We are castaways washed up ashore
While we continue to manage the harrowing reality of a pandemic and ongoing global conflict, many of us feel like castaways on isolated islands.
It’s been quite inspiring to witness how entrepreneurs, small businesses, and corporations continue to adjust to the changing socioeconomic and cultural climate. Many have come together, supporting their communities and neighbours, and looking for ways to reinvent.
Yet, it’s also been disheartening to witness such loss and despair—loved ones leaving empty seats at our dinner tables, businesses closing doors, and a leadership crisis that continues to wreak havoc in our lives.
A recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute suggests that most Canadians believe COVID-19 has pulled the country apart instead of bringing it together. The survey also shows that 79% believe this crisis has brought out the worst in people, while 61% state their level of compassion towards one another has deteriorated.
Gratitude, kindness, and solidarity have been present. But what seems to have prevailed is a sense of frustration, hopelessness, and uncertainty. People have lost faith in their leaders—CEOs, owners, directors, managers, and government officials.
What can erode people’s trust in leadership? Lack of awareness, purpose, and values; reactive versus proactive actions; arrogance and selfishness; disconnection from reality and people’s needs; an unhealthy pursuit of power; and an accountability deficit.
How can leaders become more resilient during these turbulent times?
How can they gain back people’s trust and hope while adapting to change?
I believe the answer is in mindful and resilient leadership.
What is mindful leadership?
Mindful leadership is the art of adopting mindfulness as you guide teams, organizations, and communities.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., mindfulness is the “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
A mindful leader embraces moment-to-moment awareness to pay attention to their environment, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They observe and respond to difficult situations with intent instead of reacting out of impulse. They are open, curious, compassionate, and make decisions based on their mission, vision, and values.
How can mindfulness support leadership capacity and development?
According to a 2019 study, mindfulness training may help improve mindful task management, self-care, self-reflection, and the capacity to relate to others and adapt to change.
Let’s look at how mindfulness can also support other specific leadership skills according to research:
Mindfulness may reduce stress and anxiety
Evidence shows that reduced stress is one of mindfulness’s most noted psychological benefits, which seems consistent across job types, mindfulness training, and employee stress levels. Likewise, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (or MBSR) programs have been associated with decreased stress and anxiety levels.
Mindfulness may increase awareness
Mindfulness refers to intentional and non-judgmental awareness. As leaders become more mindful, they develop a greater sense of self-understanding, observing their ideas, decisions, emotions, and actions relative to how they might impact themselves and others.
Mindfulness allows them to notice their limiting beliefs, pay closer attention to their teams, and expand their perspective.
This 2019 study also sees workplace mindfulness training as a favourable intervention to increase “awareness of the way they manage their tasks, lead tense conversations, or react to change.”
Mindfulness may help develop emotional regulation
Research suggests that lack of emotional self-control can be a crucial roadblock to leadership success.
As APA states, mindfulness can help develop effective emotion regulation in the brain, even in periods of stress, which may help mitigate said leadership challenge.
Mindfulness may promote acceptance
A 2017 study claimed that mindfulness might reduce stress reactivity by training acceptance. Mindfulness enables leaders to accept what they cannot control without attachment, judgment, or the need to change it.
Rather than getting lost in all the worst-case scenarios, mindfulness invites leaders to allow negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences to arise. The goal is not to disregard them but to let them come and go so you can envision a clear path.
Mindfulness may enhance resilience
A 2018 systematic review shows that mindfulness may positively impact resilience, which has been associated with easing the adverse effects of stress, trauma, and adversity.
Another 2018 study examining human service professionals concluded that “mindfulness-based interventions may effectively replenish resilience, reduce states of burnout and traumatic stress, and improve psychological well-being.”
A leader with reduced stress and anxiety, increased awareness, enhanced emotion regulation, acceptance, and resilience is better equipped to surf the waves and navigate through the storms of life.
