4 Mindfulness Fundamentals To Transform Your Leadership: First, See Past Your Filters

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What is the definition of a mindful leader? A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion, in the service of others.

I developed this definition about 15 years ago when I began teaching. The definition is both inspirational and instructive. Inspirational because it will take a lifetime to hone your innate abilities to embody leadership presence. And instructive because it identifies the four fundamentals of excellence ( focus, clarity, creativity and compassion) that are developed and strengthened through the practices of mindful leadership training. During my 30 years in leadership roles, these four attributes were shown again and again to be the bedrock of great leaders. And, they are also the most likely to be weakened or lost in the realities of overwhelmed professionals in today’s workplace. Let’s begin with a closer look at the role of clarity.

You know how it is. You go to a meeting and you have a clear idea of what you want to happen there. So, you are likely to see what you want to see, and hear what you want to hear, even if it is not actually what is being shown or said. We all do this, especially when we are stressed or hurried. And we have all had the experience of seeing another person attend the same meeting that you attended and come away with a completely different interpretation of what was said in the room. Our conditioning and our biases are strong components of our lives and they act as powerful filters. If we want to be strong influencers, and inspiring leaders, we need to begin to learn about those filters. How clearly am I seeing and hearing what is all around me? Can I begin to be intentional about questioning the thoughts and conclusions and judgments that I am carrying around with me?

Our conditioning and our biases are strong components of our lives and they act as powerful filters.

One way to do so is to begin to understand that your thoughts are not “you.” They are simply thoughts. One of my mentors referred to thoughts as “nothing more than secretions of the mind.” I love that expression! The ability to see your thoughts with that kind of spaciousness and lightness allows you to begin to realize that there are times when your thoughts are fallible, biased, exaggerated, etc. And this realization opens the door to new possibilities, innovations and connections. We really can’t have breakthrough leadership without this. We all need to see things clearly and to do that, we often need to challenge the thoughts that arise in our own mind. If you want to experiment with this for yourself, try the following:

See for yourself: Is there a situation that appears to be at an impasse in your life or in your work? Try making a list of the “facts” of the situation and see if you can challenge the veracity of each fact. Is it true? Try asking yourself some questions

Are there places where I have taken a small truth and written a “full length feature film” about it filled with some truths and some unknowns that I am treating as truths?

Am I bringing an unhelpful history into this situation?

Do I need to let go of some ‘conclusions’ and look at it with fresh eyes?

It can be helpful to do this experiment with a trusted friend or colleague. What did you discover?

In my own life, I have found many instances where I was making assumptions and writing stories about things and people. When I stop and look at them with fresh eyes, I often see places to try something differently, or make room to hear something with more openness, often with surprising and positive outcomes. At times, I also was able to see the places where I was giving too much weight to thoughts that were nothing more than the internal critic creating worry and anxiety and self-doubt. Remember, you need not dismiss the thoughts that you notice arising. You are simply learning to notice them with some spaciousness so you are able to have the kind of clarity that supports conscious choices and transformational leadership.

This was part one of a four part series. Links to the other blogs can be found below.

Part 1: See Past Your Filters

Part 2: Are You a Compassionate Leader?

Part 3: Training Your Mind’s Ability to be Creative

Part 4: The Incredible Myth of Multitasking

Top 2 Reasons Mindfulness Training Will Make You A Better Leader

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It has been nearly 15 years since I began to explore the intersection between leadership excellence and contemplative practices — first in my own life as a Vice President at a Fortune 200 company, and then with incredible leaders from around the world as I began to teach with the Institute.

These leaders came from different cultures, different professions and different life experiences. They were influencers in small and large organizations, teams, military, healthcare, academia and community groups. They often came from very different backgrounds. Yet, among the best leaders, there were strong common threads — they had bright minds, warm hearts and were drawn to leadership roles because they wanted to make a difference.

They were also often overbooked, overwhelmed, exhausted and spent much of their life on ‘autopilot’ just to get through the day. Can mindful leadership training cure all the problems of leading in the 21st century? Of course not, but there are many ways it helps leaders meet the challenges.

Here are my top two:

“Why can’t I stay focused?” You know the feeling. You want to pay attention to the speaker in the room, but your mind keeps drifting, sometimes for many minutes at a time. When you lose focus, you miss important information so you are not able to contribute your best thinking, and you may even look foolish when you ask a question answered 5 minutes ago while your mind was somewhere else. At other times, this loss of focus shows up when you are reviewing a document. For example, you need to get through a research report, but you get distracted, not by someone else but by your own thoughts pulling you away from the report. And each time you must refocus, you need to take a few steps back and reread, losing productivity.

