The Mind of the Leader

Mind­ful­ness helps us pause in the mo­ment so that we can make more con­scious choices and take more de­lib­er­ate ac­tions.

Rotman Management Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Ras­mus Hougaard and Jac­que­line Carter

once said, “You can­not manLEADERSHIP PI­O­NEER PETER DRUCKER age other peo­ple un­less you man­age your­self first.” If this is true, most lead­er­ship ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams have it back­wards. They tend to start with skills like strat­egy, peo­ple man­age­ment and fi­nance, but from Drucker’s point of view, this ap­proach starts at the end and misses the be­gin­ning. It’s like build­ing a house by start­ing with the roof.

Like Drucker, we be­lieve lead­er­ship be­gins with your­self. More specif­i­cally, it starts with your mind. Here are a few facts that ev­ery leader should know about their mind:

• You do not con­trol your mind.

• You are not ra­tio­nal.

• Your mind cre­ates your re­al­ity.

• You are not your thoughts.

Let’s take a closer look at each point.

YOU PROB­A­BLY DON’T CON­TROL YOUR MIND AS MUCH AS YOU THINK. To test whether this is true for you, fo­cus on any word in this sen­tence for a full minute. Don’t think about any­thing else. Don’t get dis­tracted. Just fo­cus on one word for a full 60 sec­onds. No cheat­ing. Okay, go ahead.

How did it go? Were you able to main­tain com­plete fo­cus for a minute? Or did you ques­tion the pur­pose of the ex­er­cise? Did you de­bate which word to fo­cus on? Did the word cat­alyze new thoughts, lead­ing you to think of other things? The point is that if you strayed from com­plete fo­cus on that one word, you failed in lead­ing your own mind, even just for a minute.

If you failed, don’t worry: It just means you’re nor­mal. Most peo­ple fail this test. Why? Re­searchers have found that on av­er­age, our mind in­vol­un­tar­ily wan­ders for nearly half our wak­ing hours. While you think you’re manag­ing your mind, you’re not. Think for a mo­ment about the im­pli­ca­tions of your mind be­ing dis­tracted from what you’re do­ing nearly half of the time. How might it im­pact your ef­fec­tive­ness? How could it af­fect your abil­ity to be present with oth­ers? How might it im­pact your well-be­ing?

Sure, we like to think we’re ra­tio­nal be­ings. YOU ARE NOT RA­TIO­NAL.

But in truth, we make choices based on emo­tions and ra­tio­nal­ize them af­ter­ward. For ex­am­ple, nu­mer­ous stud­ies con­firm that

our de­ci­sions are in­flu­enced by how op­tions are framed. In one study, faced with mak­ing a med­i­cal de­ci­sion, sub­jects chose the risk-less op­tion when out­comes were pos­i­tively framed in terms of gains, and the risky op­tion when out­comes were phrased neg­a­tively in terms of losses.

Con­sider the last time you beYOUR MIND CRE­ATES YOUR RE­AL­ITY. lieved you led a meet­ing where every­one was per­fectly aligned — only to later find out that some par­tic­i­pants per­ceived it dif­fer­ently. This hap­pens all the time. We all have un­con­scious bi­ases that in­flu­ence and fil­ter ev­ery­thing we ex­pe­ri­ence. Put more suc­cinctly: We don’t per­ceive things as they are, but as we are. Lit­er­ally, our mind cre­ates our re­al­ity.

In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS. thoughts arise ran­domly in the mind. We of­ten iden­tify with our thoughts, be­liev­ing they are true and that they de­fine who we are. And that’s a prob­lem, since we have thou­sands of ran­dom, repet­i­tive and com­pul­sive thoughts ev­ery day. They’re ran­dom be­cause they of­ten come out of nowhere, and for no rea­son — such as think­ing about a meet­ing you at­tended ear­lier in the day while you’re try­ing to be present with your fam­ily. They’re repet­i­tive, be­cause we of­ten re­peat the same thoughts again and again, like a child­hood mem­ory that comes to mind thou­sands of times through­out one’s life. And they’re com­pul­sive, be­cause they just keep com­ing, flow­ing like a wa­ter­fall, even if we try to stop them.

These ‘mind facts’ should be con­cern­ing. If we as lead­ers don’t man­age our­selves, how can we lead oth­ers ef­fec­tively, and, ul­ti­mately, lead our or­ga­ni­za­tions? This chal­lenge is best faced by first un­der­stand­ing more about the mind, how it works, and how it can be trained.

