Why Mindfulness Will Make You A Better Leader

If you haven’t heard the buzz in Business around mindfulness, then you’re either well behind the times (in which case you have an opportunity) or you’re living in a place that’s not caught up with the mainstream (in which case you have an opportunity).

What is mindfulness?

  • The process of actively noticing new things (Ellen Langer)

  • Constantly looking for the new (Alison Beard)

  • Non-judgemental, present-moment awareness (Christina Congleton, Britta K Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar)

  • Being present and aware, moment by moment, regardless of circumstances (Maria Gonzalez)

  • Mindfulness isn’t doing a meditation and then you’re done you can tick it off the list for the day. Mindfulness is the way of being in the meditation all day (Juliane Pfeifer)

I like to think of mindfulness as the journey to internal literacy – learning to listen to, understand and choose to follow our own internal dialogue, whether it be physical, emotional sensations and of course knowing ourselves more fully also requires an appreciation for the environment around us.

I’m not one for stats, so I’m not going to tell you mindfulness reduces anxiety by 36% or improves mood in 32% of study participants. There are many studies out there that can speak to their unique study groups, and it can be pretty hard to slap a definitive number on things, BUT… There are common threads, common patterns that we see repeated again and again in practitioners who work mindfully:

  • Reduced anxiety and mental stress

  • Improved cognitive flexibility

  • Increased relationship satisfaction

  • Sleeping better

  • Reduced implicit (age and race) bias

Mindfulness helps us to see that instead of binary or win/lose decisions, what we have is many options in a given situation and each path leads to a different outcome – so make a decision, learn along the path and then make another. With mindful work, mistakes become friends not enemies. It’s conscious experimentation.

Take Ellen Langer’s work with symphony musicians

We did a study with symphony musicians, who, it turns out, are bored to death.  They’re playing the same pieces over and over again, and yet it’s a high-status job that they can’t easily walk away from.  Some were told to replicate a previous performance they’d liked – that is, to play pretty mindlessly.  Others were told to make their individual performance new in subtle ways – to play mindfully. Remember: This wasn’t jazz, so the changes were very subtle indeed.  But when we played recordings of the symphonies for people who knew nothing about the study, they overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces. So here we had a group performance where everybody was doing their own thing, and it was better.

This isn’t hippie talk and it isn’t irrelevant or somehow separate from the way you approach your business – as you’ll see by the coverage the topic is getting in publications like HBR. There’s real ties to where the world is headed with distributed decision making at scale, leading through values not policy and motivation through autonomy mastery and purpose. We need to do the work on ourselves so that we can do the work on our organisations.

“There’s this view that if you let everyone do their own thing, chaos will reign. When people are doing their own thing in a rebellious way, yes, it might. But if everyone is working in the same context and is fully present, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a superior coordinated performance.”

Here’s a few super simple ways you can get started building new habits:

  1. Notice your breath first: When you wake up, before you get up and going with the day, take 2 minutes to simply notice the quality of your breath. Observe the inhale, exhale, where it’s smooth, fast or slow. Do you spend more time on the inhale? Where in your body can you feel the sensation of your breath? Deep exhales and breathing into the back body help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, diminish the activity of the amygdala, calm the body into recovery mode and helps you start from peace. (More on the anatomy of mindfulness later)

  2. Micro-meditations during your day: You can repeat the exercise during the day – try a micro meditation before meetings or any time you feel frustrated. Take a moment to pause, count a couple breaths and really notice where in your body you’re breathing, focus on gently prolonging the exhale over say 20 breaths

  3. No devices for the first hour: Spend a day with no technology in the first hour from when you wake. Follow it up with movement and then get your day started without the clutter of the Facebook feed or overnight emails from the international office.

  4. Imagine your thoughts are transparent: If everyone could see what we were thinking, we’d be less likely to judge out loud and more likely to seek understanding of another person’s perspective. Imagining transparency can help us to remain conscious and connected throughout the work day.

There’s some great apps out there that can help too – Headspace and Smiling Mind are awesome, and there’s a wealth of podcasts so take the time to find a style that works for you!

Enjoy the moment’s silence, pause and GO.

– D.

