Shunya Pragya
Mindful Leadership

Mindful Leadership

Author – Shunya (Author’s Pen Name, a.k.a Rajesh Fandan)

Leadership is for everyone

Gently close your eyes and say in your mind a few times the word, “leader.” Notice what sort of images are flaring up. Most of us will see typical media images of popular leaders. It can be a political figure standing before a sea of people, or suited-up CEO in a room full of people sitting tight, or a shiny-faced person in a religious gown addressing followers, or a charismatic being delivering a powerful motivational speech to the masses.

 Is this what leadership is all about? The answer is “No.”

 Leadership is about an intentional transformation of the self—yours and/or others, to maximize and realize the human potential, meaningfully. It is a collection of various traits and skills in our character that everyone could, rather, should cultivate. Among all, the most fundamental quality is mindfulness. In simple words, leadership is a result-oriented skill for the self-development and growth of others. It can be learned, practiced, and polished through experience when exercised mindfully.

You don’t need hundreds of followers around you to be a leader. You can be a leader unto yourself by making an intentional choice to design your identity carefully, lead your individual life, and feel accomplished. And, of course, if the opportunity arises, then you can be the source of motivation for others to drive meaningful outcomes.

 The style and scale can be different, but not the spirit of leadership quality. It can be exercised with any role you are in—a parent, teacher, spouse, a start-up entrepreneur, project manager, CEO, state leader, yoga teacher, or religious guru. Influence and the impact may vary based on context, your vision, and your commitment.

Leadership skills are ever more relevant, and now more than ever

The modern world is more complex and hyper-connected than ever before. We are orbiting in a phygital ring held by the forces of countless data and devices. The fusion of our physical and digital worlds has changed the way we live our day-to-day life in every way. Corporate houses like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, or Facebook have people working in countries all over the world. Religions have diluted the geographical barriers. Economic changes in one country affect the global financial markets. Globalization needs have surpassed the local limitations.

 How have human beings made this progress possible?

 If we should pinpoint a single and most-obvious reason which has set humans apart from other species; then, it must be our advanced ability to strategize, organize, and use our creativity, talents, and skills—individually, in groups, and in masses. It can be summed up because of leadership trait(s), we made it possible. It has let us shrink the gap between earth and the moon; perform organ transplant surgeries, manufacture multi-story ships, build educational centers, and much more.

 Since the dawn of humanity, leadership has been the oxygen of evolution and growth.

 It was required 70,000 years back when humans were hunter-gatherers, organized in small groups searching for food. Later on, settled as tribes mass-producing crops working together. Or, in the recent past, strategically revolutionized industries and consumerism. And it is very much needed in today’s advanced society, where an individual may have a global identity and influence.

Leadership is a constellation of skills, configured mindfully

 A fundamental question remains, what is the secret recipe to exercising leadership quality? But, before we cut this gordian knot, let me give an interesting spin on this topic. Let’s learn about a long-lived and popular Italian dish—minestrone soup. I sincerely believe there are some useful lessons to learn from its history and preparation.

 The word minestrone is derived from the Latin word “minestrare”, which means “to serve.” Originally, it was made from whatever vegetables were available in the home, therefore it has no fixed recipe. Both the quality and quantity may change depending upon occasion—personal, family, reunion, or mass gatherings. Its essential ingredient is broth made up of fire-roasted tomatoes and seasoning. The broth gives real meaning to the soup by adding flavor to the various vegetables used, though each ingredient has its individual importance.

 Likewise, mindful leadership is one of the oldest human skills meant to serve a bigger and meaningful purpose—a means to an end. It is a set of various skills—crafting a vision, managing goals, social and emotional intelligence, decision making, and many more. The skills can be creatively configured and deployed based on the goals at hand. Also, the scope and scale can be adjusted based on its use case scenario—personal identity, team, organizational, or mass leadership. But, the most important and shared skill is mindfulness (like the broth of the soup) to be successful, without which leadership will lose its essence and purpose.