First of all, the mind and the brain are not the same thing. Your brain is the 85 bil­lion neu­rons be­tween your ears, as well as the 40 mil­lion neu­rons around your heart and 100 mil­lion neu­rons in your gut. In con­trast, your mind is the to­tal­ity of your ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing you — cog­ni­tively, emo­tion­ally, phys­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have found that we can change the struc­ture of our brain by train­ing our mind. When this hap­pens, we can be­come more fo­cused, kinder, more pa­tient — or any other qual­i­ties that we train for. Sim­ply put, what we do is what the brain be­comes. Fo­cus for ten min­utes ev­ery day for two weeks, and your pre­frontal cor­tex — a part of our brain that con- tributes to fo­cused at­ten­tion — is strength­ened. The brain takes shape ac­cord­ing to how we use it. Sci­en­tists and re­searchers call this neu­ro­plas­tic­ity.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is great news for all of us be­cause it means that we’re not limited by the fac­ul­ties and ap­ti­tudes we’ve al­ready de­vel­oped. On the con­trary, we can keep learn­ing and grow­ing and can ef­fec­tively re­wire our brains through­out our en­tire lives. And as lead­ers, we can learn to bet­ter man­age our minds.

But here is an im­por­tant caveat for neu­ro­plas­tic­ity: Just be­cause our brain is con­stantly chang­ing doesn’t mean that it’s au­to­mat­i­cally chang­ing in ways that are help­ful to us. In fact, in our dis­tracted work en­vi­ron­ments, we tend to re­wire our brain to be even more dis­tracted. If you just thought about your smart­phone or meet­ing sched­ule, you’re on to some­thing.

If we’re con­stantly ask­ing our brain to shift from one task to an­other, its abil­ity to fo­cus on a sin­gle task will di­min­ish. And if we al­low our­selves to be con­stantly im­pa­tient and not par­tic­u­larly kind to oth­ers, these two char­ac­ter­is­tics can be­come the de­fault op­er­a­tions of our brain. In this sense, we get the brain that we get based on how we use it — which means we should all place greater value on cre­at­ing and manag­ing our mind in ways that are ben­e­fi­cial to us as lead­ers and the peo­ple we lead.

Make no mis­take, this process is not easy. It re­quires train­ing and ef­fort. It also re­quires a deep un­der­stand­ing of your­self, your val­ues and your be­hav­iours.

The Road to Self-aware­ness

The start­ing point for self-aware­ness is mind­ful­ness. In a busy, dis­tracted work life, fo­cus and aware­ness — the two cen­tral char­ac­ter­is­tics of mind­ful­ness — are the key qual­i­ties for ef­fec­tive men­tal per­for­mance and self-man­age­ment. As we be­come more aware of our thoughts and feel­ings, we can man­age our­selves bet­ter and act in ways that are more aligned with our val­ues and goals.

Fo­cus is the abil­ity to be sin­gle-mind­edly di­rected in what you do. Fo­cus is what al­lows you to fin­ish a project, meet your goals and main­tain a strat­egy. When you’re in­volved in an im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tion, fo­cus is what en­ables you to stay present and not men­tally wan­der off; and aware­ness is the abil­ity to no­tice what is hap­pen­ing around you as well as in­side your own mind.

When you take part in a con­ver­sa­tion, self-aware­ness al­lows you to know what you’re think­ing, rec­og­nize how you’re feel­ing

If lead­ers don’t man­age them­selves, they can­not lead oth­ers ef­fec­tively.

and un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of the con­ver­sa­tion. Aware­ness is also the qual­ity that in­forms you when your fo­cus goes astray and helps you re­di­rect it back on track.

In 2015, we wrote an en­tire book about mind­ful­ness ( One Sec­ond Ahead: En­hance Your Per­for­mance at Work with Mind­ful­ness), so we won’t re­peat our­selves here. In­stead, we’ll fo­cus on the mind­ful char­ac­ter­is­tic of aware­ness and how you can cul­ti­vate self-aware­ness as part of your own lead­er­ship prac­tice.

The First Step: Shut Off Au­topi­lot

Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that 45 per cent of our ev­ery­day be­hav­iours are driven by re­ac­tions be­low the sur­face of our con­scious aware­ness. This may sound like bad news, but it’s ac­tu­ally nec­es­sary and ex­tremely valu­able. Imag­ine try­ing to drive a car if you con­sciously had to re­mind your­self to push the pedal to speed up or ask your hands to move when you needed to turn the wheel. You’d be over­whelmed — and you prob­a­bly wouldn’t get very far.

In cer­tain cir­cum­stances, these au­topi­lot ac­tions, re­ac­tions and be­hav­iours are vi­tal. These un­con­scious pro­cesses al­low you to per­form tasks with­out hav­ing to think about them. But not all your au­topi­lot ac­tions and be­hav­iours are use­ful in lead­ing your­self or oth­ers.

