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Mindfulness is Vital to Exceptional Leadership

Leaders excel by being aware of self and others, and the situation at hand. We lead in a time of perpetual chaotic change, we drink from a fire hose of information, and we interact with people from around the globe with different perspectives, cultural norms, and communication styles. To achieve high performance, we need to uptake massive information quickly, process in a non-biased open-minded manner, and respond compassionately. Mindfulness practice gets us there. With training, through meditation or other mindful techniques, our minds become more sensitive and less reactive to the stimuli that are constantly flowing through, permitting us to move out of automatic mode and make more deliberate choices about what we say and how we act.

Leaders Need to Train Their Minds As Well as Their Bodies a recent Forbes article explained.  Based on information from Megan Reitz, researcher and author, three important mindfulness practices are meta-awareness, allowing, and inquiry. Meta-awareness is the ability in the moment to notice and acknowledge our own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses – understanding that they are temporary and we can choose if we act on them. Allowing is a kind and compassionate attitude – letting things be without judgment.  Inquiry is a curiosity of the present moment – wondering how the current situation will unfold. We build a leaders mind by practicing these techniques, just like we build muscles through exercise. Mindful leadership is additive to other skills and techniques required to be an excellent leader as heightened awareness simply helps us apply learned skills more wisely.

Entrepreneur article, Mindfulness Isn’t Just a Trend, It’s Key to Being a Better Leader emphasized the benefit of unlocking intrinsic motivation for today’s workforce that is seeking meaning and purpose.  Based on the extensive research of Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, mindfulness generates greater mental effectiveness for the realization of a leader’s potential. In their recent book, “The Mind of the Leader” the authors’ claim mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are essential leadership skills. Mindfulness, in particular being present, attentive, and curious is what teaches us how our own minds work. “By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively.  By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively.” Long-term mindfulness practice leads to selflessness, where we no longer constantly act as if we are the center of the universe, and to compassion, where we are able to take others’ perspectives into consideration before we speak or act.

In the words of LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner,  “Compassion is putting ourselves in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.” For him compassionate leadership meant “pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.”

Here is the rub. Being an attentive leader simultaneously processing information about ourselves, others, and the environment is not easy. I have practiced mindfulness almost daily since 1999 and I am still constantly learning about my own mind.  That said, I have developed acute sensitivity to my thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, and to others in my environment.  That allows me to make decisions based on a greater amount of information.  My practice also allows me to change course quickly when I discover a bad habit arising or see that my current course is not effective.  There is a good reason it is called ‘mindfulness practice’ because it is an ongoing effort and, just like exercise, it takes constant hard work to see the benefits.

We are better leaders when in a chaotic moment we can simultaneously be aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and have a broad enough vantage to incorporate diverse perspectives of others.  Tapping all that information we can make better decisions and communicate compassionately. To get there, we practice mindfulness daily. There are now several meditation apps to support us, including my favorite Insight Timer.  Then when we are aware of something awry in a given situation, be that in our own minds or in what we observe in others, we pause, take the time to acknowledge and allow what is happening, and then respond with intention.

Get Out of Your Head

Most of us look at things from our own perspective. This makes total sense because we are with ourselves more than anyone else. But, it doesn’t make as much sense when we are striving for effective communication with others.

When we communicate and interact with other people, our own thoughts are often very active and distracting. We are thinking questions like, ‘what does this person think about what I am saying?’ ‘am I sounding intelligent here?’ ‘did I offend them with that last comment?’ ‘are they convinced of my opinion?’ ‘what am I going to say next?’. Often we are planning what we are going to say in response to what they are saying. Rarely are we paying 100% attention to the other person’s words and body language, even though we know that is what makes the most effective communication.

A key to effective communication is to get out of your own head. By quieting the stream of thoughts in your own mind and focusing on the other person, you increase the likelihood of a successful interaction. A successful interaction is defined as the person feeling heard and you gaining valuable information, including and beyond the content actually being spoken.

How do you quiet that stream of thoughts? Perspective, patience, and practice.

Perspective

Look at things from the other person’s point of view in advance of the interaction. Catalog what you know about the person and how that knowledge may affect their opinions of the topic to be discussed. In this exercise, you can compare and contrast your own perspective with your audience’s perspective to get a sense of similarity and differences.

Also define the objective or desired outcome of the interaction from both your and the other person’s perspective. For example, you have a planned phone call with a prospect and you know your objective is to get a face-to-face meeting. You can assume their objective is likely to discover if there is a good fit between your offering and their need, and you know that they are looking at many other providers. You also know that the person has an accounting background and shares the same home state as you. In this case, you would connect with similarities (home state), acknowledge their objective (determine fit), use logical appeals (accounting background), and close with the ask of including you in the list of providers with whom they meet (your objective). Note that this perspective-taking happens before the interaction, so these thoughts are not streaming in your head as you interact.

