Why Cultivating Mindfulness is Essential for Leaders

Mindfulness has gotten a bad rap. Just like yoga, it came from the East and then was watered down and neutered to make it palatable for those in the West. It is not just a stress reduction technique or a way to get “present.” Why is it mindfulness essential for leaders wanting to build their overall effectiveness and capacity? Please read on.

The first reason:

The first reason is to get unstuck so we can grow. The reality is that most of us operate almost all the time on autopilot or in “habit mode.” That’s not because we’re bad people, or lazy, or don’t care about making needed changes. It’s just how we’re wired.

Our brains adapted this way in order to run on “cheap fuel.” There are subcortical processes (deeper in our brain) that run the show when we’re in habit mode. They don’t use many resources. It’s economical. And it keeps us stuck.

It takes a lot more fuel to run our frontal lobes, the seat of “executive functions” like reflection, perspective taking and seeking, cognitive flexibility, empathy, attention, insight, and inhibition (the ability to stop ourselves from doing things we later regret).

Running out of habit mode doesn’t mean we’re not already effective at what we do. It just means we’re very limited in our ability to be even better. In order to make changes that are aligned with our deeper values, we need to regularly “wake ourselves up” during the day.

How do we do that?

We invite our executive coaching clients to build their reflective capacity in different ways. One is to set an intention at the beginning of the day. Perhaps they would like to listen a little more and talk a little less. Or put down their phones and really connect when people are speaking with them. Or think more systemically, seeing their teams as more than just a collection of individuals. Most of us know what we could or should be working on in order to be even more effective leaders and human beings. What’s yours?

It’s then vital to take a few minutes at the end of the day to ask “how did I do?” We call this “bookending.” Capacity-building requires both setting intentions and then checking on our progress. One without the other just doesn’t work.  Make sure this is from your healthy self, curious and compassionate, not your inner critic. Celebrate your successes. Take in the positive impact on you, on other people, on your organization. Recognize where there were missed opportunities and think about what you can do differently tomorrow. These cycles of Action and Reflection are crucial and propel growth.

We also invite our clients to have shorter reflective cycles throughout the day. We talk about cycles of Goal-Plan-Action-Reflection. We suggest they take at least 30 seconds before every meeting to do this:

Our clients continually tell us about the positive impact they find in their personal and professional lives when they integrate these mindful reflection cycles.

The second reason:

The second reason is going to sound strange. It’s to have a shift in identity, in who we think we are, in the vantage point from which we act in the world. This is a little trickier to explain.

We start out embedded in our thoughts and feelings. Basically, we think that we are our thoughts and feelings. This leads us to be reactive and non-reflective. We say things like, “This is just who I am.”

With development we hopefully start to build an inner observer, the ability to step back from our thoughts and feelings and decide which ones are worth acting on, which ones are worth shifting, and which ones should not be indulged on or expressed. We reflect on why we think and feel the way we do, where our patterns come from. As this becomes stabilized, we have a first shift of identity, where we relate more and more to the Mindful Self as who we are.

Then we have the potential to further develop that Mindful Self. We look for its qualities. If self-critical we invite ourselves to be more self-compassionate. If it’s rigid we try to cultivate curiosity. We work on skills like perspective taking (putting ourselves in others’ shoes) and perspective seeking (sincerely asking how about their views). This is another refinement of “who we are.”

The next stage, made possible by ongoing mindfulness, is to be able to step back and see our whole personality structure. The two of us use the Enneagram as our system of choice to assist ourselves and others in understanding the mechanisms of our personality. It’s sort of like learning to read our “owner’s manual.” This next “shift of identity” allows even more freedom of choice, and the ability for our lives to be an even greater reflection of what really matters to us.

True mindfulness practice supports this gradual shift of identity. And there are levels and levels beyond the ones we just described. The two of us rarely miss a day of practice because we know how important it is to support us being better human beings who can they help others become better human beings, and for us to be better leaders who can facilitate better and more sustainable changes in the world.

This shift of identity is the second reason why we see a mindfulness practice as essential.

Hopefully we’ve provided some incentive to explore the value of mindfulness in your professional and personal life.  Please contact us with any thoughts or questions.

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