In Part 1 of 5 Things Leaders Are Not Taught, I wrote about how conscious leaders see the world. Their field of perception is broader. They commit to a continuous process of learning and they resolve to see more deeply because they understand that they don’t have all the answers. There’s a moral courage that grows from this kind of experience – and a willingness to engage in constant introspection and self-correction.
With ancient roots, today’s brand of mindfulness is the new kid on the block. To be fair to most leaders, none of us were taught the skills of mindful awareness. These days it seems everybody’s writing or talking about it (I plead guilty). Google, Harvard Business School, the US government, even the military include mindfulness principles in leadership programs.
In her article, Mindfulness, Meditation, Wellness and their Connection to Corporate America’s Bottom Line, author Arianna Huffington writes, “Even a quick look at what’s happening in the American workplace shows it’s a seriously split-screen. On the one hand, there’s the stressful world of quarterly earnings reports, beating growth expectations, hard-charging CEO’s and focusing on the bottom line. On the other hand, there’s the world populated by the growing awareness of the costs of stress, not just in the health and well-being of business leaders and employees, but on the bottom line as well.”
While the hope is that the motivation for change, growth and wellness isn’t just compelled by the bottom-line, the economic realities alone should be lighting a bigger fire under most leaders to change the status-quo.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, 70% of work-related physical and mental complaints are attributed to stress. Health insurance claims related to stress are estimated to cost organizations more than $300 billion yearly.
Harvard professor and former Medtronics CEO Bill George and veteran meditator of thirty years attests, “Meditation has been the single most important thing I have done to improve my leadership. It has helped me to remain calm and clear-thinking in the face of pressure and uncertainty.” “Mindful leadership, says George, is the secular idea that enables people to sustain effective leadership throughout their lifetime. It enables them to be fully present, aware of themselves and their impact on other people.”
Many leaders, quick to jump on the treadmill, dread the unknown territory of sitting still – doing nothing. Doers by nature, many leaders define themselves through problem-solving and action. To the doers, meditation can seem inert and counter-intuitive. Keen on physical fitness, many leaders overlook skills such as meditation which is fitness for the mind.
Caught up in endless external pressures, the less mindful leader loses the capacity to step outside of their own skin and see things objectively.
The mindful leader maintains a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present moment. The ability to be self-aware, and stay open to the present moment is daunting under normal workplace circumstances – and the mindful leader understands the challenge. A mindful leader is always reaching out to support others to balance their equilibrium. On a purely practical level, the mindful leader understands the adage, “Energy flows where attention goes,” and seeks to support workloads that don’t overwhelm an individual’s resources.
Mindfulness equips us for the long haul. In our calmer moments, it can nourish and restore and help us rebalance body and mind. In the grip of pressure, the resiliency built by mindfulness can help us to not only weather the storm – but grow stronger in the process.
Most people identify the average leader as aggressive or passive aggressive. Leaders are rarely perceived or described as assertive. One reason is that there still is much confusion and misuse of the terminologies.
When you think about assertive behavior as contrasted with aggressive behavior, how do you distinguish them? To a great extent, assertive and aggressive behavior is like beauty – it’s in the eye of the beholder. One person’s assertiveness can be another’s aggressiveness. Over the years, I’ve observed that the determination is based on a felt experience.
Essentially, assertive behavior can be defined as standing up for one’s rights and maintaining equality in a relationship without disrespecting the rights of another person. This is often more difficult in the workplace, especially when one does not have positional power and is being treated disrespectfully. Many employees fear acting assertively, even when they believe their rights have been compromised, because of a perceived or real imbalance of power. Assertive leaders understand this – and always strive to create a more equal playing field for their employees.
As a leader, think about how you interact with others and how you involve others in working towards desired outcomes. If you are stuck in one style, you are far less likely to successfully influence others, especially if that style is perceived as aggressive.
All leaders need to practice and help others to understand the sometimes subtle distinctions between assertive and aggressive communication. Leaders can also model more responsive communication toward others, so that employees better understand how to satisfy their own needs while focusing on the needs of others. Here are some definitions to help clarify the differences:
- Assertive – where the focus of attention is on yourself, your needs and how you act toward others using your energy, knowledge and personal resources to shape outcomes, to influence others and stand up for yourself, while respecting the boundaries of others.
- Aggressive – as with assertive behavior the focus is on yourself but you behave in ways that ignore other’s needs and feelings.
- Responsive – the focus of attention is on the other person’s needs and goals; you show interest and regard for them and are open to be influenced by their energy, knowledge and resources and most importantly – while still maintaining your own needs, thoughts and feelings.
- Passive – as with responsive behavior the focus is on the other person, but you act in ways that ignore your own needs and in doing so relinquish your some of your own power. When you are behaving in this way you don’t express your needs and allow others to take your feelings for granted.
The ideal model for genuine, balanced communication – for leaders and in general – is combining assertive and responsive behavior. According to Malcolm Shaw, author of Assertive-Responsive Management, “You can act upon and respond to others: you can strive to influence them and seek out and respond to their influence.”
The workplace is a social entity and as such always in flux and unfolding. In terms of assertive/responsive behavior there is no best way to interact with others. In any given interaction you may engage any of these behaviors, but over time a dominant style will emerge. The challenge is to move beyond the constraints of your style and engage the behaviors appropriate to the context and circumstances.
Interpersonal and organizational effectiveness occurs not only because people fully understand each other or do the right thing. It occurs because people are also aware of their own imperfections and consider the imperfections of others while striving for achievement and success.
When leaders are mindful of the assertive-responsive choices available to them they stay connected to their emotional lives, their needs – and the needs of others.
When leaders commit to a lifelong practice of all five of these practices – that few of us were taught – they move into a different stratosphere of leadership. They allow others to evolve their own leadership strengths. They create a space for authentic collaboration. They contribute to the difficult goal of transparency in organizational life.
There are many things we weren’t taught that we now must commit to learn if we are to survive and thrive in a very different world. Hopefully, what we model now, will be taught in the future. Envisioning a global village, Marshall McLuhan proposed that “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are all crew.”
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George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants