I was 25 when I began the Leadership Studies doctoral program at the University of San Diego. I was fresh from my master’s program and eager to embark on the path toward achieving my then career aspiration of university professor. To my surprise, the biggest challenge I experienced in the program came not from coursework or research or papers, but from the process of letting goof leadership habits that no longer served me—that prevented me from expanding my raw skills, engaging meaningfully with others, and responding effectively to conflict and emotionally-charged situations. Because, in order to let go, I had to acknowledge the gap between my perceived and actual effectiveness as a leader. Even further, in order to acknowledge this gap, I had to acknowledge how mindless I was in the way I went about my everyday life.
Like most of the powerful learning moments in my life, letting go was not a particularly feel-good process. This was because letting go meant acknowledging things I didn’t like about myself, things I had been avoiding and pushing down for many years. One of those things was my need to constantly contribute verbally in group settings. Because of my volume, tone, and presence, my participation would unintentionally make friends and colleagues feel silenced or uncomfortable (or even unable) to offer their perspectives and stories to the group. I became aware that this was not an effective leadership practice, but I found it wasn’t enough to just be aware. I had to regularly check in with myself in group settings about how and when I contributed, which, as it turns out, required lots of practice. The more I practiced checking in on my contributions—the more mindful I became to this—the more I developed deeper, nuanced knowledge of this behavior in groups. I noticed, for example, I contributed more when I disagreed with what someone shared, or when I held on to anxiety and tension. I began to understand where those anxieties came from, and when they would most often present themselves.
This increased attention to mindfulness helps me pause long enough to act rather than react. The difference here is subtle yet important. Reacting, for me, is a process by which my ego places a value judgment on a situation and responds in such a way that satisfies or protects itself. Reacting doesn’t allow me to understand or sense what may be needed for the moment, which is why I see it as an ego-satisfying or ego-protecting response. Acting, by contrast, involves a suspension of my ego, assessing in a nonjudgmental way what is happening—within me and around me—so I can formulate a more aware or planned response. I believe leadership calls us to mind this gap between reactive and active responses.
I do not mean to imply that we should ignore our “gut reaction” to things. Indeed, we are seeing and hearing more calls for us to listen to our gut or instinct or intuition, which Dr. Helen Fisher talks about in her article that provides a nice starting point to understanding when to listen to your gut and when not to. In the process of being mindful, of acting, I incorporate my intuition into my understanding of the situation. In this way, intuition is a part of an active response; the two are not mutually exclusive.
Leaders are increasingly tasked with attending to and connecting the local and the global, the present and the path ahead, the individual and the collective. By becoming more mindful—by minding the gap between reacting and acting—we can more successfully engage others in balancing the increasing complexity of our professional and personal lives.
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