Patience

Let them finish every statement completely before you respond. The pause is a powerful communication technique. People feel that you are listening if you give a thoughtful (3-second) pause after they complete a statement. That pause actually allows you to fully listen while your audience is speaking and then think of your response in those 3 seconds. By fully listening while someone is speaking you gain more information than just the content of what they say. Nonverbal communication says a lot. The pace at which they make certain statements, their facial expression and body language – it all tells you more than just the words. Take our example above and assume you got the face-to-face meeting and kick it off by asking their top priorities. The person responds with a list of three but states the first two very quickly and then slows down their speaking pace on the last one. Likely that last one is really the most important one and you just got that added information because you were being patient and really listening.

Practice

After 100 times it will be habit for you to get out of your head and focus primarily on the other person. While it is not always easy to be an attentive communicator, it is well worth the effort. Don’t give up just because you’re stuck in your head for a conversation (or a few conversations). Set your intention, practice, and then kindly remind yourself to return your attention to the other person when you find yourself focused on the stream of thoughts in your head. Tricks to keep your focus on the other person include paraphrasing what they said in your mind or focusing intently on one aspect of nonverbal communication such as their facial expressions or what they are doing with their hands.

By taking the other person’s perspective in advance and planning how you will accommodate that perspective, you can minimize streaming thoughts during the interaction. By being patient and letting them finish every statement before you respond you are both making them feel heard and gaining valuable information for yourself. By practicing you get better at communicating, which improves your interactions, your relationships, and your desired outcomes.

 

 

 

 

Non-Ordinary States

Time feels irrelevant, brilliant ideas flow easily, and you have a deep sense of connection to others and the world at large – you are in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. In addition to the fabulous feeling, the benefits of these non-ordinary states are increased creativity and performance for a wide variety of pursuits – from business, to sports, to spirituality. Scientific research is revealing more about these states and the forces of psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology are allowing more and more people to effectively and consistently tap them. The book, Stealing Fire, gives an excellent synopsis of the state of these states. I will share my Top-3 Take-Aways from the book and give my perspective on how non-ordinary states relate to leadership communication.

1) Different Paths Lead to the Same Place

The book categorizes non-ordinary states into three areas: flow states typically sought by high performance individuals and teams; mystical states typically sought by contemplative people; and psychedelic states traditionally sought by hippies and youth, but now also sought by some high performance seekers. While these three seem drastically different, the book exposes that research has shown the neurobiology of the varied perspectives are quite similar. That is to say that what happens in the brain (slowing of brain waves from beta to alpha, transient hypofrontality, and release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones) is actually the same regardless of how the non-ordinary state is reached. Having practiced meditation for decades, I am biased towards that particular contemplative technique, and the book offered me an eye-opening vantage on other means. The pharmacology approach is the perspective farthest from my own and I appreciated the depth of research in that area.

2) Trend is Becoming Revolution

Specific examples of how people are working to solve ‘wicked problems’ of our time by tapping non-ordinary states are prevalent throughout the book, from the SEAL Team Six, to Googleplex, to many innovation teams. Everywhere people are hacking performance through non-ordinary states using many methods to get there. Access through smart drugs and microdosing psychedelics unveiled an entirely new perspective for me. Tim Ferris, referenced in the book, explains the trend in Silicon Valley, “Can LSD Make You a Billionaire?” Scour the Notes at the end of the book for all the research.

3) It is Not All Good News

These non-ordinary states feel good and improve performance, but they have a downside. Some of the athletic and psychedelic approaches can lead to bodily harm and even death, while some of the technology progress can lead to mind manipulation. My last Top-3 Take Away from the book is that pursuit of these states requires discipline. The formula Value = Time x Risk/Reward is offered as a means to determine how best to access non-ordinary states and the authors also offer tools for flow management.

Non-ordinary States and Leadership Communication

There are plenty of binary logical skills related to communication that can be taught, but there is a significant benefit of being in a frame of mind that naturally leads to better leadership communication. Let’s contrast the two scenarios.

You can learn to be a better storyteller or listener through specific techniques, which I teach to students and clients all the time. These cognitive skills can be intentionally applied and better leadership communication habits can be built over time. This skill building relies heavily on the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  In contrast, practicing and honing access to non-ordinary states, such as through meditation, creates a different frame of mind. These states increase the connections in the brain and allow you to see things in ways that you previously did not. The anandamide neurotransmitter promotes lateral thinking and the transient limited prefrontal cortex activity reduces the typical filters that limit our perspectives. As a leader, this helps you to be more strategic by giving you a variety of frameworks for viewing an issue. As a communicator, this allows you to see things more clearly from others’ point of view, reducing unintentional discrimination and opening broader channels of connection.  Both scenarios lead to better communication, but I argue that the second creates a fertile ground that actually helps the first.

To tap the fabulous feeling, creativity, and high performance (including excellent leadership communication), read the book, access a non-ordinary state periodically, and intentionally practice communication that honors the perspectives of others.