As lead­ers, we im­pact the peo­ple we lead more than we know. They pick up on ev­ery sub­tle cue we send, whether we send it con­sciously or un­con­sciously. And many of the cues we send can be dis­cour­ag­ing, dis­tanc­ing or con­fus­ing. This is not nec­es­sar­ily due to bad in­ten­tions, but rather be­cause these be­hav­iours, ac­tions or re­ac­tions hap­pen while we’re op­er­at­ing on au­topi­lot. There­fore, gain­ing greater aware­ness of our sub­tle ac­tions and be­hav­iours and elim­i­nat­ing au­topi­lot be­hav­iours that are detri­men­tal can be highly ben­e­fi­cial.

Mind­ful­ness train­ing en­ables us to ex­pand our aware­ness of what is hap­pen­ing in the land­scape of our mind from mo­ment to mo­ment. It also helps us pause in the mo­ment, so we can make more con­scious choices and take more de­lib­er­ate ac­tions. These are pow­er­ful skills for a leader.

For­tu­nately for all of us, our aware­ness can al­ways be en­hanced. We can change the ra­tio of our con­scious to un­con­scious be­hav­iours, which can make the dif­fer­ence be­tween good or bad de­ci­sions.

But what is aware­ness, re­ally? Do you know what aware­ness feels like? Take a mo­ment to ex­pe­ri­ence it:

1. Let go of this mag­a­zine. For one minute, sit still.

2. What­ever comes into your mind, be aware of it. Sim­ply no­tice it.

3. Let go of any in­ner commentary of why you are do­ing this ex­er­cise.

4. No an­a­lyz­ing, no judg­ing, no think­ing.

5. Sim­ply be aware.

6. Just be.

That is aware­ness: A direct ex­pe­ri­ence of what is hap­pen­ing for you, right now, and pay­ing at­ten­tion to it helps us un­der­stand our­selves.

Af­ter Ja­cob Larsen, vice pres­i­dent of The Fi­nance Group, com­pleted one of our mind­ful­ness pro­grams, we asked him what he had gained. His answer: “One sec­ond.” He ex­plained that mind­ful­ness gave him a one-sec­ond gap be­tween his thoughts and his ac­tions, be­tween his im­pulses and his re­ac­tions — and that gave him greater con­trol over his de­ci­sions and his re­sponses. In any given sit­u­a­tion, he said, he could bet­ter man­age him­self — all be­cause of a sin­gle sec­ond. In this way, mind­ful­ness

can pro­vide the mo­ment-to-mo­ment aware­ness needed to make bet­ter choices and take more pro­duc­tive ac­tion.

One sec­ond can also be the dif­fer­ence be­tween mak­ing a good or bad de­ci­sion. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween say­ing the words that mo­ti­vate an em­ployee and the words that dis­en­gage him/her. One sec­ond is the dif­fer­ence be­tween lash­ing out at some­one for an er­ror or turn­ing an un­in­ten­tional mis­take into a learn­ing mo­ment. One sec­ond mat­ters. Es­pe­cially for you as a leader.

Take a mo­ment to con­sider which au­to­matic be­hav­iours you have that some­times hin­der your lead­er­ship. What in­ter­feres with your team mem­ber’s feel­ings of en­gage­ment? What makes peo­ple feel in­se­cure or dis­re­garded? Ask your­self these ques­tions from time to time to grad­u­ally in­crease your self­aware­ness and spur changes in your au­to­matic re­ac­tions and re­sponses. Do­ing so will not only make you a more ef­fec­tive leader, it will also help you bet­ter un­der­stand, align with, and act on your own per­sonal val­ues.

True Hap­pi­ness: It’s Not What You Think

Self-aware­ness helps us answer one of life’s big­gest ques­tions, one that is foun­da­tional for lead­ing other peo­ple: What makes us truly happy?

This ques­tion should be front and cen­tre for any leader. Be­ing self-aware of what con­sti­tutes true hap­pi­ness helps us tap into what re­ally drives other peo­ple. True hap­pi­ness bol­sters feel­ings of ful­fil­ment, en­gage­ment and com­mit­ment, and as a re­sult, it is time for the prac­tice and science of true hap­pi­ness to en­ter ba­sic lead­er­ship knowl­edge.

Take a mo­ment to con­sider the fol­low­ing: How of­ten do you wake up in the morn­ing wish­ing for a stress­ful day? Now ask an­other ques­tion: How of­ten do you have a stress­ful day? The point is, we hu­mans do a great job of mess­ing things up for our­selves. We de­sire lives with few wor­ries, har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ships, bal­ance and joy. And in our de­vel­oped world, we have the means to make this hap­pen. We have ad­vanced sys­tems of ed­u­ca­tion; state-of-the-art health­care; plen­ti­ful food; and re­sources and ameni­ties that our an­ces­tors could only dream of. Yet we man­age to fall short of cre­at­ing deeply mean­ing­ful, sat­is­fy­ing and joy­ful lives.

