Leadership / 06.10.19
Calm in the Chaos: An Introduction to Mindfulness in Leadership
As delegates at INTIX 2019 scrambled from booth to booth and from one education session to another, rushing to take in as much as possible in just a few days, some were doing just the opposite — at least for a few moments. Kay Burnham, VP of Guest Services at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and then-INTIX Board Chair, somehow got attendees to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and think about the benefits of living and working in the moment.
Burnham began her Inspiration Stage presentation with a quote from Bill George, author of “Finding Your True North.” He said: “A mindful leader embodies zeadership by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion in the service of others.”
Mindfulness is nothing new. It started out as a Buddhist tradition, but, with time, the religious and philosophical trappings were stripped away. Then, neuroscientists got into the game, providing evidence that mindfulness offers tremendous benefits, including memory improvement, stress reduction, sleep improvement, healthier eating and greater focus.
Burnham first zeroed in on greater focus because, as she said, we spend far too much time allowing our thoughts to drift from what we are trying to accomplish at any given time.
“Your mind is wandering 50 to 80 percent of the time,” she says. “You’re actually not thinking about what is right in front of you.”
She blames this on the myth of multitasking. “Neuroscience has shown that it is physically impossible for the human brain to multitask,” Burnham says. “What your brain has to do when you move from one task to another is something called context shifting. Your brain can take anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or more to recognize what you are actually supposed to be doing. So, every time you try to do two things at the same time, you’re not in the present moment with either of them. As a result, you are actually losing valuable time in your day.”
Burnham points to our apparent need to check every email the moment it comes in. “You’re sitting at your desk working away on a task when you are interrupted by yet another email popping in, so you immediately take time away from what you are doing to see who it’s from and what it’s about. All of a sudden, you’ve lost focus on the job at hand.”
To keep focused, Burnham recommends turning off email notifications and setting aside a specific block of time each day to respond to email. Regardless of the interruption, she says, it is always better to stay focused on a single thing.
“By really paying attention to one thing at a time, you’ll find that you will actually get more done in less time. And can you imagine if you can roll this out to an entire team, to everyone in your organization, how much more productivity there would be, and how workplace stress could be reduced?”
Don’t beat yourself up
Even experienced practitioners of mindfulness sometimes forget and find themselves engaging in self-criticism. As Burnham demonstrated by a show of hands, pretty much everyone in the audience admitted to having said something unkind about themselves or beating themselves up for a mistake or bad decision in the past. She listed self compassion as a key ingredient in the toolbox of mindfulness.
“When we beat ourselves up, we put ourselves in a negative space. But when we shift and mindfully observe our emotions, we can recognize our pain and discomfort without exaggerating it, and we can take a more objective perspective on the situation we are faced with,” she says. “Imagine being able to do that any time you're faced with an angry customer who is pushing your buttons.”
Stop and take a breath
The final strategy Burnham offered in her introduction to mindfulness is to stop and take a breath whenever you are being pulled away from the moment.
First, she suggests timing yourself to see how many deep breaths you can take in a minute. Then, whenever you are feeling stressed, relax and count those breaths.
“If you do that before you go into your next big meeting, give your next big pitch, go up to the window to talk to an angry customer or get in front of your staff to deliver bad news, even just at the beginning of your day, you will put yourself in a calmer place where you can pause, be aware of what's going on in the present moment with non-reactivity and non-judgement, and move forward in a positive manner.”
In closing, Burnham had just a few more words to help us stay in the moment.
“There’s no moment but this moment. We are filled with moments, and when we can live in just that moment and train our mind not to wander to the past and beat ourselves up, not wander to the future and fret about things, we’re calmer, we’re happier and more productive, which will, in turn, result in a happier and more productive workplace.”
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Tags: INTIX 2019 , Leadership