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Using mindfulness to transform ourselves

by | Dec 4, 2023

Understanding mindfulness and its role in leadership development

Great leaders have the capacity to stay true under fire, to stay calm balanced when they are surrounded by chaos, to stay kind and respectful when feeling angry or frustrated, to take responsibility for their behaviours. However, this capacity does not come naturally. It must be cultivated.

The single most effective method for developing this capacity is mindfulness. I define mindfulness as maintaining an open-hearted awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and environment, paying attention in the present moment purposefully, warmheartedly and non-judgementally. It is experiencing and accepting the present moment — not how we want it to be, think it should be or perceive it to be, but as it really is. We can be mindful in any life situation — from driving, swimming or walking to leading, eating or writing. 

One of the biggest misunderstandings about mindfulness is that it’s primarily about calming the mind, finding our ‘Zen’. The vast majority of the literature and training programs on mindfulness revolve around calming and stabilising the mind to increase our mental health and wellbeing. 

Calming Mindfulness vs. Developmental Mindfulness

The primary meditation technique for calming meditation is focusing on an object of attention or singular point of concentration. This usually means focusing our attention on the breath, which concentrates our mind on the present moment. If the breath is not a comfortable place to bring our attention to, the practitioner can use other objects of attention, like hands or body posture or external objects of attention such as sounds or images. If we’re experiencing stress, boredom, anxiety or any other distraction, we keep coming back to our object of attention and training the mind to concentrate, settle and find balance.

This is clearly a very important part of mindfulness. It is not the full story, however. We’ve met many people who have practised meditation for years yet are still quite anxious and emotionally challenged. Their meditation practice may settle them in the moment, but it does not help them to achieve deep transformation. 

This was my experience for my first 10 years of meditation. I would be a mess emotionally, so I would meditate. And I would calm my mind and gain a brief respite from my inner turmoil, but the causes of my emotional turmoil remained hidden as I focused on my breath. Despite my regular meditation practice, I wasn’t seeing and dealing with what was under the surface and my own vertical growth was stalled.

This is why we need a second type of mindfulness practice that is oriented towards insight and development. The goal of developmental mindfulness is shadow awareness and resolution, developing distress tolerance, psychological integration and flexibility. Instead of escaping our inner baggage through meditation, it’s about curiously and compassionately digging deeper into it, exploring it, embracing it and ultimately resolving it. It’s about making object to us the unconscious patterns of feelings, perceptions and thoughts to which we’ve been subject. It’s vertical growth in action.

Examples of Developmental Mindfulness in practice

In developmental meditation, we may start by focusing our attention on the breath to settle the mind. but then, invariably, something — pain, sadness, anxiety or some other emotion — will arise in us. This then becomes what we focus on. We track our experience mindfully and explore the feelings that arise. We don’t repress anything or avoid it by just focusing on the breath. 

The difference between calming and developmental mindfulness was vividly displayed in the example of one of my clients, an executive at a media company. She was crushed when she received poor scores on a 360° leadership assessment for the component ‘Empowers people to grow and deliver their best work’. Another consultant recommended that she attend an online program on how to empower people.

While he was focused on horizontal development (the skillset of empowerment) I was more interested in vertical exploration — digging deeper into her psychology to discover the subconscious patterns behind her behaviour. 

I asked her, ‘Why do you think you micromanage others?’

‘I’m not sure,’ was her response.

I was grateful it wasn’t ‘I don’t micromanage people’. All too often new clients are so heavily defensive and numb they cannot see or own their moving-away behaviours (the left side of the matrix). 

After more exploration I asked, ‘How long have you felt the need to be fully in control of the people in your life?’

Following some more conversation and coaching, she eventually described how in her childhood her parents had divorced and her world had become unstable and challenging. Not having control over important people she depended on had resulted in loss and pain. Tragically, at some level she even felt responsible for the divorce, which is a not uncommon reaction in children. 

Her unconscious, core assumption creating the behaviour of micromanaging was that she needed to stay in control of those who could potentially let her down, and that controlling others was even good for them. 

She was now conscious of the core reason why she was micromanaging, but she still had to deal with the behaviour. I told her, ‘When you empower people and give them choice, your past wounding and fears will be aroused. When that happens, the first thing you need to do is ground yourself. Take a deep breath and mindfully feel and accept the emotional discomfort in your body. When you notice the urge to again start telling them how to do things, mindfully feel into the anxiety, keep breathing and just notice it and accept it without reacting to it. This is not easy, and of course it requires developmental mindfulness training. 

Critically, developmental mindfulness training enables us to feel and accept emotional pain without needing to avoid it or escape it. It is exactly this escaping or numbing reactivity to emotional pain that propels us into dysfunctional behaviours.

‘People will make mistakes,’ I explained, ‘especially if they aren’t used to being empowered. Once again, mindfully notice the fear and anxiety (make it object) instead of reacting to it and triggering old, protective patterns that don’t serve you anymore. Then gently recommit to your practice.’ 

Although this created distress for her, she was able to mindfully stay grounded in awareness of her body and stay true to her values and her committed action of empowering others while being able to tolerate the distress. She was eventually able to break the pattern of micromanaging, team performance improved and her career got back on track. The self-awareness and inner emotional strength she gained in the process impacted every area of her leadership and her relationships. It was literally life changing. 

Benefits of Mindfulness in leadership development

Without the self-awareness that mindfulness can give us, all efforts to change our behaviour are much more challenging. Through mindfulness we can better observe our underlying conditioning and the emotional avoidance creating poor behaviour, then self-regulate in real time to consciously choose values-aligned behaviours. 

Anna Fillipsen, Head People and Organisation for the Asia region of Novartis pharmaceutical company, explained to me how this works for her. She said, ‘There are times during conflicts when I feel my stomach churning and my body is like a tiger ready to pounce. When I’m mindful, in the heat of these moments, I can pause, notice the emotional turmoil and consider, Okay, how do I want to handle this? I remind myself that no one else is responsible for my emotional triggers, so I’m not blaming anyone for my strong feelings. I breathe and mindfully accept the feelings, which very quickly settles that inner tiger, then I can redirect my energy in a way that is more balanced and conscious.’

Lonza’s Philippe Deecke added, ‘Mindfulness helps me to view myself and situations from the outside and to reflect on my behaviour. It’s about noticing what’s happening within myself and exploring my reactions. Why am I feeling this way? Why did I react that way? It’s only when I can truly understand myself that I can transform myself.’

To be self-aware is to be mindful and conscious of what is going on inside us, then learning how to manage our experiences and habits to act more clearly, deliberately and wisely in real time, not after we have acted, when it’s too late. This is what we call real-time self-awareness — the kind of self-awareness that is available to us in any given moment, which in turn allows us to regulate our thoughts, intentions, actions and reactions wisely. This is the work of transformational leadership. 

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