The Five Stepping Stones Mindful Leaders Cultivate

If you know others and you know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles,
if you do not know others but you know yourself, you will win one and lose one,
if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Leading people is a challenging task. It requires a unique combination of skills, natural tendencies, disciplines, education and passion that not everyone has. Most often, the leaders we know take on this big task because they want to make a difference-in themselves and in others. However, the constant busyness that comes with being a leader, especially in the modern age of constant connection and unlimited distractions, can become overwhelming and you may not even notice how it’s effecting yourself and the people you lead.

Every leader we know is busy; so busy that researchers actually came up with a term for the unique experience of leaders: power stress. It means leaders are more susceptible to stress because of the demands of authority, the inherent loneliness of being at the top, and knowing their daily decisions affect team members’ lives, which is why we believe it’s essential for leaders to incorporate their own mindfulness practices into their daily life.

A recent study conducted by James Van Auken, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Atlantic University, where he helped to develop graduate programs on mindful leadership, conducted a research study and interviewed leaders of different ages, races, genders, and industries who believed that mindfulness affected their leadership practice. What he found was a holistic model of how mindfulness integrates into how these leaders live their lives in a very intentional way. 

Auken presents this process as five building blocks that we’ve expanded upon based on our own experience:

1. Building your own Mindfulness Practice

The very first thing we talked about at our recent Coaching Certification Retreat was the importance of self-awareness and self-care for effective leadership, which is directly related to the importance of building your own mindfulness practice. This process can be a simple thing at first, and over time, and with consistent practice, it will grow and evolve as you begin to. Gentle, movement-based practices that connect the mind and body work well, like walking, yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi. You can also do a seated practice, simply focusing all of your attention on your in and out breath. “Breathing in I know that I’m breathing in, Breathing out I know that I’m breathing out.” The key is wherever you’re at, be there. You’re not just going for a walk to think about all of the things that went wrong that day or stress about what’s to come- you’re going to get out of your head and notice the sensations in your body and the aspects of your environment in that present moment. By incorporating this kind of grounding practice into your day, you’re setting yourself up to be a more effective, present leader.
Here are a few guided mindfulness practices that our CEO, Rick Breden, utilizes in his daily routine that you may want to give a try. See what resonates with you and make it your own! 

2. Becoming Mindful toward yourself

The ability to be mindful toward yourself comes from this grounding practice. By taking deliberate, consistent time to be present and relaxed, you will heighten your own self-awareness and begin to notice what is happening within you and around you as it is happening. Are you feeling stressed? Why are you feeling stressed? How is your mood? What thoughts and feelings are influencing your mood at that moment in time? Do you need to give yourself time to pause and slow down? By simply starting to notice these things, you’ll begin to inquire within, and gain insights and perspectives that might not have been accessible to you before. 

Of course, this is not an easy thing to do. Often, being totally in tune with what’s going on inside of you is a difficult thing to face and sometimes it can seem easier just to avoid it! However, one of our favorite mantras is “relax into it,” and always remember our four essential attitudes: Gentleness, patience, sense of humor and curiosity.  

3. Becoming Present with and for other People

The most wonderful thing about establishing a mindful, grounding practice and becoming more mindful toward yourself is that that practice will begin to extend to other people and influence them in positive, life-giving ways- which is what I think many leaders aspire to. You can’t be truly present with others until you are present with yourself. Becoming present with others requires that you begin to explore what has to do with you and what has to do with them. Why does a certain person annoy you? Is it something having to do with your past experiences or your own behavioral tendencies? How can I understand and meet this person in the middle? By being aware of these kind of things, you will become a more present, compassionate, active listener, and, as a result, establish deeper relationships with the people around you. 

4. Becoming present with a group

Just like your comfort zone throughout this whole process, your influence will begin to extend even further out as you continue to cultivate these practices and incorporate them into your daily life. Now, not only will you find it easier to be fully present with an individual, you will begin to notice what is happening within your team and become aware of what may be holding them back. 

5. Learning how to Mindfully shift your focus & attention

It can become really stressful when you’re constantly having to shift gears if you’re not giving yourself a moment to renew and reconnect. By returning to your grounding practice between tasks or when you’re met with a difficult situation, you can reconnect with the present moment and mentally arrive for whatever or whoever you need to.  This ability to mindfully shift your focus and attention is invaluable and the practice below is a great one that you can do anytime, anywhere:

Try this: Take 5 Deep Breaths, saying this mantra: “Breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.”

The most important aspect of these stepping stones is that they are all interconnected-you can’t be present with others if you’re not first able to be present with yourself, and you can’t be present with yourself if you don’t take the time to cultivate a practice that facilitates this. Just like a sport, or learning a musical instrument, this whole process requires consistent practice and you don’t reach the next level until you’ve passed the foundational one. However, the great news is, you can learn how to do this, it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars and it’s eternally scalable. Developing these stepping stones takes commitment and discipline, but most leaders we know have both of those in abundance. It’s a completely free investment into your own happiness and growth, and as a result, that of your team too.

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