Mindfulness: right here, right now – the leader’s dilemma

In advance of the Leadership Foundation’s events on the Art of Being Brilliant at Work, and Mindfulness in Higher Education, programme director, Doug Parkin shares his thoughts on mindfulness as the leader’s dilemma. 

Right here, right now is in a very real sense the only moment that really matters.  If we can’t be happy in this moment, then what reason have we to expect that we might be happy in any other?  The past is gone and the future is yet to happen.  The past is a complex web of interactions and events, always open to interpretation that we may cherish, value or regret.  The future is nothing more than a tableau of personal, social and cultural expectations, some fixed firmly through either certainty or routine, others more loosely cast as speculation, anxious uncertainty or, perhaps, the stuff of dreams. The present, though, is now.  It is the breath we breathe in this moment and no other.

So, what has this to do with leadership?  Well, everything.  It could almost be described as the leader’s dilemma, in fact.  The word leadership, in its Anglo-Saxon origins is about ‘the road or path ahead’.  Transformational leadership is about vision, direction and the challenge of aligning the energies of a diverse range of more or less connected people behind an attractive goal. Driven by what, though? Well, a combination of events that have occurred in the past, near or far, and our best guess about what may happen in the environment around us in a range of future scenarios. We are both pushed by the past and pulled by the future, and leaders find themselves bouncing between the two as they react to one and try to be proactive about the other.  That’s the dilemma!

Now, we are often told that ‘if we fail to plan we plan to fail’. A neat statement that it is very easy to nod your head at and which contains one kind of truth. Within most organisational endeavours it is certainly helpful to plan and prepare, and in terms of shaping the future and having a vision another leadership maxim tells us that ‘if we don’t know where we’re going, then any path will do’. And all of this leads us towards the ‘doing’ trap – the busy business of doing – and we neglect the fundamental importance of ‘being’.  Taking that vitally important reflective breath and being present.  After all, this is the moment that everything before it, quite literally, was building towards. And if we go on postponing it, waiting for another better moment that our wonderful planning and change management may yield, then we become like a child chasing a reflection.

To some extent we are programmed to regard the future as a brighter place than today.  “Sniffing a wonderful carroty horizon,” as Andy Cope puts it, propels us to struggle, survive and evolve.  Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggests that these positive illusion, as psychologists call them, make us as “part-time residents of tomorrow”.  However, this forward looking energy, whether driven by fear or optimism, can rob us of our ability to appreciate the here and now.  And the tragedy of this is that it is only in the ‘here and now’ that happiness can be found, and then only if we stop and look for it.  Linked to this, in organisations there is definitely something concerning about the current vogue for futurism and future gazing that, as well as being almost doomed by the same uncertainty on which it thrives, draws us increasingly away from truly valuing our engagement with the present.  After all, engaging with the present is the most profound engagement there is.

So, is it possible for a leader to model ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’?  To value the wonders of the current moment, who we are, where we are and how we are, as much as the agenda we are trying to progress?  If so, such an approach could be seen as embodying values that directly and positively impact the lived experience of colleagues and their wellbeing.  The mindful present, when brought into focus, is refreshing, restorative and relaxing for busy minds.

There is undeniably a strong link between organisational leadership and wellbeing.  Studies by Daniel Goleman and others show that, for example, unrelenting, pacesetting leadership can result in colleagues feeling overwhelmed by the demands, disempowered, micromanaged and mentally fatigued.  Okay, perhaps, with another pacesetter with a similarly single-minded drive to succeed and exceed expectations on every front, but for the overall work climate a potentially destructive approach if it is not combined with a wide range of more collaborative and affiliative leadership styles.  And yet, some may argue, isn’t that the nature of the modern workplace?  Isn’t it more driven, more competitive, and more focussed on targets, outcomes and impact than ever before?  This may be true, although it seems the prerogative of every work generation to claim that it is living through an age of ‘unprecedented change’.  And even if is true that ‘in the modern workplace’ we need to set the pace and work smarter with less, would that not make it even more important for leaders to support the health and wellbeing of colleagues by modelling and encouraging mindfulness.  What a turnaround it would be if, for example, being in a meeting could literally include consciously ‘being’ in the meeting, even if for just a few short enlightened moments.

