Leadership and Self-Awareness

Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Marissa Afton, in their recent Harvard Business Review article , contend that “self-awareness can help leaders more than an MBA”.

On first reading, and based on the minimal evidence provided, this looks like an unfounded assumption.  However, the authors have demonstrated elsewhere a very sound knowledge of the linkage between mindfulness, self-awareness and effective leadership.  Rasmus Hougaard, for instance, co-authored a subsequent HBR article that maintained that ‘spending 10 minutes a day on mindfulness subtly changes the way you react to everything”.  In this subsequent article, the authors explore the impact of mindfulness on a leader and how it enables them to expand the gap between stimulus and response – a key requirement for self-management.

In the earlier article, the authors rely initially on two research studies that led to the conclusion that having an MBA did not differentiate effective leaders from non-effective leaders.  In fact, the reverse was shown to be true – those without an MBA performed better than those with it.  Clearly, we are dealing with limited samples and a limited explanation of the research involved.   There is an over-simplification of the factors impacting leadership performance, partly I assume for the purposes of brevity (not as a result of lack of awareness of the complexity of the factors involved).

Warren Bennis, widely regarded as a pioneer in developing our modern understanding of leadership, wrote about the Seven Ages of Leadership and identified the impact of the level of experience of the leader on leadership effectiveness, while signalling what personal perspectives and actions are required by the leader at each “age” (stage).  Underpinning his classic article, which is highly self-critical and self-reflective, is the exhortation for leaders to develop self-awareness – a high level of consciousness about themselves and their impact on their organisation.

Warren Bennis also agrees with Hougaard and his co-authors that an MBA alone is insufficient to prepare you for leadership roles:

Every new leader faces the misgivings, misperceptions, and the personal needs and agendas of those who are to be led. To underestimate the importance of your first moves is to invite disaster. The critical entry is one of a number of passages—each of which has an element of personal crisis—that every leader must go through at some point in the course of a career. Business school doesn’t prepare you for these crises, and they can be utterly wrenching. But they offer powerful lessons as well. (emphasis added)

Hougaard, Carter & Afton illustrate this inadequacy of a business school education very well when they describe the leadership crisis of Vince Siciliano after he took on the role of CEO of the New Resources Bank, based in California.  It was a deep personal crisis created by his own lack of self-awareness, but he did demonstrate the capacity to address his personal weaknesses and “blind spot” (relating to “soft skills” and relationship building), when confronted with the challenging information from his executives and others.

In contrast, Warren Bennis uses the example of Howard Raines – deposed Executive Editor of the New York Times – who through arrogance failed to see the deficiencies of his own leadership style which was divisive and, as a result, failed to build the alliances a leader needs to succeed.  Arrogance is a blinker, blocking out self-awareness – even when information (and support) is available to address personal blind spots.

Hougaard, Carter and Afton conclude their article by sharing the results of  their research about leader self-awareness undertaken across multiple organisations and countries.  They conclude from this research “that leaders at the highest levels tend to have better self-awareness than leaders lower in the hierarchy”.  They surmise that increasing leadership responsibilities precipitate self-awareness, a conclusion that resonates with Bennis’ “seven ages of leadership”.

Hougaard and his colleagues suggest that leaders adopt a daily mindfulness practice because this enables leaders to grow in self-awareness – in their words, “to expand your awareness of what’s happening in the landscape of your mind from moment to moment”.

These articles demonstrate that, as leaders grow in mindfulness, they not only develop self-awareness but also self-management.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Mindfulness: Commitment to Awareness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, Fully Embodied as You Are.  Jon is the author of a number of books, including Coming to Our Senses and Full Catastrophe Living.

A quote from his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, throws some light on his chosen theme for this presentation:

Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.

So fundamentally, mindfulness is a commitment to cultivate awareness so that in any given moment we can embody calmness and the clarity that comes with progressively waking up to full awareness.

