Mindful Leadership - Creating the Space to Pause in our Busy Working Lives
In an increasingly complex, diverse and interconnected world the need to lead wisely is placing higher demands on the leaders of today. The speed of change, along with the volume of information we are continuously exposed to from so many different sources, can at times be overwhelming.
By harnessing the potential of these dynamic human connections, leaders can open up new and exciting possibilities, whether it is for the development of business opportunities, or for leading on social change.
What is becoming clearer is the need for leaders to be equipped with the necessary capabilities and qualities to effectively respond to the demands of today’s modern workplace. The need for mindful leadership.
What is Mindful Leadership?
Many leaders, having been educated in the many modern leadership approaches, are typically very knowledgeable about leadership and the kind of approaches that can be applied in different workplace scenarios. An approach we might best describe as evidence-based leadership. A kind of leadership that uses sound judgement, good information and expertise to make effective decisions, build reliable plans and make things happen. Evidence based leaders may also draw upon their many years of experience to inform their approach to both their strategic and operational leadership responsibilities. Evidence-based leadership will frequently demonstrate highly effective approaches to the many everyday business challenges they encounter.
However, there are times when past successes or knowledge of previous ways of working cannot be relied on to navigate the complex, diverse and constantly evolving landscape of today’s business environment. In short, as the world changes, the way we lead needs to change too. To imagine that the future is uncertain and that previous ways of working may be unreliable sources of information requires leaders to adopt a different approach to their work. A flexible, open and reflexive approach. In essence a mindful leadership approach.
The Benefits of Mindful Leadership
Mindful leaders are less reactive and defensive in their work and when faced with uncertain, complex, volatile and/or ambiguous situations, are able to respond with cognitive complexity and reflexivity; and emotional stability. Cultivating mindfulness, an open, curious and non-judgmental approach to our present moment experience, opens us up to a heightened level of intrapersonal awareness of individual thought processes; increased flexibility and ability to hold multiple perspectives, paradoxes and ambiguity in awareness; and be guided by deeply held personal values such as fairness, equity, integrity and compassion. In the absence of clear pathways wise leadership connects us to our deepest needs and values, where they act as a compass in uncertain seas, and where mindfulness maintains our awareness and vigilance to the ever changing landscape.
Developing Wise Mindful Leadership
Cultivating Wise Mindful leadership is not so much a science or art, but more a kind of consciousness. By training our minds to be more open, emotionally stable, and flexible, our awareness expands, and we begin to increase our capacity to truly see what is going on around us. It is a very simple practice that can be developed through, amongst other things, learning to regulate our attention, and building a gentler more accepting relationship with our thoughts and feelings. With the right kind of support and regular mindfulness mediation practice, leaders can develop a mindful wiser approach to complex workplace situations and by doing so, developing an approach that not only supports ongoing business effectiveness, but also opens up the possibility for a more open, engaged and empathic leadership style.
If you’ve ever flown you will be familiar with the safety briefing given at the start of every flight and the message ‘place your oxygen mask on first before helping others’. In essence, if you have no oxygen yourself you’re not going to be much use to anyone else. The same can be said about leaders. Leaders need to take care of themselves first if they are going to give of their best to others. Moreover leaders typical fail to recognize how influential they are in how they model attitudes and behaviours in the workplace. For example a study by Van Dierendonck and colleague (2004) found an important link between leader wellbeing and the wellbeing of their teams, and go as far as to suggest that stress management programmes need to consider the stress levels of their managers too.
Yet good leaders can so easily get caught into a downward spiral of self-sacrifice, working hard to be the best they can be, yet at the same time failing to recognise the importance of finding ways to recharge themselves so they can stay connected with what is important to them. And as time goes by the self-sacrificing leader becomes increasingly ineffective, authoritarian and risks burning out too. As far back as 2005 Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee wrote about the importance of mindfulness, along with compassion and hope, in their work on Resonant Leadership, as a way of maintaining leadership effectiveness.
Other studies support this idea. For example researchers have demonstrated that mindful leaders are better equipped to expand their perspectives on and respond purposefully in their leadership behaviours (Sinclair, 2011); and mindful leaders by paying attention to what is happening in the present moment have been shown to see more options and be more flexible and open to the people around them (Senge et al., 2004), and concentrate on immediate important issues, rather than being distracted by ruminations and worries, and thus more readily engage in difficult but significant conversations (Isaacs, 1999). Mindfulness is proving an important piece in many aspects of leadership practice.
But how do leaders become more mindful? Well firstly, mindfulness is a quality that we can all access, and some people are naturally mindful and attentive to the present moment. We can also cultivate greater mindfulness through different meditation practices and mindfulness based interventions such as the purposeful pause. The value of leadership retreats is beginning to be recognised too. In my experience investing in ‘time out’ can play a vital part in supporting leaders’ wellbeing and personal and professional development. I have experienced first hand how creating an open mindful space is both grounding and reenergising for leaders in need of renewal and a boost to their wellbeing. Encouraging there are leadership retreats now being offered across the UK, many available to people who have little or no experience of mindfulness. As workplace mindfulness increases in its popularity and application it is likely that mindful leadership will play a key part in shaping the workplaces of the future. Are you ready to be a mindful leader?
