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The Mindful Leader

Added on September 22, 2013

Pressures on today’s leaders come from many sources. Not only must they confront complex and unpredictable operational environments, but they also face personal sacrifice in the long hours that are expected of them. Additionally, an organisation’s human resource can be highly unstable, as everyone has their own challenges and agendas that they carry with them to the workplace every day. Personal happiness is a strong predictor of productivity, sick days and turnover. The result of leading in such an unpredictable and demanding environment can be high levels of stress that impacts both on private lives and bottom-line performance.

 

Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric) said “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be”.  What he describes is an attitude of Mindfulness, that is, staying in the present moment.

 

The word “Mindfulness” has its roots in Buddhist practice and comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “awareness”.  In our western world Mindfulness may be defined as a “focused awareness of the present moment”, and it is this focus that sets it apart from ordinary awareness.  Mindful focus is undistracted, undivided and completely attentive. It is also open, non-judgmental and accepting. A mindful leader will model these qualities and in this way will help build a positive culture within the organisation.

 

As our society puts more value on multi-tasking and less on single-minded attention, many of us may struggle with a deficient capacity to attend for more than a few seconds or minutes at a time. We actually train ourselves to be distracted. Every time you hear your smart phone ring with a text message, email or phone call your attention is distracted from whatever had your focus previously, which is like actively training yourself to reduce your attention span. Multi-tasking is expected in the workplace, but what often results is poor attention to detail, as the mind flits from one task, one thought or one conversation to the next.

 

The mindful leader is completely present. Whether it’s reviewing a project with the Chairman of the Board or a conversation with the office junior, a mindful leader is aware and undistracted, and makes the person they are with feel heard, valued and appreciated. Being present and focused also allows for a greater openness and awareness of non-verbal cues, thereby further enhancing communication. This attitude helps build a culture of respect, and models the importance of focused attention.

 

The business world today is unpredictable, and when trouble happens the inclination is to withdraw from it. This withdrawal from pain, discomfort or unpleasant situations is a primal response, one that is generated by the Sympathetic Nervous System (flight-flight). And although pulling away from a source of physical danger is appropriate and life-saving, withdrawal from a “threat” at work closes our minds to managing or solving the problem. Mindfulness engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System (relaxation response).  This allows one to consider the difficult situation with an open and non-judgmental attitude. Instead of looking for blame, wishing it were different or being stuck in why the trouble happened, a solution-focused approach is employed. It’s difficult to see potential solutions when we’re stuck in the “if only” or the “should have”. A mindful leader will look at what is, and consider how to move forward without judgment.

 

The key to progressing in a mindful and positive way is to let go of judgments and be accepting of the present situation, no matter how difficult. This can take courage as it means tolerance to what cannot be controlled.  A leader with a particular vision or goal may unwittingly try to control situations or people at work in order to reach that goal in the way they think is best. This attitude closes one to possibilities. Accepting that not everything can be or should be controlled allows for an open mind-set, one that considers various possibilities instead of trying to create or control certainties. This may allow for growth and creativity in areas not previously considered. A leader with such an open, non-judgmental mind-set develops a culture of encouragement and innovation and makes staff feel that their opinions and ideas are valued.

 

If you ask an airline pilot “How do you fly this plane knowing that you are responsible for the lives of over 200 people” they will answer “I fly the cockpit. If I am safe, everyone is.”  Leading an organisation can be seen in the same light: Be mindful of your own reactions and responses, be attentive, open and non-judgmental. At the end of the day, your only control is over yourself.



About Judith Lissing

Judith Lissing is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and Wellness Coach, with 15 years experience in teaching stress management and meditation. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree with Honours in Immunology and a Masters degree in Public Health, both from the University of NSW. She is also an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of NSW since 1999. Judith is trained in Wellness Coaching with Wellcoaches U.S. and holds a Diploma in Hypnotherapy. Prior to coaching professionally, Judith held a statewide management role with NSW Health working with all levels of staff across the health sector.




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