Let’s dive deeper into resilience and why that may be one of the most critical mindfulness traits you can adopt as a leader right now.
A closer look at resilience
Resilience is our capacity to recover or spring back from hardship. APA defines it as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.”
The word resilience was first used in the 1620s, deriving from the Latin “resilire,” which means to recoil or rebound. By the 19th century, the term had evolved to include the meaning of elasticity and flexibility. Later, it was used to describe being resistant or not susceptible to something.
As Dr. Steven Southwick discusses in this psychotraumatology paper, resilience is a complex concept that may exist in a continuum—varying in levels, showing up in different parts of our lives, and changing over time.
We have the inherent potential to weather the storms that come our way. Yet, we may need certain circumstances, qualities, and strategies to tap into it.
Multidisciplinary experts point out that specific childhood factors may help you develop resilience, including:
- Healthy relationships and caregiving
- Emotion-regulation skills
- Capacity to visualize the future
- Motivation system that encourages you to learn, grow, and adapt
Ideally, we foster resilience before setbacks happen. Yet, specialists also suggest we can enhance it during or after stressful situations, highlighting a healthy family and community environment as one of the key ways to do so.
While external factors may help, there are moments when you are the primary source of resilience in your life—your grit, moral compass, and personal values. For example, a British survey revealed that 75% of employees felt the most significant drain of resilience resulted from managing relationships or workplace politics and that an astounding 90% were getting resilience from within themselves. Not from their organization, relationships, or work. Themselves.
This brings up a valuable question: How can organizations help their teams become more resilient so they can rebound from adversity and thrive?
As Brent Gleeson states: “You can’t build resilient teams without resilient leaders.”
What is resilient leadership?
Resilient leadership refers to the ability to bounce back from difficulties and lead with agility without engaging in negative habits of mind and dysfunctional behaviours.
Resilient leaders are focused, authentic, and innovative. They leverage their experience, purpose, and values to reframe failures as temporary setbacks or opportunities to grow and become better human beings.
But they can’t do it alone. Resilient leaders need to foster resilience within their teams so organizations can fully recover and succeed. And conversely, resilient leaders must focus on self-leadership to cultivate resilient teams. They must nurture their emotional, physical, and mental health to direct their communities and cultures through disruptive changes and toward common goals.
Resilient leaders typically:
- Align teams to a shared purpose, vision, and set of core values
- Build awareness and a growth mindset
- Exhibit emotional stability under stress
- Navigate setbacks with equanimity
- Accept uncertainty without getting attached to “what ifs”
- Adapt and persevere through changing scenarios
- Count with a support system to manage difficult times
An outstanding portrayal of resilient leadership is Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1963 after devoting his life to ending apartheid. While incarcerated, Mandela suffered cruel isolation and contracted tuberculosis, but that did not stop him.
Mandela was released in 1990, 27 years later. He was then elected as the leader of the African National Congress in 1991 and became South Africa’s first Black president during their first democratic elections in 1994.
As he eloquently said: “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
The intersection between mindful leadership and resilient leadership
Mindful and resilient leaders…
- Have open awareness of themselves as leaders, their organizations, and their environment.
- Recognize the concept of impermanence—everything is changing all the time—and accept hardship without clinging to the past or future.
- Manage stress and regulate the challenging emotions that may come along during high-stakes situations.
- Stay true to their authentic selves, taking actions and making choices rooted in their purpose, vision, and values.
- Adopt a beginner’s mind, looking at the world with curiosity and inventiveness.
A co-active coaching approach to resilient leadership
Co-active coaching is one of the methods I implement as a coach, which focuses on helping clients deepen the meaning and forward the action.
- Deepening the meaning refers to tapping into your being, your why, and all the lessons learned along your journey.
- Forwarding the action consists of moving forward, achieving goals, or implementing new practices to support your capacity to thrive.
Some leaders get so caught up in doing that their actions fall out of grace with integrity. While others are so focused on self-reflection and navel-gazing that they get stuck in being, and their meaning falls in dead air.
