Friday, December 11, 2009

Mindfulness and Leadership


Simply speaking, being mindful means knowing what you're doing (and thinking and feeling) in the present moment. For example, when you keep your keys down, you know where you are keeping your keys down, and therefore can find them again! Mindfulness practice helps us know clearly what is happening, and how we are reacting to what is happening, as it is happening – which helps us choose a skillful response instead of reacting mindlessly in a stressful situation. Daniel Woo, founder of a legal consultancy in Seattle and a leadership thinker, recommends the definition of mindfulness used in the book ‘Mindfulness and Psychotherapy’ written by therapists about mindfulness teachings and practices, which is: (1)awareness,(2) of present experience,(3)with acceptance. Having such mindfulness then leads to more informed, conscious and intentional choices at a higher level of consciousness, he adds.

Mindfulness is beyond mental skills and sensory awareness – it includes quality of information received and transmitted, processed and awarenessed; being fully present with all of whatever is occurring. It requires full engagement of mind, body, and spirit: high-quality general intelligence, (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), communication intelligence (CQ), and spiritual intelligence (SQ). These are capacities of continued cultivation comprised of learned skills of awareness, communication, and connection, and their practiced application. As a well-known meditation teacher puts it: "It's not what's happening that's important, it's how you're relating to what's happening that's important".

How Mindfulness could Benefit Leaders

Mindfulness alone is without any bias or judgement. Mindfulness is a state of being, and NOT a state of becoming. All actions performed in a mindful state will inevitably have some salutary impact, but again, THAT is not the motive. Mindfulness is a practice and impacts all actions that follow, be it helping in the kitchen, or leadership at work. However, for leaders to use mindfulness to obtain results, they will have to combine it with a sense of purpose to live every moment as they ought to. Mindfulness by itself is Buddhism, Mindfulness with purpose is Leadership.

As a leader, one needs to take or make decisions based not just on what is obvious but also the larger but subtler dimension which is also at play every moment. This can be accessed only through being in a state of mindfulness. When mindfulness is strong, we can respond to difficulties in a less reactive, more conscious and accepting manner. For example, when something or someone provokes us, in the heat of the moment it "pushes our buttons" and we feel intense fear or anger. Rather than react with fear and anger, mindfulness makes it possible to feel those feelings without getting lost in them or acting them out, so we can choose an appropriate response rather than react in an automatic and often counterproductive way. Mindfulness also helps us see how we often relate to people or situations based on our thoughts and feelings about them rather than who they really are or what is actually happening right then.

Michael Carroll, in his book 'The Mindful Leader' (2007), has made a strong case for connecting mindfulness to leadership. He suggested that mindful leaders cultivate the following ten talents: simplicity, poise, respect, courage, confidence, enthusiasm, patience, awareness, skillfulness and humility.

Mr Anil Sachev, CEO of School of Inspired Leadership, says, "The essence of all these facets of inspired leadership is being led by the “self” or consciousness or the life giving force – the ultimate truth. Once we learn to introspect, reflect and contemplate, following questions come to mind: What is the purpose of my life? Why have I taken human birth? What are my gifts? How can I lead my life in a way that leverages by gifts to realize my purpose? How is my work and the way I am leading my life enabling me to move towards my purpose? What changes do I bring about in the way I am leading my life to move towards my purpose? What competencies do I need to develop to enable these to happen? How do I lead my body and the process of perception to make this happen? How do I lead my mind and my emotions? How do I lead my intellect? What do I need to learn to make progress? How can I use my preferred learning style to learn this? Seeking answers to these questions help one to become fully aware and present and make changes in the ways to become a true leader. The ultimate gift of this form of leadership that we can give ourselves is to learn to live in the present and make every moment special. Instead of worrying about the future and having regrets about the past, it is about acting with complete awareness. While eating, we are fully present, while playing, we are fully present, when working on a task, we are fully present. This is what we call as 'Mindfulness' or the ultimate form of self awareness."

One aspect of mindfulness that is so important for leadership yet missing from leadership books is Compassion. In the heart of Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom does not arise without compassion. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness starts with the breath, continues with the body, feelings, mind itself and then objects of mind (contemplative meditations or analytical meditations that include the Four Noble Truths, etc.). In essence, mindfulness is developed to better comprehend, absorb and practice compassion.

Mindfulness for Optimal Leadership

Mindfulness is the result of knowing – knowing yourself and the world around you, Being aware – of your thoughts, feelings and emotions, and Experiencing Yourself as being a part of the whole, i.e., one with the universe. It gives you the Awareness to understand how powerless you are (outside) and how powerful you can be (within). Through this awareness, mindfulness leads to doing the right action and inspiring others as well. Therefore, Mindfulness addresses the Knowing-Doing Gap in a complete manner.

The key skills of Mindful Leadership include:

1. Defusion – the ability to ‘let go’ of unhelpful thoughts and patterns
2. Acceptance of self, others and circumstances – rather than fighting and struggling
3. Being in the present moment – rather than scattered and unfocussed
4. Acting from values – creating a meaningful and satisfying approach to leadership
5. Self awareness – seeing self as context rather than content
6. Taking committed action – based on personal values that facilitate meaningful change

I would like to convey my gratitude to the following discussion groups on LinkedIn that have helped me write this post:

- School Of Inspired Leadership
- Leaders Cafe Foundation
- Leaders & Thinkers
- Leadership Think Tank
- Personal Leadership Development

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