Mindfulness—The leader’s holy grail

 Our mind is the architect of ideas, goals, successes, failures, and their relative significance. And its use or misuse can make it a valuable asset or an unknown obstacle in practicing leadership. Therefore, before changing outward situations, we need to look inwardly and work on our mental operating system. It can be done using mindfulness techniques and training the mind for optimal functioning.

 When we are mindless, our attention is easily distracted and diverted by worldly demands—peer pressure, media etc. or/and internal mental functions—emotions, thoughts, and feelings. We are left with reduced attention to the actual work. The most common example is deaths because of distracted driving (over 3000 every year, as per NHTSA.) In mindlessness, we are not there where we are. And, if it becomes our default and habitual state of being, then we end up building a solid and foggy identity full of assumptions, biases, and very protective and reactive ego. This identity distorts the clarity of what is actually happening now and deviates us from experiencing the present state of affairs.

 We can be mindful accidentally (for example, in a fearful or stressful situation) but it can be learned and cultivated intentionally.

 Mindfulness training is all about systematically developing and purifying the quality of our awareness. We gain clarity about the object(s) and the subject (self-identity) in a non-judgmental way, incrementally. It is practiced by relating our complete attention to the experience in the present moment with an attitude of equanimity and acceptance. Self-awareness is cultivated to see our and others’ mental processes and the incoming information clearly and objectively, in the same way. Another important result is that because of this deep connection between awareness and activity, the responsible actions are arising from our state of being instead of our psychological ego. It makes us intentionally responsible to respond rather than impulsively react.

Mindfulness offers a distinct quality of awareness that catalyzes the being’s transformation for more creativity, clarity, acceptance, growth mindset, empathy, and mindful response (vs. impulsive reaction.) Thus, it provides necessary and powerful tools to nurture leadership.

 The best part of mindfulness training is that it can be exercised with any activity—as simple as tooth brushing or as complex as life-threatening situations. But we need not be in difficult situations to practice it. There are formal practices to build up mindfulness systematically. We can begin with mindfulness of our natural breathing pattern in a relaxed manner. Thereupon, we can practice mindfulness of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions in different practice rounds. The details of formal practices are out of scope for this chapter. However, if you are interested, this topic is addressed in my book — O Beloved- Being, Becoming, and Beyond. I would encourage you to read it for details.

 Values, vision, and goals—The leader’s compass

 The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 Values are physical or mental constructs we care for, and they have a direct impact on our conviction and commitment to anything we do. Overtime values become the core of our identity and we express them through our behavior (mind, speech, and actions) overtly or covertly.

There are many sources of our values, for example, family, religion, workplace, culture, etc. from which we make several values, like creativity, curiosity, humor, relationships, etc. Exercising and materializing our true values can be a significant source of motivation and happiness. Therefore, mindful attention on the values enables a leader to understand what is worth investing in and filter out the unimportant.

Values are our personal treasures but can remain hidden on the subconscious floor of the mind. Thus, we remain oblivious to them or only realize them indirectly and abstractly. Many times, we borrow values from others mindlessly. As a result, we live with externally imposed values and follow those ideas and paths which were never meant to be for us.

Mindfulness reveals our hidden values and aids in realizing our authentic selves. Knowing our real values provides the right context for the direction towards which we intend to lead—our and others’ life. The value-based intention and direction create our vision.

 Alignment of our true values and vision—individual or group level, will automatically become the powerhouse of motivation.

 It is fundamental to know your values and vision, but it is still like an open field prepared to be planted. The next step is to define your cash crop—the goals. We need goals to materialize our vision. It is where the rubber meets the road.

 An example can be helpful to simplify the relationship between values, vision, and goals. Imagine, creativity is my primary value and I express it through writing non-fiction books. Thus, I visualize myself being a renowned and published author—my vision. Therefore, I must make a specific and time-bound goal—to publish a book every year and strive to be the best-selling author in the first two years.

 In this way, an action towards my goal is a source of meaning and motivation; and achieving my goal will produce happiness in me.

 Goals management is more of an art than a science—A leader’s artistry

 If you run either looking at the open sky, or while looking on your toes, you are bound to fall soon. You must run level-headed, gently looking forward. Likewise, goals shouldn’t be made too abstract or too narrow. Goal making is a mindful artwork.

