How to Become a Mindful Leader
Read Time: 11 minutes, 10 seconds
Leaders have been praised, vilified, puzzled over, and even worshipped since the beginning of history. Yet, the theories of leadership are contradictory at best. One authority states, “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are people who have attempted to define the concept.”
Mindful leadership, however, turns the definition around. The mindful leader does not ask, “What is a leader?” Instead, the mindful leader asks:
- What kind of leader am I?
- Why do I want to lead?
- Why do I consider certain people leaders?
- What do I admire in their behavior or attitude?
Your answers to these questions will bring you closer to understanding yourself while helping you to define mindful leadership and avoid toxic leadership. Furthermore, the better you know your motivations and goals, the more direct you will be about meeting your own needs and wants, and the more energy you will have for considering the needs of others.
Mindful leaders act on their team’s behalf, not their own. They present an example of self-care, appreciation of others, open-minded and open-hearted communication, and self-awareness, including their effect on others.
As a leader, you may feel an obligation to be always busy, always productive, and always alert. That constant expenditure of physical, mental, and emotional energy leads in one direction: to stress and burnout.
Moreover, because you set the example for your team and the tone of our team’s culture, your inability to step away, relax, and refresh leads to stress and anxiety in your team. If you are always “on,” they have to be always “on” also.
Self-care means that you have time in your life for creativity, learning, and simple goofing off; for connecting with family, friends, and your team without always worrying about the next item on your to-do list; and for finding ways to lighten the burden on yourself and others.
The following steps will help you open up your life:
- Turn off the flow of information. Electronic devices (computers, phones, TVs, etc.) deliver information constantly and at a rate no one can possibly absorb. You cannot ever be here, now, if you are always chasing the next bit of information.
- Slow down and refocus. In your daily rush, you may have forgotten what calm and relaxation even feel like. During your commute to work, play your favorite music, listen to your favorite audiobook, look at the window and observe the passing scenery (which you have probably forgotten exists), and become aware of how your body feels and the space it inhabits.
- Rest. Are you aware of the seven types of rest? If you employ SMaRT techniques for rest, you will be well on your way to restoring your resilience and stamina and to providing a strong example to your team. Stress in your team is costly.
TIP: Many studies have proven that a person’s ability to make decisions improves with fewer rather than more choices. If you cannot stop the flow, make sure you organize it, give yourself a time limit for gathering it, and evaluate it against your goals and core values—not all information is equal.
Appreciation of Others
Your team, family, and friends are the people you rely on when you delegate, ask for help, need support, and want to feel appreciated, loved, respected, and accepted. They are also the people who need you to show them appreciation, love, respect, and acceptance.
Mindful leaders give recognition with their words as well as their actions. To increase your ability to appreciate others:
- Exercise gratitude. Every day, list three things you are grateful for that day. Keeping a gratefulness journal will increase your feelings of gratitude—while keeping track of life’s hassles will ensure that you become sensitive to more and more irritants. Remember to share your gratitude with the people who made it possible.
- Listen to what others ask for. You may be tempted to give other people what you think they need and want. But your team may be more motivated by an immediate “thank you” than by a yearly competitive award. Your partner may appreciate help around the house more than a bouquet of flowers. Or vice versa. By listening, you deliver appreciation that truly recognizes the recipient.
- Accept gratitude. Like being a gracious winner, it is important for you to be a gracious recipient of gratitude from others. When you are praised for a team effort, be sure to acknowledge the team. When you are praised for your individual effort, say “thank you,” do not try to immediately return the compliment, and make sure your body language is welcoming, not dismissive.
TIP: Harry S Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” But make sure that when credit is deserved, it is handed out freely.
Once you have room in your life, you will be able to truly listen to other people. When you are stressed, juggling multiple responsibilities, and unaware of the nonverbal messages your body is sending, your interactions with other people are quite different than when you are relaxed, focused, and present both physically and mentally.
Mindful communication depends on being present so that you can listen to the other person without judgment and can speak with compassion and openness to another’s viewpoint. In the beginning, this component of mindful leadership may feel as if you are surrendering authority; what you are really doing is creating opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration.
To practice mindful communication:
- Do not rush to speak. Maintain your presence in the conversation with nonverbal clues, such as smiling and nodding, and give the other person a chance to complete their thought and say what they need to say.
- Listen with compassion. The person who is speaking may not be fluent; they may choose a word that annoys you or a phrase that triggers a negative reaction. Assume that they, too, merely want to communicate and not to attack. Assume that their negativity or disagreeableness is rooted in something other than a personal affront to you.
- Look for nonverbal clues. Watch the other person as you speak to see how they react to your words: they may tense up, step back or forward, shrug or nod, unconsciously mimic your own stance, or otherwise let you know how your words affect them.
TIP: When nonverbal clues contradict your words, most people will believe the nonverbal clues. Some studies show nonverbal clues are responsible for 65% to 93% of the impact of every communication. Good eye contact, a strong stance, and a relaxed expression (with a slight smile) all convey leadership.
You will have days that go wrong, crises that overwhelm you and pull you in different directions, and moments of pettiness and anger. You will have moments when you say or do the wrong thing, your body language contradicts your words, or you wish to take back something you said or did.
Negative emotions, mistakes, and regrets are part of being human. The difficulty arises when you always blame others for your mood, refuse to face reality or responsibility, or find yourself stuck in the past.
Mindful leaders are self-aware and recognize in themselves the signs of stress, lack of self-confidence, discrimination, and negativity. They follow these SMaRT practices to restore balance:
- Build a complementary team. That’s “complementary” with an “e”—a team that helps balance out your own and each other’s weaknesses. If you are a risk-taker, you need a team member who is more cautious; if you have trouble explaining technical information, you need a team member who can translate technical terms into non-technical language. Leverage the strengths of the people around you.
- Foster a growth mindset. You will come across information you do not understand or situations that are unique to your experience. A growth mindset allows you to seek out appropriate and innovative solutions rather than falling back on auto-pilot. The phrase “it will never work” should be slow in coming.
- Know your priorities. Is your priority recognition for yourself or your team, protecting your career or your team, finding the safest way forward or the most exciting, building your company’s reputation or its revenue? All of these are worthwhile goals at different times, but when they come into conflict with each other, what are your priorities? By thinking through your priorities and core values in advance, you keep your balance even under pressure.
Mindful leaders prioritize their own and their team’s self-care, appreciation and recognition of others, open communication, and self-awareness. Your practice of mindful leadership encompasses SMaRT techniques for powering down stress, motivating yourself and others, showing and accepting gratitude, and resolving conflicts in goals and values.