Leadership Lessons: Being a Mindful Leader

In our Introduction to Leadership Lessons, Tom DeCotiis, Corvirtus Co-Founder, lays the foundation for this series of leadership essays – each one addresses the lessons learned and are organized from the individual level, to teams and groups, and from there to the most macro: leading an enterprise.

Female business manager in a suit

Being a Mindful Leader

Do you drive your car, listen to the radio, and visit with friends all at the same time? Do you remember what you had for lunch yesterday? We do most of what we do on autopilot. The upshot of this tendency is that, despite the lip service paid to the power of experiences, we actually experience very little. It’s our nature to be mindless, and that’s okay if we limit our mindless habits to things such as driving and listening to the radio or eating lunch, but they are not. Many of us who are leaders lead as mindlessly as we eat lunch.

We are prone to forming mindsets (beliefs and assumptions about what is correct), and once they are formed, we apply them without much thought. Many of our beliefs, such as the nature of people and relationships, are formed very early in life; most have been formed by the age of eight. Unfortunately, these mindsets change very little as we age unless we consciously challenge them. Instead, we turn them into rules and create assertions of truth that make our lives easier.

We are prone to creating mental or actual checklists in an effort to ensure that important things get done and in the right order, but it doesn’t always work out as we intend. In 1982, an Air Florida flight crashed in Washington, D.C. killing 74 people. The pilots were competent and experienced, but unaccustomed to cold-weather flying. As they went through their routine checks before takeoff, the co-pilot read the list as the pilot affirmed the proper settings. One of these settings was for the anti-icing system. The co-pilot followed his routine saying: “Anti-icer off.” The pilot checked the control and verbally affirmed that the anti-icers were, indeed, off. Neither paid attention to the fact that they weren’t in Florida and that it was icy outside. They finished their checklist, took off, and promptly crashed into the Potomac River. The preflight checklist was designed to avoid the avoidable, but it didn’t. That’s because the pilots went through their routine without awareness that the context (weather) for the checklist had changed. What was right in one context (warm weather) was dead wrong in another (icy conditions).

We all have our checklists (mindsets) that enable us to do things automatically. In a very literal sense, our leadership mindsets enable us to short-cut our thinking. However, it’s equally true that our mindsets enable thoughtless mistakes and preclude personal growth. This condition is called mindlessness and, for good or bad, it determines how we think and behave as well as what we achieve.

A Path to Mindfulness

Perception is reality. Whether in the past, present, or future tense, “What are you thinking?” is a good question. Clearly answering it is a critical input to effective leadership and growth. Nonetheless, instead of challenging our perceptions and mindsets, we usually do what we have always done: apply our “checklist” or rules without thinking about whether it is the right checklist to use.  In the face of contradiction, we double down and redefine the situation to fit our mindset. We simply do not like uncertainty or having to reconsider something that we think we have already figured out. To avoid the traps of habit and to become a mindful leader, you have to develop three skills:

1. Creating new categories of meaning

2. Being open to information

3. Being aware of other perspectives

A shower is just a place to get clean is a single category of meaning until you think of others: A shower is also a back massager, a dog bath, a place to water house plants, and a personal singing venue. Mindful leaders create new ways to understand old things and, thereby, new solutions to old problems. If you work in the restaurant business or some other service industry, what does being understaffed or having high employee turnover mean? One category of meaning blames the employee – people don’t want to work hard anymore. Another category puts the blame on the employer – we are not a good enough place to work. Neither of these categories is right or wrong. They are alternative ways of giving meaning to the facts, and the meaning you assign determines the actions you will take. Nothing, except our imagination prevents us from creating new, and possibly, more useful categories of meaning for the same old things we routinely encounter in our lives as leaders. Ask yourself: “Is there a better way to understand the facts?”

To answer that question requires that you be open to the existing facts as well as new facts. In the above example, suppose your mindset was people don’t want to work hard anymore and you had information from a recent employee survey that indicated that a majority of your employees are unhappy with their shifts, don’t feel supported by management, and intend to quit. Which category of meaning would you apply? Believe it or not, many managers would stick with their initial mindset and create another mindset that supports it such as employee surveys only capture the complainers. Being open to challenging facts is a hallmark of the mindful leader. Mindful leaders do not dismiss information simply because it does not conform to their mindsets.

Perspective matters because perception matters. We are all products of our context. Your context as a leader is very different from the context of your followers, and there is no good reason why your context is any more valid than theirs. Your need is for employees to be on time, work hard, and take care of customers. Employees (another context) want a remarkable place to work. Why is your context any more important than theirs? Your mindset determines how you respond to their perspective. If your mindset is people don’t want to work hard anymore you will respond one way. If, on the other hand, it is we have to be a good place to work you will respond in another way. It is this awareness and acceptance of other perspectives that enables the mindful leader to solve problems that serve apparently competitive perspectives.

Getting to Mindfulness

I think of excellence as a path rather than a destination (a mindset). In terms of my mindset, being on the path – constant improvement and achievement – is more important than its result. Mindfulness is a tool of those on the excellence path. It helps you to more easily see your destination, test your progress, and make course changes when needed. Mindfulness is a skill, and like all other skills it improves only with practice. It is mindful practice rather than mindless repetition that enables leader growth.

“Leader” is a category of meaning that gives you an identity, rules of action, and interpretations of the how and why things happen as they do. Whether you are leading yourself or leading an enterprise, you have only two ways to lead: words and actions. Hence, the cliché “walk the talk.” Mindfulness adds the dimension of thought and intention to your words and actions. Mindfulness is the fuel of personal and enterprise success and a purpose-driven life. It is for these reasons that mindfulness should be the first course taught in any leadership development program.

Check out or next blog in our Leadership Lessons series – Are You Leading?

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