Is there a Role for Mindful Leadership in the Workplace?
Leadership can be a place of great loneliness. Reaching a position of leadership can enslave a person, causing them to work unsustainable hours at the expense of family, friends and self. They may even lose sight of their original purpose and ideals as they get caught up in the ‘doing’ of the tasks at hand, focusing on achieving outcomes and performance.
Learning some strategies for emotional resilience, such as Mindfulness, can free a leader from this treadmill as well as enhancing many great leadership qualities. Mindfulness is the art of learning to ‘just be’ and as Jon Kabat Zinn says, it can allow one to reclaim their position as a ‘human being’, not just a ‘human doing’.
Mindfulness is often described as paying attention without judgment. It’s the capacity to remain grounded in present moment awareness as opposed to being caught up in the stories we create with our thoughts. For a leader this is a vital quality but one that may seem to contradict their training.
Our society puts great value on thinking about things critically and in many professions including science, education, finance and law, the capacity to be judgmental is a prized quality. Of course, there is a place for this. But too often our judgments and criticisms invade our personal interactions, preventing us from hearing clearly what is being said and from taking on board valuable non-verbal queues. We’re too busy thinking of our next answer or refutation to listen.
A Mindful leader is attentive and observant, connected with the people s/he leads. And importantly, this connection comes from a place that is sincere and heartfelt. This is often described as ‘authentic leadership’. Mindful listening requires a high level of attentiveness and in turn, this allows the development of a deeper connection, one that permits possibilities to emerge. Mindfulness opens us to solutions that may be less obvious when struggling with a stressed, problem-focused frame of mind.
The reason for this is not just philosophical but physiological. It has to do with the way our bodies and brains have evolved to deal with stress. When we are stressed our heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase. We secrete stress hormones that prepare our bodies to run or to defend our territory. Humans have evolved in this way because the caveman who stopped to consider the magnificence of the oncoming tiger instead of fleeing would become its dinner and not pass on his genes. The genes that survived belonged to individuals who instinctively ran or fought back in the face of danger. They reacted to the problem rather than thinking about it, and this rapid unthinking reaction is an essential survival quality when life is threatened.
In the business world our lives are rarely in danger, but it may feel that way because of workplace pressures. And our body reacts in the same way as it did when the tiger came bounding out of the bushes. As we curb the inclination to fight or flee, blood pressure rises and stress hormones become toxic, potentially causing stress-related illness. The result is frequently reactivity and a problem-focused mindset.
Our natural relaxation response is engaged when we practice mindfulness and this opens and broadens the mind to consider alternative solutions and responses. Creativity and lateral thinking are enhanced.
Mindfulness trains the mind to slow down and see the spaces in our lives, the spaces where we can take the time to consider our responses thoughtfully instead of reactively. It develops within us the capacity to be present and observant; to listen deeply, authentically, and truly see what’s happening both for ourselves and for others. It encourages us to let go of the stories, habits and views we hold on to and identify with, considering others’ viewpoints with open acceptance. And it teaches us to be open and non-judgmental of both good and bad experiences with equanimity and courage, even with preparedness to express vulnerability.
This mindset not only increases ones emotional resilience in the face of difficulty, but also builds a more authentic leadership style.