Why do we fall short of be­ing happy when we have so much? As lead­ers — and as hu­mans — we’re gen­er­ally mis­taken about hap­pi­ness. The things we gen­er­ally look to for hap­pi­ness don’t ac­tu­ally pro­vide it. Re­search con­ducted at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, Har­vard Busi­ness School and lead­ing neu­rore­search cen­tres around the world and brought to­gether by the United Na­tions in its an­nual World Hap­pi­ness Re­port shows our bi­ases about hap­pi­ness. We are gen­er­ally mis­taken about hap­pi­ness in two ways:

1. We be­lieve hap­pi­ness comes from the out­side; and

2. We mis­take plea­sure for hap­pi­ness.

Re­search shows con­clu­sively that true hap­pi­ness doesn’t come from ex­ter­nal sources — and this is par­tic­u­larly true of ex­ter­nal fac­tors like money. For more than 50 years, re­searchers have looked at the cor­re­la­tion be­tween hap­pi­ness and wealth in the United States and other coun­tries. Their find­ing: Wealth has more than dou­bled, but the level of hap­pi­ness has ac­tu­ally de­creased.

One study found that win­ning the lottery in­creased par­tic­i­pants’ moods sig­nif­i­cantly, but af­ter a while they re­turned to their nor­mal base­line of hap­pi­ness. An­other showed that while

We get the brain that we get, based on how we use it.

ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions such as a job loss or ma­jor ill­ness, par­tic­i­pants’ hap­pi­ness de­creased sig­nif­i­cantly; but even­tu­ally, they also re­turned to their orig­i­nal base­line. In each of these in­stances, out­side events had a short-term ef­fect on hap­pi­ness but did not in­flu­ence long-term hap­pi­ness. The take­aways?

EX­TER­NAL EVENTS AND EX­PE­RI­ENCES DO NOT CRE­ATE TRUE HAP­PI­NESS. Nor do dif­fi­cult events and ex­pe­ri­ences cre­ate last­ing un­hap­pi­ness. This should be con­sid­ered great news. It means that we as in­di­vid­u­als can be in con­trol of our own hap­pi­ness. We may not get the de­sired pro­mo­tion, the fancy car, or the mag­nif­i­cent house, but our hap­pi­ness is not de­pen­dent on those types of things.

We gen­er­ally equate pleaPLEASURE ISN’T THE SAME AS HAP­PI­NESS. sure with hap­pi­ness. We think that if we get enough plea­sure, we’ll be happy — but we’re wrong. The two ex­pe­ri­ences are com­pletely dif­fer­ent. In a way, plea­sure is pure chem­istry. When we get or do some­thing we like — a pro­mo­tion, praise, a new car — dopamine is re­leased in our brain, giv­ing us a sense of plea­sure. Dopamine is a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter that helps con­trol the brain’s re­ward and plea­sure cen­tres. How­ever, dopamine can lead to ad­dic­tion: The more plea­sure we al­low our­selves, the more we risk be­com­ing ad­dicted to it.

Plea­sure is a mo­men­tary ex­pe­ri­ence that quickly fades as the neu­ro­chem­i­cals sub­side. True hap­pi­ness, in con­trast, can’t be so eas­ily lo­cated or pin­pointed in the brain. It’s not in a spe­cific re­gion, and it can’t be found in a sin­gle hor­mone, neu­ro­trans­mit­ter or mol­e­cule. True hap­pi­ness is an ex­pe­ri­ence of ful­fil­ment and of last­ing well-be­ing. True hap­pi­ness is a long-term ex­pe­ri­ence of a mean­ing­ful, pur­pose­ful and pos­i­tive life. It’s a deeply felt ex­is­ten­tial ex­pe­ri­ence that can be main­tained ir­re­spec­tive of the ups and downs of life.

Take a mo­ment to con­sider how these facts about hap­pi­ness might in­form your lead­er­ship. Are there things you could do dif­fer­ently to help your peo­ple be hap­pier and more en­gaged?

In clos­ing

Mind­ful­ness train­ing will help you in­crease your self-aware­ness and be­come more aware of what makes you truly happy; it will help you avoid your com­pul­sive re­ac­tions and re­place them with more use­ful be­hav­iours; and it will help you stay true to your val­ues. These are foun­da­tional skills for ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship, for be­ing au­then­tic and for in­creas­ing team en­gage­ment.

The men­tal strength and free­dom you will de­velop through aware­ness train­ing can­not be over­stated. Through it, you will come to know your­self in the mo­ment, to know what you think, what you feel and what is im­por­tant to you.

Bring these in­sights to how you per­ceive your­self, and you will feel more at ease. Bring them to how you per­ceive oth­ers, and you will find it eas­ier to lead them. Bring them to how you lead your or­ga­ni­za­tion, and you will find that you need to ex­ert much less ef­fort and con­trol. By read­ing this far, you have al­ready taken the first step.

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