Leaders - stop! What is the case, is the case…..Mindful leadership in action

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In a recent conversation with a frustrated Chief Executive I was struck by how much energy we can invest and expend wishing things were not as they are. 

The CEO in question was bemoaning the attitude of the major shareholder who ‘just doesn’t get it’. While the senior leadership team, and most of the staff, exhibited a persistent and passionate obsession for the quality of the product, the shareholder seemed doggedly preoccupied with finances. 

This shareholder apparently was showing as much interest and excitement in the product as a 5-year old who is being asked to ‘finish breakfast quickly otherwise we’ll be late for school’. Every bright idea and passionate expression was met with a ‘but’, followed by a finance question. As far as the CEO was concerned this was tantamount to purposeful obstruction, even a character flaw. Over a two year relationship with this shareholder the CEO was tearing his hair out; I could all but see the daily incline in his blood pressure. 

Similarly, I spoke to an HR leadership team struggling to figure out the performance management process integration following a merger of their company with another. In their eyes the merger was unnecessary and unlikely to result in benefits; they had ‘been against it from day one’. They had already reduced their ‘overheads’ significantly yet more redundancies were on their way and the grumblings and animosity towards the senior leadership team palpable. The merger happened over two years ago.

In both situations the words I heard were ‘why did they / he have to…?’ ‘If only they / he would…’ ‘This is just totally unfair / wrong’ ‘It was much better before he / they….’ Underneath these words was the sentiment ‘I do not want this situation to be the case’. This was almost a mantra, repeated over and over again. Every time it was thought or expressed, a little bit of energy was expended. Every time the stress levels raised a little. Every time another negative mood was transmitted and contracted by others in the organization.  Every time a moment which could have been invested in creative thought was lost.

We all have regrets and we all have frustrations. Sometimes they are useful if they motivate us to learn how to do things better next time or if they lead to action that resolves an unproductive situation. Judging however from the results of a research program Michael Chaskalson and I ran at Ashridge into the impact of mindfulness training on leadership effectiveness, we spend far too much time in unproductive ruminations that are quite simply a waste of time and leave us exhausted.

One of the most impactful, most useful realizations the research participants reported was the deceptively simple truth that ‘what is the case, is the case’. Observing these leaders Michael and I have seen them visibly settle and breathe a sigh of relief when they realize that there exists a choice in how they respond to situations perceived as negative. 

The unchallenged automatic pilot leaves us lost in a repetitive play-back loop of inner dialogue circling the phrase ‘I wish things were not as they are’. Our research indicates that mindfulness training can develop metacognition; the capacity to pay attention, on purpose, to our thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses (see Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are). When our participants learnt to observe their thought process, with its associated emotional and physical manifestations, they noticed the costs of wishing away the world as it is. They began to wonder what they could achieve if they chose to accept the situation and invest their time in other ways.

Perhaps next time you find yourself upset at the behavior of your unsympathetic boss, outraged at a decision the Board has just made or disconsolate about why your child (or the world) is not interested in what you believe they should be, you might just experiment with meditating on the fact there are some situations you might not be able to transform. This is not to say that attempts at influencing, speaking up or seeking to change circumstances are of no value, but it is to suggest that there comes a point at which one should say, what is the case, is the case….so what now?

Are you wishing things were other than they are?

  • Take a moment, stop what you are doing and take a few deep breaths
  • Notice how your body feels in this moment, without wishing it were other than it is
  • Notice your emotional state, without wishing it were other than it is
  • Notice your thoughts, without wishing they were other than they are
  • What in your situation can you influence?
  • Which of those things is it worthwhile you trying to influence?
  • And what do you need to accept is the case?
  • Given what is the case, what would be a productive next step?
kim hollamby