If you are in the business of leadership, then inevitably, you are in the business of change. To be blunt, leading change is messy. Can you recall the last time you attempted to make a change in your life, one with high stakes, one that really mattered to you?
Even if you were successful on the other side, this memory probably triggers a montage of intense internal struggles. The next, and most important question then, is what are you aware of right now as you recall this experience?
If your first reaction to that question was “Huh?” don’t worry, mine was too.
The first time my mindfulness teacher asked me that question, I just stared at her blankly and blinked for a few seconds, thinking in my head, “What does that even mean?!,” and “Why does it even matter ‘what I’m aware of right now?" Sensing my uncertainty, she instructed me to close my eyes, drop inside, and just notice my physical sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Turns out, I was completely unaware of an entire world swirling inside of me. All I had to do was pay attention.
This is mindfulness: the process of paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment. However, if it were as simple as that description makes it sound, we’d all do it. Even though studies have shown mindfulness to significantly enhance self-awareness and well-being, our fast-paced lifestyles provide a lot of reasons why we can’t dedicate time to this practice.
Yet, as the world gets more chaotic, it becomes crucial for leaders to remain anchored and aware, and mindfulness skills may become your most vital tool in your ability to practice leadership and mobilize change. Transformational change-leader and CEO Bill O’Brien reminds us that, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” Mindfulness is your ticket to that inner world.
Here are 3 principles of mindfulness that will allow you to hold steady during the tumult of change:
Focus on the Sensations, Not the Stories: When you feel the heat rise in a tense situation, your body automatically engages in a stress response. Your nervous system sends you into ‘fight or flight’ mode, your heart rate increases, cortisol levels spike, and your mind gets hi-jacked by the stories we tell ourselves. When I say stories, I mean our tendency to ruminate about the past—“God, it was a mistake to even accept this job in the first place…”—or worry about the future—“This is going to fail, I just know it.” Once you get pulled into the past or future, you’ve surrendered your capacity to be effective in the most important moment: the present one.
When you feel your attention pulled out of the present, the quickest way to anchor yourself is to focus on the physical sensations that you are experiencing. This may seem simple, or perhaps even odd, but it is the first step to understanding your inner experience.
So, when you begin to have a strong reaction, acknowledge what is here without telling yourself a story about what the physical sensations mean, ”My face is getting hot; My fists are clenching; I can feel my heart beating faster in my chest, interesting.” This simple technique slows down knee-jerk reactions. It is also a way of collecting data about your experience and how you are reacting to a particular situation. However, sometimes I really do not want to deal with certain emotions, particularly the painful ones, so I pretend they do not exist. Not surprisingly, this almost always backfires.
What You Resist Persists: What happens when a crying child asks something of their mother and the mother ignores them? The child gets louder and throws a bigger fit until someone listens. The same principle applies to your thoughts and feelings.
In the process of orchestrating change in a community or an organization, you will likely experience a myriad of thoughts and feelings such as excitement, fear, anxiety, hope, determination, frustration. You probably know which ones you are the least comfortable with confronting. The longer you ignore the feelings you don’t want, the more power you surrender to them. They will continue to fester like a pressure-cooker, and one way or another, they will surface. For me, it almost always elicits a reaction that I regret.
Mindfulness simply encourages us to turn toward our experience, whatever it may be, rather than run from it. If we are willing to face the storm, then the next tip offers a simple way to calm it.
Name It to Tame It: A recent study at UCLA found that the activity in your amygdala, the part of your brain activates your emotional responses, actually decreases when you label the specific emotion or thought pattern that is causing you stress. In other words, just by saying to yourself, “I’m so frustrated,” or “Here is my judgment showing up,” you begin to tame the internal chaos at a biological level!
This ability will be one of your essential tools when you are practicing leadership because others are looking to you to remain centered, focused, and connected to yourself as you guide them through change.
Ultimately, leading change exposes your fears, insecurities, and doubts. It requires courage to be 100% invested in the process without guaranteed results. It is fueled by the collective hope that maybe, just maybe, things are better on the other side. In short, change requires all of you. As a leader, your presence of body, mind, and soul is vital to the change process, and mindfulness will support your capacity to fully show up when it counts.
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