Mindfulness has become all the rage in personal and professional leadership these days, which is good and bad. Understood and done right, it is a very powerful concept. But as with most concepts it is also often misunderstood, therefore sometimes maligned, and even misapplied. Somewhat similar to lean, which is also a powerful concept, with supporting tools that must be appropriately leveraged in conjunction with a system that includes people with brains (really!), otherwise it often fails. And is therefore sometimes maligned.
Mindfulness is simply becoming aware. Taking the time to slow down, look around, analyze context, and based on that new awareness, improve. It isn’t just calming the mind, although that can be a key component, it isn’t prayer, it isn’t contemplation, it isn’t dreaming or getting lost in thought. It is not dwelling on the past, not planning on the future, but being purposely present right here, right now, with what is truly important.
I first discovered the concept many years ago during a time of intense personal and professional stress. I developed a habit of escaping to Hawaii on literally a couple hours’ notice, embracing quietude and solitude to let my racing thoughts settle so the important ones could be analyzed. I was amazed at how some of my perspectives and opinions changed, how unexpectedly wrong they had been before, and how that newfound knowledge freed me to become calm and engaged.
Mindful meditation is one of many forms of meditation where you focus on becoming aware of your thoughts, usually by working to slow the torrent so that individual thoughts can be noticed, analyzed, and considered. Those new to the process are usually shocked at just how many thoughts are flowing through their heads, the distortions created both by perhaps skewed perspectives and the interaction with other thoughts, and therefore just how difficult this form of meditation is. As with lean, the process is especially powerful when, after considerable practice, the new knowledge and awareness is coupled with a framework to create and support change. The physiological changes in the brain created by meditation are rather astounding.
Mindful leadership starts to focus a bit more externally, but still with an awareness of the impact and influence of individual action in the present. What is the present situation, what am I listening to, are my perspectives correct, what is the problem, what should I be working on, why is my opinion what it is? Right here, right now.
One area where I try to leverage this is with email. Colleagues know that I used to be (and when I fail, still am) a master of the long-winded flaming email. Nowadays when someone pushes one of my buttons I try hard to take a step back. Why is the topic a hot button for me? Why do I have such a strong opinion? Is my opinion correct, or is my perspective skewed? Do I have all the data? Is it really an important enough topic to take a strong stand? And finally, if it still is important, is there a better way to convey my opinion? I think I’ve improved, but admittedly I still struggle.
Taiichi Ohno is famous for sending students to the shop floor with instructions to just stand and observe – for at least a half hour. Coincidentally that’s about how long it takes for the mind to calm after some experience with meditation. Just observing is difficult. We want to jump to analysis and improvement. But as Ohno was trying to point out, first you must simply observe, become aware of the process, become aware of what is going on that you probably didn’t notice when rushing to and fro on factory floor. Only then can you truly see the process in the present moment, understand what’s important right now and how perspectives can be biased, and begin to formulate plans for improvement.
It starts with simple observation. Whether it’s the thoughts in your mind, your actions as a leader, or the process you’re involved with. Perhaps even a restaurant you’re dining at, as I witnessed in Bangkok a couple years ago.
Take the time to simply observe. You may be surprised at what you discover.