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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.

Avoid Saying ‘You’ ‘Always’ ‘Never’

When providing feedback, it’s all about the delivery. To achieve your end goal more often avoid the pronoun ‘you’ and avoiding generalizations when giving constructive criticism. Just think about how you felt the last time somebody said ‘You are always late for meetings’ or ‘You never do your share of the work’ – it triggers the defensive reflex.

The purpose of constructive criticism is to change future behavior, not to shame the person exhibiting the behavior. Use of the words ‘you’ and ‘always’ or ‘never’ when giving criticism raises people’s defenses and hinders effective communication, reducing the chance of changed behavior. When we hear ‘you’ we tend to react as if we are being personally attacked, even if that is not the intention. When we hear generalizations such as ‘always’ or ‘never,’ we tend to react as if it is not fair, because nothing is true 100 percent of the time.

These defensive human reactions have to do with the attribution bias, which is the human tendency to take personal credit when things go well and give responsibility to outside factors when things don’t. Attribution bias works just the opposite for others; we assign personal responsibility to others when things don’t go well and assign credit to outside factors when things do go well.

Given what we know about human nature, you will be much more effective as a leader if you carefully word your constructive criticism. To get a sense, just imagine yourself in these two scenarios and see how you feel.

Scenario One: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk into the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘You are always late.’

Scenario Two: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk in to the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘Let’s all try to be on time next Monday so we can start our week off right.’

If you are like most people, the first scenario feels like a personal attack and you think that factors out of your control were the cause of your lateness. The second scenario feels much more palatable because you think that factors out of your control made you late, but still acknowledge that it is better if everyone is on time.

As a leader, you can experiment with wording your criticism carefully and then watch the different reactions of those whose behavior you are trying to modify. The table below gives examples of alternative statements you can make while doing this experiment.

Instead of Saying This . . .   Say That
You never do your share of the work. Can you stop being lazy and get to work? Don’t you see that everyone else is working harder than you here? When we all contribute significantly, we all benefit from reaching our goals. What do you think your greatest contribution can be here? Is there anything that is hindering your efforts?
You always mess up projects. Your mistake is costing everyone. What were you thinking? How are you going to fix it? The mistake made on this project has significant consequences. What do you think we can do to correct it immediately and prevent it from happening again in the future?
The way you talk to coworkers always pisses everyone off and never gets you what you want. Why are you so rude? Since everyone has different styles of communication, it is helpful to adapt to others’ styles in the office. How can I help you to observe others and learn to adapt to their styles?

 

Odds are you will be pleasantly surprised at how switching just a few words can have a significant impact on the reaction of others and the achievement of your end goal of changed behavior.

On Teaching Mindfulness

“I really enjoyed every single exercise we did this course, it made me feel thankful, calm, and alert. A feeling I don’t normally feel prior to entering this class.” – Anonymous Leadership Communication Student

“I struggled with it but it gave me good techniques to apply to my daily life and my stress management.” – Anonymous Leadership Communication Student

Mindfulness is a topic that I teach in every class in the Leadership Communication course at San Francisco State University. Here is my thinking: the more a leader is aware of themselves and others, the more likely they are to make sound decisions, doing the most good for the greatest amount of people. Therefore, teaching future leaders mindfulness will have a positive effect on the future of the world. That may be a bit of a grandiose statement, but it is my mission. The responses I get in the end-of-term survey, like the two above, inspire me with the immediate impact mindfulness makes.

Over the course of the semester, I teach various forms of meditation and mindfulness to expose students to many options in hope that at least one strikes a chord and they make it a habit. I tie the type of mindfulness to the course content. For example, Metta/Kindness Meditation is taught while learning about Out-Groups, and Visualization is taught at the same time as Creating a Vision.

This semester, the survey results showed that 83 percent of students had no prior experience with mindfulness, 92 percent liked being taught mindfulness, and 96 percent indicated that this instruction made it a better course. I had them rank their preferences of six methods I teach:

Breathing – Center your attention on your breath

Body Awareness – Slowly scan your body, focusing on sensations

Concentration – Focus on a word or phrase repeated silently to yourself

Freeze Game – Stop in the heat of a moment to notice and name internal states

Metta/Kindness – Send goodness to self and others through silent kind phrases

Visualization – Picture a situation, immerse yourself with all senses and notice internal states

Focus on breathing came in as the most popular method, with Visualization being the second most popular and Body Scan and Metta tying for third.

My favorite part of the survey is the free-form responses, so I am sharing a few more here.

“I really enjoyed the experience of doing meditation in class. Majority of the time I’m coming from working a full 8 hour shift and then in traffic for about an hour and a half. This experience really helped me calm down and focus on this class. I also really enjoyed the entire concept of being mindful because it not only helped me with myself but with others also. It really helped me become more aware of emotions, thoughts, and actions because I realized that I am the one in control.”

“I didn’t know that we would be having these every class time and I find it super essential to do because I like to meditate and it feels relaxing to do it towards the end of the day so I can be a little relieved and then carry on to just solely focus on this class. I believe that mindfulness and meditation helps a leader out in many ways and it’s highly important to value that.”

“My mind wanders a lot and I have a lot of thoughts and imagination so to clear out my mind and focus on a singular thing was frustrating.”