Follow this link if you’re interested in our next mindful leadership retreat or would like to know more about mindfulness in the workplace.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been co-leading a Mindfulness Development Programme for senior leaders from across the NHS for example from CCG’s, Foundation Trusts, Public Health and Primary Care. And I thought it would be helpful and of interest to others to share my experience of the impact of mindfulness training on those who engaged with the programme. That is very much from my own perspective.
The programme ran over 4 months and consisted of four 1 or 2 day residential modules in a rural setting, a commitment to incorporating regular mindfulness practices and exercises into daily life most days and the support of a learning set and mindfulness coaching.
So what is it that brings senior leaders to the programme.
Most of those who apply have heard of mindfulness and its potential impact from colleagues or family members, others have some experience of it for example at yoga classes, a few have begun to practice it already using books or mindfulness practice downloads. Some of the leaders are hoping to develop their leadership skills but they are looking for something a bit different to the standard leadership development programme. Most are acutely aware of the impact of the impact of ever increasing workloads, relentless change, growing complexity and financial constraint on wellbeing, stress levels and performance both in themselves and others. They are looking for tools, techniques and exercises to help them and those they lead and serve to response creatively to the challenges and uncertainties of the times we find ourselves in both at work and home. They want to do their best for patients and communities. Some are looking to re connect with a sense of purpose in the work they do especially when the going is so tough and most are wanting to improve the quality of their lives.
So once the participants arrive on Module 1 they learn about the theory and neuro science of mindfulness and three mindfulness practices such as a body scan and the mindfulness of breathing and in addition the 3 Part Breathing Space or Purposeful Pause for dropping into the working day between activities. When they arrive they are often quite stressed, some are anxious about meeting new people and not quite knowing what they have let themselves in for. My experience is that by the end of introductory module people are looking less stressed, are keen to have a go at the mindfulness practices and read more widely about mindfulness and its potential for individuals and organisations.
On module 2 we are focussing on “leaning in to and even accepting unpleasant experiences” rather than resisting or shying away from them, in order to develop the capacity to be with difficulties especially those we have no control over such as heavy traffic. This creates a space in our minds and reduces the likelihood of reacting in an unhelpful (perhaps habitual way) to situations that irritate or annoy or even anger us. If leaders can learn to respond from this space they are more able to think clearly, make wiser decisions and communicate kindly.
We also explore our thoughts and being more aware of our thoughts and how we respond/react to them. Thoughts are rarely facts and yet without awareness we can believe them and this then influences who and how we act in our leadership roles. We pay attention to the constant flow of thoughts that seem to pop up on their own. What I’ve noticed is that with practice the leaders on the programme become increasingly conscious of their thoughts and the stories they tell themselves so creating more choice about what they believe and act on or not.
During this module we also discuss the concept of the Negativity Bias that refers to the fact that we are neurologically wired to be more sensitive to the negative or to threat than to the positive. It is a survival mechanism. For example if you have a Performance Review what is it that you remember? Is it recognition for all your strengths and achievements or is it the one small area that you need to develop further? Most people say it’s the former and will rend to dwell on this and worry and ruminate about it. This can have an undermining and confidence sapping effect. Often when we arrive for module 2 there will be more talk of how little mindfulness practice people have managed than what’s been going well. It’s not easy to set up and to establish a new habit especially in our busy lives. My experience is that most people will have begun to include a “Purposeful Pause 2-3 times most days into the working day for example between activities, before a board meeting or when they first arrive in the office. Many will have done a body scan or mindfulness of breathing 4-5 times a week for the first 2 weeks with frequency dropping off as the novelty dies off.
By the end of Module 2 I’ve noticed that our leaders are re engaged and re motivated to practice and have agreed to support each other’s efforts for example through a WhatsApp group.
A month later on Module 3 people are reporting that they are experiencing more that is that they are more aware of how they feel, of how others seem to be and of the world around them for example more aware of the beauty of nature. Because they are honing their skills in noticing they are noticing both the joys and the pain of life more vividly. They may become more sensitive to self-criticism or to unkind or aggressive communication or to the pain of the hearing the news. So during this module our focus is on building the capacity for positive emotion, i.e. for joy, contentment, kindness and compassion. The leaders learn a kindness mediation in which they purposefully dwell on memories, feelings and the intention of giving and receiving kindness. This practice has been shown to bring about changes in the brain that strengthens our capacity to respond with kindness towards ourselves and to others. It can help us to be with pain and suffering for longer and can be an effective antidote to suffering fatigue. Sometimes our participants are worried about becoming more compassionate towards themselves. They fear this will make them complacent or too soft and that people will walk all over them as a result. In fact the research evidence is the opposite. Those who can respond to themselves with compassion are more able to grow and positively change and to do so sustainably.
