As a leader addressing 500 people whose opinions mattered to me, I started to clam up. Many of you are familiar with that peculiarly palms-sweating, heart-thumping, throat-choking form of social anxiety: the fear of public speaking.
Somehow, I stumbled through to a respectable closing comment but the experience left me bruised. I determined to tackle my rather career-limiting fear head-on with acting and public speaking classes. But what super-charged my growth in this area over the last two years was a leadership development approach called Mindful Engagement, developed by Michigan Ross Professors Sue Ashford and Scott DeRue.
"What is mindful engagement?"
While effective for conquering a fear of public speaking, mindful engagement can be equally effective for any leadership development or personal development objective.
Different people can learn vastly different amounts in the same experience based on how they approach it, what they do within it, and how they process it after it is over. Ashford and DeRue's mindful engagement perspective on personal development captures the set of practices that help individuals learn more from experience.
Perhaps you would like to lead more energizing meetings? Offer feedback and coaching more constructively? Develop a breakthrough new strategy for your company? Mindful engagement can be applied effectively as a leadership development tool in practically any situation.
"What are the benefits on mindful engagement for my leadership development?"
A pattern of learning from experience through mindful engagement should, over time, yield a person who knows themselves better, and their effect on other people. Ultimately, it should help them become a more successful professional.
The big paradigm shift in my case was moving from a performance mindset ("This talk needs to be a home run!") to a learning mindset ("each talk is a practice swing for the next talk"). This reorientation allowed me to relax and experiment more often, and more skillfully.
"Mindful engagement enables more learning from experience—which is especially important for something as intangible as leadership. It's not clear exactly how one should lead, the best way to lead, the best way to integrate one's personality with leadership," explains Sue Ashford. "Mindful engagement helps you to extract more learning from experience about these personal qualities as an integrated experience with your learning about the organization and the various tasks you are undertaking in your day-to-day job."
"How can I apply mindful engagement to my leadership development plan today?"
Setting specific goals or areas of emphasis for personal development is a great start. Plan out various experiments to try in the situation to further your development. Of course, in some situations you will still need to have performance goals as well. However, you may well find that by adopting a learning mindset, you are able to relax and achieve more at the same time.
For instance, when I started adopting a learning mindset, I found myself trying out new stories and frameworks in my keynotes and workshops, to see how they would resonate with the audience.
With a focus on your personal-development goals, try your experiments, and seek feedback from others so that you can better understand how well you are doing with respect to the goals.
For example, after each keynote or workshop I deliver, I ask participants and collaborators for "keeps and adjusts: what would you keep the same because it worked well, and what would you adjust next time?" This feedback helps me try new experiments the next time.
Set aside dedicated time to reflect following the experience on what you have learned about yourself as an individual, your impact on those around you, and the role that your organization plays as either constraint or enabler of your development.
Mindful engagement with your experiences is a powerful leadership development tool. Tell me in the comments section to which leadership development goals you might apply it!
Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. How are you building high-performing organizations that make a positive difference in the world, and enable people to thrive? Share your positive practices via the Positive Business Project!