by Kathy Simpson
We are busy people, especially at work. Every day, we’re challenged to work faster and better, process huge amounts of information, keep pace with technology, and prevail in the midst of change and disruption. Those who lead are under even greater pressure to guide others while cultivating a work environment that’s conducive to success. Their agility needs to be at its peak all the time.
Traditionally, top-down control and a linear path of setting goals and achieving them have been workable models for leaders, even if collateral damage was left in their wake. But a new paradigm is gaining traction. Leaders are discovering the gentle strength of slowing down, of opening respectfully to others and to the nuances of their present-moment experience, and making decisions and choices from a decidedly different vantage point.
This is part of the mainstream mindfulness movement that’s taking hold of our nation, and its principles may seem counterintuitive to the pursuit of success: being in the present rather than focused only on the future; shared ownership in place of one-sided control; surfacing conflicting viewpoints and questioning assumptions rather than suppressing or hiding emotions; compassion, awareness and trust instead of reactivity and polarization. What gets revealed in the process is perspective and possibility.
“We learn we can be comfortable in our skin,” says Michael Carroll, author of “Awake at Work” and a former executive with such firms as The Walt Disney Company and Simon & Schuster Publishing. “We begin to see a whole set of resources and opportunities, and that our forward-looking intent blinds us to the very solution we’re looking for.”
This is a natural byproduct of mindfulness meditation, Carroll says. It can also be cultivated through concrete relational skills.
The Wisdom of Non-Achievement “I call mindfulness meditation the wisdom of non-achievement,” Carroll says. “We’re really good at achieving and performing to high standards, but mindfulness is a different kind of effort. It’s about training the mind. The mastery of stabilizing the attention in the present moment is key.”
Practitioners sit on a chair or floor cushion and focus the mind on the breath. When the mind wanders, they’re instructed to let go of the thought and bring their attention back to the breath while attending as best they can to the experience of each moment.
“We’re trying to become familiar with the quality of our being,” Carroll says. “Off the cushion and on the job, we begin to notice things from a different perspective.”
Gradually, through this practice of attention and letting go over and over again, practitioners become more intimately acquainted with their own hearts and minds. According to Carroll, this unfolds into a gentle respect and kindness that naturally extends to others; greater resilience, agility, perspective and confidence; and the mental and spiritual poise that business leaders need for today's complex challenges.
“The simple act of sitting still cultivates natural leadership talents,” Carroll says. “Skillful means come out of the practice that you can bring to the organizational setting.” And this paves the way for choices that can better serve the interest of the organization and everyone who supports it.
Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini is a long-time meditator and yoga practitioner who has introduced both practices to Aetna’s workplace along with other employee wellness initiatives for employees, according to a recent New York Times article. He’s also made such remarkable moves as to raise the minimum wage for Aetna’s lowest paid workers.
By Bertolini’s account, mindfulness has made a difference. “It’s made me question what I do and how I look at the world. It’s made me consider my influence and how I treat people,” he says.
Active Engagement Mindful skills can also be developed off the meditation cushion using specific methods of dialogue, awareness and relating that open individuals, communities and organizations to new levels of compassion and effectiveness.
Steve Wirth, a facilitator and mentor for leaders in corporate, government and non-profit organizations, calls this a process of “active engagement” which he frames in three interrelated practices:
- An honest inquiry into our own habitual ways of noticing, thinking and behaving that may blind us to possibilities
- Opening to a non-defended learning stance that allows the group to see its options and make choices in more intentional and less reactive ways
- Whole systems engagement that creates the safety and freedom groups need to solve fundamental problems and achieve their mission
Dialogue skills, including sharing thought processes and questioning assumptions, are a key part of the process and provide a powerful path to overcoming conflict and reaching shared understanding.
“This is learnable,” Wirth says. “People in all walks of life can learn this practice. Even if we can improve our interactions only 10 percent, think of the problems that wouldn’t hold us back – and the difference it can make in collective society.
Whether developed through meditation, active engagement skills or a combination of both, mindfulness helps us relate with our hearts and our minds – and everyone gains from that.