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Mindful Leadership is an Inside-Out Job

by | May 11, 2021

No one loves being stuck behind the wheel, surrounded by frustrated drivers and trapped in the middle of an unmoving wall of cars. In the midst of such a situation, we can all imagine somewhere else we’d rather be.

But there’s actually an opportunity that traffic jams and other similar life circumstances provide. Situations like these are especially important for leaders, giving us a glimpse inside and allowing us to see how we act or react. They allow us to examine whether we choose our response to stimuli, or to allow emotions to take control.

For example, consider two people stuck in traffic on their way to work. Both of them will be late unless the traffic eases up, yet neither of them has any urgent meeting to get to. Their external world is very similar.

One of them is calm and relaxed, knowing full well that getting stressed won’t make the traffic go faster, nor will it serve his wellbeing. The second is frustrated, angry and stressed. He’s honking his horn, anxiously checking his watch every couple of minutes, cursing other drivers.

The stressed person is caught up in the assumption that the traffic is the cause of his stress. And in an odd way, without looking deeper, there is logic to this thinking — but it’s not the whole story.

If our external world were the actual cause of stress, it would create stress for everyone in equal measure. Yet in this example, that’s clearly not the case. One driver is anxious and angry; the other is relaxed and at peace. The cause of stress the first driver experiences is clearly not external, but within.

Yes, the external world provides plenty of triggers, but the ultimate cause of our stresses is the internal way we process our external world.

In the light of cool reason, we can see this truth, but as my late father used to say, “Shooting at a target is easy. But when bullets are flying back at you, it changes the game dramatically.” And it’s when the bullets start flying back that we usually come undone and lose our ability to remain calm and relaxed – we lose our ability to be mindful. Keep in mind, the “bullets” that fly back at us can be much more than the “traffic” we’re experiencing, or the challenge of present circumstances.

Mindful leadership is about knowing how to deal with our stress internally so we can lead well under pressure.

The Force of the Subconscious

Our behaviours are often triggered by conditioning embedded deep within our subconscious mind, which if we examine their root were often caused by painful or confusing childhood experiences.

According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, 95 per cent of our thoughts, emotions and learning occurs without our conscious awareness. Most cognitive neuroscientists concur, with some putting the figure as high as 99.999 per cent. Duke professor and author Dan Ariely concluded from years of empirical research that “we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.” David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author, adds, “[C]onsciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.”

In other words, it’s easy to acknowledge rationally and intellectually that our stress and suffering are caused by our mindset. But in practice, it is often triggered in ways we don’t even understand. These subconscious, unseen triggers often sabotage our mindful leadership efforts.

For example, I once worked with a client, a senior banking executive, who was told that he had to change or he was going to lose his job. I was hired as his coach. The behaviours threatening his job were that he always had to be right and he shamed and belittled people harshly and regularly. His attacks would be particularly vicious any time he felt threatened in a situation where his ideas might be disproved or he risked losing an argument.

After some inquiry-based mindfulness work we found the true cause of his destructive behaviour, the pattern running beneath the surface of his conscious awareness. In one session he confessed to me, through tears, that as a child his dad beat him regularly and belittled him cruelly. He also said that when he cried his dad would intensify the beatings and shaming. So he built defence mechanisms to protect himself from feeling vulnerable and powerless.

As an adult leader, this showed up as a need to always be right and to always have the last word on everything. In a misguided though understandable effort to protect himself from those old wounds, he was always sure to be in control, to put others down before they could put him down, to be closed off and invulnerable.

His mind became stuck in a subconscious defence pattern and this pattern kept playing itself out in inappropriate ways. His career was burning down as a result. Recognizing the source of his stress was the first step to ending his destructive behaviour and developing more mindful leadership.

Mindful Leadership is Found in Presence

A client of mine shared with me this insight: “Before mindfulness training I struggled to accept the role I had played in bad situations. But now, when things go wrong, I’m really quite comfortable asking myself, ‘What could I have done differently?’ Mindfulness has given me a greater level of self-awareness, which enables me to more reflectively understand cause and effect, and to see my responsibility in all situations.”

One CEO I know teaches everyone in his company the mindful leadership principle of moving toward difficult emotions, particularly anger and fear, rather than running from them. “Anger and fear are not something to try to eliminate,” he suggested to me. “They are something to embrace. They are there to teach us, to awaken us and get us to pay attention to something. When we feel those feelings, something important is going on that we need to learn from. And we learn from them by recognising and living with discomfort — we learn to live with the void of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

Mindfulness practice re-sensitises us to our lives, and also helps us develop a critical quality for embracing our whole lives: equanimity, an inner steadiness and balance regardless of what is happening in our external world. Equanimity is essential for mindful leadership.

My friend Patrick Kearney, a highly regarded teacher of mindfulness, shared with me that one of the great symbols of equanimity is the Daruma doll in Japan. These dolls are designed so that when they are knocked over, they always bounce back up again. Equanimity is like that — a steady upright place inside yourself that bounces back no matter what happens in your external world.

As Patrick said, “If you’re cultivating mindfulness, then you are paying continuous attention to whatever happens. You have to develop an attitude of acceptance of whatever happens. Otherwise, you can’t do it. You may be mindful of one thing, but something else may be too difficult for you to handle. So you’ll escape into thinking and distraction. But as your mindfulness practice matures, you learn to stay with whatever is going on, and this naturally develops into equanimity. As one of my teachers put it, it’s ‘taking refuge in the present.’”

One high-level executive chairman told me he sees developing equanimity as one of the greatest benefits of mindfulness, and one of the best tools for mindful leadership. “For the leader of any organisation there are going to be storms,” he told me. “If you’re not cultivating some sense of equanimity within yourself, if you’re not aware of how you’re responding to the changing world, there’s little hope of finding your centre and keeping everybody else centred through those storms. This is what makes for true mindful leadership: how are you when colleagues are disagreeing with you and revenues are declining? Mindfulness practice is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.”

By cultivating our ability to tolerate difficult feelings and stay open instead of contracting into defensiveness, we can discover so much more about ourselves. Our self-awareness can grow exponentially, and with it our capacity for transformation and real change in our mindful leadership efforts. This is another gift of truly looking inward without defensiveness — the vulnerable path.

Earlier I gave the example of my banking executive client who discovered the deeply rooted childhood trauma that was dictating his self-destructive behaviours and threatening his job. Through mindfully leaning in, and not running from his distressing feelings of fear and vulnerability, he began to break the old patterns, the defence mechanisms designed to protect him. He learned to breathe through the triggers that arose when he felt challenged or criticised. He slowly became aware that it was okay to feel scared or vulnerable, and that he wouldn’t be physically harmed or lose his job or lose respect. In fact, he discovered that as he allowed himself to be vulnerable, the opposite happened: he won greater respect — and he kept his job, all thanks to mindful leadership.

We all become frustrated at times, and it’s that frustration that gives us an opportunity to choose what we are going to do. Mindfulness allows the frustrated person in the midst of the traffic to truly and honestly see that he can choose a different response to the traffic, that he has real choice over his actions. It allows the leader to quit blaming others for team issues and start getting truly honest with herself, and begin to change her behaviour first. And with this mindful leadership, she inspires others to do the same.

The next time you’re stuck in traffic or a similar circumstance beyond your control, look within. Take the cue from your present opportunities to measure your mindfulness. Because leadership alone isn’t enough—we need mindful leadership.

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