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Meditation, Leaders and Leadership Development

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Leaders are bigger. Bigger in many ways. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of individuals who are promoted to the leadership level in many organizations.

They stick out in a crowd. They make their presence known. They attract attention. And, of course, they perform.

They have aspirations. They want to get to the top. Most market themselves for promotion in various ways. They leave organizations when promotions do not come fast enough.

For the most part, they are high on self-confidence. They have more risk tolerance than others. They make bold moves.

They are smart and fast. They generate followers. Many of them take others with them as they move up the career ladder. These are their “go to” people they have learned to trust to perform.

When they get to the top (or near the top) they demonstrate a commanding presence. Many are bigger than life. They quiet the room when they enter. They have leadership presence and charisma. To make the journey to the top, they have to be talented.

Five Key Skillsets

The leadership research over the past century has pointed to a number of skillsets necessary to get to the top.

The 1st skillset is cognitive skills

IQ or intellectual horsepower. They have to be analytically capable. They have to be able to solve complex problems. They have to be able to fill in empty spots in the equation, meaning that they have to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Others would be able to solve complex problems if they had all the information and unlimited time, but top leaders are time-pressed and never have all the information. They have to make estimates and take risks.

The 2nd skillset is knowledge

Knowledge obtained through a high variety and diversity of jobs, tasks, roles, and experiences. The more they’ve done, the more they’ve seen, the more people they’ve worked with and the more places they’ve visited, the better the leader they might be. It’s better if the experiences are tough, challenging, intense and have material consequences. The more problems they have solved and the more decisions they have made, the better the leader they are likely to be.

The 3rd skillset is motivation

They need to have aspirations to make it to the top. They need to be results oriented and driven. They have to be self-confident and optimistic. They have to have a personal and organizational growth mindset. They not only think they can, they know they can and then they perform.

The 4th skillset is vision

At some point at the top or near the top they have to take responsibility for mission, vision, goals, culture, and strategy. They have to be able to see the big picture. They need to have competitive intelligence. They have to understand different business models and different tactical approaches, and they have to be able to package and communicate all of that in a way that motivates large numbers of employees and other stakeholders.

The 5th skillset is asset management

At or near the top, leaders become responsible for hard and soft asset management. Money, people, and reputation. Most who get to the top leadership positions are good at money or hard asset management. They are OK with public relations and reputation management. The weakest asset of the set is often related to people management. In people management there are many stakeholders. Many existing leaders do better when managing vendor relationships, shareholder relationships, and political relationships. The people asset they struggle with the most is employee management, such as building a culture of engagement and of fair and equal treatment. These are the so-called EQ skills which are centered on managing people differently by aligning with their needs.

Most coaching assignments at the leader level or centered on 3 leadership behaviors (or skills or competencies) leaders need in order to be legendary. These are listening skills, delegation, and conflict management.

Remember that most people who get to the top leadership jobs are big, bold, and fast.  They are often intimidating and impatient, and they are terminally busy. Many really don’t have (or take) much time for rapport building and for making people feel better.

What Top Leaders Don’t Do (enough of)

Top leaders don’t often listen because they are the best at what they do, and they believe that there are not very many people who could offer valuable input.

They don’t delegate because they are the best at what they do, and they believe that most others are not as capable of doing anything as good as they do.

They don’t handle conflict well because they believe they are most likely right and that others are wrong.

If one doesn’t listen, delegate, or productively manage interpersonal conflict, they will not develop future leaders or create high performance work teams.

The catch 22 is that the best (or at least very productive) people get to the top often with the help of others along the way, but they are not the best at developing others to take their place when their work is done. They leave accomplishments behind, but many do not leave leaders behind at the same rate.

Boosting the Leader Legacy

Meditation, a part of the skill set or practices of Mindfulness, would be a great help. But because of the make-up of top leaders, meditation would be a tough sell. Leaders are impatient, especially when waiting on others, so the effort to meet the soft needs of others isn’t something they are good at.

