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.
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?
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.