Want to be an innovative leader who connects effectively with people? Stop functioning on autopilot and harness the power of your thoughts
At least two of my C-suite, or highest-level executive, friends groaned when I told them I was writing an article on mindfulness! Fortunately, both instances opened up insightful conversations on “mindfulness" and helped me realize that it is important to start by talking about what it is not before we discuss what it is, and how we can use it to become superior leaders.
u Mindfulness is NOT meditation. It may have originated in Buddhist meditative rituals, but the practice does not always necessitate meditation. It can be practised at any moment, anywhere.
u Mindfulness does NOT need you to “slow down". It is not so much about stopping to smell the roses as about being aware of them, being aware of choosing your point of focus (the rose or elsewhere) and being able to naturally regulate that choice. Mindfulness as a state or habit is required by the leader with an unhurried pace as much as the harried fire-fighter.
u Mindfulness is NOT a “hack". Like a lot of other useful practices, it too has been gimmicked as the new mantra, a hack, a short cut, the panacea to every ailment. While some short cuts are useful, most only give a short-term illusion of advancement. You may experience immediate but temporary benefits after a mindfulness “retreat" or “training" but mindfulness is not a button you can push to liberate your mind. The true benefits only accrue when it becomes a habit.
u Mindfulness can be used to calm as well as rouse your mind. It has been used widely to reduce stress, blood pressure and anxiety. Yet awareness of, and curiosity about, mindfulness generate unparalleled insight, allowing you to notice new things about yourself and the world around you.
Mindfulness is... ...Attention management in its highest form, involving deliberate awareness of every thought and feeling that occurs in an open, accepting and non-judgemental manner.
The two important aspects of mindfulness are intentional awareness and open, accepting and non-judgemental attention. The former ensures you do not function on autopilot and the latter helps you notice every thought and feeling, acknowledge it without evaluating it. This neutral attention prevents the emotions from distracting you and drawing your energy away.
Leaders today need to move beyond their accustomed mental models and familiar world views to new ways of listening, observing, thinking, innovating, responding, balancing and leading. Here are some reasons why mindfulness is essential for leaders:
u The human brain works on a pattern-recognition mechanism where every experience is not even being noticed in its complete detail. Our brain notices general markers and patterns and fills in the rest based on existing mental frameworks and memories. Most of our reactions, behaviour, even decisions, are based on this incomplete information.
Mindfulness ensures you are perceptive about the current context and discern the changes in your experiences. Being present and noticing the complete picture also helps your brain more accurately retrieve and learn what you need in that moment. This, in turn, ensures that you respond to situations, not react to them.
u Neuroscientists have observed through MRIs that mindfulness is associated with an increase in grey-matter density in brain regions associated with cognitive “executive" functions such as planning, decision making and judgement, as well as those associated with self-awareness, empathy and love.
u Our minds are designed to wander. Even in a “resting" state our minds are constantly gathering information. Focus, therefore, takes conscious effort. Deliberate concentration on the present moment allows leaders to develop superlative focus, superior observation capacity, and expands awareness to facilitate more effective and accurate use of intuitive abilities.
Organizations, not just individuals, can and should be mindful. Mindful organizations are those that dedicate themselves to paying attention—both inwards and outwards. The active observation of new things allows mindful organizations to be more responsive, adaptive and faster.
Simply, this means paying full attention in the present moment, consciously noticing every detail outside and within you. A simple way to start practising mindfulness is a 2-minute breathing exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime, and multiple times during the day.
Concentrate on your breathing, feel the air entering your nostrils and travelling into your body. Notice the smell, temperature and texture. Notice how your body responds to it, where it expands or contracts, how it absorbs. Be an active participant in the release, feel the air flow out of the body to make space for the next refreshing breath.
Do not feel under pressure to stop your thoughts or empty your mind. This will only create stress and negative noise. Mindfulness is not about silencing unwanted thoughts; it is about regulating how much attention you give to those thoughts. Allow thoughts to pass through your mind, do not resent their presence. Instead, focus your attention and energy on breathing.
As you master the breathing exercise, slowly try applying the same focused attention to everything—your food, your conversations, your meetings. It will take practice but once it becomes a habit, you will naturally notice a lot more than you did, you will function at a higher level of awareness and most of all, you will master your attention.
The biggest challenge can be remembering to be mindful. It is important to stay on track when you feel your commitment wavering after the initial enthusiasm dies down. These few practices can help develop this as a habit:
Create rituals: Weave mindfulness into your daily routine by using regular activities as triggers to practise it. For example, someone may decide to be mindful while they use the elevator at office every day—it may start with concentrating on the textures, sounds, physical sensations during the elevator ride, but slowly they’ll also become aware of their mental chatter.
They might notice passive irritation when people hold up the elevator too long, they might notice that they use the ride to prepare themselves mentally for their next steps and don’t like their thoughts being interrupted. They might notice their “mood" after a “pleasant" versus “unpleasant" elevator ride. As they simply practise noticing this mental chatter as it arises, it will gradually quiet the mind down. The best way to make peace with and let go of thoughts is to acknowledge them; trying to ignore unpleasant thoughts often just leaves you with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction.
Rekindle your curiosity by exercising it: Remember how inquisitive you were when you were a child? Almost anything from a line of marching ants to a twinkling star could mesmerize you. Revive that inquisitiveness. Start by finding something personally interesting to you that can provoke your curiosity. When you’ve practised this, try approaching your own thoughts with the same curiosity: What am I thinking in this moment? What may have ignited this thought? What feelings does it evoke?
As with every good practice, the best time to start is always now.
Shweta HandaGupta is the founder of QuadraBrain Transformation Solutions. She works with CXOs and potential leaders as a leadership coach, facilitator and change expert.