We grow in mindfulness through meditation practice which can take many different forms or as Jon describes it, “many different doors to the one room”.  Just as there are different regimes to build fitness and stamina, there are multiple doorways to mindfulness – mindful breathing, mindful eating, mindful walking, kindness/compassion meditation, mindfulness yoga and body scan being just a few of the many options.  Jon encourages us to be creative in our exploration of meditation practice.

Awareness through meditation awakens us to our own likes and dislikes, our biases and prejudices and how we harm others, often unconsciously, through insecurity, uncertainty, doubts, mental/physical pain and resentments.

As we become increasingly aware of our internal landscape, we learn to recognise how we place ourselves at the centre of things – it is all about us and our world, our future, our well-being and our security.  In this sense, we each have some of the characteristics of a narcissistic person.  Mindfulness, however, helps us to become more unselfish, interconnected and compassionate.

He suggests two simple practices to increase our wakefulness:

(1) each time you take a seat, see it as a new beginning, grounding yourself in the present;

(2) when you wake of a morning, lie in bed for five to 10 minutes, and practice the body scan so that you can be fully awake and, in Jon’s words, “fully embodied”.

The more we grow in mindfulness, through daily meditation over increasingly longer periods, we leave behind our self-interested focus and become more other-focused and interconnected and more aware of our impact on others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

Fear of Awareness Training

We all have fears and doubts when we are experiencing something new – whether it’s travel overseas, a new job, moving to a new home in a new location or country, meeting a new partner or participating in a training course. So, it is perfectly natural to have an approach/avoidance relationship with a course in awareness training.

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, creators of the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training, are very conscious of what people are experiencing when they begin to look at the possibility of undertaking their online awareness training course.

Potential participants are concerned that they cannot fit the seven-week course into their busy lives.  They question whether their knowledge and understanding are advanced enough for them to be doing an intensive course, whether they will be able to keep up to the others in the course or whether they will be able to contribute effectively to the group or individual coaching sessions.

One of the greatest fears can be that they will expose their weaknesses, deficiencies or lack of knowledge and skill – that they will potentially make a “fool of themselves”. They may also fear that they may discover something about themselves that they do not like.

The facilitators provide some assurance that the course is planned in detail to enable people to progress through bite-sized chunks, at their own pace, and with lots of support. Videos, written exercises and meditation practices are readily available for use during the course and for ongoing practice afterwards.

Jack and Tara also point out that our doubts and fears are the very “bread and butter” of the course, as these negative emotions are often what holds us back from realising our potential and enjoying innate and pervasive happiness.

The first step then is facing our fears and doubts in a mindful way and informing ourselves of what the course provides and how to make the best use of the resources and support provided.  Ultimately, it comes down to “having a go” – to open up the opportunity to explore the depths of our inner landscape.

The rewards in doing awareness training are potentially very rich and create the possibility of a more enriched and fulfilling life. As we grow in mindfulness and awareness we can experience greater clarity, calm, insight, creativity and peace.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Awareness and Happiness

Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, when talking about the power of awareness, identified happiness as a very significant outcome of awareness training.  They explain this outcome in terms of three elements of awareness:

  1. being present
  2. overcoming negative bias
  3. appreciation and gratitude

Being present

If we live in the present, we are not encumbered by anxiety and fear about the future or disappointment and depression about the past.  “Now” is the focus and source of our wellbeing.  Both Jack and Tara point out the Dalai Lama as a prime example of happiness and joy (despite suffering as a result of the loss of culture, freedom and religion by his beloved country of Tibet).

After publishing his book on happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked what was the happiest moment of his life, and he replied after considering the question, “I think now”.  There is a stillness and calm and associated happiness with being able to be “in-the-now”.

Overcoming negative bias

Neuroscience has established that part of our genetic make-up is a negativity bias – we tend to see the negative in a situation and perceive threats even when there are none.   In the past, this has served the human species well and helped our species to survive.   Nowadays, it works against our happiness because we can easily overlook the positive and be blinded by a focus on what is wrong or not working out as we had planned.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are more readily able to focus on the positive in our lives and overcome our negative conditioning.   We are also better able to evaluate potential stressors and see them for what they are.   This opens us up to enjoying our life more and experiencing happiness more regularly.