Mindfulness is a relatively modern term for an ancient insight: we replenish ourselves and find fresh energy and insight when we discipline ourselves to be in the current moment and to notice only the things that are happening now (sounds, images and sensations).  Meditation, contemplation and prayer have been the heartbeat of spiritual life in cultures around the world for as long we know, and in more recent times ideas to do with emotional intelligence, reflective-practice and mindful self-awareness have gained currency as ways for leaders and others to be present, to suspend judgement, to show empathy and to redirect disruptive emotions and make better choices.

The final chapter of my book, Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses, published last year, is focussed on leading yourself.  Self-leadership is a strand that runs throughout the book linked to a set of core leadership qualities, and in this short chapter I bring together as a summary some key ideas relating to what I have termed ‘attuned leadership’ and having compassion for yourself:

“In this attuned leadership the leader looks to achieve a level of deep influence that is as much about ‘being’ as it is ‘doing’ (we are, after all, human beings, not ‘human doings’). The emotional and interpersonal environment will figure highly in the leader’s focus and priorities, and the emphasis will be on the climate of the group and liberating potential rather than giving strong direction.”

This highlights another important aspect of mindfulness for leaders, the crucial need not to let passion for the task overcome compassion for people, and this includes having compassion for yourself.  A people rather than a performance culture will be essential for mindfulness principles and practices to flourish, where the individual and the community come first and the work we do and the things we achieve are significantly better for it. And having “compassion for yourself should not be an awkward concept because if you do not sustain yourself in your leadership then it will be impossible for you to sustain others” (Ibid.).  The chapter ends with ten questions based on self-reflection and mindfulness that encourage leaders to find peace and balance in an often frantic world.  This is actually a short mindfulness activity in itself intended to be illustrative of how these principles and practices can put you back in control of your life, as a leader at any level of seniority, and thereby help others to begin to do the same.

“Mindfulness is about observation without criticism: being compassionate with yourself… In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.”
(Williams and Penman, 2011)

Doug Parkin is the programme director for a range of Leadership Foundation development programmes, and in demand for consultancy projects within universities. You can find out more about his book ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Key Guide to Designing and Delivering Courses’ by clicking here

Mindfulness in Higher Education takes place on Monday 19 June 2017 at Woburn House, London. To find out more and book, click here

Andy Cope will be facilitating our Leadership and the Art of Being Brilliant on Wednesday 28 June 2017 at the Royal College of Nursing, London. To find out more and book, click here

The Brexit blogs: what do followers need and expect?

In the latest in our Brexit blogs series, programme director Doug Parkin considers the ART of leadership – authenticity, responsibility and trust.

ART

Let’s turn the whole leadership thing on its head and ask, instead, the question “what do followers need and expect?”  What do they need to follow willingly and with energy and commitment, and what do they expect from leaders in terms of behaviour, communication and relationship?  And before we become too fixated on polarised notions of leaders and followers, it is important to acknowledge that great followers are as important as great leaders. Most of us occupy both roles in our lives at different moments and in different ways, and there is often a grey line between the two as leadership is shared and followers become empowered.

Starting from perhaps quite a low base, following the recent EU referendum and Brexit decision, trust in public/political leadership has taken quite a battering and a real appetite seems to be emerging for more authentic, genuine and sympathetically attuned or connected leaders.  These are themes consistently engaged with on Leadership Foundation programmes.

