How can we relax and have a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human?
In 1989, business scholar, Peter B. Vahil coined the phrase, “permanent white water” to describe the changing business environment. Vahil may have been foreseeing life in the 21st century in as the management and leadership literature recently adopted the military acronym, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe the global environment. Furthermore, management guru Gary Hamel frequently reminds his audiences that the “nature of change is changing.”
Consequently, a growing body of leadership literature emphasizes the importance for leaders to enhance their tolerance for uncertainty or ambiguity. For example, leadership scholars Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky’s propose that adaptive leadership is critical given the reality of VUCA. Heifetz and his colleagues argue that “diagnostic failure” is at the root of humanity’s inability to solve our most pressing challenges. They argue that leaders are approaching humanity’s unprecedented global challenges as technical challenges, challenges with knowable solutions.
However, as evident in the repeated failure of technical solutions, the challenges humanity faces are adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are beyond current individual and collective knowledge, capacity, and expertise. Therefore, they require higher psychological maturity, as well as capacities and competencies that many, if not most, leaders have not yet developed.
This developmental gap makes leaders and the organizations they lead vulnerable to costly missteps, performance declines, and legitimacy losses. While the literature purporting the necessary competencies for effective global leadership is vast, three comprehensive categories, highly related to the capacity to tolerate uncertainty, frequently emerge: perception management, relationship management, and self-management. Furthermore, a growing body of mindfulness scholars have indicated positive correlations between these three comprehensive categories and MBIs which my research on mindful leaders supports.
And I think in the past I probably would have made a much quicker perhaps more decisive decision in the moment and not embraced that time of interim or uncertainty. So I think mindfulness allowed me to do that and to say ‘it’s okay not to have all the answers right now,’ and let it kind of be. (Male middle manager in the health care industry)
I think embracing that sense of adventure, that sense of adventure and sometimes adrenaline that I had been avoiding [with] people sometimes …because I associated it with maybe danger or risk, but now being much more comfortable living on that leaning-toward perspective as opposed to kind of leaning on the safe side of the fence. (Male middle manager in the health and wellness industry)
Thus, mindful leaders experience a growing tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity which supports them not only in their work roles but in all areas of their lives. The VULA environment appears to be here to stay for the foreseeable future, perhaps intensifying. Thus, the critical decision we each face is whether we will attempt to navigate the white waters of our lives in the boats we have or start building stronger boats.
This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders with an expected publication of October-November 2018.
When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity. John F. Kennedy
As emphasized in the management literature, employees frequently resist organizational change for a variety of reasons to include fear of the unknown. As we all know from our own lives, resistance to change also occurs on the individual level as well as the organizational level. Consequently, individuals and collectives tend to be more open to learning and growth opportunities when they are faced with a personal or professional crisis. When a personal and professional crisis propels a leader to move into unknown territory in and through constructive action, it can serve as a transformative learning opportunity.
Transformative learning occurs when radically new experiences induce a tectonic shift in perspective in the way one views him/herself, others, and the world. Longtime leadership scholar and author, Warren Bennis refers to these types of transformative events as crucibles. He and co-author Robert Thomas wrote in their seminal article on the topic that highly effective leaders are the people who can find meaning in and learn from their most painful and difficult crucibles. Such leaders emerge from the ashes more confident, strong, and more committed to the things that deeply matter to them.
Effective leaders that use their crucibles as learning opportunities have growth mindsets. In her work on mindsets, Carol Dweck makes the distinction between fixed and growth mindsets. Leaders with fixed mindsets view themselves and others as being born with a limited amount of capacity and potential for learning. Thus, the emphasis is on protecting their image and proving themselves. From the fixed mindset, failure is feared and avoided at all costs.
In stark contrast, leaders with growth mindsets hold the view that they and others can build upon the capacities they with which they were born. They see failure as a natural and welcomed dimension of learning and development. Leaders with a growth mindset also know that success does not simply happen to them. They celebrate that success (as they define it) requires passion, effort, training, and yes, failure. The growth mindset is illustrated in the stories shared by the mindful leaders interviewed for my 2015 study (insert link).
At the time, I was really struggling with depression and anxiety, and it had been recommended for me to take that (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) class. And the unexpected side effect was the really powerful impact of helping me create a daily mindfulness practice, which for me is a combination of meditation, daily taking time out for just mindfulness moments, trying to do things in general, everything I do, more mindfully, being more aware of it. (Female middle manager and marketing researcher)
But in terms of my more recent delving into it (mindfulness), it’s been maybe about 3 years, 2 and a half to 3 years where I’ve been seriously getting into meditation, and to be perfectly honest with you, what prompted me was my wife’s illness and being able to get myself to a place of being able to deal with and handle that. The self-awareness, the centeredness, the calm, the ability to sort of control the uncontrolled, I think were the more attractive things about it and just not only that, the relieving of stress was one of the things that attracted me to it, ‘cause I was undergoing a lot of stress and I felt like I needed to get a handle on it. I exercise, I walk, I do those things, but you know, I felt that there was a, maybe a better way to attain that, I think, so yeah. (Male senior manager and administer in higher education)
Thus, leaders yearning to be and become more self-aware and effective turn their crises into opportunities for constructive action. By choosing growth mindsets over fixed mindsets, they open themselves to unforeseen possibilities that alter their lives in powerful and profound ways. So, next time you face a personal or professional crisis, follow the lead of mindful leaders who turned their crises into opportunities to turn inward and experiment with mindfulness meditation and other transformative practices.
Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D. Denise offers leadership and organizational coaching and consulting for spiritual activists, evolutionaries, progressive change agents and their organizations. Visit https://metamorphosisconsultation.com/schedule-a-coaching-appointment/ to schedule a FREE 20-30 minutes exploratory session.
We need the compassion and the courage to change the conditions that support our suffering. Those conditions are things like ignorance, bitterness, negligence, clinging, and holding on. Sharon Salzberg
Jane Dutton and Monica Worline’s book on compassion in the workplace, Awakening Compassion at Work, offers a helpful lens in which to think about the significance of our seventh developmental theme of mindful leaders, self-other empathy and compassion. They equate empathy with compassion, the feeling of “suffering with” another person in a way that emotionally connects and elicits a compassionate response. It is important to note that self-compassion is an essential element of empathy and compassion toward others as it is extremely difficult to give to others that which you do not give to yourself.
Dutton and Worline’s research indicates that employees who experience empathy and compassion from managers-leaders and the organizational context via culture, climate, structure, etc. feel seen and affirmed in their pain and thus bounce back more quickly with increasing satisfaction and organizational commitment. Furthermore, employees have more constructive emotions in the workplace while exhibiting more supportive behavior toward other stakeholders. Therefore, the growing empathy and compassion of mindful leaders act as a positive contagion in the workplace on the employee and organizational levels as illustrated in the following narratives.
Another thing is just a kind of emotional empathy. Like I think I’m much better able to read emotional states. I’m still working on that, but a lot of times I can very quickly pick up on, ‘Oh, this person is distraught right now. I can’t really come down on them about some technical question. I need to, like, address their personal issues.’ And, so that empathy is, again, something that builds very naturally. (Male middle manager and professor)
I’ve used mindful self-compassion prior to some very difficult conversations that I’ve had to have with team members. Sometimes performance improvement kinds of conversations. And looking at how can I as a leader be as empathetic as possible when I’m delivering, say, a complaint that’s been shared by a patient or a family member or even an employee to an employee kind of thing. (Male middle manager in the healthcare industry)
It is different now. I mean now, it is part of my life and I have gained so much wisdom along the way and I have noticed so much about myself which helps me see in that in other people. I can see when other people are stuck in the stress cycle and I am not taking it personally. I am able to bring some compassion to them and some kindness and help calm them even though they don’t know I am doing that. So we come to a space where we can problem solve together. (Female entrepreneur and former healthcare senior executive)
Some of us may not view empathy and compassion as significant qualities of organizational managers-leaders or for our workplaces. However, the mindful leaders in my 2015 study, as well as a growing body of research to include the work of Wolin and Dutton, indicate differently. These two lines of scholarship (mindful and compassionate leadership) demonstrate that being able to “stand in another’s shoes” and see as they see and feel as they feel, enhances the subjective states of both the manager-leader and the direct report as it relates to how they feel toward one another and toward their organization. Furthermore, as highlighted above, such positive inner states ripple outward and favorably impact the larger culture, climate, and performance levels.
Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D. Denise offers leader/leadership and organizational coaching and consulting for progressive change agents and organizations. Visit https://metamorphosisconsultation.com/schedule-a-coaching-appointment/ to schedule a FREE 20-30 minutes exploratory session.
Relationships are the bridges that connect authenticity to influence and value creation. Leadership is not influence for its own sake; it’s influence that makes a difference, that enriches the lives of others. Leadership does not exist in a vacuum. It always operates in context, in relationship. Kevin Cashman in “Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life.”
The distinction between leader and leadership development is a relative recent and one I find helpful. The emphasis of leader development is on intrapersonal capacities such as identity, self-awareness, and self-regulation. Leadership development includes leader development while expanding into the critical realms of interpersonal relationships, culture, and systems. Healthy work relationships that include successful communication (i.e., mutual understanding) are fundamental to manager-leader effectiveness. The very definition of management, achieving shared outcomes with and through other people, assumes both. However, as manager-leaders and anyone who has worked in organizations know, neither successful communication nor manager-leader effectiveness is a given in today’s workplace.
Dysfunctional and contentious work relationships hurt morale and hinder performance at every level of the organization. In contrast, two fundamental characteristics of high performing organizations are constructive human relationships and honest communication grounded in general trust and positive regard for coworkers, manager-leaders, productive or service, mission, stakeholders, and the organization overall.
