From the Cool Britannia epoch through to the banking collapse, there was a cacophony of chatter about mindfulness. It eased when times got tougher. Odd that. Yet most people are still confused about what it is, male senior leaders especially, in our experience, and interestingly, as coaches, we’ve started talking about it again during the pandemic.
But is there a problem with the term and how useful is the concept now?
A coping strategy I deploy when faced with hyped, spun or contentious subjects is to tread the writer’s path and literally re-examine the semantic root of the challenge.
In this case, put simply, mindfulness is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. It’s also a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
Well, I’m not sure about the term “therapeutic” but it’s certainly useful as a coping strategy, especially as, from a leadership perspective, being mindful implies a positive coping mechanism and that the skills required to become and remain mindful, when necessary, are very useful. In short, it’s a handy strategy for keeping “one’s head when all about you are losing theirs” etc etc. And let’s face it, there are a lot of exploding heads in the world at the moment.
Yet why does the term trigger the gag reflex in most leader and serious business types? Surely mindfulness should epitomise inclusion. Yet it’s pitched as exclusive. Mention it in a meeting and watch for the heavy eye roll? And why have studies criticised it so, including respected publications like Psychology Today and Neuroscience News.
Well, let’s be honest, it has an image problem. If mindfulness were an animal it would quack, have a rainbow coat and reek of essential oils. It’s associated with exclusive “alternative” life-styles and the fringe behaviour of counter-cultural types. It’s more Brighton than Brixton and I should know, having lived and worked in both locations.
I do recall, with toe-curling clarity, a funky Omnicom leadership workshop on the Strand in which I and my senior colleagues were assaulted by what appeared to be a rabble of ragged troubadours wielding talking drums, peace pipes, vegan notebooks and recipes for knitting yoghurt (that last bit may be a fib). They taught us to juggle and breathe fire while channelling a speaking stick (I kid you not)…
It was supposed to bind the team and spark creative thinking. But it caused a rift in the senior ranks from which we never recovered. So we all had to take a few thrashings from the productivity learning stick of experience as a consequence.
The challenge with concepts like mindfulness is that they’re pitched as exclusive or “special”. While we all oscillate on a daily spectrum that ranges from panicked to distracted to grounded to mindful in response to internal and external environmental factors, many of those who teach it aim to live permanently on the margins. And they kind of like it that way. This has to be a prime reason why mindfulness has acquired a reputation for exclusivity, indulgence and for marginalising the mainstream in which most normal folk swim.
Having all been through a global pandemic together, however, everyday life has drawn heavily on the wellbeing resources of everyone, employees and leaders alike. Line managers have been the pivot point for much of the crisis management and change activity, HR functions have battled valiantly and it’s no surprise that most leaders are running out of ways to cultivate sustainable performance levels from drained colleagues who are obsessing constantly about how national and international socio-economic issues are going to impact their children’s lives.
In this scenario, an individual’s resilience is largely determined by the interplay of their coping mechanisms, also their ability to remain calm, grounded and focused for the sake of the team.
Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In a coaching setting, we’re able to compartmentalise each coachees stressors then explore coping mechanisms from the resilience circumplex to ensure that they become and remain focused on the moment rather than drained by fretting about the uncontrollable. It’s why our coaches focus on the whole individual, not just the person who presents for work. This approach gives us license to discuss sport, nature walks, spiritualism, hobbies, gardening, writing and reading and time with children and pets as a mindfulness element of the coaching mix. So we do.
Sorry if our approach to mindfulness sounds boring and may not always involve enough incense for some of you. But the way we’re now approaching this subject seems to be helping more senior leaders than you might think. And many are men. Though if it makes you feel any better, more than one has been known to hug a tree from time to time.