Opinionista Anneke Kirsten-Barnard 11 June 2018

Towards conscious leadership

When we consider the current problems in organisations and society in general, it becomes increasingly evident that unconscious leadership is rife in government, business and society. One could argue that sub-standard leadership is holding back the growth and development of the South Africa we want to see.

What are the qualities we look for in a leader? Not your average leader; a truly great leader? Notice what comes to mind? Notice who comes to mind?

A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination”, as Nelson Mandela famously stated.

Question is, are we born with a good head and heart, or are these qualities which can be cultivated and strengthened. And if so, how?

Let’s investigate this by considering two approaches that have received significant hype recently, particularly in the sphere of leadership: Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Mindfulness. Both of these advocate that temperament is not destiny and that resourceful capacities can be developed and nurtured by training the mind in their direction. What does this mean for leaders?

Daniel Goleman, who introduced the world to Emotional intelligence (EQ), states that EQ accounts for 67% of the abilities deemed necessary for superior performance in leaders, and matters twice as much as technical expertise or IQ. According to Goleman, “knowing yourself lies at the core of emotional intelligence, and the best mental app for this can be found in the mind training method called mindfulness”.

Robust studies show that mindfulness, which involves purposefully paying attention to the present moment with a sense of curiosity and kindness, increases empathy, self-awareness and self-regulation. Additional studies show that mindfulness increases emotional intelligence as a whole (Mindful Life, Emotional Intelligence at Work – How Mindfulness can help, 14 February 2018).

You see, the relationship between mindfulness and emotional intelligence is a two-way street. Each enhances the other. How? In order to become more self-regulated, motivated, empathic and socially engaged, which are the core elements of EQ, one needs to be self-aware. And self-awareness lies at the very essence of mindfulness training.

Unlike other popular approaches, mindfulness is not some short-term “fix”, promising guaranteed lasting happiness and a continuous parade of unicorns and rainbows. Let’s pause for a moment and consider the likelihood that the journey into greater levels of self-awareness may be a revealing and turbulent one, and one which potentially invites substantial levels of courage. It asks of us to look within and become familiar with every part of our being, even those parts we don’t especially want to get to know, much less show the world.

The skilful way to navigate this process is to invite a certain curiosity to our experience. Why curiosity? It’s a great antidote to the judgemental, critical mind. And frankly, you need all the help you can get if you are to embark on the journey inwards. Let’s look at how this could potentially unfold, should we? So now, with practice, you start getting the hang of becoming curious about your experience, when…WHAM… out of the blue you’re hit with a serious case of vulnerability. Where did that come from? Well, the more curious you become, the more you may start surrendering to uncertainty, because let’s face it, we actually don’t know what is going to unfold in the next moment. We’d like to think we do, but that is the thinking mind playing tricks on us. Uncertainty can make us feel vulnerable and unguarded at first.

Okay, so now you’re sitting with vulnerability, all the while remaining patiently (or not so much) curious about this interesting, super uncomfortable feeling. Then, WHAM BANG, you discover some major deep-seated wounds. Wounds which upon initial contact you want to avoid at all costs! Of course! So, the knee-jerk reaction is to mobilise your resources for self-protection – and this makes perfect evolutionary sense – it’s just survival. Nobody wants to voluntarily sit and be with discomfort and pain, do we? Enough is enough! So, you put on your armour, close yourself off to potential learning, to integration, to growth, and ultimately a deeper understanding of your own wounds and those of others.

The thing is, as I’ve petulantly discovered, these wounds don’t go away unless you tend to them. I know, it sucks, but it’s the truth. Taking off that plaster and bearing witness to the hurt takes an absurd amount of bravery and courage. However, if left unattended, it festers, grows, and leads to actions and behaviours that may be completely out of character with who we truly are, or want to be; actions that are potentially destructive to ourselves and those around us.

You see, without awareness, there can be no real understanding, no genuine compassion and ultimately no accountability. If, as leaders we are unwilling to acknowledge and see to our own wounds, we will be ill-equipped to understand and tend to the wounds of our people. This is why self-awareness is critical to integrated, authentic leadership at all levels. To expand on what Goleman said, knowing yourself lies at the very core of conscious leadership. The work required to “know yourself” is neither self-indulgent nor narcissistic. Whatever self-knowledge and awareness we attain as leaders will serve those we lead (Goleman, Daniel, 1996, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ).

