For many years, I have been interested in the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Only recently, however, have I come to fully realize the incredible impact that mindful practices can have for leaders—especially when used to identify and adhere to our core values as we Model the Way for others.
What is Mindfulness?
As described by Dr. Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness is as if we are “falling awake”. It is a discipline that focuses on the body and the mind in a way that can help keep us fully aware—in the moment. It is about slowing down our automatic, knee-jerk reactions to people and events and taking time to consider what’s truly important. The regular practice of mindfulness can be key to helping leaders stay on course and avoid falling victim to “auto-pilot” decision making.
While running on auto-pilot might be okay while riding a commuter train or performing some other routine task, it can have serious consequences when we’re functioning in a business environment where the stakes are often high—both financially and ethically. In the financial industry, for example, I’ve spoken with high- level leaders who survived the economic turbulence of the last several years only to find themselves far removed from their core values. They may have started out with the best intentions to act ethically but when it was over realized they had been “riding the wave” too long, unable to say “STOP!” at the right time. Somehow making that “one and only exception” led them down a path to make “just one more” exception and then another. Along the way, they lost what former Medtronic CEO Bill George in his best-selling book calls their “true north”…..and we all know how the story ended.
In today’s world, it is difficult to stay focused and mindful. There is so much stimulation and so many demands to easily distract us. These distractions into all kinds of directions make it easy to miss the “off the wall” suggestion that could bring real innovation to our business model. Opportunities to Encourage the Heart might pass us by because we are operating so completely in our “auto-pilot” mode that we miss seeing and appreciating moments of individual excellence. While we are focused on the important issues of tomorrow and the day after that, we are missing the important issues of NOW, which can have a serious impact on our vision for tomorrow. That’s why I so firmly believe that moment-to-moment awareness is such a critical leadership skill, and why engaging in mindfulness practice can increase every leader’s ability to “deliberately” put into action Kouzes and Posner’s Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.
Mindfulness to enhance our use of The Five Practices
How can a leader achieve the ability to observe the working of their own mind and deepen their understanding of how they make decisions? Just as Jim and Barry have so often said, “The key is deliberate practice, practice, practice.” Mindfulness takes discipline and practice but, in the end, can help leaders distinguish the important from the unimportant, identify their core values from which to set an example and, ultimately, establish greater credibility with all those who choose to follow. Mindfulness allows us to gain a clearer vision about where we want to go (and even more importantly, where we don’t!). And by focusing attention on our mutual “here and now”—with direct reports, colleagues and everyone important to our cause—we are able to more effectively communicate and enlist others in bringing our shared vision to life.
As Bill George described it, after engaging in mindfulness practice himself, he “was able to stay calmer and more focused in my leadership, without losing the “edge” that I believe made me successful.” A practice we can all benefit from—even if we’re not the CEO of a major Fortune 500 firm—Mindfulness can help us discover fresh contributions by team members that went unnoticed before, and find more meaningful ways to encourage their hearts. Perhaps we will become much more aware of the moment and, therefore, discover new ways to improve our lives, the lives of our teammates and colleagues, as well as the organization.
Mindfulness might not be for everyone, but there is an important place for it in helping leaders identify their own values, establish credibility, and make simple and effective the art and science of exemplary leadership.
Frank Vollmering, a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®, has more than 15 years of experience in international human resource management and has held leadership position in a number of international organizations. Based in Munich, Germany, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Frank highly recommends the work of Bill George and Jon Kabat-Zinn whose books and articles have been an inspiration to him.