Why leaders must practise mindfulness

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By Stuart Duff, Head of Development at business psychologists Pearn Kandola and author of the iLead book series

There’s a lot of conversation in the modern workplace about the importance of mental health, and even more so at the moment. But while many employers are going to great lengths to protect the wellbeing of their teams, I’d argue that not enough is being said about that of our leaders.

The challenges of leadership often come with a sense of martyrdom; a feeling that leaders have to grit their teeth and keep going for the benefit of their team. They might feel as though they’re being tough or resilient, but the truth is that this attitude is actually hugely detrimental. To simply plough blindly on through difficult or stressful situations – such as that which we are currently weathering with COVID-19 – will only hinder a leader’s ability and have a shocking effect on their mental health.

A more nuanced approach is needed. Resilience and self-management are important, but they need to be fully understood in order to feel the benefit. With a great many leaders bound to be finding the current climate daunting, now more than ever, we need to better understand mental health and how to improve it.

There is one practise in particular, from which all notions of resilience and self-management ultimately stem, and which I believe all leaders should be aware of. I’m talking about mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

In 1994, long before it became the buzzword of the more enlightened culture in which we currently exist, Jon Kabat Zin defined mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

At its core, mindfulness consists of two key concepts: focus and awareness. Developing your ability to focus will create a more stable awareness – which then returns our focus to what we’re doing. Essentially, the more focused we become, the more aware we are.

The basic premise of mindfulness is to develop skills which help to finetune your attention and ensure it’s focused on the right thing at any given time. Ultimately, it helps to ensure that we are more present in the here and now. Specific techniques can be honed to enhance our own mindfulness and can be practised at any point of the day; whilst sat at a desk, walking around the office, eating lunch and even when working.

Practising mindfulness impacts us neurologically, by altering several brain regions, including the areas key to meta-awareness, body awareness, memory consolidation, emotional regulation and communication. Mindfulness has psychological benefits as well, bringing increased levels of positive self-regard and cognitive flexibility, and improving our attention span. Additionally, practising mindfulness has been shown to improve sleep and even increase our immune functioning.

How can mindfulness help a leader?

In the context of leadership, mindfulness means paying attention to things as they are, noticing without judging, removing the lens of distortion, allowing us to learn about ourselves and becoming better at dealing with uncomfortable situations.

Practising mindfulness also allows for the development of the perception of ‘self’, which sees a newer and more strengthened sense of self confidence arise. Self-confidence is, of course, vital for people in positions of leadership, who need to be able to take risks in order to accomplish their goals. As leadership involves influencing others, a greater sense of ‘self’ helps a leader to be courageous in their attempts to influence their colleagues.

There is, therefore, plenty that new, developing and even existing leaders can gain by practising mindfulness. It enables them to develop different ways of processing the streams of information, as well as the emotion, that they are often tasked with managing. By doing so, leaders are able to learn how to separate themselves from stressful events and discover how to not take organisational threats personally. They’ll find better ways to control their reactions and observe situations from a neutral standing, ensuring they are able to process strategies, rather than irrationally acting out in the spur of the moment.

For developing leaders, mindful techniques can include:

  • Ring-fencing one-minute intervals in the day to focus solely on breathing techniques
  • Listening first, speaking later and being more conscious of the impulse to intervene
  • Use of non-productive time
  • Emotional self-checks
  • Slowing down to speed up

Interestingly, mindfulness has even been associated with tackling biases, as stress is a catalyst for both negative and self-serving bias in the workplace.

It’s important for leaders to remember though, that mindfulness can be difficult to master. It needs to become a habit, not just an occasional activity that is carried out sporadically. However, once you begin to adopt mindfulness into your work routine, you’ll spot the difference in your mindset quickly.

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