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Mindfulness Leadership

By Cesar Augusto Marron - Cardinal Health
Director General


César Marrón By César Marrón | Director General - Wed, 02/08/2023 - 10:00

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In my experience, mindfulness helps leaders because we gain a heightened awareness of our emotions, thoughts, and the way our body feels under stress. Mindfulness leadership gives you the opportunity to respond consciously and intentionally, rather than to react in explosive and dysfunctional ways, without thinking first.

For leaders, this means you can tackle difficult conversations more easily and handle criticism and harsh comments without flying completely off the handle. If people make comments (even unintentionally) that hurt your feelings or offend you, you’re more likely to be able to show restraint and remain polite.

Being more mindful will help leaders to remain more composed and help you to respond in a constructive manner. This will help you keep your composure in your interactions with your team, your colleagues, and your boss.

Our attitude represents how we feel about certain people or events and is based on our own judgments. These attitudes are based on logical reasoning, which are also shaped by our beliefs and feelings.

Emotions, on the other hand, are not necessarily based on reasoning or logic. Sometimes, emotions just hit, without us realizing what exactly they mean, or why they came.

What we would like to be able to do is react to situations rationally, instead of emotionally. Because emotional reactions bypass our logic and reasoning.

One way to  manage this is to become more aware of our emotions as we experience them. This means we can more consciously process the information, before we do something silly and reactive. Because emotions are just that: information. With practice, we can use this information to better understand our situation and our environment.

Mindful leadership also leads to  improved focus, higher-quality relationships, creative thinking, and innovation. There are many science-backed ways that mindfulness can enhance your ability to lead and react to different situations:

6 Steps Toward Mindful Leadership

Leaders are always on the lookout for effective ways to improve themselves and their organizations. Pick one or two of the following strategies, try them for a full week and record how effective they were for you.

1. Listen, Not Just to Respond, but to Understand

We’re all guilty of it. We smile and nod at the person speaking. We even get the gist of what they’re saying. But instead of fully paying attention, we’re busy preparing our own brilliantly hilarious responses. It’s a natural tendency, but when our attention is split, we miss out on many communication signals.

People often say much more with their body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone than with their actual words. Sometimes when someone says “I’m fine,” what they really want is for you to inquire more deeply. Good leaders are mindful of these cues. They are present, attentive, and fully engaged with the person speaking.

Mindful listening is a wonderful way to improve the quality of your conversations. It ensures that other people feel heard and acknowledged.

For this strategy, the goal is to approach your conversations with full attention and curiosity. Don’t be on your phone when someone is speaking to you — look them in the eye and keep your focus on what they are saying. Notice when someone’s furrowed eyebrows, crossed arms and irritated voice signal their true feelings. Absorb the entirety of the speaker’s communication with the intention to understand. Then respond with appropriate kindness and compassion.

2. Practice Self-Care

Good leaders strive to do right by their constituents. They care, and they want to serve the greater good.

Unfortunately, this altruistic drive can lead people to overschedule and overextend themselves. Leaders often say yes to helping everyone, neglect their own well-being, and end up burning themselves out.

For this strategy, pay attention to your own sense of well-being for a full week. Take notice when you’re exhausting yourself trying to help others and adjust accordingly. Decide that you’ll say no when you need to preserve energy. 

3. Approach Problems With a Rookie Mind

Often when we get to be masterful in a skill, we become myopic about best practices. We resort to muscle memory and get stuck in old patterns of problem-solving. Instead of considering every option, we do as we have always done. 

For this strategy, approach problems with more of a beginner’s mind. Imagine for a moment that you know very little or nothing about a problem or topic. Become curious, ask more questions and open yourself up to new possibilities. Consider bringing someone in from a different department or getting an eclectic group of people together to discuss an issue.

4. Shift From ‘What If’ to ‘What Is’

This is an incredible technique to get present and neutralize anxious rumination.

Evolution has hardwired our brains for survival. And one way our brains keep us alive is by getting us to contemplate what might go wrong (“what if” thinking).

For this strategy, the goal is to transform "what if" thoughts into "what is" thoughts. Instead of ruminating on potentially negative scenarios, we want to direct our thoughts to what is around us at this moment. Stop to appreciate that you are likely in a safe and hospitable environment. If you have a roof over your head and there are no immediate threats, things are probably going well enough. Stay present in your environment instead of drifting off into negative hypotheticals. Take note of the effects of this strategy on your well-being.

Contemplating apocalyptic scenarios can be productive for our planning, but it often leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted. Instead of fixating on "what ifs," bring your attention to what is right in front of you. Focus on your present experience — and more often than not — you’ll feel more relaxed and able to deal with your situation.

5. Scan Your Body

Research suggests that we spend much of our life on autopilot. And it’s not uncommon to feel anxious or negative, without noticing the effects of these feelings on our behavior.

For this strategy, engage in body scans as you go about your day. At least three times a day, stop and take notice of your breath, heart rate and degree of physical comfort. Ask yourself what these signals mean for your emotional or mental state. Ask yourself if your current state is the most productive for your situation. Perhaps take a moment to relax or rev up your energy depending on your current set of circumstances.

6. Take Notice of Judgments and Biases

It’s a natural tendency to make snap judgments about everything around us. Almost unconsciously, thoughts just pop into our heads. We think things like: “That meeting was useless,” and, “I can’t believe Jim drank all the coffee, he’s so selfish!!”

Seriously, listen to your mental chatter for a few hours and you’ll notice an unyielding flow of judgments and evaluations.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of the judgments are productive, and many of our habitual assessments are there for a good reason. But there are many occasions when these reactive evaluations aren’t true or are tainted by our biases.

Thankfully, mindfulness can help us tune into our judgments and biases, so that we may act with greater objectivity.

It’s easy to carry biases about people or how things should be done, but our preconceived notions can be limiting. Being mindful of our judgments allows us to really think and respond deliberately, rather than just reacting.

For this strategy, we want to become more aware of our snap judgments and biases. Keep your attention on how you’re evaluating what goes on around you. Try journaling at three preset times during the day about some of the automatic judgments you noticed. This develops a greater sensitivity to all those evaluative thoughts, which creates opportunities to alter counterproductive assessments.

Photo by:   Cesar Augusto Marron

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