The post What does Mindful Leadership Feel Like Part I? addresses the difficulty in describing the nuances,shades, hues, tinges and tone of leading with mindfulness.
This post uses vignettes to convey subtle internal dialogue shifts in 3 dimensions: applied insight, “multi-modal” decision-making and open heartedness.
Like most novice mediators, my first insight flowed from experiencing “monkey mind,” the incessant, staccato rush of thoughts, feelings and stories that emerge as we attempt to still. I observed my own narrative: that person offended me, better watch out for this person, I will be happy when …,I’m becoming a meditator, they don’t get it, they don’t think I’m competent and so on.
Frequently, a lone thought initiated a cascading story creating powerful emotions including anger and fear. In time, I learned to recognize story telling, bring myself back to breathing and simply watching a thought or emotion float up and away without attaching a story line.
I realized mind’s nature is to create stories with myself as a hero or victim. And if I’m telling myself stories, so are others. Narratives lead to judgment. Emotions emerge from stories.
Soon, I applied these insights to leadership. I did not need to be in a tranquil, “open-hearted” state to hear story telling everywhere, suspend judgment and feel compassion for those caught in their own narrative webs.
Vignette without applied insight during a meeting with organization A after merger of organizations A and B.
“They don’t get it.! Everywhere I go, I hear from A that B wants to take over and from B that A wants to take over. Makes me mad! Why can’t they see it’s not true? They’re just being petty and stubborn. Oh, now they’re attacking me. That makes me really mad!
Vignette with applied insight during a meeting with organization A after merger of organizations of A and B.
Everywhere I go, I hear from A that B wants to take over and from B that A wants to take over They don’t get it. Wait David, now your telling yourself a story about others not getting it. I am simply hearing stories from people who are proud and frightened. You know David, everyone, including you, create narratives. Except more often than not you catch yourself weaving a yarn. Ahhh. I feel compassion for the proud yet frightened people in this room as we all hurt ourselves with the stories we tell.
Seasoned leaders do not solve problems; they work them, leaning this way or that while navigating unintended consequences and unanticipated changes. Today’s “solutions” become tomorrow’s problems. Decision-making entails action in the face of unknowns and unknowable’s. These decisions involve dilemmas (deciding between two almost good options or the lesser of two evils) and “polarities”, not problems, that can be elegantly analyzed. Polarities- part and whole, team and individual, standardization and customization, integration and differentiation, centralizing and decentralizing, planning and doing, doing and being- permeate decision requiring that one constantly tunes the balance.
Making decisions within dilemmas or polarities involves selecting which set of ongoing problems to manage. Leaning in one direction offers benefits as well as a set of problems. Leaning in the other direction offers different benefits and problems to manage.
Data driven analysis is necessary but insufficient for these kinds of unsolvable problems, dilemmas and polarities. Contemplative practices offer another mode of clarity and decision-making, an intuitive “gut check,” once the limits of data-driven analysis are reached.
The next 2 vignettes occur at while I am at home sipping coffee prior to beginning a workday. A large decision looms about whether to merge with another organization.
Vignette of decision-making without mindfulness
Wonder what’s in the paper this morning. Good coffee. Maybe I’ll check email. Should we merge? That last analysis didn’t add much. The team is divided. I’ll check the weather. If we merge, what if, what if, what if? I’ll check the local news now. We could merge but, but, but. Oh, another a new email for me to read.
Vignette of multi-modal decision-making with mindfulness
Ahhhh. Good coffee… Stillness….Sip…David, you have confidence that your whole body and mind will know the answer. The right decision will announce itself with a melting relaxed feeling like when you first get into bed after a long day and your entire body quietly sinks into the mattress and you feel that “ahh” of soft release…Stillness…Sip…And with one direction you will feel openness in your chest muscles and brightness in your mind…Stillness…Sip…And the other direction will cause a tight chest and fuzzy, cloudy heaviness in the mind… Stillness…
Meditation provided glimpses of an alternative to being “lost in the thoughts in my head.” Even when interacting with others , too often I was lost in thought rehearsing what I would say, wondering what people were thinking about me or considering how I felt about them.
I discovered a still spaciousness in the midst of movement and how to shift from being aware of spaciousness to being aware from spaciousness. Similarly, I could move from being aware of the heart space in my chest to being aware from the heart.
In time, I learned how to intentionally shift “being aware from” my head to being aware from my heart space, abdomen, perineum, feet or from space itself. The shift tinged spaciousness with an earthy, rooted tone of gentleness, warmth, friendliness, wonder and compassion. I practiced shifting while engaged in daily activities including walking, listening and speaking. Some contemplative practices call this “embodied awareness.”
Meditation taught me to discern when my heart is open compared to when it feels closed. I sense openness as a spacious, tender softening in my chest. When open, I stand in patient readiness to receive the gifts of the moment. In contrast, “closed” feels like a nagging tightening in my chest muscles accompanied by either a subtle leaning forward if I am anticipating what is next or a slight leaning back if I want to protect myself.
Vignette of closed heartedness in a tense meeting
Be careful, David. Lots of emotion in the room. I better do something, its all up to me to manage the tension in the room- after all, I’m the leader here. But they will be mad at me. It feels tricky and dangerous. Start practicing what you are going to say when you take the floor. Haven’t checked my email for awhile. I know I should model being present in the meeting but maybe just a quick glance at my phone.
Vignette of open heartedness in a tense meeting
David, notice you are “in your head” with that familiar feeling of fuzzy airiness rather than rootedness. Your pectoral muscles are tight. Move your awareness down to your abdomen and chest. Ahh. I feel gravity gently holding me to the ground…I feel the tingly, aliveness of my body. I sense the safe, warm and friendly tinge of spaciousness. I feel my heart open. I hear resonant words arising without rehearsal from deep in my abdomen rather than rasps from my throat. Gratitude and compassion arise for the good people in the room. Oh… the room is settling…I know others sense my engagement and openness.
How does it feel to lead mindfully? About the same as leading without mindfulness. But between the same and about the same lie spacious tinges, hues, tones and textures of applied insight, multi-modal decision-making and open-heartedness.
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