US military personnel have an acronym they use to describe extreme conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq – VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. What does this have to do with the far less severe sounding mindful leadership?
Business is a VUCA world, particularly so since the global financial crisis. It's a high-pressure environment, shareholders pressuring CEOs for profits, CEOs pressuring directors and managers, managers leaning on their teams, and so on. Pressure can lead to poor leadership, unnecessary risk-taking, lapses in ethics, financial crises and disregard for colleagues.
'In the past, we've traditionally focused leadership development on a somewhat heroic ideal – attempting to create leaders who are charismatic, inspiring, visionary, influencers, orators even; leaders who can persuade others that their vision is the correct one and others should follow,' says Dr Megan Reitz, director – Open Programmes at Ashridge Business School. 'While I would not at all say that these skills are now superfluous, in the 21st century, leaders face different challenges, which the traditional approach to leadership has not focused on.'
As well as coping with the modern VUCA world of business, Reitz talks about the mental and physical challenge of being resilient enough to cope with 24/7 working, public scrutiny and the anxiety of simply not knowing 'the answer'. Furthermore, there's the challenge of being able to facilitate collaboration – harnessing the knowledge from those up and down the hierarchy and across stakeholder communities.
Is mindful leadership the answer?
A mindful leader has these three capacities – leading in VUCA situations, resilience and collaboration – as they're able to focus on purpose in the present moment in a non-judgemental way, says Reitz. 'This ability enables them to focus and pay attention to important data when leading amongst changing information and perspectives (VUCA). It enables them to notice when they become anxious or stressed and care for themselves enough to undertake practices that develop their resilience. It enables them to be more aware of themselves and others and to handle difference more compassionately and more effectively, thus aiding collaboration.'
Mindfulness is not a new concept and one that has been finding favour within business for some time. Rooted in Buddhism, mindfulness is being calmly and clearly in the present moment, accepting of others, situations and environments, and finding new ways to respond to situations, as opposed to trying to control them.
This style of leadership is seen as more fitting with modern attitudes and younger generations, which, driven by new technology, are increasingly open to new ways of working and collaborating with others across organisations and borders, responding to ever-busier real-time demands.
Leading by emotion
Within the workplace we know that 'emotions are contagious', says Reitz. 'We pick up the emotional state of those around us. This is certainly true of bosses – if they're working in an anxious, threatened state, then they're likely to convey this to their team and it's likely that performance will go down (and health issues and absences increase). Evidence from research suggests that the more mindful the leader, the more productive and engaged their team.
'As leaders play such an influential role in developing corporate culture, it becomes even more pressing to ensure they are mindful of themselves and others. Additionally, one might argue (as I do!) that the level of "busyness" we are now experiencing in the workplace is not sustainable and is not getting the best out of the people who work in our organisations. We have to become much more astute at managing the balance between pressure and performance and mindful leadership is one route to this.'
How can you become a mindful leader?
Practise, practise and then keep practising, says Reitz. 'If you wish to build your bicep muscle you do not expect that one hour in the gym, once, will make any difference.'
Programmes of around eight weeks are considered an effective level of dedication, with evidence suggesting that in that timeframe the brain will have changed its structure (just as your bicep muscle would have over that period), with areas associated with focus and attention growing in size and those associated with threat and anxiety shrinking, says Reitz. Ultimately, mindfulness is something best incorporated into your everyday routine.