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

An Interview with Lynda Hinxman

Lynda joined us in May 2017 as a guest speaker at the Aurora Core Leadership Skills day in London. We took some time to ask Lynda some questions about her career and progression into leadership.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is the ability to create a clear vision and to create the environment in which people can thrive and work together to achieve the vision.

It is about building your own emotional capital in order to effectively engage with others, to motivate, empower and support.

At the start of your career, what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what one piece of advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?

The single biggest barrier to progressing my early career was my lack of self-confidence. I worked in a male dominated profession and thought that I had to behave and think like a man in order to progress. I have learnt over time that it is vital to be yourself not only to allow others to get to know you and gain respect but for your own wellbeing.

How important have mentors been to you in your leadership journey?

I have had both formal and informal mentors throughout my career and find them invaluable. They have provided a safe place in which to share and reflect on feelings, thoughts and ideas. They have challenged, questioned and probed but most of all they have provided guidance – I’m not sure what the collective noun is for a group of Yodas…….but perhaps Yoda himself might say ‘a ponder of Yodas, it is!’

How important has it been for you in your career to have role models and mentors?

Role models engender inspiration and aspiration. In my experience, they have come with no hierarchy attached – my role models have ranged from my dad, male and female bosses, team members, friends to my daughter.

Do you have one golden piece of advice you would give to aspiring women leaders?

As Oscar Wilde said ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’.

For me this means that you can flex your style and approach to connect best with others without losing the essence of you.

Finally, who is your inspiring woman leader?

Professor Christine Booth, former Pro Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Business School – As she was not only an inspiring business woman but fabulous at connecting with others at a professional and personal level.

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Lynda Hinxman is the assistant dean, employer engagement for Sheffield Business School at Sheffield Hallam University. Lynda is a Chartered Surveyor by profession, and prior to joining Sheffield Hallam University was a senior executive at Norwich Union Investment Management and has held senior surveying roles in the Costain Group and Shell UK.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

 

Leading People is Leading Diversity

‘Reality is diverse; therefore a true reflection of reality includes diversity.’  Nancy Kline

Shirley Wardell, programme director of our research leadership development programmes discusses the importance of encouraging diverse thinking and insight into the valuable skills every leader should prioritise.

I have come to think of the skills leaders need to understand the diversity issues as mainstream leadership skills.  To my mind managing people is managing diversity. Diversity goes beyond minority groups and the obvious power imbalances.  Diversity extends to the subtle depth of how we think, which has a direct impact on how well we perform in our jobs.

Diversity grows when people have the ability to hear, openly, what everybody thinks.  Having practised that skill, with people we believe are similar to us, we may be better prepared to listen to those we assume are more different to us.  The charming surprise is; that as Maya Angelou says, ‘We are more similar than we are different.’ Once we have accepted that we are more likely to be similar in a broad way, appreciating the specific differences seems to be the key.  So how can we be sure that we are able to allow, or even encourage, different ways of thinking?

I choose the Thinking Environment® to help me, and my clients, to create the conditions for diverse thinking to flourish. When you run an event in a Thinking Environment®; everyone has a turn. That means; you go round the group and ask everyone what they think.  Sometimes people tell me it takes too long, but they are really stumped when I ask them who they would leave out of the round.

In an event such as this no-one interrupts and participant say; ‘If I don’t interrupt, I might forget my idea?’ And again, they look a bit blank when I ask, ‘What if the person you interrupt forgets theirs?’ Giving turns, not interrupting, appreciating each other, asking how to make things better and a positive philosophy are a few of the ways to get everyone involved in a productive way.