Appreciation and gratitude

Awareness opens our minds and hearts and enables us to appreciate the good in our lives and express gratitude for what we have in terms of fitness and health, relationships, our lifestyle and our environment.  We become increasingly conscious of what surrounds us and become more open to joy and happiness.

Appreciation and gratitude serve as barriers to envy and resentment which can so readily diminish our happiness and destroy joy in our lives.

Jack Kornfield explains how mindfulness practices and awareness training increase the capacity for happiness in our lives:

These practices and trainings are really an invitation to allow not only well-being, but the innate happiness that appreciates the sunset and the reflected colors in the windows as the sun goes down, or in the puddles there on the street and the splashes and the smiles of the children as they stomp in the water and the mystery of life.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of AbelEscobar on Pixabay

Awareness: Managing Difficult Situations

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, when discussing their Awareness Training Institute, spoke of the power of awareness to help us manage life’s difficult situations.

They each discussed situations that they had experienced that challenged their personal resources and capacity to cope.

A difficult situation may entail dealing with grief, feeling totally inadequate in the face of a challenging health condition, experiencing intense fear over diagnosis of a chronic health condition or feeling depressed by a physical disability that prevents you from doing the activities that give you satisfaction and joy.

Jack and Tara explained that they use a metaphor to help people tap into the power of awareness for managing difficult challenges.  The metaphor they use is “ocean and waves”.  The ocean is the depth of personal resources and abounding love that we have access to, while the waves are life’s challenges that create disturbances in the otherwise peaceful ocean.

They maintain that through awareness training, you are able to ride out the waves and rest in the ocean of your personal resources and surrounding love.  Awareness enables you to step back and see yourself experiencing pain, fear or depression and to accept the situation for what it is.

Awareness brings with it increased personal resources and the capacity to immerse yourself in the love and kindness that surrounds you.  Tara and Jack report that, through developing skills in awareness, they have been able to help people in hospice situations to experience calm and peace despite facing their impending death.

As Tara Brach explained:

So that’s one of the blessings I’ve found over and over again in this [awareness] practice is that I might have a reactivity to different difficult circumstances and, without too much lag time now, there’s this remembrance of, “Oh, just stay. Just meet this with these two wings of noticing what’s happening and kindness, and in time – it’s not always right away – there’ll be a relaxing back open into a real space of presence and a feeling of, ‘There’s room for this.'”

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are better able to manage difficult personal situations and do that sooner.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

The Power of Awareness

In an interview with Tami Simon, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach share their insights on The Power of Awareness to Change Your Life.   In exploring these ideas, I will be building on my previous post based on Albert Flynn DeSilver’s ideas about developing mindfulness and awakening through writing.

Jack & Tara have developed together an online course on The Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training.   They each bring to the training discussion and resources, more than 40 years of experience in mindfulness and awareness practice and training .

The first question that exercises your mind when you hear about what Jack and Tara offer is, “What is awareness?”  It is not something that can be accessed by definition or thought alone, because it is an experience of a stillness within, a quiet place that precedes thought and sensation.  It’s that realisation that you, the whole person – not a part of you – is aware of your thoughts and sensations as you are experiencing them.  As Tara explains:

Awareness is the silence that’s listening to the thoughts or listening to the sound; it’s more prior to any of the felt experience through our senses…And you can begin to intuit that there is a space of knowing that is always here and that we are not always aware of it, but it’s here.

That is why The Awareness Training is highly experiential with guided exercises and personal journaling to make explicit the learning and develop deeper insights.

In summarising the ideas presented in this interview, I have identified two key areas that manifest the power of awareness.

Sense of self – changing the narrative

Both Jack and Tara shared what was happening for them prior to awareness training.  They discussed their negative thoughts and the stories they told themselves which served to diminish who they actually were and what they were capable of.   They spoke of the constraints of their own narrative and the expectation entrapment that locked them into particular patterns of thinking and behaviour.

