Mindfulness and Personal Leadership

ejohnsonby: Eric Johnson, Director of Graduate Career Services
Indiana University Kelley School of Business

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for personal leadership. With practice, you can use its techniques to become a better leader—of others and of yourself.

Much like yoga, mindfulness has been both warped and misused over the last few years as it’s become a pop culture staple. That said, in its true form it’s still a powerful tool for personal leadership and a key to overcoming five of the most common ways life can sabotage us. (Or really, we can sabotage ourselves!) I intend to share with you some mindful practices which I use in the hopes that you find at least one of these applicable in your life. A couple of quick notes:

  1. I’m going to use the term “consciousness” instead of “mindfulness” going forward, as I believe it’s a better representation of the practices here – my goal is to become acutely aware of how I’m managing the present moment so I can better manage a given situation.
  2. I’d like to ask you to maintain a “beginner’s mind” as you go through these tips. Shunryu Suzuki, a founding father of Zen in America, wrote that only through the withholding of biases and judgement can we maximize our learning from each other.
  3. The power of consciousness and personal leadership is in the practice – not in the message. If you want to get the most out of this, make a commitment to spend a few minutes every day making something here a staple in your daily routine.

It’s my experience that practicing consciousness of the present moment helps with five of life’s bigger challenges: inability to focus, making decisions, managing emotions, handling conflict, and improving attitudes. Here are my thoughts on how to do it.

Improving Focus
Ever find your mind wandering – maybe at work after you’ve been sitting for a while, or after you get home following a long day. Conscious awareness can help return you to productivity.

The majority of Americans report that they “zone out” upwards of a dozen times a day when they should be engaged in other activities – and many spend as much as 4 hours a day just scanning social media out of distraction. The good news is that conscious awareness can help with this.

Here are a few ways to get focused and to regain your attention the next time you “zone out”:

  • First, you have to notice that you’re zoning out – and you have to accept that it’s okay. It happens. The good news is that you are aware and that you want to improve.
  • Next, take a “purposeful pause” or do a “stretching meditation.” A purposeful pause is something I learned from Janice Marturano’s book, Finding the Space to Lead. It’s a simple concept: stop whatever you’re doing, sit back, fold your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and start to breathe deeply. As much as possible just focus on your breath – it helps to count to five as you breathe in, and then again as you breathe out. Do this for about 2 minutes, and you’ll find both a boost in energy and an ability to regain your focus.
  • Another option is to do a “stretching meditation” – which is one of my favorite practices. Here you just need to step back from your activity and stand up. Close your eyes and start to breathe deeply, also counting to five on the ins and outs of your breath. After the second exhale you can start working your arms into the practice – as you breathe in slowly raise your arms over your head, and as you breathe out slowly lower them back to your sides. Do this for about 2 minutes, and you will feel a similar energy boost and rejuvenation for the task at hand.

A common misconception about meditation is that it only works if you sit for 30 minutes with your eyes closed. On the contrary – you can become more conscious and present in as little as 90 seconds of focused breathing. So the next time you find your mind wandering – get up, stretch and breathe!

Making Decisions
Do you struggle with making decisions? Conscious awareness can bring you clarity and the confidence to act.

Ever face a decision that you didn’t want to make? It could be something as simple as where to go for dinner or something important like which job offer to accept. The importance of the decision is not the point – the point is that all of us face moments where we aren’t sure what to do and yet need to be decisive. Here’s a practice of conscious awareness that I use in situations like this:

  • First, find a space where you can be reflective and avoid distractions. You have the answer inside of you – you just need to hear what your mind and body are saying.
  • I love the simple exercise of writing here. Take about 7 minutes and write as much as you can in response to the following questions:
    • Which of my options summons more energy in my body?
    • Where do I feel excitement?
    • What values are important to me? How does each option honor or fulfill these values?
    • What’s the worst that can happen with each option? What’s the best?
    • What do I feel is calling me forward in the direction I want to go?
  • After you finish writing for 7 minutes read what you put down. Then sit back, close your eyes, and breathe deep for 7 minutes. Reflect on each option and notice what happens with your heart rate and with your muscle tension as you go through your answers. Specifically notice where positive energy arises in your body and mind as you reflect.

An old boss of mine used to say that, “a lack of clarity will cost us dearly.” He was so right. Consciousness gives us time to reflect on our options, identify our reasons, and to find clarity in our choices. After this exercise you will better know what decision you want to make, along with the reasons to do so.

Managing Emotions
Do you control your emotions or do they control you? Learn to manage your responses and become a better leader.

