How Mindfulness Helps You as a Leader

No matter what kind of business you run, the current pandemic is probably testing your leadership skills. Whether your business has gone online, or is still physically open, you are handling new expectations, rules, and staff concerns. Research shows that one of the qualities that most helps leaders remain effective in a crisis is mindfulness.

Mindfulness has been a buzz word in popular culture and in leadership training for a few years now. The reported benefits of mindfulness include:

  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Less depression
  • Lower blood pressure
  • A better immune system
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Heightened focus
  • Greater happiness

I can tell you from personal experience that I have received these benefits.  While it’s easier to notice the emotional changes, after two years of this practice my immune system clearly is stronger.  I used to get sick multiple times a year and my allergies were terrible in the spring.  I haven’t been sick for 15 months and I’m hiking amongst all the blooming grasses and plants now with no problems. My staff has noticed the changes as well.

But how does mindfulness help you as a leader? When you are less stressed, happier, and have a clearer view, you can communicate and guide more effectively.   

Mindfulness practices teach you to pay attention to the present moment and your emotions. If you can recognize your feelings, emotions, and thoughts, you have a better chance of keeping them in control instead of letting them control you.  You learn to ‘mentally step back’ from the situation and observe yourself, what and how you are thinking, and how you are reacting.  Once you see this, you have the option of choosing to see the situation differently and then choosing how to act or react.  You can play out different options and pick the one that seems best.

This is especially helpful when faced with highly stressful situations. When you are mindful, you’re aware of yourself and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment. Today, when so many of your co-workers, clients, providers, and employees are in various states of crisis, being able to stay present and aware in the moment can be vital to your success.

Imagine this currently common situation: You have a normally high-functioning employee who is suddenly not living up to expectations. His current work is suddenly full or errors. After reading yet another report filled with problems, you call him on the phone, expressing frustration or exasperation. Over the next couple of weeks, you see a small improvement in his work, but you also notice that he’s no longer volunteering for extra work and your interactions are strained.

Now, imagine that after reading that report you stopped, took a deep breath and counted to ten. You stepped back mentally and observed “what am I thinking and how is that causing me to react?”  Then ask yourself, “could there be another way to look at this? Could there be another explanation for what is happening then what I was assuming in my thoughts?  Is there another way to communicate and react that might be better received by my employee and end in a better result?”

You then call the employee and instead of acting out of anger, you ask him what was going on. And listen.  Really listen. Don’t be thinking about what you are going to say next, just listen. He explains that he’s been trying to work while also helping his kids do their online schoolwork. He doesn’t want to miss deadlines, so he has started skipping some steps that he normally uses to double check his work. You react empathetically, and explain that you’d prefer he tell you in advance he’s struggling with the deadline.  Then you can work together to find a way where he’ll have the time to prepare an error free report on a schedule that meets your needs.

I frequently find myself saying “I don’t have time to step back and contemplate each situation like this.  It sounds good in theory, but in reality, it just isn’t practical.”  By being mindful, and stepping back and looking at those thoughts, I am reminded that in the long run I am way better off by generating a positive work environment and motivating employees to do their best with this approach.  They are more loyal, there is less turnover, and the positive environment is contagious, which has it’s own network effect.  I’m not able to do this 100% of the time, but I’m getting better and it is getting easier with practice.

How to Practice Mindfulness

One of the most popular forms of mindfulness is meditation. Contrary to stereotypes, meditation does not require you to “clear your mind” or sit cross-legged on the floor. There are podcasts, apps, books, and even mindfulness coaches who can work with you to develop a meditation practice that works for you. I would recommend starting with a free app or podcast, to explore the basics of meditation before investing money in it. If the first one doesn’t feel right, try others.  Meditation is different for each person and there are thousands of options, so don’t give up if the first couple don’t resonate for you.

If you’re intimidated by the idea of meditating, don’t worry, it isn’t essential. The important thing is to put aside time each day to pull back from the pressures of leadership and reflect on your situation. Your mindfulness practice could be journaling, exercising, or even talking about your situation with a friend or loved one (as long as they don’t work with you). Many people experience prayer as a form of mindfulness.

Pursuing mindfulness is more important than the kind of mindfulness you pursue. The simple, conscious acts of both trying to take time away from your work and of trying to remain present when you are working will help you achieve some clarity. Mindfulness can help you clear away unimportant worries, nurture a passion for your work and much-needed compassion for others.

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