It is near impossible to be in the modern world and not to have seen the barrage of articles, books, blogs, conferences and weekend retreats devoted to the topic of mindfulness. In the warp speed, hyper-connected world in which we live, focusing on anything, anything, even the food in front of us, seems to be a challenge.
The multiple channels of information that arrive in front of us, invited or otherwise, have produced a culture of Attention Deficit Disorder that even the most constant and steady folks have trouble avoiding. As I write this blog, my computer is pelting me with pop-ups, Linked In notifications, Facebook messages, News alerts…, you name it. I could spend the rest of the day redoing my computer filters, or I could write this blog, so, a-blogging I will go.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, as defined by the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. It suggests that when we are fully present, we not only take in a lot of information on one person or thing, we also experience a meaningful connection with that person or thing. Given the supercharged, hyper connected world we inhabit, the strong universal desire to find true meaning in the chaos is understandable.
So what is the relevance of this to the critical aspect of leadership known as Executive Presence?
How are Mindfulness and Executive Presence Related?
The role of the leader is to generate new ideas for an organization and bring others along to make those ideas happen. To achieve that essential second part, a leader must convince others that the ideas are good and worthwhile. The idea must have merit, but so too does the executive. Unless the idea comes from what the follower sees as a credible source, the best ideas go nowhere. In short, to sell an idea, the leader needs to make a meaningful connection with his or her followers in which the leader comes across as engaged, authentic and trustworthy. Coming across in this way is an important element of executive presence and is what links it back to mindfulness.
A Lesson from the Past.
Many years ago, I visited the office of a friend who worked as a mid level executive at Exxon. I entered his office on one of the floors high up in the Manhattan Exxon headquarters building. I was escorted into a carefully appointed, tidy room at the end of which sat a large desk with nothing on it but one piece of paper and a pen. On the other side of that stark desktop stood my friend, smiling and saying hello. Knowing how much work he did on a routine day, I could not help commenting on the lack of desk clutter. He said it was a corporate policy. When people visited you, your job was to focus on them and them alone. Carrying on a conversation across a field of paper not only projected lack of respect, it also was distracting.
Being a lover of a lot of paper and equating ultra clean desks with a type of compulsivity that made me shudder, I decided at the time to dismiss the idea as not for me.
Thirty years, several careers and thousands of conversations later, I look back on that day differently. While I still do not favor a tidy desktop, I look back at the moment as an early lesson on how important it is for a leader to have a clear, focused presence to influence others.
From that day and the thirty years that followed, I have gleaned four principles on how the mindfulness and executive presence are related:
Lack of distraction
Much has been said about multi-tasking and how it is essential to getting things done. We have the illusion that we actually are doing many things at once. In fact, say the pundits (NPR: Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.), we are never actually doing more than one thing. We just do it less well because of the pressure coming from the blur of side tours around us. To get anything done, we have to choose one person or thing on which to concentrate. If we want as leaders to influence others, we need to choose to concentrate on those others, and only them.
How many of us have experienced a conversation when the other person’s eyes keep drifting over to his or her computer screen, or sat a restaurant while someone taps away on her smartphone while you are reading the menu, or been telling someone something that is difficult to say and you are interrupted by the peep of a text coming into that person’s phone? How respected do we feel when something else takes priority over our need to communicate to another? For leaders to sell their ideas, they need to show respect by engaging fully, physically and mentally in the conversation.
Decades of research on relationship between the strong positive correlation between clarity on organizational missions and productivity goes to the simple notion that if people know clearly and concisely what the focus of their work should be, they know how to organize their time, priorities and thoughts. Virtually every organization I have visited, when asked to come help improve their work, has the same complaint: We don’t have focus. We never know where the leaders want to take us. They are all over the place. For any given initiative, executives must block out the competing thoughts and choose a core organizing idea. That focus and clarity will give the employees the power to know where to put their energy and effort.
To influence others, you need to connect. To connect requires trust. You have to gain their confidence that they and their ideas matter. To do that requires that you listen, and hear without your own agenda what they are actually saying. You need to remain fully present in the conversation without you allowing your mind to wander off into other directions. While the final idea may not end up where either you or they started, at the end you will more likely arrive at an idea that you all can endorse.
What methods do you use to help yourself stay focused and mindful when having a conversation with your colleagues?