Mindfulness and Leadership – An Important Tool for Every Manager

© Lalith Ananda Gunaratne
Sage Ontario for Mindful Leadership

Every Manager is not a leader, yet good leadership skills are what makes a great manager. Leading and managing go hand in hand, but there is a distinct difference between them. Simply put, managing is about the hard stuff – productivity, quality, money, resources, outputs – things that can be measured. Leadership is about the soft stuff – to be mindful, having respect, listening, appreciating and inspiring others.

Leadership creates a positive, appreciative and happy work culture, so that people meet not only the organizational goals and objectives, but their own as well.

On the other hand, when things are not going well, a good leader will become mindful to park their emotions and know when to have a rational coaching conversation. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences for mistakes or failures. A good leader will manage these situations strategically by being present and aware. They may impose penalties, but they will create learning and change without impacting another’s self esteem.

Why is this important?

The lightning speed of change, high expectations, changing priorities, and doing more with less in today’s organizations creates tremendous stress and emotion. If that’s not complex enough, the diversity of a team and their expectations add to the challenge of managing and leading.

Leadership gurus, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge, identify five timeless virtues of great leaders. They are:

1. Challenging the Process
2. Inspiring a Shared Vision
3. Enabling Others to Act
4. Modelling the Way
5. Encouraging the Heart

To be a good leader, every manager must do all five of them.

The hard stuff requires logical and rational intelligence, such as critical and analytical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making skills. Yet it is these five soft virtues of leadership that keep organizations humming. They require emotional intelligence, such as being able to manage one’s own feelings, needs, thoughts and actions, as well to understand others both in terms of their feelings and needs.

This is where mindfulness comes in. Being mindful and self aware, we can find balance between our cognitive skills, mental acuity and emotional intelligence.

Regular meditation helps keep the mind sharp and aware so that we can improve our ability to be present and introspective when needed. This includes listening well, getting clarity, being intuitive, observing and understanding what is happening with others. Being present and aware enables the mind to catch the subtle nuances, the body language of others and the energy in the room. All of this emerges as useful information in the process of managing.

The Practice and Process

Meditation with a focused concentration on the breath at the tip of the nostrils is the first basic step of mindfulness. It’s like learning the scales of the piano – by knowing and embodying the sound of the notes, we can make music.

Meditation helps us stop the thought process, which usually speaks to us at about 750 words per minute. Our thoughts have a life of their own, taking us on wild trips of fancy or fear, based on the past or expectations of the future.This is called the “monkey mind”. As the monkey jumps from branch to branch, our thoughts flit from one to another. It is akin to being on – and at the mercy of – a bucking horse. Meditation aims to take hold of the reins and regain control.

Meditation’s practical purpose in organizational management is to help us take hold of our runaway thoughts.This way, we can actually stop and examine, inquire into, think critically, question and validate those thoughts, since most of the time they may not represent the reality of a situation.

Our thoughts may stoke fears from the past – for instance a bully from school who reminds us of our new colleague – and those old fears may dominate our current thoughts and actions.

The Four Questions for Clarity

I use and teach a simple tool called Four Questions for Clarity, based on non-violent communications (NVC) that will help stop the thought process:

1. Breathe in and observe
2. Acknowledge the feeling and need
3. Diffuse the emotion
4. Take skillful, rational action to move forward with

Stopping the thought enables us to pause, inquire, and to think critically to validate the “truth” of our uneasiness about that new colleague. This requires that we acknowledge the dominant emotion (fear or anxiety), inquire into the need that is not being met (safety), and manifest the feeling. Bringing these emotions to the surface of our mind helps us take the power away from them and put things into perspective.

In doing so, we may clear our mind and use logic to have an inquiring conversation with the new colleague. In all likelihood, we will realize they are not the kind of person we initially judged them to be. Such is the power of mindfulness.

A Commitment to a Practice

Mindfulness tools require a commitment and patience to practice and embody them. With practice, we will be able to think rationally when we need it most – in the heat of the moment, in stressful times and when our limits are pushed to the edge.

The mark of a good manager is their ability to take this stress with equanimity, to not indulge in emotions, but to learn to acknowledge them and find ways to act logically and rationally on a consistent basis.

Being mindful enhances your leadership qualities, enabling you to win the team’s trust and inspire them into action. As a mindful manager, you may find more meaning and purpose in the work you do. In finding that balance, your team will likely find meaning and purpose in their work too.

Related Content:

Learn more about PMC’s mindfulness courses and focus your mind on greater success:

Mindfulness and Leadership: A Program for Managers
Finding Balance through Mindfulness
Mindfulness in the Workplace

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