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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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.
Far more than just a calming practice, mindfulness offers us a profound method for personal transformation.