The Thinking Environment® has ten components; however there are a few principles that sum it up for me:

  • The way we listen to someone has an impact on the quality of their thinking.  If we are able focus on them, stop judging and create a time and space for them; the quality of their thinking improves.  At a recent workshop I asked how it feels to be listened to really well and people said they felt valued, important, as if their ideas matter, that they have a contribution to make, happy, it improved their self esteem, relaxed and intelligent.  Well, if all those things can be achieved by, ‘just listening’ we should perhaps put listening at the top of the leadership skills list.
  • When you think on behalf of someone else you are disempowering them.  When you think your ideas are better, or you are simply too busy for them to find their own answer, you are stopping them from thinking and therefore stopping them from learning and growing.  Being able to develop staff has become one of the most valuable assets to Institutions and leaders who can do this will have the evidence of their success in their research output.
  • A positive philosophy is required to help people perform well.  Our expectations will have an impact on the outcomes.  Those expectations include what I expect from the person and what my prejudices are about that person. I need to be able to see there are numerous and unknown possibilities yet to be achieved for every individual.
  • We also need to examine our assumptions about the world.  What we expect to be possible in this office, this organisation, this market, this country and this world; will have an impact on our own and our team’s thinking.  Leadership training needs to explore the assumptions we make and the impact that has on performance; and then show how to, pragmatically, choose assumptions that will help us perform better.

Research Team Leadership and Leading Research Leaders are run in a Thinking Environment® and include many of the reliable principles and actions that help research leaders to think. They are then able to pass that favour on to their teams and collaborators.

The Thinking Environment® was developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think

Find out more about Shirley Wardell by visiting our website www.lfhe.ac.uk/resprog

Top 5 lessons for new leaders

In this blog, we share the top five lessons that previous participants on our blended programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership (TTL) found valuable on their leadership journey.

1. It was crucial to have a safe space to take risks
In order to gain confidence in learning new leadership skills, it is crucial that new leaders have access to an environment where they are encouraged to take risks. No one likes to make mistakes, but mistakes can give us our greatest lessons and having a risk free environment to make them can be insightful.

2. There is not a definitive leadership style
On TTL, we explore a variety of different leadership styles from Commanding to Democratic* and participants noticed that each of them have something positive to offer in any leadership scenario. A good leader will be able to adapt different leadership styles in relation to circumstances or indeed the people they work with.

3. Respect individual differences
Difference within teams is far more useful than homogeneity. If new leaders can understand their colleagues’ different personality preferences, they can adapt their leadership style to steer their team more effectively.

4. Coaching is an undervalued skill
Coaching is essentially about asking the right questions rather than providing the right answers. New leaders will find this an important tool to help build their listening and questioning skills to effectively support the individuals in their team.

5. Clarity is essential when dealing with change
One of the most valuable lessons TTL taught those new to leadership was that whenever change is implemented, it requires clarity in communication and engagement. This isn’t an easy task, however it is important in those situations to find examples of best practice and relate it to their own change experience.

Are you looking for development for your new leaders?
There is still time for your new leaders to take part in Transition to Leadership. The programme takes place through Thursday 16 March 2017– Thursday 22 June 2017 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities.

If you would like to send colleagues onto the programme please visit our website: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl or alternatively you can contact Rita Walters, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, E: rita.walters@lfhe.ac.uk or T: 0203 468 4817.

*The leadership styles mentioned are from a model created by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee in their 2002 book, “Primal Leadership.”

Transition to Leadership: A chance encounter

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Helen Horsman, Research and Business Marketing Manager, University of Bradford attended the second year of our blended learning programme for new leaders, Transition to Leadership. In this interview she talks about her experience on the programme for those looking to develop themselves as an authentic leader.

1. What attracted you to Transition to Leadership?

It was a chance opportunity really, my manager couldn’t attend and asked me to go instead. It was perfect timing as I was just finishing my professional qualification and looking forward to using it in a more responsible role.

2. What were the 3 most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from the programme?

  • Coaching Being able to coach others is a very helpful tool for empowering others
  • Self-reflection Learning about your own styles of leadership and how they can help or hinder you and how this works with others. We all need to flex a bit, but usually have a comfort zone which is easy to slip back into. Being aware of your need to flex makes you a better leader.
  • Managing change Understanding resistance to change and the change process can help you work out how to best assist others to get through it, including yourself!

3. One element of the Transition to Leadership programme is to explore what it means to be an authentic leader. Can you share with us who you admire as an authentic leader?

