Think of a moment in a typical management team meeting in which the discussion and the mood in the room recognizably shifts because someone suddenly says something unexpected like, “I am beginning to wonder if Richard’s (the CEO) perspective is really the only way to think about our situation here. I think we need to be much more open with our customers.” A few courageous others might nod in agreement despite Richard’s menacing silent “I warn you” stare and suddenly what had been a typical going-through-the-motions discussion turns into an intense and fruitful conversation – thereby finally acknowledging and addressing the “elephant in the room” and subsequently illuminating other and potentially better action alternatives. This very moment is a moment of leading and following that can create real movement between people
I deliberately distinguish between leading and managing – the two interrelated ways to create movement amongst people in organizations. When you manage you are in a hierarchical position to tell the people who report to you what you want them to do. In contrast, at the moment of leading you create voluntary movement amongst people (most of whom do not have to follow you because they do not report to you) by doing something that inspires them to support your move because they perceive it as meaningful.
Now, what does being present or mindful have to do with leading (and following) well? There are countless different definitions of presence or mindfulness. However, the one I find most practical is to think of it as our mental ability of focusing on any given subject or sensation for an extended period of time. Maybe more simply expressed being mindful means being aware of what is happening while it is happening, no matter what it is. Paying close attention in this way is an ‘effortful’ activity (Kahneman, 2011), that is, a task that takes considerable and sustained mental energy to perform well.
You might wonder if we can be mindful of everything within and around us all of the time? No, that would be impossible. We simply do not have sufficient mental and bodily energy, and even if we did, we would of course not have enough time to fully concentrate on everything that happens to us in any given moment. The process of ordering your usual cup of coffee in your favourite coffee shop is neither as difficult nor as potentially rewarding to be fully mindful of as mindfully enjoying the cup of coffee you just ordered, or deeply reflecting on the purpose of your life or the strategic direction of your company. In other words, many simple tasks benefit from the ‘automatic’ operation of the brain (Kahneman, 2011) that unconscious to us performs countless automatic thinking and decision making processes at any moment in the service of keeping us functioning smoothly and thus being free to concentrate on more important issues. Therefore multi-tasking is possible and essential, but the challenge of course is to know when to let the automatic system do its thing and when to focus one’s attention to consciously concentrate deeply on something one considers important.
Being able to realize this essential difference does of course not automatically mean that you are therefore able to apply mindfulness skilfully – just as suddenly realizing during a business negotiation in China that being able to understand Mandarin would have been very useful does not automatically mean that miraculously you do. Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed like any other skill, be that counting, skiing, speaking Mandarin, or playing the piano.