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The mindfulness of aspiring leaders

By Dave Ulrich

Few would deny the increase demands on leaders today.  They are under short-term pressures to produce results to increasingly insistent customers.  They face unparalleled rates of global, competitive, and technological change.  The boundaries between their personal and professional lives are blurred and they are under constant scrutiny with social media creating transparency.  Their private actions become public events.  Long term feels like “Tuesday” as there is seldom enough time to celebrate success before the next expectation emerges.

So, with all these demands, why would anyone want to lead?  Amazingly many still do because they believe that through their leadership they can have an impact for good on the world where they work, live, and play.  How grateful we are for those leaders who shaped country and company patterns so that we all benefit.

So, what does it take to be an effective leader in this high demand, chaotic world?  The tools of leadership are clear:  set strategy, manage change, govern behavior, engage employees, build teams.

But, in our work, leadership is less about tools and more about oneself.   Leaders succeed by helping others get better, but it is hard to help others until and unless leaders have helped themselves.  One of my favorite quotes comes from St. Francis (from whom the current pope took his name):  we preach the gospel, and sometimes use words.  Leaders teach more by example than rhetoric.  Leadership hypocrisy creates cynicism.

So, how can leaders be mindful of themselves so they can lead others.  The figure below offers six domains leaders can attend to.

Create a personal brand.   Change and improvement ultimately comes from within. If you don’t define your aspirations, someone will define them for you, probably to their, not your, advantage.  Figure out your professional passions, interests, and strengths, and interests.  Don’t run up sand dunes by trying to do things that are not comfortable or outside the range of do-ability.  As you discover your strengths, you will create your personal leadership brand which is what you want to be known for by those who interact with you.  It highlights how your strengths will strengthen others.

My personal brand is to learn by observing problems that are difficult to solve and by asking people the challenges they face, then discovering new solutions.

Build emotional reserves.  Your emotional well being often predicts your physical energy and intellectual curiosity.  Emotional well being comes from knowing and being comfortable with who you are, from savoring joy in the daily routines of life, from focusing on what is right more than what is wrong with your life, from envisioning the future and folding it into the present, from being absorbed in the “flow” of an activity, and from living according to one’s deepest values.

I gain emotional strength from laughing privately at myself, from putting success and failure in perspective, from expressing gratitude to others for what they do, and for engaging in activities that capture my attention.

Cultivate networks.  Surround yourself with great people.  Networks may be for social support to form relationships, knowledge to gain insight insight, trust to share personal feelings, and purpose to share values.   Building good networks means making and responding to bids from others, celebrating successes of others, serving others with deliberate acts of kindness, being willing and able to apologize and move on, and taking time to be with those who matter most.  You are the company you keep and these networks become important sources of connection. If you hire people to work for you, try to hire those better than you.  According to multiple studies, simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success.  In particular, find networks of mentors who advise and guide you.

I try to stay in touch with close friends who inspire and support me.  I also am curious about those I meet, trying to get a sense of their lives and how they make things work.

Develop learning agility.   People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve with effort. They outperform those with a fixed mindset, even when they have a lower IQ, because they embrace challenges, treating them as opportunities to learn something new. There are countless successful people who would have never made it if they had succumbed to feelings of helplessness: Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas,” Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV anchor in Baltimore for being “too emotionally invested in her stories,” Henry Ford had two failed car companies prior to succeeding with Ford, and Steven Spielberg was rejected by USC’s Cinematic Arts School multiple times. Imagine what would have happened if any of these people had a fixed mindset. They would have succumbed to the rejection and given up hope. People with a growth mindset don’t feel helpless because they know that in order to be successful, you need to be willing to fail hard and then bounce right back.

My personal rule of thumb is that I should have about 20 to 25% new material in our teaching every 2½ to 3 years.  This is a high standard for learning agility.  This means working outside my comfort zone by taking on assignments that stretch me, observing new ways of doing things, experimenting, continuously improving on what works and does not work, and simply having a mindset for learning.

Take care of yourself.  The first questions a psychologist generally asks someone who is depressed are:  how are you doing with nutrition, exercise, and sleep?  Are you taking care of your body?  Physical energy links to emotional and social energy.  Healthy habits ensure healthy living.

I am a top 10 hypocrite.  While I exercise regularly and get my 10,000 steps a day at least 5 days a week, I eat horribly and sleep worse.  But, I have learned to listen to my body when it requires rest and to continue to not obsess about looks as much as insight.

Find meaning and values.  Meaning and purpose come when we live up to our values.  Sometimes these values are relationships and communities where we give back to others.  Sometimes they are in accepting ourselves as we learn to be at peace with who we are and who we are not.  Sometimes they are sensing the divine as we feel connected to deity.  Knowing and living our values that enables meaning gives us a sense of personal peace.

I enjoy spending time each day with the divine through meditation, prayer, or scripture.  These few moments ground me and help me cope with the inevitable pressures of life.

When I have the privilege of coaching leaders to cope with the inevitable demands of their roles, I encourage them to find resources in these six areas.  Doing so will not do away with the demands, but it might give them increase capacity to surmount them so that they can lead others.

Dave Ulrich is Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. He is the author of Leadership Capital Index (Berrett Koehler, September 2015).  His new book, Victory Through Organization will be published in 2017.


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