What Mindful Leadership really is


In today’s business world, mindfulness overpromises and under-delivers for a number of reasons, top among them that the training programs based around it are too internally focused and poorly defined. Perhaps worse still, they’re often divorced from most companies’ approach to their customers.

One of the biggest problems bedeviling mindful leadership training—from retreats to workshops to conferences—is that there’s no clear, widely agreed-upon definition for what mindful leadership actually looks like in practice.

If you’ve been reading business media for the last few years, I’m sure you’ve heard about mindfulness. There are so many books and articles that illustrate its importance for entrepreneurs and leaders. At first, I had many of the same questions that the author of the Fast Company article I’ve quoted above had. I’ve since learned that Mindfulness, unlike a religion or a philosophy, is quite a simple concept.

Mindfulness is about being conscious, now.

Sounds simple, but let me unpack this a bit. What does it mean to be conscious? You’re consciously reading this article, right? But, are you aware of the seat you are sitting on. Are you aware of the sensation of your breath? Without looking, are you aware of whether your coffee cup is on the left or the right of your mouse? Are you aware of your emotional state, whether you are relaxed, tense or angry?

Here’s a quick parable to illustrate what I’m talking about.

Tradition used to be that a young man would apprentice with a master for 10 years, and after would go off and start their own school. One man, Jim, studied closely with a mindfulness master for ten years and felt ready to move on and start something new. As he left, he decided to visit a few other schools and teachers to see how they have set up their practice. He entered one school with the teacher sitting in the middle of the building in meditation. Jim decided to test the man, asking questions. The teacher answered well, and Jim went to leave when the teacher asked “do you remember where you left your shoes – did you leave them on the left side, or the right side of the door before you entered?” Jim stayed to study with this new master for 10 years.

On the surface, this story is simple – the character, Jim, was so focused on “knowledge” that he missed the opportunity to be curious and conscious about the real world.

So, why does this matter?

Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of everything around you – your environment, and your emotions, in a non-judgmental way. The practice of this allows you to be so much more emotionally equipped to deal with challenging situations – because you have trained your mind not to jump into its fight or flight mode.

If you are not aware of your situation–what’s around you, what resources you have, what strengths do you bring to the table, what strengths do your team mates have, what connections do you have, etc– you will not see the possibilities that exist to turn this challenge into an opportunity for your team and your company.

In the Inc. article, the author offers her own definition of Mindfulness:

the ability to exhibit nonjudgmental awareness, which leads to better decision-making, stronger empathy, deeper relationships, and improved focus.

To me, that definition should be shortened to “the ability to exhibit nonjudgmental awareness.” Once you start having the ability to be conscious of your surroundings in a non-judgmental way, you are better prepared to choose your response as opposed to reacting unconsciously.

Let me share an example from my life:

I was leading a team of people responsible for trying to resolve a manufacturing problem, while also up against a wall for scheduling because this production problem was about to impact customer deliveries (which would impact the company cash flow, and we would be the first team in over 3 years that didn’t meet the 100% on-time delivery commitment). I had a problem – a part we were building wasn’t up to the quality we needed of it. I had a team of people helping investigate this problem. I had to help them navigate how we were to resolve the issue while at the same time communicating to senior management how we were fixing the problem. Well, for a while, I couldn’t be sure we were fixing the problem. Working with a supplier we were throwing spaghetti against the wall trying to uncover the root cause of the problem and I was getting more and more anxious. My mind went from staying calm and non-judgemental, and started to focus more on the “what if we fail, what if we can’t find the root cause, what if we can’t recover, how will management see this, what are the impacts to the manufacturing team on the floor…”

It is in this moment that the mindfulness practice offers the most value: I was able to see my anxiety rising, and consequently my mind started creating worst case scenarios. I still had to lead, and had to act – and I had to make mindful choices over who I was giving responsibilities to, how I was engaging with them, and how I was enabling or discouraging their efforts. Did I want to fall into my habits of micro-managing and doing most of the work myself, or did I want to choose to step back and empower my team? Did I want to use my time to continue thinking about worst-case scenarios, or did I want to use my mental effort to come up with alternate strategies and contingency plans to recover?

When a leader is relaxed, its so much easier to give employees trust and respect. When a leader is anxious, every failure can feel like a personal attack because in the anxious mind, the failure of someone else is leading to your failure, which is leading to your eventual firing, right? For leaders to be empowering in our fast-paced environments, they need to learn to be conscious of their mind-stated, so that they can choose their response. Its a choice to watch the chaos that happens during a challenging development project. Its a choice to believe that your team is doing their best work. Its a choice to believe that they are lazy, and trying to fail. I’ve watched managers do both, and I can tell you who got the better work, and better trust from their team.

Mindfulness doesn’t lead to better decision making, stronger empathy, deeper relationships or improved focus. All mindfulness does is help you be aware of what you are feeling. After practicing for a time, you will start to observe patterns in your behavior – when I’m stressed, I start to micro-manage. When I’m stressed I yell at my wife and kids more. When I’m stressed I stop working out and start eating poorly, and then I stop trusting my team members. Once you start to see those patterns, then you have a choice whether to continue them or to break the patterns.

A Zen master was once asked “what has enlightenment done for you”. The master replied “before enlightenment, I chop wood and draw water from the well. After enlightenment, I chop wood and draw water from the well.”

Mindfulness is not going to change the work you do. It offers you a door to observe yourself so that you can more easily have a conscious choice over your actions. As some of my favorite teachers say – mindfulness isn’t about your time on the cushion. You practice mindfulness through out your day.

Mindful leadership isn’t about “improved relationships, better financial management, more focused work,” or what ever. Mindful leadership is about leaders being conscious of their own emotional state, and what their typical responses to stress are – so that they have the tools to consciously and “mindfully” respond to any situation that will come up at work. As Jerry Colonna likes to say, “the leader is responsible for setting the vision and ensuring the team has the resources they need to be successful”. A mindful leader is conscious of how they interact with their team, to ensure a common vision, and that their actions support the team towards success.

Before mindfulness, I manage employees and focus on improving revenues. After mindfulness, I manage employees and focus on improving revenues.

For any company to promise any more, they are selling hype.

But, the impact that an honest mindfulness practice has on a person, if they stick with, will more than show how it can create real value for an organization when everyone is responding powerfully to any problem, rather than reacting in unconscious fear.


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