When you are distracted and unfocused, your day goes by in a blur. Your body is in the room, but your mind is rarely fully attentive to anything you are doing. As you begin to train your mind, you notice more quickly when it becomes distracted and you learn to redirect your attention. Imagine how much more thoughtful your contributions might be if you brought your full attention to a meeting or a conversation or a project. Imagine how much more efficient and effective a meeting might be if everyone was paying attention. Training your mind to be more focused is critically important and it doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes training. My earlier post gives you a simple introductory training you can start today : Are You Living On Autopilot? Mindful Leadership Training Brings You Back To The Present

“Something is missing…the win-win-win” The project is over, the expectations were met and you are moving on to the next assignment. You take a moment to think about the finished project. Everyone says you did a good job, but you feel as though something is missing…it wasn’t your best work. If you had a little more ‘space,’ you could have brought more of your expertise, creativity or compassion to the project. But when your day is triple-booked, where can you find some ‘space’?

Cultivating this spaciousness in your day is another part of mindful leadership training. As you train and step out of ‘autopilot’ mode, you begin to see the things that are creating clutter. Sometimes those things are in your environment (e.g. culture of too many meetings, redundant assignments) and sometimes those things are within you (e.g. tendency to over-analyze, the inner critic). As you learn to lessen the clutter, you are opening up the space needed to be more reflective, and you are more likely to find the ‘win-win-win’ solutions that are ‘good for the organization, good for the employees, and good for the society/community.’ In the process, you also find what is ‘missing.’

In the next few blogs, I will be inviting you to look at each of the 4 Fundamentals of Leadership Excellence (Focus, Clarity, Creativity and Compassion) that are at the core of the Definition of a Mindful Leader, and I will be providing you with a few experiments to try for yourself. Training your mind, like training your body takes commitment and courage. And, like the body, the mind has many innate capacities you can strengthen to live your best life. Are you ready to begin?

3 Mindful Steps To Better Sleep

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Does your busy brain send you a 3 a.m. wake up call? Try this practice to ‘block the call’.

Sarina, a high-level executive, recently left me an urgent voicemail message, “I am utterly exhausted and yet I wake up at 3 a.m. every night. My head starts spinning through my ‘to do’ list or the things I didn’t do well or the things I wish I had said. I try to go back to sleep but it’s a useless effort. I finally give up and get up, but it means another day of feeling tired. And I know I’m not doing my best work. Can mindful leadership training help?”

Sarina was suffering from what I call the 3 a.m. Wake-up Call from her brain. And she was asking if there was a way that mindful leadership training could “block the call.” Does this sound familiar to you? It certainly was something I struggled with for many years. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t make myself go back to sleep when my mind started racing. Little by little, my resiliency was lessening until it felt that I was using every bit of my energy just to make it through the day. I was always feeling tired. When I did manage a good night’s sleep, it was striking how much it changed my experience of the next day. I was not only more alert, I was more patient, clear and creative.

Learning to sleep well moved to the top of my list. I did not want to take sleeping pills. I needed a healthy, long-term solution. Thankfully, by this time I was deeply involved with the development of mindful leadership training, so I began to experiment with a simple practice each night. Little by little, I began to sleep more restfully and for longer periods of time. There are still times when that 3 a.m. call rings but I now know how to answer it in a healthy way.

If you are ready to sleep better, try these simple steps:

3 Mindful Steps to Better Sleep

1. Remove all smart phones, tablets and computers from your bedroom. They don’t belong there. Seeing an email or social media post just before bed, or knowing that distractions are only inches from your head, can fuel the busyness of your mind.

2. When you settle into bed, bring your attention to the feeling of your breath. Feel your breath stretching the muscles in your chest or belly, feel the release. This is not an invitation to think about your breath or control it. Just feel the sensations.

3. When your mind starts to get busy, bring your attention back to the sensations. Let the thought that pulled you away go for now and redirect your attention back to the gentle movements and sensations of your breath. It is important that you be patient with yourself. Redirecting your attention is simply part of the practice and it does not matter how often you need to redirect your attention. Just be intentional about letting the thinking go (for now). It is as if you are saying ‘not now’ to your thoughts and worries. Now is a time to sleep.

Be consistent with this practice, using it each night that your sleep is interrupted. It may take some time to train your mind in this way but the benefits for your health and happiness are worth it. Happy dreams!