Both being and doing are essential to embrace resilience. You must deepen your purpose and take aligned action to steer yourself and your teams.
As Henry Kimsey-House et al. state in their book, Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives, “it’s the cycle of action and learning over time that leads to sustained and effective change. Clients take action and learn, which leads to more action based on what they have learned, and the cycle continues.”
Imagine you are a body of water. When you are being in the present moment, you are like still water—you are very reflective and deep. But when you transition into doing, you are more like the waves in the ocean—there’s a force behind you; you can move ships, marine life, the earth, and more. The goal is to move out of stillness into waves of action.
Let’s take a co-active look at the essential qualities (being) and best practices (doing) of a resilient leader.
Becoming resilient: Qualities of a resilient leader
Resilient leaders are aware of their strengths, biases, and areas of opportunity. They have a clear grasp of their organization’s internal and external reality and their team’s operations and needs.
Hay Group performed a study on more than 17,000 individuals worldwide, revealing self-awareness in 19% of the women versus 4% of the men interviewed. So, there’s certainly room for improvement in this area for all leaders out there.
Resilient leaders are innovative thinkers, visionaries, and creators. They hone the power of imagination and reinvention to feed their growth mindset and aim for transformation.
A clear example of a curious leader is Albert Einstein. Leveraging his wild creativity and wonder, he pushed the boundaries and changed the world with his many contributions to the scientific community.
Resilient leaders are fueled by a higher purpose or why. As author Simon Sinek defines it, your why refers to “WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care? (…) All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year.”
Leaders rooted in their purpose have the potential to transform people and entire countries. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream drove him to lead the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Taking resilient action: Best practices of a resilient leader
“Beliefs underlie every single thing we do, both individually and organizationally. Beliefs are like the root system of our lives. In my metaphor, I started to look at organizational culture as the soil. Clearly, the quality of the soil will have a huge impact on what’s planted—new ideas or new people—in the organization.” —Ari Weinzweig, co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.
Your beliefs or values represent the moral compass that informs your decisions and keeps you true to your purpose. Resilient leaders not only have clear values, but they take individual and organizational steps grounded in those foundational principles. Leading by your values is a way to translate your why into ethical and honest actions.
Resilient leaders persist with tenacity and determination, despite the challenges. They fail forward, transforming misfortune into a source of strength and inspiration or a chance for reinvention.
Think of Oprah Winfrey, a BIPOC woman who overcame sexual abuse as a child and navigated racial discrimination throughout the years. She is now one of the most successful African American women around the globe. Her TV show, book club, and countless charitable initiatives continue to uplift and empower people to this day.
Resilient leaders adapt in the face of adversity and focus their efforts on ensuring their teams can do the same. They improvise with intention, make the most of what they have, and acclimate to the needs and priorities at hand.
Sylvia Metayer, the former CEO of Sodexo Corporate Services Worldwide, is an excellent example of adaptation. She defined her former role as a servant, focused on supporting her employees and preparing them to adapt: “I think the most important thing is how do you make people’s work easier? (…) It’s also very much about making them ready. The world is changing very fast, so we have to create career paths, and we have to support the training of our people so that they’re ready for change.”
Takeaway bits: Exercises to boost resilience
Now that you have a deep understanding of mindful and resilient leadership, you can start cultivating resilience within yourself and your organization with the resources below:
Affirmations for resilience
Repeat the following affirmations to yourself or out loud. Share them with your peers and teams as desired:
- I will thrive in the face of adversity.
- I navigate change with ease.
- I have the power to adapt and transform.
- I see failure as an opportunity for a breakthrough.
- I accept the things I cannot control.
- I let go of what doesn’t serve me.
- I embrace curiosity.
- I can manage my emotions.
- I have a support system.
- I can move in stillness.