They see awareness as creating freedom from habituated denigration of self and the realisation of a real sense of self and creative capacity.   They maintain that through developing awareness, we can change our self-deprecating narrative, as we step back from our thoughts and perceptions and allow our true selves to emerge.

Relationship building

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are better able to identify and manage the space between stimulus and response.  We gain a deep insight into what we bring to a relationship and the associated conflicts – we become more aware of our habituated responses in a conflict situation.  We gain a clearer realisation of our self-talk, our tendency to defensiveness, our self-protection born of childhood experiences and our inattentiveness when experiencing conflicted emotions.

Added to this self-awareness, is a clarity about our projections and assumptions about the other person and their behaviour, increased capacity to pay attention to the other person and an openness to their needs and perceptions.

Awareness enables us to deepen our relationships, as it frees us from habituated thoughts and responses and opens up the capacity to listen empathetically and respond creatively.

So, as we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we discover our true self and its potentiality and are able to deepen our relationships through a stronger sense of self and a heightened sensitivity towards the other person in the relationship.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

From Outer Landscape to Inner Landscape: The Growth of Awareness

In my previous post, I discussed mountains and rivers as a source of meditation and their predominance in Chinese landscape art. I also focused on the Shan shui tradition of landscape painting where the artists expressed their thoughts and emotions about a physical landscape in their painting.  In this way, they revealed something of their inner landscape.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Coming to Our Senses, describes each of the traditional five senses in terms of a landscape, e.g tastescape and touchscape.  After discussing each of the five senses, he introduces “mindscape” and describes its role as follows:

…ultimately it all comes down to what we call, by extension, mindscape.  Without the discerning capacity  of our minds, there would be no knowing of any landscape, inner or outer.  When we become aware, when we rest in the knowing, we are resting in the deep essence of mindscape, the vast empty spaciousness that is awareness itself.  (p. 234, emphases added)

He maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we can gradually gain access to mindscape – that unadulterated awareness that is a deep insight into our inner landscape and our outer reality.

With this awareness comes the realisation that everything is passing – our sensations, thoughts and emotions.  They are here today and gone tomorrow.

Awareness increases our insight into our inner landscape and how we tend to cling to things that we want. It enables us to let go of our disappointments generated by the past and fears about the future.

Awareness leads to full acceptance of ourselves as we are – with our bodies and our quirks.  However, being able to access full awareness, mindscape, does not mean that we will not go backwards towards lacking acceptance or engaging in internal conflict.  As Kabat-Zinn points out “that is part of the human condition”.

He goes on to say, encouragingly:

But, there may very well be a gradual shift in the balance over time, from more inner conflict to more equanimity, from more anger to more compassion, from predominantly seeing only appearances to a deep apprehending of the actuality of things. Or there may be so at times  but not at other times. (p. 235)

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to see things as they actually are – we become less likely to project onto people, things or events, our negative perceptions shaped by our own life experiences.

Accessing mindscape, opens us up to full awareness of our inner landscape so that we can realise our full, creative potentiality, develop deep insight and self-compassion as well as compassion for others. In this state, we can find true peace and tranquility

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief

As we grow in mindfulness we start to learn the many ways that mindfulness can improve the quality of our lives.

The quality of life of many chronic pain sufferers has been improved through mindfulness meditation for pain relief, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

This resource which is available in CD format or audio download, provides an insight into how mindfulness can help you manage chronic pain as well as mindfulness meditations that can be used for pain relief.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), maintains that current neuroscience research supports the idea that the more we become aware of the pain in our body and mind, the better we are able to manage pain and improve the quality of our life.  The research shows that awareness of the body-in-pain compared to distraction from pain, has a greater benefit and provides a more sustainable release from the physical and emotional impact of chronic pain.

We all experience the unwanted parts of life, pain and suffering, at some time in our lives – some people for longer than others through the experience of chronic pain.  Mindfulness meditation can help us relieve not only the physical aspects of pain but also the emotional impacts which can take the form of frustration, depression, annoyance, anger and the inability to concentrate.  We can expend so much of our energy and focus just managing the pain that we are quickly exhausted and unable to concentrate.

