Journey Towards Becoming a Mindful Leader

Feb 2, 2015, 11:35 AM, Posted by

In our fast-paced, overcommitted world, our typical automatic first response—to be better multitaskers and problem solvers—often leads to increased stress and reduced satisfaction. As leaders—especially in the high-stakes, quickly changing health care sector, we focus our attention outwardly on the well-being of others. We’re faced with a number of competing priorities, interruptions, and distractions that too often get the best of us. It seems that, for many, the noisy world has taken up residence within us.

As a nurse focusing on gerontology and oncology, I learned to help others find what was most important during times of bittersweet transition, prioritizing where and how their energy was spent. Through my clinical research experiences, I learned that the perception of stress, rather than a specific circumstance, could just as easily lead to physiologic consequences. I also observed how some people used their challenges to become more resilient, while others weakened.

Because of these experiences, the ideas of resiliency, mindfulness, and caring began shaping my research questions and investigations. My research and my work with my nursing colleagues showed me that teaching self-awareness, compassion and attention-focusing practices can reduce stress, build resilience and extend the positive impact of nurses and other leaders, including their ability to care for patients, strengthen communication, mentor others and lead successful organizations.

Mindfulness has since become the quiet center of my leadership journey. How do we make compassion a regenerative force for our patients, colleagues, organizations, students and ourselves? How can we identify and learn to appreciate our sources of strength so that they are available to serve us and others? How do we develop the skills that will help us become more conscious of our thoughts and choices in the present moment—allowing us to put that noisy world into perspective?

We start with ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to reflect and find better, more restorative, less reactive ways to care for ourselves and the world around us. One of the first things I share during my workshops is the importance of making the practice a habit. We cannot know the benefits of mindfulness, or recognize our sources of strength, until we’ve committed to the practice. I also emphasize that we are always in practice—to internalize and share these gifts rather than master them.

Attention-focusing practices, while quite beneficial in high-demand situations, can be easily transferred to such ordinary activities as walking, eating, sitting, preparing for a meeting, answering a phone, and even breathing. We bring our practice with us everywhere and it can be felt by everyone. Here are six foundational attitudes of a mindfulness practice that I try to remember and use every day and encourage you to explore in your personal and professional lives.

  1. Non-judging: be an impartial witness to your own experience
  2. Patience: sometimes things must emerge on their own time
  3. Beginner’s mind: be willing to see everything as though you’re seeing it for the first time
  4. Trust: listen to your inner self
  5. Acceptance: seeing things as they actually are at the present time
  6. Letting go: our minds want to hold on to thoughts; release them.

When we approach our daily lives through a lens of non-judgment and self-awareness, we experience our world in a whole new way. Becoming more mindful and in the moment provides us with the skills of authentic presence and compassion. These are sorely-needed skills to lead at any level. “Beginner’s mind,” as it’s been called, allows us to experience each moment of our day with great clarity, empathy and renewal. Good leaders are good beginners.

What do you think?  In a future blog post, I’ll explore the different foundational attitudes of mindfulness and how they relate to leadership.  I hope you’ll join me.

Teri Pipe is the dean of the College of Nursing & Health Innovation at Arizona State University and is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellow. She is an expert on nursing leadership, interprofessionalism and mindfulness.