Authenticity – a little thing called integrity

There is a courage that sits at the heart of authentic leadership that is about showing who you really are through “being” who you really are: the big difference, for example, between saying you have integrity and showing you have integrity. Authentic leaders do not lead from behind a mask.  James Kouzes and Barry Posner had, at the core of their enquiry into leadership, the question “what do you most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow?” The leadership quality that was ranked consistently top over more than 20 years by a very large set of contributors across six continents was “honest”.  Their work shows this to be “the single most important ingredient in the leader-constituent relationship” and that “regardless of what leaders say about their own integrity, people wait to be shown; they observe the behaviour”.  The top four personal traits and characteristics for willing and committed follower participation, identified with remarkable consistency, are:

  • Honest
  • Forward-looking
  • Competent
  • Inspiring

Responsibility – misleaders

Leaders also have a responsibility to be honest in their communications and engagement, particularly around change and when portraying a vision of the future.  Manipulating people either through the content and manner of communication, or through the style and timing of engagement, will cause the leader/follower relationship to crumble or, worse still, turn toxic.  There is certainly a sense-making role for leaders, particularly when operating in complex and uncertain environments, and that may involve putting across the truth of a situation “as I see it”.  But that is very different from misleading people, or preying on their fears and insecurities to sell a particular position or develop a sense of urgency.  Leaders should be “dealers in hope” (Napoleon Bonaparte), not peddlers in fear, and, whatever the situation, they need to live by the principle that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

In their 2011 book of the same name, John Rayment and Jonathan Smith identify four main types of MisLeadership: missing, misguided, misinformed and Machiavellian. Alongside these, particularly the cunning and duplicity of the Machiavellian leader, we could perhaps add a fifth form of misleadership, the knowingly misleading leader.  To knowingly mislead in a trusted leadership role is quite simply a betrayal of responsibility – a betrayal of followers.

Trust – the glue that binds followers and leaders together

Integrity is fundamentally about the person of the leader and the degree to which they are able to inspire trust and carry respect.  The importance of trust for successful and engaging team/organisational leadership cannot be emphasised enough: “trust is the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders together.  A survey conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management and the journal Management Today in 2009 used the following six dimensions to establish an index of leadership trust: ability, understanding, fairness, openness, integrity and consistency.  The findings of their survey of over 5,000 UK employees pointed to one clear conclusion, “integrity is the foundation of trust and it grows in importance with seniority”[1]Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, takes this still further by making trust the core foundation of high functioning or high performing teams.  And linking back to authenticity, Lencioni teaches us again the importance of honesty and vulnerability in leadership:

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Megatrends survey in 2013 revealed that just 37% of employees trusted their senior managers.  (One could speculate, perhaps, where this figure might be with regard to national political leadership at the current time…).  This built upon a series of case studies published the previous year calledwhere has all the trust gone?  Following this, in 2014 the CIPD produced a research report called Cultivating Trustworthy Leaders, which identified four pillars of trust:

  • Ability – demonstrable competence at doing their job or fulfilling their role.
  • Benevolence (genuine concern) – a concern for others beyond their own needs and showing levels of care and compassion.
  • Integrity – adherence to a set of principles acceptable to others encompassing fairness and honesty, while avoiding hypocrisy.
  • Predictability – a regularity of behaviour over time.

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Authenticity begins in the heart and works outward through the values we embody and the behaviours we display.  The integrity that flows from this creates a core responsibility for leaders not to mislead others for their own purposes.  And, to complete the ART of leadership, trust is the essential ingredient in the leader/follower relationship that enables teams and organisations to flourish.

Doug Parkin is a programme director for the Leadership Foundation and is responsible for a range of open programmes – including Future Professional Directors, Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching (in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy). He also undertakes bespoke consultancy assignments for universities and works on some of our main international projects. Key interests include educational and research leadership, the leadership of professional services, strategy development, organisational change and leadership for sustainability.