I’m a huge believer in this. Nelson Mandela has, through the most terrible times, always been true to what he believes in and never veered from that path. It is tempting when becoming a leader to change who you are because of what you think other people want from you. A good leader doesn’t have to actively recruit followers, they just need to be knowledgeable, positive and passionate about what they believe in, listen to others views and change their mind when they believe it’s right, and people will follow.

4. If you were recommending this programme to your colleagues what would you tell them?

That it’s definitely worth doing for new and aspiring leaders, or established leaders who feel like they need a refresh. It will change your perspective on yourself and your staff.

5. Looking ahead, can you tell us what your 3 key leadership challenges for
2016-17?

I have quite a few changes coming up in my role where I will need to write new strategies and get people on board to deliver them. So my 3 main challenges will be to get buy-in from others, create advocates who will support and talk positively about what I’m proposing, and empower the people I need support from to deliver it.


The next run of Transition to Leadership will be in Glasgow and will be taking place through Tuesday 6 December 2016 – Tuesday 14 March 2017 over 3 face-to-face days and 16 hours of facilitated online activities. If you are interested in finding out more about our Transition to Leadership programme, please click here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ttl 

Watch our Programme Faciltators talk about the benefits of Transition to Leadership in this 3 minute film: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD8FaFHLHp4

Professor Bob Cryan, University of Huddersfield explores authentic leadership in his Stimulating Talk; ‘The naked vice-chancellor’ at our 10 year anniversary event in 2014. Watch his talk here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdQzmo4ckgA

The Brexit Blogs: To see ourselves as others see us

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The map/model is not the reality

Doug Parkin, programme director considers self-awareness as the foundation of leadership development.

Sometimes leadership and management development can feel like a checklist of overlapping skills. We look at things like communication skills, managing conflict, planning, negotiation, performance management, strategy development, political awareness, team dynamics, equality and diversity, change, and so on.  All useful headings, and under each there are valuable things to know, insights to gain and skills to acquire, practise and reflect upon.

But the simple truth is, in leadership who you are drives everything. Not in a confining way, a way that says, ‘you are this and this alone’, but actually a very sophisticated way that acknowledges firstly that to “Know thyself” (a variously attributed maxim from ancient Greece) is a life-long quest, and secondly that we are very adaptive creatures capable of re-inventing ourselves to varying degrees to meet the needs of different situations.

The real skill of leadership development is, therefore, to encourage, promote and support intense self-reflection. This applies particularly to what might be termed personal leadership development, which revolves around the critical question “what sort of leader do you want to be?” Self-knowledge and self-perception is, of course, a big part of self-awareness – nobody knows our personal history better than ourselves, for example – but without some external reference points the perspective this gives us can become quite narrow.  A mirror or two may be needed, in other words, to see sides of ourselves that are otherwise obscured or sometimes conveniently disregarded. And in one way or another those mirrors take the form of feedback.

 O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Never most noted for his contribution to management consultancy, Robert Burns (1786) nevertheless captured in this line of poetry the essence of 360-degree feedback. I can feel literary scholars wincing as I write, so let’s move on…

Daniel Goleman (1996), in his well-known model of emotional intelligence, defines self-awareness as “Knowing one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals – and their impact on others”.  And emotionally intelligent leaders are people who seek feedback all the time – a variety of external checks and reference points – because they appreciate the mirror this holds up for them and the productive self-reflection that it triggers.

The challenge of effective leadership development is, in many ways, to telescope this process, and thereby create a rich variety of feedback perspectives in a relatively short time scale, and a safe, forgiving space in which to reflect upon them and consider what behaviours to adapt and personal leadership changes to commit to. More extended leadership programmes, incorporating interventions such as coaching and action learning, create review points for these commitments to be refreshed and reinforced. The following figure captures the opportunities for feedback and self-reflection that can occur on well-designed leadership development programmes:

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In an illuminating chapter called ‘When do we get to do feedback?’ Professor Paul Gentle (2014) notes “How rare it is to give and receive extensive and specific feedback on our behaviours”.  Simulation activities and similar structured exercises on programmes create an opportunity for ‘feedback in the moment’. This is feedback that is immediate and which participants can respond to in real time, and it is also an opportunity for colleagues to consider and practise sharing feedback and the appreciative environment that invariably helps to make feedback land effectively. These are transferable leadership approaches that can be used for feedback in teams or projects.

