If you have read my articles previously you will have hopefully recognized that I am a huge advocate for strong leadership in any organization. I guess; who isn’t? But what I call leadership may not resonate with others. What I see as a positive attribute for a strong leader, say the ability to embrace uncertainty, others may see as a failing because a leader needs to have all the answers…right?
This has led me to ask myself if there is one specific leadership quality that might be so powerful and provide so much benefit that everyone would acknowledge it as a must have? Well, I submit to you for your consideration – mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
One definition of mindfulness I like comes from Merriam-Webster:
“the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”
An admirable trait for anyone for sure. The opposite of mindfulness, if you use this definition, might look something like this:
“the practice of demonstrating the use of judgment, while being unaware or unconscious of your thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”
No one would ever do this… or would they? I know I can think of more than a couple situations where I have unintentionally applied judgement based on an experiential bias I might have had with a flavour of emotion attached. Having now had time to go back and look at these situations, they invariably led to a flawed decision being made that ultimately required more time and more effort to address the situation than if had there been an effort to apply the practice of mindfulness up front.
To make my case for mindfulness, I would like to share some of the benefits noted throughout various studies about the trait.
· Reduced stress
· Reduced rumination
· Fewer occurrences of depression/anxiety
· Less emotional reactivity plus more effective emotional regulation
· Increased focus
· More cognitive flexibility
· Improved working memory
I would like to share where these benefits might add value to the municipal leader’s tool belt. I will follow that with some suggestions for you to consider in adding this skill to your repertoire.
The busy mind of a municipal leader
I am certain if I was to do a survey of all my friends in the municipal environment at a leadership level, those who would say their jobs are stressful would far outweigh those who would say the job is not stressful. Not to go into too great of detail, here are some statistics from the website www.stress.org
The main causes of stress were noted as being these 4. Workload (46%), people issues (28%), juggling work/personal lives (20%) and Lack of job security (6%).
Let’s assume that of the 28% of respondents who named ‘people issues’ there are at least some of those people at your place of work. If that is the case, every one of the main causes of stress has to do, in whole or in part, with work. As a municipal leader I have found these stressors commonly found in the municipal environment: relationship with Council, relationships with colleagues, public expectations, financial capacity, competing interests internally/externally and personal goals.
This stress leads to extended rumination on decision making. I feel too often leaders make decisions only after putting them through every filter they possibly can consider before pulling the trigger. This is where much of the criticism of government comes from; being too bureaucratic or committing ‘paralysis by analysis’. When I have been in this space myself I tend to be almost paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake, and found myself grinding on every decision in an attempt to be convinced it is finally okay to proceed or to provide advice to Council that they ought to proceed. I have perhaps not placed enough value on being more decisive and efficient and trusting of my instincts.
The longer I operate in this bureaucratic environment while not trusting my own instincts, the greater risk I face of encountering the depression and anxiety that leads to questioning my value. We have all heard the terms “stuck in a rut” or “caught in a hamster wheel” more times than we care to admit. I know of many informal CAO groups that get together just to support each other and vent their issues.
When I encounter anxiety or am in a state of depression, my emotions tend to drive many of my decisions. My decisions can take longer as described above or they can also be hastened as also previously shared. Both situations lead to decisions that are often flawed because of the self-imposed reasons for making that decision. Calming anxiety or diffusing anger and alleviating depression should not carry more weight than logic and evidence.
I am a real proponent of staying true to a strategic plan and the priorities within it. All of the angst from issues with lack of mindfulness lead to a situation where being able to focus on priorities becomes difficult. Reacting to every twist and turn that might be thrown your way does not leave a lot of time to be proactive and disciplined. Clarity of purpose and answering the ‘why’ is compromised when we are always trying to catch up.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to learn from any situation that has been faced from many different perspectives, understanding context and allowing time for curiosity and ensuring any learnings are transferred to a collective knowledge base. I would be fascinated to see the results of a poll in the municipal sector that asked how many leaders have time and space for these type of intentional learnings.
Have you ever heard these phrases before? “I have too much on my mind.” “There are so many things going on I can’t keep track.” “I need to just get it done so I can move onto the next thing.” I regularly encounter very busy leaders. I feel we are still in this space where being busy is the badge of honor for leaders. The problem with being busy is that busy impairs our ability to recall and incorporate details, and those details can often be the most important factor in making good decisions.
How mindfulness benefits you and your work
I do hope that you have now recognized where you might encounter situations where mindfulness would be helpful. Here are some suggestions on how to go about adding it to your work life and perhaps even more broadly.
The first suggestion is to recognize the benefits. I have written this article to demonstrate, however briefly, where mindfulness may come in handy. It is now up to you to want to embrace those benefits and be intentional about making mindfulness work for you. There are many books, blogs, websites, apps and courses devoted to the topic. Expanding your knowledge in this area would be a great investment of your time. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
You will need to set aside time to practice mindfulness. Just like any other skill, it needs to be honed before you become good at it. Be careful not to judge yourself too harshly on how quickly you expect results, as this will move you in a direction that is opposite of the practice itself. Any effort in this area should be seen a positive. Worrying about lack of progress impairs future successes.
Be open to others about the fact that you are introducing this practice to the personal
toolbox I mentioned earlier. You may be surprised at the reactions you get. I have shared my own journey down this path with others and feel it helps me hold myself accountable to devote time to it and be on a path of continual improvement – all while still applying no judgement. This conversation may lead to interest from those around you who may be curious enough to investigate this for themselves. Having a cohort can be very motivational.
A small but potentially very impactful tool to assist in the journey would be a journal. Spending a few minutes daily to ponder how the day went from a perspective of mindfulness leads to this becoming a habit. Just as we can learn bad habits we can equally learn good ones. A journal helps this become habitual.
As I have read more and more on the topic of mindful leaders and been inspired by their stories (examples include Soledad O’Brien – CEO of Starfish Media, Scott Shute – LinkedIn, Peter Bostelmann – SAP) I have recognized a common thread of their experiences. These transformations have occurred:
· Making good decisions has outweighed making many decisions
· Quality of work hours has increased versus quantity of hours ‘logged in’
· Practitioners have become more reflective and less responsive
· Value has more weight than efficiency
I would like to leave you with a few tips to get you started on your mindfulness journey. These take very little time or effort, and when they become habitual they will have you thirsting for more:
· Take one minute every day to sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed and breathe. This might eventually lead to you thinking about introducing meditation into your mindfulness practice. That would be great, but a one minute start is perfect.
· Listen. Start with one conversation a day where you intentionally focus on just listening to whoever is talking with you. This does not require you to be silent, but to actively listen to what others are sharing, and to not rush into responding before contemplating what has been said. You may want to even share that this is your intent, so those around you know the investment you are making in a constructive interaction. It might become infectious.
· Find a meaningful object that you can take with you during your day. Make this object your tool to remind yourself of the journey you are on. When you recognize yourself applying judgement or not being as mindful as you hope, take a look at your go to object, pause, and bring yourself back into focus.
· Be grateful. Think of something in your life that you never waiver of being grateful for. When you feel a stressor that you think may lead you into a place of reactivity or an emotional decision, think of that thing you are most grateful for. This will be a trigger for you to apply context to this situation. Remember the term “don’t sweat the small stuff”?
· Go for a walk. While you have likely heard of the walking meeting, whether you have a meeting or not during your walk is less important than injecting a bit of fresh air and mother nature into your day.
There you go. I sincerely hope you are inspired to at least look into mindfulness. I sense there is more of an appetite than ever before to pay attention to people’s well being. Mindfulness is a powerful ally in this endeavour and in my opinion can have immeasurable benefits for any leader.