own health and happiness in mind, so you can better support those around you.
You may not have the ability to take a longer lunch break or do yoga after work, but even small efforts to revitalize will build resilience. Practice self-care where you can, and you may find that you have more energy to dedicate to your duties as a leader.
3. Approach Problems With a Beginner’s Mind
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." —Roshi
Often when we get to be masterful in a skill, we become myopic about best practices. We resort to muscle memory and get stuck in old patterns of problem-solving. Instead of considering every option, we do as we have always done (potentially at the expense of a better solution).
“Let’s get a fresh set of eyes on this” is more than a hackneyed brainstorming tactic. It’s actually a proven strategy to find new and creative solutions. When we approach a situation with a beginner’s mindset, we open ourselves up to innovation.
For this strategy, approach problems with more of a beginner’s mind. Imagine for a moment that you know very little or nothing about a problem or topic. Become curious, ask more questions and open yourself up to new possibilities. Consider bringing someone in from a different department or getting an eclectic group of people together to discuss an issue.
You may not reinvent the wheel, but innovation occurs when people shrug off old paradigms and open up to new ways of doing things. Practice deliberately approaching situations as a beginner and see what a fresh perspective can add to the conversation.
4. Shift From “What If” to “What Is”
“There are people who are always anticipating trouble, and in this way, they manage to enjoy many sorrows that never really happen to them.” —Josh Billings
Evolution has hardwired our brains for survival. And one way our brains keep us alive is by getting us to contemplate what might go wrong (“what if” thinking).
We constantly think things like: “What if I lose my job?”; “What if I get sick?”; or “How will I survive if that big earthquake happens tomorrow?” These thoughts are natural and can be productive in helping us plan for the future.
Oftentimes though, our minds get trapped considering negative outcomes. We can make ourselves sick over all the "what ifs." And the kicker? Most of our doomsday scenarios never even happen.
Mindfulness provides some help in this arena. By tuning in to our thoughts and noticing catastrophic thinking, we become able to direct our attention to more productive topics. This activity is used to help people with panic attacks as well.
For this strategy, the goal is to transform "what if" thoughts into "what is" thoughts. Instead of ruminating on potentially negative scenarios, we want to direct our thoughts to what is around us at this moment. Stop to appreciate that you are likely in a safe and hospitable environment. If you have a roof over your head and there are no immediate threats, things are probably going well enough. Stay present in your environment instead of drifting off into negative hypotheticals. Take note of the effects of this strategy on your well-being.
Contemplating apocalyptic scenarios can be productive for our planning, but it often leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted. Instead of fixating on "what ifs," bring your attention to what is right in front of you. Focus on your present experience—and more often than not—you’ll feel more relaxed and able to deal with your situation.
5. Scan Your Body
“It is amazing how many hints and guides and intuitions for living come to the sensitive person who has ears to hear what his body is saying.” —Rollo May
Research suggests that we spend much of our life on autopilot. And it’s not uncommon to feel anxious or negative, without noticing the effects of these feelings on our behavior.
It’s times like these that it can be helpful to stop and take notice of our bodies.
When we pause and guide our awareness to our posture, heart rate, breathing patterns and muscular tension, we may realize that we are in an angry or frustrated emotional state.
When we notice the physical signs of anger and frustration, we give ourselves the gift of space. Instead of just reacting in an emotionally charged state, we may decide to take an hour to relax or consider a problem more deeply. Instead of a hot-tempered reaction we might regret, we can respond with greater intentionality and achieve better outcomes.
For this strategy, engage in body scans as you go about your day. At least three times a day, stop and take notice of your breath, heart rate and degree of physical comfort. Ask yourself what these signals mean for your emotional or mental state. Ask yourself if your current state is the most productive for your situation. Perhaps take a moment to relax or rev up your energy depending on your current set of circumstances.
Body scanning is a staple in the mindfulness community. In fact, one of the Buddha's first recommendations was to develop greater awareness of the body. It helps us understand the effects of our situation on ourselves and how we behave. It’s a proven means of getting off autopilot. And it’s an important tool in a mindful leader’s repertoire.
Added bonus: Tuning into your body can help you project the demeanor of a strong leader. Powerful people stand up straight, take up space and maintain relaxed body language. Intentionally managing your body can persuade those around you to feel safe and communicate that you have the situation under control.
6. Take Notice of Judgments and Biases
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl
It’s a natural tendency to make snap judgments about everything around us. Almost unconsciously, thoughts just pop into our heads. We think things like: “That meeting was useless,” and “I can’t believe Jim drank all the coffee, he’s so selfish!!”
Seriously, listen to your mental chatter for a few hours and you’ll notice an unyielding flow of judgments and evaluations.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of the judgments are productive, and many of our habitual assessments are there for a good reason. But there are many occasions when these reactive evaluations aren’t true or are tainted by our biases.
Thankfully, mindfulness can help us tune into our judgments and biases, so that we may act with greater objectivity.
Non-judgmental awareness is an essential part of a proper mindfulness practice. It allows us to become more conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, without getting hung up on whether they are good or bad, right or wrong.
By making ourselves aware of our experience, we become more able to take our judgments with a grain of salt. When we notice a thought like “Jim’s a selfish coffee-fiend,” we create space to evaluate if the statement is true, false or just a product of the fact that we never really liked Jim.
It’s easy to carry biases about people or how things should be done, but our preconceived notions can be limiting. Being mindful of our judgments allows us to really think and respond deliberately, rather than just reacting.
For this strategy, we want to become more aware of our snap judgments and biases. Keep your attention on how you’re evaluating what goes on around you. Try journaling at three preset times during the day about some of the automatic judgments you noticed. This develops a greater sensitivity to all those evaluative thoughts, which creates opportunities to alter counterproductive assessments.
This awareness of our knee-jerk evaluations is critical to being a great leader. Rather than immediately writing off ideas or people, this practice helps us consider more options on an even keel. Stopping to examine our automated responses can lead to improved mental agility, problem-solving and innovation.
In conclusion, I wish you luck, friend. This article has been an attempt to break sophisticated mindfulness techniques down into 3-4 lines of instruction. Please reach out if you have any questions. And I hope you'll join me in thanking Cory for his time and expertise; I could not have written this post without him.
About the Expert: Cory Muscara is an international speaker and teacher on the topics of presence and well-being, as well as the author of Stop Missing Your Life: How to Be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World and host of the Practicing Human podcast.