“Relaxed and Alert.” Those were the words Dana Pulley used to describe Mindfulness during our last CBODN, In the Know, book review session. Yeah, I did a double-take, too. Is that supposed to be an “and?” Take a minute, though, and really give this statement some thought: Relaxed and Alert.
At first, it may seem like an impossible state to be in. But Dana walked us – well, SAT us – through it. She asked that we sit on the very front part of our seats, so our backs were upright and not resting against the backs of our chairs. Why?
If you’re too comfortable and relaxed, you’ll fall asleep. Yet, if you’re too tense and alert, you’ll be too distracted. She explained that the art of mindfulness is balancing both states, leaving you – you guessed it – relaxed and alert.
As one participant pointed out during the session, it’s like making pottery – to center your work, you have to apply just the right amount of focus (or alertness) on the wheel with a light touch (or relaxation) to be able to work with the clay.
We went on to discuss mindfulness as a practice to engage in every day (and often many times throughout the day) rather than a singular state of awareness that you strive to achieve. The author of Search Inside Yourself describes mindfulness as a cycle starting with a focal point (e.g. your breath, your feet walking, sounds outside), next your mind wanders (which is normal human tendency), then you notice that you’ve wandered (with kindness and curiosity) and then you bring yourself back to your focal point.
As I reflected on the concept of “relaxed and alert” and the cycle of focusing, wandering, noticing and coming back to focus, I realized that this is also how I view leadership.
Being a leader doesn’t require taking full control (too alert) or being too hands off either (too relaxed). Much like mindfulness, leadership isn’t a skill set that one strives to achieve but rather a state of awareness that is practiced on a daily basis. You can’t just check the box and call yourself mindful – or a leader.
We often say that (both mindfulness and leadership) aren’t about perfection, but rather course-correction.
For example, as a leader, you have a goal in mind, you engage with others to bring you closer to that goal, then notice your impact and decide how to continue forward. It’s a constant awareness of your surroundings, awareness of your impact, and courage to get back on track if you made an error. In fact, I would argue that the most effective leaders are the ones who may go off track but have learned how to quickly recover and refocus with kindness and curiosity rather than internal criticism and despair.
One of my coaching clients shared a story with me. He started off by saying, “Laura, I’ve been managing people for 25 years, and I think I made the worst mistake of my career.”
This seemed like a bold statement and I was curious to hear what had happened. He explained that he recently hired someone to join his team in a new role and that the decision had caused tremendous contention with the existing team members – so much, in fact, that after about two weeks, half of the team began interviewing for new jobs.
So, I asked, “What did you do?” He said he immediately saw the mistake he made. Not only was the new role not meeting the needs of the team but most of the existing team members interpreted the hire as an insult to their own abilities and value to the organization. In addition, he only consulted up the chain, never down about the needs and expectations for this role. After realizing his mistake, he began meeting with individual team members to hear their perspective, he spoke with the new hire, and just about everyone who was deeply impacted by the hiring decision. After hearing from everyone’s point of view, it was clear that this was a huge hiring mistake and even the new hire agreed that this wasn’t going to work. They worked out arrangements to remove this individual and eventually re-created the position based on the needs of the team and the organization.
This leader was shaken, and ashamed of what he had done. However, I recognized and applauded him for his ability to notice the mistake, listen carefully to other points of view, honor other people’s opinions and then get his team back on track.
He did it. Without even realizing it, he had been both alert, and relaxed, course-corrected, and performed as a leader. Even while personally feeling ashamed of the original decision.
You see, if he had been too relaxed, he would’ve blown it off and possibly blamed the commotion on others being jealous of this new manager. If he was too alert, he might have tried to micromanage the situation and perhaps would’ve become burned out himself. Instead, he remained both relaxed and alert. He followed the cycle, noticed something was off track and brought the team back to center. And, on top of that, he was role modeling to others what happens when one makes a mistake. You own it, engage, and recover. His staff are now more likely to adopt that cycle when they make a mistake and probably became a stronger team as a result.
We believe that this way of showing up as a leader applies to people managing teams at work as well as leaders as parents, managing their kids at home. Now, I’m not suggesting that you parent your children as if they were little employees (mostly because they’d probably unionize and create a list of demands like outlawing veggies in the workplace), but I am suggesting that you can apply the same level of mindfulness as a leader when you are at work or at home. Finding that balance point between alert and relaxed puts you in an optimal state to understand, assess, and problem-solve.
So the next time you’re facing a difficult situation, whether it’s an office debacle or a parental conundrum, give it a try – take a moment to look at it holistically, examine the impacts, and adjust your course. But remember, it will take practice.