Mindful Leadership with Dr. Blaise Aguirre

MINDFUL LEADERSHIP 

Many leaders lack executive presence and the basic fundamentals to effectively manage people. A simple promotion does not guarantee someone’s leadership ability. Contemporary leadership requires a level of emotional attunement to know when they are being effective and when they are not.  

Leaders without self-awareness and the impact of their actions and interactions can separate leaders from their employees on a fundamental level. Employees who feel seen and appreciated for their efforts are more effective, efficient and productive. It may seem too idealistic or even too much to ask to be more attuned but when leaders do not have this capability, they begin to lose the respect of their employees. 

So, what gets in the way of emotional attunement? Some leaders have been so successful that they  continue to insist that things be done their way. For others, it is their own ego and sense of self importance. For yet others, it is a lack of awareness of the emotional needs and conditions of others. Let’s be clear, leadership does require decisiveness and clarity. It also means that, at times, an employee’s feelings will be hurt when decisions are made. However, employees will often feel that they have been heard and that their opinions were considered, even if things don’t go the way they wanted. 

Before we consider what to do about being more emotionally attuned, here is another thing about  emotions. It could go without saying that one biologically essential aspect of being human is having emotions. Emotions motivate us for action and communicate core information, even beyond spoken words. Because of this they are also highly contagious—when leaders are stressed and anxious, their anxiety can be felt across the entire team and even the entire organization. This can put so much weight and strain on the team that even the most highly motivated and independent employees might leave, seeking a healthier environment, due to the impact of stress and anxiety trickling down from leadership. Employees who believe their leaders are stressed, also believe that these leaders are ineffective. 

The case can be made that the more aware of emotions that a leader is, the more they will recognize them and deal effectively with them. So, how do you develop this awareness? The most effective practice in developing awareness is the practice of mindfulness. 

There is a huge list of CEOs who practice mindfulness at work, for instance: Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, Ariana Huffington, Russell Simmons the co-founder of Def Jam records, Bob Shapiro the former CEO of Monsanto, Andrew Chert the CEO of Panda Express, Ray Dalio the  founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Marc Benioff the CEO and Founder of Salesforce, Oprah Winfrey and many, many others. Monks in monasteries are practicing mindfulness and so are corporate leaders.  

Mindfulness brings awareness not only to the emotional self, but also to the aspects of our nature—our ego—that might get in the way of finding deeper connection.

 

Here are specific benefits:  

  • Seeing reality as it is: more fact-based and more objectively 

    • Leaders often want to be right. Being wrong can be perceived as a failure. Mindfulness allows for a fact-based assessment of situations, admitting what has gone well as well as what had not gone well. This degree of objectivity is often seen as a strength by employees. 

 

  • Strengthening and deepening relationships  

    • Being more empathic because of increased attunement to emotions helps leaders to deepen their relationship with employees. For employees, feeling more connected enhances their loyalty and their productivity, suggesting that success comes from engaged, effective interactions of others. 

 

  • Recognize our blind-spots as an essential step in self-improvement 

    • We cannot be aware of the things we are not aware of. Awareness can happen when we keep getting  stuck in similar situations and wonder what the heck is going on. It can also happen when a supervisor  points out something in the way we are interacting or engaging with others. However, unless some aspect of our nature is egregious, we continue to do things the way we always have. Mindfulness allows us to pay sharper attention to the elements of our nature that make us successful, and those that might be inhibiting us from greater success. Imagine you had a bicycle with five gears, but you were only aware of three gears. Then imagine that through more careful examination you discovered that your bicycle had five gears. How much faster you could go, if you wanted to do so. What aspects of yourself and your potential for leadership are you unaware of?

HOW TO PRACTICE 

You don’t have to go to a monastery to practice mindfulness, although some people find that getting away for some period of time can reset them and they can use the retreat as a starting point.  Nevertheless, this is something that can be done at home or even at the office:  

Find a quiet place at home or close the door to your office during a break. Set a timer for 20 minutes.  Turn off your screens to sit facing away from your screen. The most basic but extremely useful practice is to just start observing the in and out of your breath. If you want, count the breath, but stop at ten and then start again—so you don’t fall down a rabbit hole of mindless counting. Almost immediately, you will notice your mind wandering to the thousands of things that you have to do. Research suggests that we have more than 70,000 thoughts every day, even more if we’re anxious or stressed. You cannot possibly deal with everything that you are thinking of, and by slowing down and noticing, you are also able to distinguish between the types of thoughts that help you solve problems versus those that get stuck in a loop of stress inducing cognitions. The more you practice, the clearer your mind will be and the readier solutions will manifest.  

It is important to face away from distractions, at least when you first begin to practice, because all you  need is one email notification, the ping of a message or the ring of a phone to get your mind side-tracked and back into the mindless repetition of your life.  

There is much more to mindful leadership, but if you can get through these two pages and practice one  time, you’ll be well on your way to being a more engaged, connected, effective and less stressed-out leader.

Blaise Aguirre, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He is a trainer in, and specializes in, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) as well as other treatments such as mentalization-based treatment (MBT) for borderline personality disorder and associated conditions. He is the founding medical director of 3East continuum of care, an array of programs for teens which use DBT to target self-endangering behaviors as well as the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) traits. Dr. Aguirre has been a staff psychiatrist at McLean Hospital since 2000 and is nationally and internationally recognized for his extensive work in the treatment of mood and personality disorders in adolescents. He lectures regularly throughout the world.

Dr. Aguirre is the author or co-author of many books including Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents, Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder, Coping with BPD, and Fighting Back.