In a world of nonstop distractions and fast-paced change, the hardest thing of all for leaders is simply achieving focus. Becoming a mindful leader may yield surprising benefits.
Leadership is hard work. It requires considerable mental and physical energy to cope with a constant barrage of challenges and the decisions that go with them. Those who need you to lead will absorb your energy as well. Good leaders thrive on the demands of their work, but it helps to have strategies for coping with the accompanying stress. Physical exercise is often recommended as a good outlet for combating the stressful nature of leadership. Some experts would suggest that while stress-relief techniques are helpful, great leaders develop mental techniques that are more than just coping mechanisms. They are internal strategies for better performance.
About a year ago I decided to try yoga to provide an occasional alternative to my usual fitness regimen. One of the great benefits of higher education employment is access to gym facilities and fitness courses. At first it was hard being unfamiliar with the poses, along with the awareness that one’s aging body has lost much of its natural flexibility (like when you see a real baby doing a Happy Baby pose). Eventually, I become comfortable with the basic one-hour practice, and now look forward to it.
Despite some of the physical barriers, I came to realize the real challenge in yoga is mental, not physical. An instructor helped me to understand that having a good yoga experience results from focused breathing. It’s harder than it sounds because it requires the ability to shut out disrupting thoughts. Where you need to be, the tasks on the to-do-list, and a million other things are always there to grab a piece of attention. When you try to empty your mind, those nagging thoughts just seem to get in the way. But the reward for staying focused is a greater feeling of being refreshed and renewed at the end of the practice, and the occasional clarity of mind that allows a truly valuable thought to emerge. Being able to harness that capacity for clear thinking is a real asset for leaders.
Not just for Buddhists
It’s much easier to find literature about mindfulness than it is to actually achieve it. Most of what you’ll read will connect mindfulness to Buddhist traditions or stress therapy techniques. The phrase that appears most often in explanations of mindfulness is “being in the present moment.” That means you are deliberately focused on whatever is happening right now. Intentional, purposeful concentration can open the mind to new possibilities, help us avoid quick judgments, and keep us calm when the storm is raging around us. Just as with one’s yoga practice, the cumulative distractions we confront in the office play havoc with the effort to stay in the moment.
Cool enough for Google
Though difficult to achieve, the pursuit of mindfulness is within the reach of any individual. There’s no special skill set or talent required, nor do you need to spend a year in isolation at a Buddhist temple. In fact, it’s not just for gurus but also for Googlers. One of the most popular continuing education classes at Google is “Search Inside Yourself.” The class has three steps—attention training, self-knowledge, and self-mastery—that lead to the creation of useful mental habits. As one student said “I’m definitely much more resilient as a leader. I listen more carefully and with less reactivity in high-stakes meetings. I work with a lot of senior executives who can be very demanding, but that doesn’t faze me anymore. It’s almost an emotional and mental bank account.”
Take a deep breath
So how does a leader learn to be mindful? One possibility is to immerse oneself in a few good articles or books that will help in getting started, and some of these resources will offer exercises designed for the acquisition of breathing and meditation skills. Try “Mindful Leadership” by Lyn Hopper, a librarian, as it provides a nice overview of the topic and an excellent bibliography. It can also help to work on becoming more aware of your external and internal states. Being externally mindful means you have a heightened ability to sense situations. Doing so allows you to be more intentional in how you reflect and respond. Internal mindfulness relates to an awareness of your body, emotions, and thoughts. Together they help you avoid mindlessness, a state in which you are controlled by emotion and impulse – and are much more susceptible to rash judgments and poorly thought out words and actions.
I wish I had some surefire advice on how to become a mindful leader, but it’s something I’m still working on and it’s the sort of thing you achieve over an extended period. I can share a few key practices that may help:
- Detachment: focusing on deep breathing (e.g., breathing with the diaphragm in a manner that completely fills and empties it with each breath) may help you to detach from your emotions, impulses, and routines.
- Noticing: develop the ability to observe something without immediately judging it or attaching meaning to it; instead, try looking at something familiar in a new way.
- Here and now: achieve more satisfaction in the moment by being attentive to what’s happening right now rather than exerting energy and worry on what’s going to happen.
Together, these practices may help liberate your mind from distractions and be in the present moment.
The mindful leadership philosophy is a technique that I hope will make me a better leader; it may not work for everyone. What makes a difference, I think, is having some sort of breakthrough moment; a realization that there may just be something to this mindfulness talk. Perhaps the simplest point of awareness is having a moment of clarity in which a radically different idea emerges or a new solution to a confounding problem crystallizes. When that happens it brings a new perception that making the effort to be in the moment may have its own rewards. In that way, it’s much like leadership itself: Challenging, but ultimately satisfying.