Ever reacted to a situation and then regretted later how you handled it? Do you get frustrated easily and “boil over” frequently? The great neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl used to say, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The questions for you are: how big is your space, and how do you mind it? The next time you feel this way:

  • Notice when you begin to get frustrated or angry. No matter how long it takes your reactor to go from 0 to nuclear there is a point at which the dial starts turning – you need to both notice that it’s happening and accept that you have responsibility for stopping it from boiling over.
  • Mind the space. You’ve now experienced the stimulus, so it’s time to create a space. In this moment you need to step away – whatever that means for you – and be alone. It’s time to breathe.
  • Take a breath – while you’re breathing in count to 5. As you breathe out, count to 5. Do this 4-5 times. As you calm down, notice that you have a choice on how to respond to your stimulus. Ask yourself what impact you want your actions to have, and what role your emotions play in the solution you want. In this space you have a choice – respond in a way that will give you freedom and not regret.

I’m not telling you that you always have to be positive or happy. Negative emotion is both normal and necessary – the power here is making sure that your emotions work with your behavior and not against it. You don’t want to do anything you’ll regret – nor do you want your emotions to be counter-productive. You can control your response – and when you do, you will grow as a leader.

Handling Conflict
You can’t get along with everybody. You can use compassion to make your interactions more positive and productive.

We all have our “nemesis” – somebody who is difficult to work with and who brings out the worst in us. You may even find yourself in frequent arguments with this person if they’re not somebody you can just avoid. It’s okay – this is normal. We all have different personalities, values, incentives, and motivators – sometimes we’re just not set up to get along all of the time. What’s not always okay is how we deal with it.

Here’s how to use conscious compassion to handle conflict:

  • Think about somebody with whom you have trouble getting along. It could be a co-worker or friend, as it’s not important if it’s personal or professional. As you choose, notice the sensations that arise in your body. Don’t judge yourself – just notice.
  • Next, close your eyes and start breathing deeply. Breathe in to a count of 5 and out with a count of 5. As you do, you can start practicing compassion. Remind yourself that this person is somebody’s child, somebody’s partner, maybe somebody’s parent. There are people who love this person and who depend on this person. At their core, this person is just trying to do their best for somebody in their life. Nobody enjoys being seen negatively.
  • Finally, as you continue to breathe, come up with 1-2 positive thoughts about this person. Examples might be, “This person is a good parent,” or, “This person is deserving of friends.”

I’m not suggesting you have to find a way to be friends with everybody. You don’t. But you do have to find a way to be around people you don’t always like. You get to choose how you handle that, and I believe you’ll find that his practice of conscious compassion can not only help you better deal with difficult people, but actually begin seeing them in a better light.

Improving Attitude
When you’re in a bad mood, it’s up to you to get out of it. Use this technique to change your attitude and your outlook.

Have you ever found yourself in a bad mood, and not been sure why? Or maybe you just haven’t felt “right” but you’re not sure what’s going on? I have – all of the time! It’s actually one of the more common reasons why I meditate. In fact, one of my favorite philosophers – David Foster Wallace – talked about this in a commencement speech he gave called, “This is Water”. The basic premise is that we get to choose what we think about and how we respond to things. Conscious awareness is a tool that can help us with this.

My friend Mark Power, who is a Buddhist chaplain and an executive coach, has a great model called, “Identify, Interrupt, and Inspire” which I use in these moments.

  • When you notice that you’re in a funk, find a spot to sit down, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. In the first few moments try to identify the sensation – what emotions are you feeling and what do you notice in your body. Scan yourself from head to toe and try to name the sensations if you can.
  • As you continue to breathe deeply, try to identify where this is coming from. Ask yourself what’s causing tension or sadness? What is coming to mind for you? What thoughts are the first to show up? Question why this is so. See if you can put your finger on the thing that’s bothering you. Once you know you can interrupt the wondering that’s going on and begin to work with the sensation.
  • As you identify the stimulus, begin to explore how you’d like to feel about this, or what you need to do about it. It’s okay if you don’t have answers – you can also just sit with the feeling for a while and see if something shifts for you as you reflect on it. As you find the inspiration to choose how you want to feel you can begin to shape your attitude.

A study once showed that it takes about 90 seconds of sitting with a feeling before it begins to shift and improve in both the mind and the body. The key is that it has to be deep and reflective focusing on the sensations before they can move. The process of Identify-Interrupt-Inspire allows me to break the cycle and help the mood shift with my intentions. I believe it can work for you, too.

I hope that you find at least one of these practices helpful as you deal with life’s inner challenges. I’d love to hear other practices that work for you, so please feel free to share them with me at ericjohn@indiana.edu.

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