A guide to leading by your values
STEP 1: Start with some questions
Grab pen and paper and answer the following questions:
- What makes you happy, proud, and accomplished?
- What do you dream about?
- What are your goals in life?
- What drives you or guides your decisions?
- What matters most to you?
STEP 2: Look out for patterns
Check your answers and find some common ground. What’s standing out? Is it family, taking care of others, or working with teams?
Whatever it is, sit with it for a moment.
STEP 3: Make a preliminary list
Look at those common areas and give them a keyword. Then, make a list with those keywords and reflect.
Are these your core values?
STEP 4: Review, revise, and organize
Review your list with caution. Make adjustments and go back to the questions if necessary. Once you are happy with your list, organize and group your values as desired.
Perhaps some of them are at the top of your list (e.g., family). Maybe others are too similar and can be consolidated into one value. Or perhaps some could be split up into more than one.
STEP 5: Finalize and display your values
Give your list of values another look to finalize it.
When ready, display your values in your home, office, or anywhere you can look at them daily. You could create a mood board, a desktop background, or a handwritten list to hang on your wall. Find what works for you.
STEP 6: Live by these values
Lastly, make a conscious effort to think, act, and lead according to these principles. Remember, you can revisit these values over time as you progress in your journey.
And when a problem comes your way, use this list to remind you of what’s truly important to you.
Guided meditation: Aligning your inner leadership with outer manifestation
Click here to listen to the full guided meditation or read on to follow along.
- Take a moment to settle. Breathe in three deep breaths. In your own time, close your eyes or soften the gaze.
- Release any preconceived thoughts and ideas about leadership with each exhalation. On the next in-breath, direct attention to how you typically lead. Notice what you hear internally and externally. What is calling you to listen from a place of deep meaning?
- Upon the next out-breath, let go of ways of being that are not serving you to step into being vulnerable, real, and present.
- Inhale a state of authenticity and genuineness that reflects the real leader in you. Expand your awareness of your people’s needs beyond the workplace. Draw a mental boundary or a picture frame around your work, your life, and the people around you. Breathe into the clarity and perspective you create relative to communicating your needs, listening, and honouring the needs of others. Use this as a starting point for exploration.
- With the next out-breath, release any limiting beliefs, ways of communicating or garnering feedback that create barriers to healthy expression and authentic being. Notice what is working and what is not.
- On the next in-breath, invite an open awareness to other ways of seeing and perceiving. What are you noticing or not noticing?
- Continue investigating your inner leadership landscape, checking in with yourself, a coach, a mindfulness buddy, a consultant, or a trusted peer. Envision a plan in your mind’s eye: a roadmap to reinvent how you are as a leader in a meaningful and authentic manner, as well as what you are doing as a leader—how you are talking, walking, acting, influencing, learning, and listening.
- Move out of this way of knowing into sensing with your eyes, ears, body, and instincts. Honour your lived experiences and the collective experience. What are the invisible and visible ways that leaders benefit from the workplace and the organizational systems they are emersed in? What are your blind spots and areas of unconscious awareness? Let go of these blindfolds and open your eyes to the truth of the present state in your workplace. Honour who you are and all other beings regardless of their label, identity, or title.
- Become aware of states of separation, division, and exclusion. Breathe in states of diversity, inclusion, acceptance, and gratitude into your leadership state and the space where you lead.
- Breathe expansion into your circle of friends, family, and colleagues. View the world and your workplace from a place of curiosity and wonder. Embrace discomfort, change, mistakes, and uncertainty. Open your mind’s eye and actions to accept human error. Be the captain of your ship of life and lead with the moral compass of the heart and soul of your organization.
- As you envision this state of being and way of forwarding the action, begin to bring your attention back to the breath. Take three deep, cleansing, and soothing breaths. Notice the weight of your body as it’s grounded into the surface beneath you, as well as your feet as they sink into the ground. Become present and aware, slowly opening your eyes. At the sound of the bell, bring this state of being into the rest of your day.