Go Slow to Go Fast: The Role of Mindfulness in Leadership

Leadership.jpg

Most nonprofit organizations begin with the intention of making a positive social impact. Creating a strategic plan and a sound organization design around a unified mission helps leadership lead with a purpose. The strategic plan aligns resources and provides a roadmap for the organization. This allows leaders to agree upon a direction and clearly define next steps. It also provides leaders the opportunity to develop and refine their own leadership capabilities so they can focus on implementation and results.

The strategic plan provides a foundation for the organization but to build on this foundation, it is essential for leaders to establish a plan and vision for themselves.  Since leaders set the tone, they need to think about what behaviors and attitudes they want to see in their people and model them. They need to manage themselves before they manage others. In order to be most effective, leaders need to intentionally define the type of leader they want to be, allowing their vision and that of the organization to guide their leadership style. Some critical characteristics of effective leaders include self-awareness, self-knowledge, and centeredness all of which can be cultivated through the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is an ancient practice rooted in Eastern beliefs that has gone mainstream in recent decades. Organizations like Harvard Business School, Google, and General Mills have incorporated mindfulness workshops into their employee offerings and witnessed the benefits the practice provides to both employees and the organization. Initial studiesshow what those who practice already know - the benefits of mindfulness are many. Benefits include greater overall well-being, improved physical health, increased emotional intelligence, and positive changes in attitude and behavior.

Many believe that the benefits of mindfulness are best achieved through meditation,  however, Dr. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a social psychology professor at Harvard University, sees mindfulness in a slightly different light. While meditation is one tool used to practice, she believes mindfulness is more about context than meditation. It is the simple yet effective application of “being here now”. This application is about holding an open frame of mind and setting the pattern to notice new things. Through the act of noticing, we develop an awareness to see how everything is always changing and varies based on context and perspective.

Becoming a mindful leader requires a commitment to change on a personal level. There are several ways non-profit leaders can practice mindfulness so that their organizations can reap the benefits without the expense of a formal training program. Langer’s approach of noticing and shifting one’s frame of mind is a very simple, yet effective way to practice. Noticing something new in what we have seen before calls attention to it, improves focus, and can spark creativity and innovation. Fortunately, we get many opportunities to practice as anything we do can be done mindfully. Day-to-day activities such as drinking tea or coffee, sitting in a meeting, standing in line at a store, spending time with family, or taking a walk are opportune times for mindfulness. Doing things we have done many times before provides the perfect opportunity to notice something new, something that may have been taken for granted before. 

Additionally, meditating, practicing yoga, doing something creative, or listening to a mindfulness app also provide opportunities to practice outside of work. At work, leaders can incorporate mindfulness bursts into their day by taking occasional breaks, going for a walk at lunch, and using times in between meetings to check in with themselves. This allows time to process information and break habitual thoughts, providing leaders with a creative boost that can bring about innovative thinking. Carving out space to recharge helps prevent burn-out and is critical to overall well-being. Another way to practice mindfulness is by focusing attention on one thing at a time, or single-tasking, while tuning out any non-related thoughts or distractions. Slowing down leads to greater productivity and efficiency. When there are less distractions, our minds work at the optimal level.

Being an organizational leader is challenging. It is not uncommon for leaders to experience increased levels of stress, worry, and fatigue. These feelings —alone or combined—can lead to decreased attention, memory, and problem solving skills. Since many professionals spend a good part of the day multitasking, potentially on autopilot, it becomes even more challenging to focus and be present. Consequently, inattention is a growing concern within organizations. Inattention to results, staff development, and accountability are just a few examples that can lead to organizational dysfunction. One way to combat this issue is to practice mindfulness.

As Langer points out, we need to let go of the mindless illusion that we are in control. Leaders who are adaptable to and accepting of change are critical to organizational success. Mindfulness can help leaders become more accepting of change by helping them let go of attachments to what they think is “supposed to be.” By being objective observers, leaders can learn to accept situations for what they are, which does not indicate resignation to the situation. Acceptance eliminates the distracting thoughts of ‘what should have happened,” instead shifting the focus to improvements and solutions.

When leaders are mindful they are more relatable, open to multiple perspectives, and able to see what others have to offer. Practicing mindful communication leads to stronger, more trusting relationships. Listening without judgement removes emotions and self-imposed expectations from the communication so leaders are able to see situations objectively. By taking the time to pause, notice, and reflect leaders learn to be less reflexive and reactive in their decision making. The focus is on listening to understand instead of listening to respond. This leads to greater collaboration through increased understanding, empathy, and engagement. 

Practicing mindfulness provides many benefits and applies to all aspects of life. Mindfulness requires regular practice, with daily doses yielding the most benefits. As it is practiced, the way one responds is rewired, leading to a more relaxed way of being. That moment, that pause, that breath helps leaders to slow down. As a result they become more efficient, productive, and effective, which translates to more efficient, productive, and effective organizations. If you would like to learn more about how you can incorporate mindfulness into the workplace, please contact me at barbara@curtisstrategy.com.

Article written by: Barbara Sierota