When we consider the current problems in organisations and society in general, it is becoming increasingly evident that unconscious leadership is rife in government, business and society. While there are indeed isolated examples of greatness in both the private and public sectors, truth be told is that leadership excellence remains the exception and not the norm. One could argue that sub-standard leadership is holding back the growth and development of the South Africa we want to see and if we continue to empower ineffective leaders, our current problems of inequality, poverty, unemployment, and zero economic growth will simply be perpetuated.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the mindfulness movement, recently asserted that: “People are losing their minds. That is what we need to wake up to. The human mind, when it doesn’t do the work of mindfulness, winds up becoming a prisoner of its myopic perspectives that puts ‘me’ above everything else. We are so caught up in the dualistic perspectives of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But ultimately there is no ‘them’. That’s what we need to wake up to.” (The Guardian Lifestyle October 22, 2017. Master of Mindfulness.)

This is not to say that the mindfulness practice is a panacea, but it does offer an “awakening to” our deep roots of self-centredness and greed, both individually and on an institutional level. It offers the potential discovery of the tremendous power involved in genuinely listening to one another with open hearts, embracing intrinsic human values such as kindness and compassion, and ultimately, a recognition of our common humanity.

So how do we ‘wake up’? How do we skilfully negotiate our wounds, both individually and collectively? How do we start investigating and leaning into our emotions when we have been taught to mainly ignore them or push them away? Let’s explore for a moment holding our experience with a sense of kindness. Bring to mind a recent difficulty in which you were hurt or disappointed. Get a real sense of this. Notice feelings, body sensations and thoughts. Simply notice, no need to judge or analyse. Now, deliberately hold whatever you discover with kindness and empathy, with a genuine compassion towards yourself. Just for a moment.

This way of being asks of us to be fierce and brave and explore the territory of the heart, engaging with that which is deepest and truest inside of us, and living from a place of authenticity. This is an act of true courage, and in my opinion, an essential ingredient in truly great leadership. The more we can hold ourselves and our own experience with compassion, the more we’ll be inclined to treat others with kindness and love. And when I speak of love here, I am not referring to a permissive love, but a fierce love; one from which tough, difficult decisions have to flow, and one that can ultimately help manage the fear and aversion underlying so many of this country’s problems. One that is so gravely needed in the world at the moment. This display of love is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it is the most powerful force we as human beings possess.

It is with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Moving into the corporate space, the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 work-related stress, anxiety and depression will be the number one health concern in the world.

I believe this is directly linked to a lack of love, kindness and empathy in the workplace. A lack of permission to show vulnerability; having to always have your $#*& together. Because performance, productivity and the bottom line are king, right? Burning question: “How sustainable is this work model in the long run?”

What if there was another way to sync performance and true potential? A paradigm inviting an opening of our minds to a conscious shift in the way we think about and approach leadership, business and relationships. A move to a more sustainable model of human development and growth. One which includes a more compassionate and inclusive approach. Why? As human beings, we long for authenticity, community, passion and purpose. We long to be met in the moment with a true sense of openness, integrity and respect. This brings out the best in people and mobilises our resources for increased engagement and participation in life.

We are at a pivotal moment for the human race to make a change.

And purposefully cultivating curiosity facilitates asking those clever, sometimes difficult questions that nobody wants to ask. It leads to creativity and innovation, and it ultimately facilitates change. And the turbulent intensity of the rocky, resistant path toward change can be lessened by holding our experience with a sense of kindness.

Self-awareness infused with Curiosity and Kindness: these are important, if not essential guides on the path to discovering our authenticity, potential and purpose; as leaders, as citizens of this country… as human beings. DM

Anneke Kirsten-Barnard is a Counselling Psychologist and founder of MindfulnessInAction, which offers Mindfulness, Emotional-Intelligence and Leadership Training to organisations, teams and individuals in search of growth and excellence

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