Mindfulness (including the practice of Meditation) helps people gain agency over the amazing powers of the brain. Many describe the brain (the mind) as the most complex machine known by mankind. It is a supercomputer capable of solving the world’s most complex problems. It takes in information from the outside through both the senses and internally created information, analyzes it for meaning, and problem solves for the best fit solution. Collectively, all humankinds’ accomplishments come from individual brains and the brains of teams as they work through incomplete information, multi-method analysis and multi-scenario problem solving.

A part of mindfulness is being in the present. The past is yesterday, the future is tomorrow, and the present is now. One of the reasons leaders don’t listen is that they are ruminating about the past and planning for the future, which leaves little time or processing space for listening to what they expect to be meager input in the present.

Another aspect of mindfulness is the unchallenged compassion for all living creatures including people, animals and vegetation.

The listening practice teaches listening without judgement, with a clear and open mind.  It’s called “the beginner’s mind”, which is based on listening as if it is the very first time you have ever heard something. There needs to be an element of  thanks, without judgement. The practice provides any messenger with the impression of being heard. If the content is meager, so be it. It takes very little time to leave people feeling whole.

Another practice has to do with responding reflectively, in a way that uses the reflective capabilities of the brain.  The brain has two operating systems, one fast and the other slower. The fast brain is built to respond automatically and rapidly. It was created (or evolved) to jump out of the way of a snake on the path or avoiding a falling boulder. It reacts quickly to survive, so you can’t take the time to think about it.

The other operating system takes in information, compares it to stored information, analyzes, and problem solves to find the best fit solution.

Many leaders say things and do things that, upon further thought, should not have been said or done, or at least should have been said or done differently.

Mindfulness teaches one to pause the fast operating system from acting until the second operating system has had a moment to think about it, thereby gaining agency for the whole system to say and do the best things possible.

Many leaders get to the top by being fast and quick. They are action oriented.  In a sense, they are impulsive and sometimes impetuous. Because of that, they get into trouble by saying things and doing things that, upon examination, were not their best option. Many time, the first impulsive reaction can hurts others.  Learning to discern when pausing is useful, and when being reflective is best, is a key skill.

EQ skills are best done by the slower, reflective, considerate system, informed by the impression of the fast system.

Meditation, among other things, teaches fast system monitoring and managing. Not elimination but curious examination and pause before acting.  Most of what anyone does every day is on autopilot–habits. The way we always do things.  Thinking things through takes more brain resources than quickly acting on impulse.  The brain likes to be efficient and energy conserving.  The old ways take up less energy than the new, different, creative, innovating and unique ones do.  Treating everyone the same is easier for the brain than meeting each person where they are.

When Should the Twain Meet?

EQ skills are the last skills to develop in most leaders. Some never develop them.  Many get to the top without them, though it’s worth noting that the top leader failures are almost always failure to manage people and stakeholders. The most talented people are often not initially good at managing talent!

Developing leaders and soon-to-be leaders can be hard. Rising leaders will not naturally be attracted to learning or doing the many practices of mindfulness. Pausing and reflecting are not habits for them.

Mindfulness is gaining substance in many organizations and the younger generations are dipping in for a taste. Some organizations have already included it in their management and leadership training. It’s now being taught in many school systems, primarily for conflict management and anti-bullying efforts. It’s being used in the mental health community primarily for quelling anxiety disorder and depression.

For up-and-coming leaders, your best entry point for introducing mindfulness may be near mid-career. It’s at the point of consensus judgment that a selected person has a realistic chance of getting to the top and is a real candidate for becoming a legendary leader. Mindfulness should be considered a part of finishing school. Leaders are already action oriented, smart, bold and motivated.  Now they need to understand the importance of, and develop the skills for, a little bit of consideration and caring.

Leaders need to slow down a bit to accelerate being legendary. It is one of the paradoxes of leadership: slowing down to go faster in the long game.

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