Consequently, it is highly significant that the mindful leaders in my 2015 study reported improved interpersonal work relationships at every level—interpersonal (coworkers, direct reports, superiors, other stakeholders), team, and group as a developmental result of their mindfulness practice as demonstrated in these select quotes.
Sitting (meditation) helps me slow down, and I think it has helped me—-in all my interactions with coworkers, so that you don’t have, you know, if you feel irritation you feel it first before you react and, you know, you–if you feel anger, you feel that too, before you react. So, it kind of–I guess for me, it’s slowed me down enough to make those kind of more difficult relationships better or more positive. (Female middle manager in higher education)
So, I think that’s, I don’t know how to quite encapsulate that, but I think maybe remembering a bigger context of my relationship with the direct report and never just being too goal-oriented to remember that there’s a relationship happening as well. (Female middle manager and technical writer)
So, it has switched. It has changed a lot of things. I think even with my relationships with people. So, letting go of the blame and how things should be done and really saying, ‘how can we work together? We all want the same thing?’ So, I think I am a little–much more compassionate type of leader now than I was before just because of my own understanding of myself. (Female business owner and former senior healthcare executive)
Thus, active and consistent mindfulness meditation practice cultivates leader and leadership development in powerful and highly relevant ways as it relates to healthy and productive interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Anyone who works (or has ever worked) in organizations knows that healthy and productive interpersonal work relationships greatly impact their workplace motivation, satisfaction, and commitment.
Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D. Denise offers life and leadership coaching with a holistic-transformative approach to support and guide partner-clients in creating and living a life they love! Visit https://metamorphosisconsultation.com/schedule-a-coaching-appointment/ to schedule a FREE exploratory appointment.
“Self-aware leaders are attuned to their inner signals. They recognize, for instance, how their feelings affect themselves and their job performance. Instead of letting anger build into an outburst, they spot it as it crescendos and can see both what’s causing it and how to do something constructive about it.” Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, & Annie McKee in Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence
An ancient teaching of philosophy and the wisdom traditions to, “know thyself” speaks to the significance of leader self-awareness, an element of emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ represents a developmental concept, supported by a weighty body of research, that examines “how should I feel about this?”
The interest in EQ has been growing in popularity and influence since 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his seminal book based primarily on the research findings of scholars, Peter Salovey and John Mayer. Since that time, thousands of research papers and hundreds of books on the topic have been published. While a trendy and popular topic of the leadership literature for years, EQ and its four elements (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, social management) are as relevant today, if not more so, when it comes to leader effectiveness in our ever increasing VUCA environment.
The good news is that the ten developmental themes that emerged from my research (and my experience as a meditation practitioner for the last seven years) reinforce the growing understanding that mindfulness meditation can and does cultivate self-awareness and EQ in general. Without self-awareness, leaders are inclined to react from unconscious habitual patterns of thought, word, and actions (i.e., blind spots) that often have negative impacts on the work environment. The more blind spots leaders have, the more at risk they are for costly missteps.
Greater self-awareness provides the “inner-space” one needs to notice sensations and see thoughts arising within and to choose a constructive response over a destructive reaction. Expanding self-awareness also typically evolves into the capacity to comprehend more complexity, which naturally involves a transition toward a more inclusive self-identity. Consequently, greater self-awareness translates into more intentional leading and living over time as illustrated in voices of these mindful leaders.
So, it (mindfulness practice) has helped me to notice how I am in relationship and how I come across. It has helped me to continue to refine how I am with others so that I can work better with people. It has helped me to manage conflict with people when there is conflict. It’s helped me to just kind of have a better sense of my strengths and weaknesses and how to bring that into meetings and working with the team. (Female middle manager in the personal-development industry)
So through self-awareness, I take a bigger picture approach, so I’m more open to what they (more senior leaders) are wanting to achieve and I can see the bigger context of why decisions are made. And in direct relationship experiences with superiors, I find that I’m more…probably more balanced, more open to discussion as well and having more confidence in myself and belief in my ability as a leader and manager of a group then I can integrate with persons of a higher authority and I’m not feeling challenged or inferior. I can see, not necessarily as an equal in status or rank, but an equal as a person to person kind of thing…discussing the ideas and then making it happen, so that’s been a definite change in me. (Male administrator higher education)
Thus, mindful leaders are more attuned to their inner worlds through growing self-awareness that makes a positive and powerful difference not only in their formal leadership roles but in all areas of their lives. This developmental theme of mindful leaders and the nine others that emerged from my research, as well as my own life-experience, support the transformative potential of mindfulness meditation. So, what are you waiting for? Try mindfulness meditation for yourself and begin reaping the developmental fruits associated with an active, consistent, and persistent practice (i.e., the path of mindfulness meditation is a PATH, a very rich one, but it is not a quick fix).
Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D.