In the past few weeks the universe has bombarded me with different postings about leadership and mindfulness. This does not seem like such a trivial matter that it would warrant a separate blog posting. But it turns out being a mindful leader is not a common practice and it’s hard to maintain especially in a somewhat frantic work environment that most of us find ourselves in.

For someone like me who is inherently fascinated by different aspects of leadership, the emphasis on mindfulness seems crucial. So what are the actual benefits in leading more mindfully, and how would you implement something like this in your own leadership style?

In a recent book “How we work: Live your purpose, reclaim your sanity and embrace the daily grind” by Stanford Academic Leah Weiss notes how being aware and perceptive of suffering at work can actually lead us to greater personal growth and enhanced emotional intelligence.

Observing ourselves experiencing situations, asking questions about why we feel and act as we do, can all trigger a more focused and mindful approach to our work. This includes practices such as “monotasking”: focusing on one task at a time and giving it our full focus.

But what really struck a chord with me this week was Harvard Business Ideacast podcast episode on how to lead with less ego. In the episode authors Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carte shared their insights what they have learned about the kinds of mindful practices, which can be done on daily basis and that have a significant impact on people’s approach and experience at work.

Begin the gratitude and service mindset

The research results confirmed the most effective traits of leaders: being compassionate, selfless, and focused. Effective leaders are people-centred but not pushovers, compassionate yet willing to make the right decisions, and focused on personal growth including feedback.

I love the quote from Jacquiline in the show:

“I think that if leadership is all about me I probably shouldn’t be a leader. I think that when we look at what does selflessness mean, it doesn’t mean about not being competitive; it doesn’t mean about not being driven, about not being results oriented, about making the tough decisions”

In their research, Rasmus and Jacquiline met many leaders who really were people-centred and compassionate. A core question of leading with compassion comes down to two things: practicing gratitude and focusing on being of service.

A gratitude practice can be done easily in two minutes at work, when you come into the office and are about to start your day and before every meeting. The aim is to calm down, become focused, and then express grateful thoughts for those people that you will meet during that day and who you work with.

Practicing gratitude increases your compassion and also connects you to your colleagues, staff and stakeholders in a new way that keeps you focused and emotionally aware of what they might be going through or what seems to matter to them the most.

Similarly the question we should be asking as people-centred leaders is how we can be of service to the person we are working with or meeting with. Having this inner thought before we meet with our staff or during a meeting can enable us to have a heightened focus on how we can support this person the best or what they need from us in order to succeed and excel in their roles.

The point is: being a leader means you should be self-confident but not self-centrered. A good leader has the humility to take feedback and grow from that, but also to really look at opportunities for his or her employees in helping them to succeed at work.

Embrace radical transparency

One of the most inspiring stories on this comes from the brand new podcast series “WorkLife” with Adam Grant.  Adam interviewed Ray Dalio, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates. (I’ve now told this story already to so many friends that I thought I have to include here as well as the actual transcripts probably do it more justice).

Bridgewater Associates under Ray’s leadership has a policy of radical transparency. This means that everyone, including the CEO, are open for feedback and criticism. In Ray’s eyes, criticism is essential in helping people to grow. In the episode he explains how he doesn’t have time to waste precious mental resources on the kind of bickering that people usually keep up:

“One of the biggest tragedies of mankind is people holding in their opinions in their heads, and it’s such a tragedy because it could so easily be fixed if they put them out there and stress-tested them in the right way. They would so raise their probability of making a better decision. Everybody’s giving high fives, they’re all smiling at each other. But they’re not dealing with the things they need to deal with”

This, to me, is another level of mindfulness and self-awareness that is painful and can cause us suffering but in the long-run eventually if we open up the opportunity for self-discovery, we are more capable of leading with integrity, becoming people-centred, and eliminating wasted time on negative feelings that go around in our heads.

Yet, most of our workplaces don’t encourage “radical transparency” and especially if we work in organisations that are ego-driven rather than ego-balanced, it is not always a good idea to speak up. Unless you happen to work for Ray where that is required (with 1/3 of new employees quitting in the first 18 months).

Get a 360 and focus on what was said

If you do want to get to know yourself better, and get feedback, there are also other ways. 360s are increasingly used by many businesses and organisations where a consultant comes in, interviews many people who work with or for you, and you get a summary of what people have said.

As Tom Henschel notes in Coaching for Leaders episode 341 the key thing with a 360 assessment is not to start guessing who said what and then hunt them down, but focus on what was being said.

This also requires a renewed level of self-awareness, self-compassion and also being mindful about how our behaviour at workplace can be interpreted from many different angles. Focusing on what people said can help us in seeing some of our actions and words in a different light and enable us to improve in our leadership skills and styles.

Tom also puts in a word of caution how such assessments can be misused. 360s should not be used for performance reviews because they are based on people’s feelings and thoughts about one person and not data as such to actually review and rate the performance at work.

To sum it up, becoming a mindful leader requires a handful of steps that are both easy and hard to take and implement:

  1. Cultivating gratitude towards yourself, your colleagues, family and people you come across can help in creating an attitude of true compassion. Take a few minutes each day to express gratitude (but don’t be a doormat, great leaders always know the difference).
  2. Being of service: Compassion is also created by having the thought prior or during the meeting: “how can I be of assistance/service to this person today? How can I help this person to achieve what they need?”
  3. Practicing internal and external focus and reflection: Handling feedback and the learning loop: keep at eliciting feedback from your peers and family and don’t look at failure or miscommunication as a dead end. We learn, as Leah Weiss notes, by suffering at work if we practice both internal and external focus and reflection on the feedback we are getting and giving.

Much of this sounds like soft tactics that don’t serve us well in an environment where everyone is trying to get ahead. But practicing these things daily can actually change the way you lead: with more focus comes also emotional intelligence and self-confidence.