 How many goals should you pursue? Too many goals, you may end up in switching focus and context all the time and won’t achieve anything. And, with too few goals, you won’t maximize your efforts.

 What should be the range? With very long-term goals, you can lose focus, motivation, or meaning if the situation changes. With short-term goals that are too short, you may achieve nothing, big or impactful.

 How much focus should we have? When you are overly focused on goals, you can develop a fixed mindset and can ignore the changes going around. When you are less focused, then you won’t be able to achieve your goal.

 Therefore, the success of goal making and tracking is very much dependent on mindfully balancing its various aspects.

 Mindfulness training provides us with the required mental plasticity and calmness to zoom in or out on our goals while working through them in life.

 Social and Emotional Intelligence (S&E-I)—The leader’s relationship-router

 “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you cannot manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you will not get very far.”

– Daniel Goleman

 We are social beings and how wisely we connect with others influences the outcomes of our goals. This regulation of our social engagement and presence is called social intelligence. It involves routing our physical and mental expressions—body language, speech, listening, emotions, and actions, socially aptly. No one is born with this skill, and it can be acquired with good intention and practice.

 Emotions play a key role in human relationships; therefore, emotional intelligence is a kind of stethoscope to understand social intelligence. It is our ability to recognize, comprehend, and regulate emotional experiences (ours and others’)—pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral gracefully; in short, called Emotional Intelligence. Emotions provide real-time feedback about our present state of mind; therefore, they are a very reliable source of information. Many studies have shown that through mindfulness practices, one can enhance emotional intelligence.

 Overall, we enhance performance, productivity, and well-being by effectively using social and emotional intelligence in a mindful way.

 Mindful Choice Making—The leader’s CPU (Central Processing Unit)

 Our waking state continuously offers thousands of opportunities to take decisions every day. Researchers at Cornell University (Wensink and Sobal, 2007) estimated, we make 226.7 decisions per day on food only.

 In a day, a leader’s decision routine can be far more complicated than making food choices. Decisions we make can have a significant impact on our and other’s lives, resulting in meaningful successes or regretful failures. The good news is that mindfulness practice can positively influence the choice-making process, subtly. It trains us to be aware of the present moment in a non-judgmental way and creates a gap between self and situation. Therefore, we have more freedom to respond vs reacting to the situation.

 Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor E. Frankl

 We identify the decision to be made, define its significance for us, assimilate information, connect dots to make sense out of it, take action, and track. Adjust if needed. And mindfulness positively influences every stage of decision-making.

 Leaders don’t make poor decisions because they lack analytical ability, experience, or knowledge; they make poor decisions due to wrong assumptions, biases, social pressures, and fixed mindsets. These unknown forces influence every stage of our decision-making, distort, and destroy the expected outcomes.

 None can destroy iron, but its own rust can! Likewise, none can destroy a person, but its own mindset can! – Ratan Tata.

 Mindfulness training acts as our blind spot mirror and makes us aware of our mental rust, allowing us to make clear and unbiased decisions.

 Mindfulness is an invisible factor but makes visible effects in our daily choice-making process.

 Live one day at a time and be the leader for a lifetime

 I hope, now, you can re-adjust your idea about leadership quality and the role of mindfulness to be a successful leader. It is for everyone and all about transforming your and other’s life through your authentic self with a mindset of servitude.

 In a nutshell, leadership is about being intentional in knowing and living with your values, creating a vision to make a long-lasting difference in life, and materializing it through goals. And, it is about people’s transformation based on trust and togetherness, not about being a hero.

 Begin your day as an opportunity, live it to give it, and close it with a sense of accomplishment.

 Make a difference day by day. Now, you are a mindful leader.

Footnote: The above article is also published (June, 22) in book Game on: Leaders Who Lasts (USA Today Best Selling Book)

Shunya Pragya

Shunya Pragya is a lifelong meditator, poet, and philosopher. With an intense curiosity, he has explored and practiced several forms of yoga and meditative techniques.

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