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Mindful Leadership: Living in Two Worlds

Together, these practices are one perspective on the practice of mindful leadership.

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A coaching client last week asked me to define “mindful leadership.” I’ve been studying and teaching (and aspiring to practice) mindful leadership for much of my life. Mindfulness is an enormous body of work and a practice worthy of a lifetime of study and practice, as is leadership. There is no set or proscribed way to define the practice of mindful leadership.

In this instance I described mindful leadership as having two distinct aspects, of cultivating the ability to live simultaneously in two distinct worlds. The first world is the practice of becoming intimately familiar with and engaging with your creative gaps – the gaps between where you are and where you aspire to be, externally and internally. The second is to understand and embody the world where there are not gaps, that there is nothing lacking, nothing to change or gain.

Starting with the first world, examples of external gaps are, where you are and where you aspire to be in:

  • number or type of customers or clients
  • revenue projections
  • building an effective and aligned team

Examples of internal gaps are:

  • developing more self-awareness
  • cultivating greater confidence
  • becoming a more skillful writer or presenter

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Disciple, his groundbreaking book from 30 years ago, calls these gaps Creative Tension, and goes on to say that identifying, and not avoiding the discomfort of staying with these gaps might be the most important skill of a leader. This is one way that leaders grow and develop; how leaders engage with and respond to change, difficulty, and adversity. Mindful leadership involves using all parts of our lives, especially these gaps, as opportunities to learn and grow.

The second world is strange, paradoxical, and obvious. There are no gaps. It’s like the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s statement:

“You are perfect just as you are, and you can use a little improvement.”

I don’t think he was making a joke, even though it sounds humorous.  As impossible, improbable, and paradoxical this may sound, mindful leadership means embodying this quality – letting go of gaps, understanding that there is nothing missing. It means embodying that you and the world are beyond judgment or improvement.

In practice this looks like knowing, deeply knowing that you will act for the benefit of others – in work, relationships, and in all parts of your life. You don’t need to be scanning for threats, since you are not consumed by fear. It means that you are totally satisfied, since nothing is lacking or missing right now. And it means that you are radically connected, that you are open to feeling a lack of distinctions between you and others, between you and life. 

And, of course, these two worlds are actually one world. Together, these practices are one perspective on the practice of mindful leadership.

How can you cultivate these qualities of a mindful leader? Practice.  Starting with meditation practice. Meditation encompasses both of these qualities.  What brings us to meditate is recognizing the gaps between where we are and where we want to be. Once we stop and sit, there is nothing to gain. You are perfect, just as you are.

Two mindful leadership practices:

Identify creative gaps; gaps between where you are and where you aspire to be – in your work, projects, relationships, and inner qualities such as awareness and confidence.

Practice letting go, cultivating the ability to understand and embody that there are no gaps. 

Notice how these practices influence your mood, your way of being, and your effectiveness. How do these practices impact your ability to respond to change and challenges?

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