As that last comment indicates, not all students enjoy the process. It is not easy in a world of constant digital stimuli to sit quiet for a few moments and turn inward. Not easy, but essential for leaders. So, I will keep teaching mindfulness in my leadership course with the hopes that the impact expands beyond the classroom through the careers of my students.

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.

“Works well with others” Required

Two budding leaders from Kulesa Faul Public Relations spoke to my Leadership Communication class at San Francisco State this week, offering advice to students interested in entering the profession. The interactive conversation was a good reminder of how effective communication plays into career advancement in addition to being essential for the art of public relations. Here are a few memorable pieces of advice that I find relevant to all stages of leadership.

If you want something, take initiative

That something could be more responsibility within your organization or a better understanding of a client’s perspective on an industry topic, but it will take your initiative to make it happen. Those who sit back and wait don’t get very far in the field of public relations (or any other field, I might add).

A problem with a coworker can be worked out 1:1

The person to go to if you have an issue is the very person with whom you are having an issue. You might first get advice from a mentor on how to deal with the specific problem at hand, but to solving it requires open, honest, and non-judging communication. Sometimes that is best done out of the office and over drinks so that both people can be relaxed and focused.

Acknowledge and appreciate different working styles

Understanding the every person has unique strengths to contribute and different ways of working is essential for high standards of excellence. Success requires learning team members’ styles and then adapting communication so that everyone on the team can contribute and understand others’ contributions.

Intentionally choose the best mode of communication

Email, text, instant messaging, call, videoconference, face-to-face – we have so many possible modes of communication available. Good public relations, good client relations, and good team relations all rely on selecting the best mode for the situation. Taking into account personal preferences, urgency, sensitivity of the content, and the number of people involved will help ensure the most appropriate communication mode is intentionally used.

I truly appreciate the reminder that relationships are the key to success and good communication is key to relationships. Therefore, ‘works well with others’ is required in public relations (and in life).

Wisdom at Work

Attending Wisdom 2.0 for my sixth time, I was, as usual, impressed by the caliber of speakers, but this year I was more impressed by the attendees and the way in which they are implementing mindfulness in their work. I met people from all industries from all over. Hearing their stories gave me insight on just how many ways we can practice mindfulness and bring wisdom into work. So, I am sharing the highlights with you.

First, just a quick reminder of the definition of mindfulness from industry veteran Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

Second, what struck me through all the stories is how central communication is to implementing mindfulness. That is not a surprise since I look at life through a communication filter, but it makes sense because while mindfulness allows us to pause and gain insight, it is in relations with others that wisdom comes forth. The fruits of mindfulness are evident in our interactions with others at work. Through people’s stories on bringing wisdom to work, we can see this in action. Now, on to the vignettes.

  • Medical devices marketing manager in New Jersey finds that mindful practice helps with coping with a boss who uses an unkind style of speaking to the team. This boss readily admits the aggressive communication style, but expects the team to cope with it anyway. This particular team member uses mindfulness to keep centered and to be able to respond with kindness despite the aggression.
  • Always facing families who are dealing with trauma, rehab worker from Utah uses mindfulness to recharge compassion on a regular basis. Mindfulness helps with staying fully present to families as they go through very difficult times without getting too burned out from the nature of this intense work.
  • Organizational design specialist in San Francisco uses mindfulness in helping entrepreneurs launch their businesses. Staying aware in the present moment fosters creativity and leads to better solutions.
  • Programmer in Silicon Valley uses mindfulness to wisely choose where to place the valuable resources called our attention. People’s attention often goes to the most prevalent and easy-to-access information fed through an application or through online media, even if it is not the best for them or even what they really want and need. By designing more mindfully, programmers can create technology that is both the path of least resistance and in line with what is good for individuals and society.
  • Human Resource manager for consumer goods company in Ontario teaches mindfulness to employees in order to reduce mental health issues, moderating the cost of disability claims for the organization.
  • Onboarder at technology company in Menlo Park uses mindfulness both as part of formal process for new employees and personally as a way to give more spaciousness for making decisions in a fast-paced environment.
  • Business Development Specialist at a start up in Oakland uses mindfulness as core to the business offering and to create meaningful connections with individuals at organizations that are prospective customers.
  • High-profile sales executive in Colorado used wisdom gained from mindfulness to switch careers to be in better alignment with intentions and strengths, giving up prestige for greater well being.
  • CFO of school district in Vancouver uses mindfulness in dealing with fellow coworkers in the district, particularly those who don’t listen well. Practicing full attention in meetings, leaving technology behind and really listening is a way to stay present and model the desired behavior for others.
  • Leadership Development executive from NY uses mindfulness to listen fully and effectively to clients prior to creating development plans.
  • Educator in Pennsylvania finds that Group Think among colleagues is the greatest detriment to productivity at work. Her take is that people want to belong so badly that in the moment they will agree with others even if they don’t actually agree. She uses mindfulness to stay present and true to integrity and will kindly state differing opinions in group settings. When rebutted mindfulness brings forth self-compassion.

All of these individuals inspired me and I hope they inspire you to take a moment to pause and bring yourself into the present moment and see what wisdom is there for you.