Successful Living through Mindfulness

Most self-help books focus on how you can achieve more. How can you do more, be more – and do it all faster.
This article takes the opposite tack: how and why you should simply sit and be still. The practice of mindfulness – being fully present and aware of the here and now – leads to successful living and greater fulfillment in all aspects of work and life.
The happiest and most successful people are those who have developed their social and emotional intelligence. They have finely tuned self-knowledge and self-awareness.
This includes:

  • The ability to connect with personal values and principles
  • The ability to imbue actions with meaning
  • The ability to align emotions with goals
  • The ability to keep motivated, focused and on purpose

Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness – becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. Mindfulness leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people and the context in which we live and work.
Before you dismiss mindfulness as New Age rhetoric, pay attention to the research. Recent studies in management science, psychology and neuroscience point to the importance of developing mindfulness through the experience of meditation.
Mindfulness and Busy People
Mindfulness meditation has long been practiced by those seeking calm and peace of mind. A Buddhist-trained HR professional, Michael Carroll encourages stressed-out executives to meditate to become more open and, consequently, more effective.
In his book, The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation (2008), Carroll explores the key principles of mindfulness.

  • How to heal toxic workplace cultures where anxiety and stress impede creativity and performance
  • How to cultivate courage and confidence in spite of workplace difficulties and economic recession
  • How to pursue organizational goals without neglecting what’s happening here and now
  • How to lead with wisdom and gentleness, not only with ambition, relentless drive and power
  • How a personal meditation practice develops your innate leadership talents

Many workplaces are adopting mindfulness meditation:

  • Companies like Raytheon, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nortel Networks, Comcast and law firms offer employees classes in mindfulness meditation.
  • Executives like Bill Ford Jr., Michael Stephen, former chairman of Aetna International, Robert Shapiro, ex-CEO of Monsanto, and Michael Rennie, of McKinsey & Co., consider meditation beneficial to running a corporation.

The Benefits of Mindfulness
Recent research highlights the many benefits of mindfulness meditation:

  1. 1. Repaired immune system
  2. 2. Heightened emotional intelligence
  3. 3. Reduced anxiety and depression
  4. 4. Sustained levels of joy and satisfaction
  5. 5. Greater resilience
  6. 6. Improved cardiovascular health
  7. 7. Fewer days lost to illness and stress

But practicing mindfulness requires much, well, practice. It demands vulnerability and heart, rather than ambition and achievement – a tall order for many hard-driving, results-oriented people.
How to Practice Meditation
In brief, mindfulness meditation is a friendly gesture toward ourselves, in which we take time to sit still and focus on breath for 10-25 minutes or longer. You can meditate in your office, sitting in your chair. Here are some essential guidelines:

  • Sit upright – relaxed, yet alert.
  • Close your eyes or maintain a soft, relaxed, downward gaze.
  • Place hands palms down, resting gently.
  • Tuck in your chin.
  • Breathe normally.
  • Observe your thoughts gently, without judgment.
  • Label your thoughts as “thinking” and dismiss them. Let them go.
  • Return your focus to your being, breathing and bodily sensations.
  • Be still.
  • Experience being you in the moment – in the now.

The Restlessness Experience
At some point in meditation, we experience our mind’s restlessness – a strong desire to be somewhere else, doing other things. You’ll be reminded of matters that need your attention.
When you experience restlessness, you’ll come to realize how you shut down your sense of “here and now” – your own presence in the world as it really exists. It’s easy to become distracted, and hard to sit and be still with ourselves.

  • As you begin to meditate, focus on nothing more than your breath. Shortly, you might find that your mind has wandered off or has distracting thoughts. Simply acknowledge it, and return to your breathing.
  • You may struggle to simply observe thoughts as they arise and to let them go. This is because the judging mind kicks in. We find it difficult to not think of problems, opinions, and “things that need to be fixed.” Worse yet, we begin to judge the thoughts themselves, and judge our judging.
  • This is when we begin to discover how we interact in the world: When we shut off the here and now, we distort our sense of purpose and miss opportunities to appreciate our reality. The ensuing anxiety prevents us from being open.

Being You
To become mindful, you must understand the distinction between trying to improve yourself versus experiencing who you already are:

  • To be mindful, you acknowledge you’re already open (not trying to be more open).
  • You acknowledge the wisdom and kindness you hold within (not trying to be more wise or compassionate).
  • You don’t strive to achieve a better, improved you. Rather, you meditate to get in touch with who you already are. Discover your basic sanity and true qualities, as they already exist within you. You turn off the inner judge and critic.

