In tumultuous times, we start to question ourselves. This can happen in relationships, communities, and at work. How did we get here? Where are we going? Who will get us there? How? The need for mindful leadership has never been more necessary. But while this topic has been widely discussed, the practical applications and results of a leader’s ability to be mindful in action have not. Many leadership resources operate in broad strokes, focusing on the why instead of the more difficult and detailed how or what. And while these are necessary steps in the new practice of modern leadership, mindfulness should be considered the initial starting point for all else if you lead people.
In the science of human behavior, analysts know we cannot reliably change what we cannot first define. So, what, exactly, does “mindful leadership” mean? For this article, we can say that mindful leadership contains three skills:
The skill of pausing (i.e., emotion regulation, controlling the impulse to speak or provide answers
The skill of self-reflection (i.e., considering alternative viewpoints from a space of objective thought instead of ego or limited knowledge)
The skill of altered action (i.e., changing one’s behavior to better meet the needs and goals of the larger whole one is leading).
Mindfulness leads to many new behaviors and actions (behavior analysts call this a “behavioral cusp”) because it sets the stage for us to choose better behaviors in the moment.
Here are a few of the skills employees desire in their leaders today:
This does not mean becoming devoid of emotion. It means engaging in the behaviors above before showing emotion or letting it guide you or your team, so you can direct attention and relay your vision with clarity in service of the mission and those who work to fulfill it each day.
Empathy and Compassion
This follows emotional homeostasis and can create more trust, higher morale, higher productivity, lower retention, and a clearer vision for your team.
If we can become more mindful and emotionally balanced, we are more likely to understand that, while the sprint is necessary, so is getting buy-in from necessary parties. This makes people feel seen and heard, which can have ROI levels above your best (and most expensive) performance rewards package.
Invest in Inclusivity
If the old version of leadership said “learn from us,” the new version would ask, “how can we learn from you?” Each difference in every employee is an opportunity to learn new perspectives, promote unique ideas, and even uncover operational hindrances or waste. In addition, inclusive cultures promote a feeling of well-being and psychological safety, which leads to higher producing companies long-term.
Apply the Skills
Now that we understand what we mean by “mindful” leadership, here is one example of how applying these skills will help you be more flexible, effective, and supportive of your people. After all, leaders have the authority and power to change their companies and their employees’ lives for the better. In the era of The Great Resignation and the strong correlations between work and mental health highlighted during the pandemic, leaders are now being looked to as advocates for — or forces against — the health and happiness of those in their charge. It is more important than ever for those at the top to dig deep and evaluate themselves from entirely new perspectives if they want to thrive.
Let’s look at a leadership phenomenon rarely called out in the public space — the Performer Leader and the Practitioner Leader. Before diving in, remember that each leadership style can hold any of the characteristics above.
Practitioner leaders demonstrate strong content knowledge, and excellent teaching skills and are widely recognized within their industry for their direct contributions and impact. These individuals are seen as experts or mentors from whom many people can learn and are talented at stepping in to create movements or offer their expertise, regardless of what needs to be done. Practitioner leaders tend to have observable, practical skills and have been promoted into their leadership roles. Still, they may lack the overt presence and confidence that attracts employees and grabs attention. If their reputation precedes them, it is likely for their contributions to the industry and not (solely) their formidable charisma.
Performance leaders take the stage. Known for their intense, confident, and direct demeanor (executive presence, as it has come to be known) and their ability to instill confidence and inspire emotion, these leaders are entertaining and influential, but potentially less helpful to employees and the sustainable advancement of the organization. If employees require purposeful, mission-oriented action and a leader with the know-how and know-why, these leaders may struggle to maintain attention or sustainably inspire their people forward. Unlike practitioner leaders, whose skills and output are clear to the people who work for them, performance leaders may frustrate their teams by oversimplifying, overgeneralizing, or telling but rarely doing. This can leave employees feeling frustrated, wondering how it is all supposed to get done.
Before continuing, take a mindful moment and ask yourself, which am I?
And then, which do I want to be?
Then, most importantly, which does my team need the most at the moment?
While you’re considering the above, take some time to make notes for whatever comes up for you. Evaluate your lived and work experience and how that supports your people today. Consider your presence and its effect on the mood and productivity of those around you who work toward the bottom line each day. What’s working for you? What can you strengthen?
What Else Contributes to Your Leadership Style?
Think back to a moment when you read the definition of a performance leader versus a practitioner leader. As this article is about mindfulness, let’s take a second to stop and reflect.
Who did you imagine as a performance leader? A practitioner leader?
How did you feel when you read about the performance leader? The practitioner leader?
Were there differences in emotion, gender, education, intelligence, or race?
You may have felt the performance leader was aggressive, strong, and a male. You may have pictured the practitioner leader differently. Regardless of whether you are a performance leader or practitioner leader, an old schema tells us that a strong leader is the alpha male, even though research shows us that alpha male behavior isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Duke anthropologist Brian Hare and his wife, Vanessa, a science writer, studied why cooperation and compromise may bust the myth that dominant, strong alpha males are the most successful. An NPR article by Bret Stetka reviewed their work and made an interesting—and for humans, maybe a predictive—point:
Violence and aggression… weren’t always a sound evolutionary strategy. Being the alpha bully means you’re more often engaged in dangerous encounters and a target of the greater group in whose best interest is to weed out threatening, socially destabilizing males.
“When you look back in nature and see when a species or group of species underwent a major transition or succeeded in a new way, friendliness, or an increase in cooperation, are typically part of that story,” says Hare.
This shows what we are already seeing in post-pandemic life. When strength and leadership show up in their traditional form, it is more likely to cause employees to recoil rather than gain sustainable followership—time for a change.
Behavior is not linear. There are, as always, other sides of the coin depending on the context, history, and need. The key is fitting organizational needs with practitioner or performer leadership styles and, on the part of the leader, holding the mindful awareness necessary to flex the needs of the times.
In companies where employees are mostly self-led, are heavily resourced, and have near-total autonomy, performance leaders are apt at swooping in as a caffeine shot to the soul to provide a heavy dose of theatrics and motivation. They thrive in this space and find joy in their ability to motivate but are also at risk of asking themselves, “What purpose do I serve here?” or of getting bored and restless, unable to put their finger on what is missing.
If a performer leader feels a sense of restlessness, boredom, or a lack of purpose, try going back to your strongest skill sets. Are you exercising them in your current role? Does your company value what you provide to the company? Do you value what you provide? While many leaders are stellar in their roles, it does not necessarily mean the individual is fulfilled. Never underestimate the power of autonomy and doing the work you find meaningful.
While practitioner leaders are savvy in their industry, they can feel like they must act as performance leaders. If this occurs, they may fall flat, coming off as inauthentic, awkward, or showing false bravado. This can lead to mistrust that is hard to repair. If they can authentically lead with their demonstrable skill sets and a helpful let’s-get-things-done attitude they are successful in inspiring motivating and teaching their people to sustainably move toward the company goals and vision.
Don’t force it if you are a practitioner leader wishing you possessed the charismatic, TED-style gene. Everything we do is behavior, and behaviors can be learned. Enlist the help of an executive coach skilled in both personal and professional coaching to first help you find what is authentic to you and then practice authenticity publicly. You will emerge with an engaging presentation that feels comfortable while building confidence, inspiring your people, and remaining sincere.
Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum, and, like most things, an effective and positive combination of each — or even co-leadership — is ideal.