[1] Campbell, S. (2009). The Truth about Trust, Index of Leadership Trust Special Report. Edge Magazine, The Institute of Leadership & Management, UK, September 2009: 20-25

Leading across the organisation

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Many of us crave stability, or at least a degree of it, in our working lives. This stability takes in organisational structures, lines of authority, colleague relationships, work patterns and cycles, and the goals we have to achieve.  We look for, or construct for ourselves, something regular, routine and with consistent reference points.  But there is a fine line between stability and stagnation, and when the wind of change blows there can be a strong inclination to build walls, become protective and create silos.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills”
(Chinese proverb)

Within universities there are a lot of things we do to service established patterns, structures and cycles. The academic year itself drives various routines, assessing student work creates imperatives (things that have to be done), there are set requirements for research grant applications and timetables that go with them, and our committee structures have a life of their own in terms of servicing and bureaucracy.  But what happens when the scale of change is so profound that it starts to create a paradigm shift?  What happens when organisations start redefining success?  What happens when a new alignment is urgently required with the needs and expectations of users, customers and stakeholders (or even with society itself)?

“Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education. The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them”.
(An Avalanche is Coming – Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi, IPPR, March 2013)

For academic colleagues there is an increasing need to work across disciplines, whether in curriculum design, research or enterprise. Indeed, it could be said that the big questions of today like climate change, urbanisation, alleviating poverty, food security and global public health can only be effectively addressed through international partnerships of universities, research institutes and NGOs working together.  And within institutions the challenge for professional service leaders is increasingly to span boundaries and work across the organisation.  To enhance the student experience universities are increasingly looking for unified services that work in a joined-up way; to develop excellent new facilities we expect the human, technological and infrastructure considerations to be worked through in unison; and to achieve greater business efficiency there is a quest for synergies through shared services, goal alignment and partnering.

All of this presents significant challenges to university leaders, and not just those at the most senior levels. To work across the organisation requires leaders to take an inclusive approach, to liberate talent, to engage people collaboratively, to build collective commitment and to create a sense of both pride and mutual accountability.  To help develop leaders in these sophisticated, collaborative ways of operating we have created a model that looks at and contrasts the different ways of leading across the organisation.  This model is used on our Leading Across Professional Boundaries programme and was showcased during a workshop session at the AUA Conference, Revolution and Reinvention, in April. The model sets out four distinct approaches and defines them in terms of how organisational boundaries are viewed or conceptualised (this draws on the work of Chris Ernst and colleagues at the Centre for Creative Leadership on Boundary Spanning Leadership – 2011).  Continue reading

Winning the inner game!

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Imagine being the best you could possibly be!
By Doug Parkin

A piece about you and your potential – based on a short masterclass delivered at the AMOSSHE Annual Conference, Imagine, Liverpool 2013.

How often have you seen the line “creating an environment where students and staff can achieve their full potential”? It’s a great aspiration, that’s for sure, but what does it really mean and can it ever be possible? Well, we are all born with an innate capacity to learn, a sort of learning instinct, a playful spirit of enquiry and curiosity about who we are and how the world works, and this should never be underestimated, but as we progress through life blocks and barriers arise which limit and obscure the potential that lies within us. We are bruised by often brutal experiences in both work and education and we start to limit ourselves and the service we offer others in ways that are both conscious and unconscious.

So, how can we start to win this inner game? Back in 1975 Timothy Gallwey in his wonderful book The Inner Game of Tennis put forward in the form of an equation the simple but fascinating proposition that

POTENTIAL – INTERFERENCE = PERFORMANCE

This proposition challenges us to change our focus and our thinking. Rather than trying to push performance or naval-gaze at potential, it invites us instead to focus on the interference that inhibits the former and blocks the latter. Remove the interference and the other two can flow together. This can be a personal quest, a valuable piece of self-discovery, but it can also be the basis for an approach to leadership: liberating leadership which aims to set potential free by focussing on interference and which uses empathy, compassion and passion to move towards a more fully engaged workplace and learning environment.  Continue reading