The Art of Non-achievement
Practice mindfulness meditation with non-achievement in mind. Meditation’s benefits are attained by exercising unseen “mindfulness muscles” as you sit still. Focus and concentration improve with each practice of meditation. Eventually, you learn to turn off the part of the brain that judges.
Mindfulness skills develop with practice and are then applied with a natural ease and familiarity to your thinking, feeling, and expression as you go about your day.
When you slow down, you gain a realistic picture of what’s going on instead of speeding through your day – or worse, speeding through your life.

In Search of Authentic Leaders

Employees at all organizational levels seek meaning and fulfillment at work. Most are willing to work hard for authentic, trustworthy leaders.
Sadly, employee morale is at an all-time low. A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work and psychologically committed to their jobs.
People are not easily fooled or quick to offer their loyalty, which explains why inauthentic leaders struggle to hire and retain exceptional staffers.
Authentic leaders have mastered three key skills: clear vision, formulating sound strategies and finding approaches that inspire others to act. To join this elite club, you must align people around a common purpose and set of values. As they perform at peak levels, they’ll know precisely what’s expected of them.
Three Problems with Authenticity
While virtually every leader has a sense of what “authenticity” means, few know how to develop it as a skill. To complicate matters, being authentic in today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace has its share of challenges.
A too-rigid view of oneself can be an obstacle to leading effectively. Three common leadership pitfalls include:

  1. 1. Being true to yourself. Which self? Depending on your role and the context, you show up differently. You grow and shift with experience and evolve into new roles. How can you be authentic to a future self that is uncertain and unformed?
  2. 2. Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do. You lose credibility as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, especially when you’re unproven.
  3. 3. Making values-based decisions. When you move into a bigger role, values shaped by past experiences can misguide you. In the face of new challenges, old decisions may produce authentic, but wrong, behaviors that fail to suit new situations.

Frame Your Life Stories
The journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding your life story, which provides a context for your experiences. Your story is powered by experiences that can help you inspire others and influence them to follow your lead.
That said, life stories are not always pretty. While most of us can reframe negative experiences in a positive light, authenticity requires us to face up to our mistakes and failures. An honest appraisal may prove uncomfortable, but it’s necessary for self-improvement. It also paves the way for authenticity and resilience.
Practice Your Values and Principles
The values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from your beliefs and convictions, but you cannot truly know them until they’re tested under pressure.
Leadership principles are values translated into action. Without action that supports your stated values, you cannot be authentic. The hard decisions you make reflect what you truly value.
Balance Your Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivations
If you’re like most leaders, you may be reluctant to admit that you measure your success against the outside world’s parameters. You enjoy the recognition and status that come with promotions and financial rewards.
But intrinsic motivations are derived from your life’s meaning and purpose. They’re closely linked to your life story and how you frame it (i.e., personal growth, helping other people develop, social causes, making a difference in the world).
Authenticity requires you to balance your desire for external validation with the intrinsic motivations that provide fulfillment at work.
Build Your Support Team
Authentic leaders build extraordinary support teams to help them stay on course. Team members provide counsel in times of uncertainty, offer extra assistance in difficult times and share in celebrations of success.
Support teams consist of spouses and families, close friends and colleagues, and mentors and coaches. Leaders must give as much to their supporters as they receive from them. Only then can mutually beneficial relationships develop.
Develop as an Authentic Leader
In “Your Development as an Authentic Leader” (Harvard Business Review, February 2007), Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean and Diana Mayer urge leaders to ask themselves the following questions:
1. Which people and experiences in your early life had the greatest impact on you?

2. Which tools do you use to become self-aware?
What is your authentic self?
In which moments do you say to yourself, “This is the real me?”
3. Name your most deeply held values.
Where did they come from?
Have your values changed significantly since your childhood?
How do your values inform your actions?
4. What motivates you extrinsically?
What are your intrinsic motivations?
How do you balance extrinsic and intrinsic motivations?
5. What kind of support team do you have?
How can your support team make you a more authentic leader?
How should you diversify your team to broaden your perspective?
6. Is your life integrated?
Are you able to be the same person in all aspects of your life (personal, work, family and community)?
If not, what’s holding you back?
7. What does authenticity mean in your life?
Are you a more effective leader when you behave authentically?
Have you ever paid a price for your authenticity? Was it worth it?
8. What steps can you take today, tomorrow and over the next year to develop authentic leadership?
Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts and heads. They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are.
Ultimately, superior results over a sustained period make for an authentic leader. It may be possible to drive short-term outcomes without being authentic, but authentic leadership is the only way we know to create sustainable long-term results.