360-degree feedback (or multi-source feedback) tools, particularly those premised on a model of transformational leadership such as the Real World HE TLQ used exclusively by the Leadership Foundation, are a powerful way of making feedback from a participant’s institutional work context part of their tailored development. This feedback is sensitive and confidential to the individual and so one-to-one support from an accredited coach is essential to integrate the learning and align it with other development themes within the programme overall.

Personality-based diagnostics or psychometrics of various kinds attempt to provide an objective view of personality type on an individual basis. This is an opportunity to consider what lies beneath our behaviours, choices, preferences and motivations on an individual level. It is an important part of self-awareness to consider the psychological drivers that reasonably consistently manifest themselves in who we are and how we prefer to live, work and operate in the world. Inevitably, though, the use of any such tool involves using categories and dimensions – spectrums on which we are more or less inclined to see ourselves. Whether it is four, sixteen, or a hundred-plus categories that the tool renders, it is still a simplification because every individual is gloriously unique, but there can nevertheless be great value in exploring the truth within such a diagnostic profile.  And ‘exploring the truth’ is an important mindset to have, because ultimately we are the best judges of our type, even though diagnostic tools can challenge us and help to provoke fresh self-insight (as well as providing us with a short-hand vocabulary for discussing and considering personality – our own and others’). So, whether one uses the four temperaments from ancient times (Hippocrates and Galen), or their more recent cousins found in the work of Carl Jung (Personality Types, 1921), Myers and Briggs (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ([MBTI], 1943), Merrill and Reid (Personal Styles, 1981),  Costa and McCrae (The Big Five, 1985) Margerison and McCann (Team Management System, 1995), or Bolton and Bolton (People Styles at Work, 1996), a learning environment needs to be created that enables the participant to mediate the data from their profile with their own self-awareness and, critically, other forms of experience and feedback. No one mirror can show every view.

There can be concern with some of these diagnostic profiles, such as MBTI, that the dimensions that operate within them create something of an ‘either-or’ approach to classifying people: e.g. introvert or extravert (although ambiversion has been put forward more recently to suggest a balance of the two).  Jung himself said, however, that “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extravert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum” (1957), and this is why the notion of ‘preference’ (or tendency) is so important to the understanding and use of type. Preferences can be weak or strong, they can be hidden or apparent, they can be more or less balanced, but very few of us are trapped or confined by our preferences. As mentioned before, we are sophisticated beings and can learn to operate or excel within, outside or across our type-preferences, but it is nevertheless powerful and useful, particularly for leaders, to have a strong self-awareness of what those underlying preferences are or may be and to calibrate this with feedback from others on how they see and experience us.

Used alone or in isolation personality-based diagnostics can sometimes be of more limited value, and can for some feel like either labelling or a simplistic categorisation.  For this reason, the quality of facilitation or coaching around their use is extremely important, and as regards leadership development it is important to use them in combination with other forms of feedback and self-appraisal (see figure above), as we do at the Leadership Foundation on programmes such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Future Professional Directors. As illustrated in the lead image above, the map is not reality, it is to some degree a selective representation, and the nature of a management, communication or personality model is that it should create a tool for penetrating the complexity of the intrapersonal and the interpersonal in a useful way. The person who can most effectively ‘explore the truth’ around the model is the individual concerned – they determine ultimately their ‘best fit’ – and for this reason self-appraisal needs to be as strong, if not stronger than the evaluation by others, and this should be a balanced part of the process of developing and enhancing self-awareness for leaders. But the insights that flow from this can transform leadership like nothing else.  After all, you can’t be true to others until you are true to yourself.

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.

Picture credits
Photograph of Lego Big Ben courtesy of London Mums Magazine
Photograph of Big Ben courtesy of Wikimedia Commons