In pursuit of mindful leaders

Training the brain for better leadership
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/31/2018
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Through “basic mindfulness training” and neuroplasticity measures, managers can train their minds to become better leaders, according to an expert. Credit: GUGAI (Shutterstock)

The world is facing a leadership crisis, according to Vince Brewerton, Canadian director of the Potential Project, a global mindfulness training effort.

And the solution lies within the mind — training it to be calm, focused and clear, he said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

Today’s business leaders face diverse expectations, high-stakes decisions, rapid sector change and uncertainty, said Brewerton.

“This combination now of having to lead in times of all this disruptive change, along with the expectation of leaders to perform, to meet goals (and) objectives while engaging people (means) being a leader has become more difficult.”

Despite leaders’ best efforts, “significant disengagement” issues and a “lack of happiness” persist amongst employees, he said.

To affect change, leadership needs a framework shift beginning with how people think, said Brewerton.

“This idea that one person has all the answers and can provide all the leadership no longer applies,” he said. “The world is just too complex.”

“Leadership is unlearning what we think of as management, and learning how to be human again.”

‘Truly human leadership’

Leadership begins in the mind, according to research collected for the Potential Project’s recent book, The Mind of the Leader.

Leaders cannot manage others until they are able to manage themselves in terms of “moment-to-moment self-awareness” and how they formulate thoughts or make decisions, said Brewerton.

“We can’t lead ourselves without understanding ourselves,” he said.

That self-awareness allows leaders to understand internal biases which, in turn, allow them to better understand others and lead organizations more effectively, said Brewerton.

Ultimately, this results in “truly human leadership” — a movement that includes strategies such as putting aside annual performance reviews for processes encompassing on-the-spot feedback, he said.

“Our organizational culture is the collective of the minds, the behaviours of all the individuals.”

The three core qualities of leadership are mindfulness, selflessness and compassion, according to Brewerton.

Combined with appropriate self-awareness, these represent the “required leadership capabilities for the 21st century,” he said.

Defined as “leadership presence,” mindfulness includes the actions of being present, focused and clear-minded, said Brewerton.

Selflessness means “getting out of our own way and not letting our ego drive our behaviour,” he said, and should be matched with confidence, while compassion paired with wisdom encompasses activity meant to be of benefit to others.

When leaders are egotistic rather than selfless, it ultimately corrupts their behaviour. Additionally, an inflated ego can narrow a leader’s vision to confirmation bias — a barrier to diversity and inclusion, said Brewerton.

“Driving ourselves through our ego makes us vulnerable to criticism,” he said. “And when people know it’s all about us, they can manipulate us.”

On the other hand, selfless leadership enables staff by encouraging recognition, innovation and a sense of belonging, said Brewerton. “We build this confidence by constantly evaluating and being self-aware.”

Similarly, compassion encourages benevolent leadership, which allows leaders to make stronger people connections while increasing trust and loyalty amongst staff.

“People are more cohesive,” he said. “Teams operate better together. They’re more able to operate according to a vision.”

“Practising kindness — it’s a good thing from a relationship perspective. It also changes our body chemistry and the chemistry in our brain. It makes us feel better.”

Pursuing mindfulness

Seventy-three per cent of leaders feel “unmindful” most of the time — meaning scatterbrained, not present, and agitated, according to research by the Potential Project.

Causes of distraction include: demands from others (26 per cent), competing priorities (25 per cent), general distractions (13 per cent) and workload demands (12 per cent).

Managers are consistently under pressure and are often required to be “always on,” said Brewerton.

“Workplaces can be very distracting today,” he said, citing open offices as an example. “It really challenges our ability to pay attention and be present.”

Distracted workplaces can lead to “attention deficit trait” — an organizational experience of not being able to stay focused, according to Brewerton.

The minds of leaders and workers wander involuntarily 47 per cent of the time, according to the research.

“That’s the nature of our minds in today’s world,” he said. “This cumulative, chaotic mind-wandering is creating an issue for us, certainly in terms of performance and well-being.”

Pursuing mindfulness can alleviate this to some degree, said Brewerton, who conducted training examples with SCNetwork members in attendance.

“If we’re not able as leaders to be present, we’re wasting a lot of time and we’re actually impacting our organizations and our teams negatively,” he said.

Training the brain

Through “basic mindfulness training” and neuroplasticity measures, managers can train their minds to get better at managing these leadership qualities, said Brewerton.

He presented an ABCD (anatomy, breath, count, distractions) formula to help train the mind’s attention muscles by comfortably grounding the body and neutrally observing breath as a “focus anchor.” Simultaneous counting serves as a secondary anchor, while distractions are recognized and released during this process.

Practising this for 10 minutes daily helps train the brain to pay attention, recognize distraction and bring focus back to the subject at hand, he said.

Additionally, leaders should refrain from multitasking and periodically take one- to two-minute breaks to refresh their mental energy. It’s about moving your attention from your thoughts back to the body, said Brewerton.

“That has a real impact on us. We spend most of our time in conceptual-thinking mode,” he said.

“It can be really refreshing to our mind, and in fact physically to our brain, by spending more time than we usually do in perceptual mode.”

Steady mindfulness training will eventually shift neurological pathways, redirecting the mind’s attention during spans of wandering thought, said Brewerton.

Such mindfulness will eventually prove to enhance work-life balance, job performance and creativity at work, he said.

The ability to be truly present is highly valued among leaders, as it increases wellness, cognitive functions and life quality, said Brewerton.

“Really, we’re rewiring the brain,” he said. “Mindfulness really is the groundwork here.”

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