So during Module 4 we build on the kindness practice and explore how to develop more equanimity so we are less driven by grasping after what we want and like and pushing away what we dislike. We also investigate our deepest values and the impact of ethics on ourselves and others. Practising mindfulness tends to bring both these into sharp relief. We also learn a technique called “Mindful Enquiry” to help us in decision making whereby we sit in silence and drop a question into our being and wait for a response, an answer or an intuitive knowing to arise from deeper inside ourselves.
So my experience is that by the end of the 4 month course most people will be incorporating mindfulness or brain training practices into their lives both formally through meditation and informally for example washing up mindfully. Many will be using the kindness practise as well perhaps 3-4 times per week. Others will be practising mindfulness as they move about for example walking mindfully from one office to another or cycling mindfully to work each day. That is tuning in to their actual experience of cycling or walking i.e. to all the sensations in the feet, legs arms etc moment by moment.
What I’ve noticed happens with leaders who do actively engage in the practices and also reflect on the place of mindfulness in their leadership roles, relationships and in managing complexity is that they become more aware of who they are, how they are and of what really matters to them. This means that they are often able to be more courageous and to stand up for what really matters. They are more able to say no to what is unacceptable such as other people’s behaviour at work but in a helpful way. They also seem to become more clear in their thinking and communication and ability to navigate complex systems. It’s also my experience that they start to respond with more kindness towards themselves, those they lead (for example they are more able to give helpful feedback and to understand how to get the best out of people). One can only imagine that this will also support their frontline staff to respond with more compassion towards their patients.
Finally, I’ve noticed that the senior leaders are more able to relax and to let others in. They seem to be more comfortable being who they really are rather than who or what the system tells them they should be. Most of them have reported that their colleagues and directors have noticed how much they have changed and the positive impact this is having on others.
All this comes about from learning mindfulness practices that train the brain to be more effective. Mindfulness practices in which again and again we:
“Pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement to things as they are” Professor Mark Williams
A purposeful pause, also known as a breathing space, is a simple way to regain calm and poise in the midst of a hectic day. And you can use a purpose pause in several different ways. We can use it to take time out in our busy days, and as a way of interrupting the build up of tensions and stress that can so often arise from the constant demands of the modern workplace. Regular purposeful pauses throughout the day give us the chance to step away for our busy-ness, reconnect with ourselves, and maintaining our focus on what is important that we need to be doing. Or we can take a purposeful pause when things get difficult: when tension is building up or you notice the warning signs of stress or low mood.
A purposeful pause requires no special place or equipment, it can be helpful to be somewhere you know you won’t be interrupted, but you can take a breathing space while you are sat at your desk, walking down the corridor, sitting on public transport, or anywhere where you can just focus on your own experience.
The practice is also called the Three-Minute Breathing Space, and three minutes is a good length of time. But you can do it more quickly, or expand it into something longer. In fact, the stages of acknowledging, gathering and expanding are a helpful structure for any meditation practice.
So here are the three steps:
Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture. Then ask: ‘What is going on with me at the moment?’ Notice and acknowledge your experience, instead of turning away.
What thoughts are going through the mind? Observing them, as best you can, simply as mental events.
What feelings are here? Turning toward any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, simply accepting them as they are right now. This is particularly important if there is a lot going on or you are experiencing strong feelings. Stay with these experiences for a few moments, allowing any negative feelings or experiences to be present.
What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing, acknowledging the sensations, but, once again, not trying to change them in any way.
- Gathering and focusing attention
Then gently settle your full attention upon the breathing. Experience fully each in-breath and each out-breath as they flow in and out, one after the other. Noticing the breath in this way can bring you into the present, helping you connect with a state of awareness and stillness. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.
- Expanding awareness
Maintaining a sense of the breath, expand your awareness around the breathing to include the whole body and the space it takes up, feeling that your whole body is breathing. Have a sense of the space around you, too.
Open up once more to whatever has been happening in your day, allowing space for all of the thoughts and feelings associated with it, but connecting these with the breath and feeling them in the body. Maintaining a connection with any sense of stillness and calm that may be present, holding in awareness the whole of your experience: sensations, thoughts and emotions.
This sequence is rather like an hour-glass: a wide focus, followed by a narrow focus, followed by widening focus again.
When we’re in an unhelpful state such as stress or anxiety our whole experience can feel narrow and closed. We are drawn to whatever is troubling us and focus our mind on trying to fix it. In a purposeful pause we give our experience a different kind of attention: simply acknowledging what is happening without getting caught up in it, our awareness opens up and broadens out as we include our whole experience, including our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings. This open accepting approach to our experience is a wedge of awareness that can bring a pause in an otherwise hectic day: a pause that can help create greater clarity, emotional stability and personal presence in our leadership practices.