5 Patterns That Are Holding Your Organisation Back

In the many years I’ve spent either consulting or in-house driving organisational transformation, I’ve noticed that again and again we see some recurring themes, ‘holding patterns’ if you will – that stop you from becoming the responsive organisation you’re dreaming of.

Holding Pattern #1: Organisations are designed on functional specialisation which governs the approach to improvement

Our managerial lineage has taught us to build organisations from a selection of building blocks, each fulfilling a specific function in the organisation: Operations, Retail, Finance, IT. To respond to what our customers need, we must coordinate across multiple teams, each of whom contribute their piece to the puzzle.

For example, buying a plane ticket from Auckland to Wellington requires the cooperation across Marketing, Digital, Airport kiosks, and Aircraft Operations departments. Whilst we may have some visibility of this customer journey, our change and improvement programs are likely focused on the improvement of the individual parts (sell more tickets, improve the website, streamline checkin, make sure bags arrive on time).

Instead, we need to look end-to-end from a customer’s perspective and optimise across the entire flow – without assuming that the work being done today is the work that needs to be done. Imagine a real estate broker with a department focused solely on getting low income earners into homes – in this business unit we have finance, legal, marketing, web design and sales specialists all working together towards this common outcome.

Holding Pattern #2: Leadership definition of role and responsibility are inadequate

Leadership focus(es) and how roles are operationalised are often built on this same functional specialisation, managing budgets and people; rather than end-to-end delivery of value to customers, and the fulfilment of our purpose in their eyes.

Optimisation of the parts and a mechanical view of the system can only get us so far. As we start to see the organisation as a living ecosystem that responds to the value our customers desire, we must necessarily change our leadership approach:

  • Leaders don’t give answers, they ask great questions

  • Our role is not to manage the performance of individuals, but to act on those hurdles they identify in their work, to remove every obstacle for our collective success in the eyes of the customer

  • We must have the humility to truly listen to our customers, and the courage to follow their calling, not our own

  • Seek first to understand – achievement will necessarily follow

Holding Pattern #3: Change is not ‘in-built’ within normal operations – our assumption is that operations tomorrow will be largely the same as today

Almost without exception, large change and improvement programs are designed, agreed and then rolled out through decisions made by senior people in boardrooms, away from the front line. The inherent assumption in this approach is that operations are static until we implement a project to change (and that the people on the front line will be informed how their job is changing, trained in the new way, and then expected to carry it ongoing).

We must work towards embracing variation, both in the requests we receive and the way we respond. Learn which requests and what work are predictable. What type of requests to do we get frequently? Respond to those accurately, fully and without waste. This starts to create space (ie people aren’t always busy) so that we can simplify, and focus our time and energy on those things that fall outside the predictable pattern or expectations of our customers.

Doing the work and improving the work is the work – move change and improvement from back of house programs into the capability of the frontline to sense and respond to changes in predictable customer demand. Ask how we might enable autonomy, mastery and purpose in our teams in all that we do.

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Holding Pattern #4: Using measures that don’t matter to customers

Current performance measures are often focused on benefits to the organisation, not value as defined by customers. As a result, we lose sight of what is really important – what gets measured gets done and if it’s not customer value then what is it?

KPIs, performance incentives and targets drive unexpected behaviour in our organisations. We must work towards coherence, commonality of outcomes and team-based rather than individual-specific measures.

We need to move from a philosophy of measurement to judge achievement (did you hit the number, if not why not?) to a paradigm where we measure to gain insight on where to go next for improvement.

5. The organisation sees change as a negative

When change is decided not by the people who are affected, this drives a lack of ownership, a perception that life will get more difficult – not to mention the incredible fear that if my work is no longer needed then my job will be under threat.

We must remove the link between ambiguity and job certainty. It must be ok to be less busy as a result of change, it must be ok to create space. And with this space we can continue to improve the work, or do more of the value work – both lend incredible benefit to the organisation but we don’t quantify the benefit through reducing the number of staff – if we’re clever we have measures that can show us the improvement in other ways.

The bottom line…

These patterns are clearly intertwined, a complex web of overlapping themes. It’s why you won’t find point-solutions being offered up. Instead the path forward is to articulate the common values and then attempt to move forward in a coherent manner. If we slip off track that’s ok too. All great leaders make mistakes – but it’s what they do next that really counts.

– Danelle