It has been more than a decade 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 as the Executive Director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership.
These leaders came from different cultures, different professions and different life experiences. They were influencers in small and large organizations, teams, community groups or their own families. Yet, there were strong common threads among the best leaders -- 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 in which it can help. Here are my top three:
1. "How can it be 6pm already?"
You know the feeling. You take a quick glance at the time and it says 6p.m. That can't be right. Where did the day go? You feel tired from all the running around but you aren't quite sure what you did all day. And you are very sure that not much of what you did reduced the items on your 'to do' list.
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 actually paying attention.
2. "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. I heard this wish for some 'space' so often that it was the inspiration for my book about mindful leadership, Finding the Space to Lead.
Cultivating this spaciousness in your day is another part of mindful leadership training. As you train and step out of 'autopilot' mode, you can 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, emotions that isolate you). As we learn to cultivate the space needed to be our best, we are more likely to find the 'win-win-win' solutions that are 'good for the organization, good for the employees, good for the community.' In other words, we begin to find what is 'missing'.
3. "I hadn't seen the stars in 20 years"
Technology helps us do our job and keep track of our lives. But increasingly, our lives, and our potential to lead with excellence, are being adversely affected by our need to check our smartphones every waking minute. Critical, human connections are lost when we become addicted to this form of connectivity. If you are in a meeting, can the best work be done if half the room is checking their phone under the table? (and does anyone still think no one will notice?) If you are trying to get your son to really listen to you, do you think your efforts will succeed if you allow yourself to be interrupted by texts?
One of the most poignant realizations of the need to have boundaries with technology came on a mindful leadership retreat I led a few years ago. One president of a large organization discovered that when he was told to put his smartphone away for the evening, he walked outside and because he didn't have his phone to check, he looked up at the night sky. He later shared with me that he was frozen in that moment as he realized that he 'hadn't seen the stars in 20 years' and wondered 'what else have I missed while staring at my phone'.
Deep connections-to ourselves, to those around us and to the world-are fundamental capabilities that we all need to develop to fulfill our potential to lead, and live, with excellence. When we are connected to each other and the world primarily through technology, some of the most important aspects of those connections are neglected and can wither away before we know it. Can looking at a YouTube video ever replace seeing the night sky? Can reading texts replace the sound of a human voice? As we become more awake to our behaviors, we have the chance to make conscious choices about how we want to lead and live, and which connections we need to prioritize and strengthen.
If you are interested in trying some mindful leadership training today, there are free meditations and leadership reflection downloads here.