Mindfulness Lessons for Leaders

 Last Christmas my kids bought me The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness. The rise of spoof books has become prolific and this particular book showed me how mainstream mindfulness has become. It was also a playful choice by my children given the fact that my own book is called Mindfulness and the Art of Change by Choice: Radical Leadership for Managing Change.

I fell into management consultancy 30 years ago and approach it from the ‘university of life’ standpoint, rather than relying too much on my MBA, and the theoretical models I learnt.

Various forms of mindfulness meditation have derived from the core Buddhist meditation of Vipassana, something I studied and have practised for 15 years.

At its core, mindfulness meditation is an acquired discipline to calm the mind and root it in the present no matter what negative emotions a person feels, knowing that all feelings are transitory and will pass. It’s the craving to move beyond discomfort and the natural survival-led desire to avert such pain that often leaves us feeling stuck.

There is a fundamental truth about being human - in that we want uncomfortable feelings to just ‘disappear’, but in truth, the only sound way is to recognise and feel these emotions until they are gone.

This is very easy to talk about but difficult to live by. This is why such meditations are only useful if they are practised and taught well. As with any discipline, if I were to go to the gym for a ten-day boot camp and declare myself to be fit at the end of it, but then not go near the gym for several weeks, all that I had gained would degrade and disappear.

So the first mindfulness lesson for any leader who wants to be calmer is to develop a practice where they can sit and breathe and feel for 10 or 20 minutes per day. This will start the process of being able to live more in the present.

The second lesson is to think of mindfulness in a second context. Be conscious of every micro movement you make, every word you utter and every thought you have, just firstly for five or 10 minutes at a time, the build from there.

For example, notice your reaction when someone says something you disagree with, see if you can feel the reaction before you engage your mouth. You may still end up saying what first came to you but by mindfully recognising the emotional reaction this person ‘caused’ in you, you’ll have a greater chance to say something as a conscious response, rather than a knee jerk and often blame-fuelled reaction.

The more you can extend conscious listening, conscious action, and conscious response, whilst observing knee jerk reactions, the more measured you are likely to be and the more you will start creating little pockets of reflective space in the midst of your busy day.

The third and final lesson I would offer is to do with the word leadership as we are talking about mindful lessons for leaders. What is it to be a leader?

One of my favourite expositions of the word comes from a time when sailors navigated in sail ships through crude instruments and local knowledge. When taking a ship through shallow or dangerous waters the captain would often seek out the help of the most knowledgeable sailor, not always an officer.

This sailor’s job was to stand at the front of the ship, and with his local knowledge, depth gauge the shallow waters with a piece of string and a weight. The men imbued the sailor with two critical qualities; firstly they trusted him with their lives, as to sink in those days usually meant death as few sailors could swim. Secondly, they trusted him to have vision, literally the ability to see where they needed to go and how to get them there. The preferred weight used to depth gauge in such situations was often a piece of lead because of its density. These special sailors were fondly known as the lead-ers.

If modern leaders were to mindfully build trustful conscious relationships and articulate where they want to take the company, they would be role modelling mindful leadership in many ways.

Philip Cox-Hynd is a change implementation specialist and author of Mindfulness and the Art of Change by Choice