What is Leadership Excellence?

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What is Leadership Excellence?

Everyone is a leader. And everyone has the capacity to lead with excellence. After all, leadership is not about titles or management roles. Leadership, at its core, is about influence. And every one of us, for better or worse, has an influence every day. Each choice we make has an influence on our own life, as well as our families, friends, colleagues, workplaces, communities and the environment…for better or worse. The work of mindful leadership training is to begin to see how we can train our mind to be present, and open ourselves to our own wisdom, so that we can more often influence “for better,” and less often influence “for worse.”

If you take a few moments to think about this, you might be able to recall the actions or words of someone who has had a strong positive influence on you, someone who inspired you. Perhaps they fit the conventional definition of a leader, but it is just as likely that they did not have any official leadership title. Those who “influence for better” are leaders because they make a difference, and, more importantly, because they inspire those around them to make a difference.

Likewise, those who “influence for worse” may or may not have a leadership title. The influence of the choices they make can range from benign neglect to intentional harm, and everything in between. Those affected can become disillusioned, apathetic, disengaged or just plain exhausted.

 

See for yourself: A reflection on excellence in leadership

Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit and close your eyes. Take a few breaths and settle into the chair. Now call to mind the image of a person who has had a strong, positive influence on you. Someone who really touched your life. They might be at work, at school, in the community or in your family…someone who influenced “for better.”

Take your time, make the image as detailed as you can as if you could bring that person into the room. When you are ready, ask yourself “Why this person?” What was it, or is it about this person that you experienced?

Try not to analyze this question, just see what words or phrases arise. What did you notice, feel, see about this person’s way of being that touched you, that inspired you? Sit with this reflection for a while. When you are ready, write down the words that arose. These are the attributes of excellence. These are the words that describe leading “for better.”

Are You Living On Autopilot? Mindful Leadership Training Brings You Back To The Present

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Is it July? What happened to May and June?

Stop for a minute. Do you ever feel this way? How could it already be July? It feels like it was just May.

Or do you ever look at the time and wonder, how could it be 6 p.m.? I’m exhausted but I’m not sure what I accomplished today. My “to do” list seems just as long, maybe longer, than it was this morning.

This certainly was often true for me. As a senior executive, my days were always filled with meetings and calls, and there was a “to do” list that was quite long. And so, I always felt I was busy, too busy in fact. But I also felt as though days, and often months, were slipping by without me noticing them. What was happening? I was living much of my life on autopilot and I didn’t know it.

If you are like most professionals in the workplace, you also go through your rushed day, filled with meetings and deadlines in a state of autopilot. Your body is in the room, but your mind is time travelling. It is busy with something other than the thing at hand. It may be planning for the next thing or ruminating about the last thing, or just drifting into places unknown. It is not where you want it to be…in the room.

And when you are not in the room, your influence is diminished in many ways whether you know it or not. For example, when you are in a meeting and your mind is still in the tough conversation from the last meeting, you miss what is going on, and you cannot fully engage with the group. You need to be present in body and mind to feel connected to others. And for them to feel connected to you. Presence is felt…and the opposite is true. When your body is in the room, but your mind is somewhere else, it is also felt. And it feels disrespectful.

Learning to notice when your mind has left the room and learning to escort it back to the present moment is one aspect of the training of mindful leadership. Twenty years ago, when I began my own practice, I quickly began to notice that I wasn’t having many of those “how could it be 6 p.m. already?” days anymore. And more importantly, it began to make a difference in the way I was leading-my life, my team and my family.

So, if you would like to have a taste of the training, try this little exercise for 5 minutes:

1. Right now, as you are sitting and reading, bring your attention to the feeling of your breath-the stretch of your ribs or belly with the inhale, and the softening with the exhale, just breathe, sustaining attention on the sensations.

2. When your mind begins to wander, escort it back to the sensations of your breath.

Simple but not easy, right? With practice, you will get more accustomed to noticing when your mind wanders away and to bringing it back. Then when you are in the meeting, you can sit and breathe (no need to close your eyes), and when your mind starts to slip away, you can bring it back to the room.

When you are attentive to the moments of your life, they are much less likely to slip away without you noticing. Just imagine how productive a meeting would be if everyone was paying attention! And just imagine what family dinner would be like if everyone put down the phones and connected for real.

I am excited to be a new Forbes.com contributor and will be offering musings about leadership in the 21st century along with tips and practices you can use to begin to explore mindful leadership training for yourself.