Jon Kabat-Zinn provides an introduction to his mindfulness meditation for pain relief and this free resource, which includes meditation practice, can help you realise the potential benefits of this approach for improving the quality of your life:

Jon Kabat-Zinn assures us that through mindfulness meditation we can come to realise:

  1. we are not alone in experiencing pain; and
  2. learning to live with pain is possible.

He makes the salient point that managing pain is part of the work of mindfulness itself and that by participating in mindfulness meditation for pain relief, we are immersing ourselves in the global mindfulness movement that is raising global consciousness – people all around the world are becoming more mindful and we are contributing to this movement that promotes peace, harmony, loving kindness and awareness of others and nature.   Our self-compassion through pain management is contributing to compassion for others.

We can grow in mindfulness in many ways.  The drivers for our motivation to practice mindfulness can also be many and varied.  If you are a chronic pain sufferer, this experience could provide the motivation to develop mindfulness for pain relief.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of Sae Kawaii on Pixabay

 

Seeing Mindfulness Everywhere – Awareness Grows with Practice

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the multiple ways mindfulness is manifested in other people’s words and actions.

We may be reading a novel and notice one of the characters tuning into their senses through open awareness or stopping to watch a sunset.

We could also come across the biography of a person who lives a life full of awareness and compassion for people who are suffering illness and are disadvantaged.  Amanda McClelland’s autobiography, Emergencies Only, is one example of this.  Her life story is a testament to her resilience and commitment in the face of unbelievable poverty, epidemics and natural disasters and evidences her mindfulness and extraordinary level of emotional intelligence.

We might also be listening to Eva Cassidy’s rendition of the song, Imagine,  and notice John Lennon’s call to live for today, rather than dying for tomorrow:

Imagine all the people living for today.

As you listen to the singing of Eva Cassidy, you will also hear John Lennon’s expressed hope, Imagine all the people living in peace – a potential outcome of global mindfulness:

 

Whether we are observing others, reading or listening to music, we can become more conscious of mindfulness manifested in the lives of others and be reminded of the benefits of mindfulness for our own lives.

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Assumptions Build Walls Between Us

Assumptions about differences can build walls between us.  If we focus on what we assume are our differences, then we will emphasize what separates us, rather than what brings us together.  More often than not, our assumptions are wrong.

In one of his novels, After Dark, Haruki Murakami describes the experience of one of his key characters, Takahashi, who was required to attend and audit cases in the criminal court as part of his legal studies.  In the early stage of these visits to the court, Takahashi found that he could not relate to the people being charged with crime, their situation or their feelings – he would assume that “the ones on trial are not like me in any way”.

In speaking of this early experience of difference, Takahashi said, “Between the world they live in and the world I live in there’s this thick, high wall” (p. 96, emphasis added).

However, as he continued to attend the criminal court cases and listen to the testimonies and speeches, his assumption of the wall of difference between the accused and himself began to break down.  Takahashi describes this experience of the crumbling of his assumptions:

I became a lot less sure of myself.  In other words, I started seeing it like this: that there really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine.  Or if there is a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mâché.  The second I leaned on it, I’d probably fall right through and end up on the other side.  Or maybe it’s that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of me, and we just haven’t noticed.  That’s how I feel.  It’s hard to put into words.(p.97)

His assumption of a wall of difference between the accused and himself completely broke down when one of the defendants was sentenced to death by hanging.  Takahashi found that he experienced a “deep emotional upset”, resulting in tremors going through his body and the inability to “stop shivering”.  In spite of himself, and his early assumptions about a lack of things in common with the accused, he experienced a deep level of empathy.

There is a famous video made in Demark that explores what we have in common, rather than the ways we are different.  The video, All That We Share, challenges our assumptions about differences and helps to break down the walls of intolerance.

 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased awareness about our assumptions that build walls between us.  Being mindful of the damage our assumptions can create, leads us to challenge these assumptions and break down the walls that divide us.

Cover image source: Courtesy of hbieser on Pixabay