Friday, February 20, 2015

Leadership Development: The Power of Mindfulness

This post is part of a series on leadership development.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am currently participating in a Leadership Development Program (LDP) as part of my work at Franklin University. This week, I attended a presentation by Daron Larson, a recognized expert in the practice of mindfulness. Daron is a former Franklin employee who has worked with several well-known businesses and universities, and it was exciting to listen to him today.

Daron Larson presenting on Mindfulness as part of the Leadership Development Program at Franklin University.

Below are my notes from his presentation, including some brief exercises we did as a group. Note that my thoughts and notes are likely intermixed with his throughout the text.

Defining Mindfulness
Based on Daron's presentation and on my notes and thoughts throughout the presentation, I sort of pieced together the following definition of mindfulness:
Mindfulness is purposefully paying attention differently to your experiences. It involves observation - a judgement-free awareness of what is happening. It involves suspending the mental narrative that we are constantly playing in our minds and observing reality, including our emotions, body posture, sensations, thought patterns, and the words and actions of others and of the environment. 
What is the Desired Result of Mindfulness?
The result of mindfulness is a strengthened skill of paying attention. The capacity to observe the world around us is fundamental to success in life - without a clear awareness of reality, we cannot function within reality. There has been a fair amount of research on the benefits of mindfulness, and the following are some observed benefits:
  • Increased gray matter in the brain
  • Slowing of the natural volume loss of brain size with aging
  • Improved management of depression and anxiety
  • Improved concentration
  • Improved attention
  • Addiction recovery
  • Behavioral and cognitive improvement in children
Developing Mindfulness in Key Areas
Daron referenced the poet David White, who emphasized humanity in our relationships, particularly in three major areas: (1) self, (2) spouse/family, and (3) career. To be truly successful, one must find fulfillment and contribute in each of these areas. He notes that our work in these areas is intertwined and elastic - at times we must spend more effort in one area while the others are stretched. It is a constant effort to keep everything balanced, but it is a worthy effort.

Mindful of self - Perhaps the most important entity that we must be mindful of is the self. We must develop awareness of our habits, thought patterns, and emotions. If we can purposefully and somewhat objectively observe ourselves, we can get a sense for how well we are aligning with what matters most to us. Increased levels of self-awareness are the foundation of contribution and personal fulfillment.

Mindful of spouse/family - The most fulfilling (and perhaps the most frustrating!) relationships we experience in life are those with our families. To build positive, enriching, fulfilling relationships with our families, we must develop awareness of their thoughts, patterns, and emotions and of the dynamics that often play out between family members. The first step toward fulfillment and success is awareness, and it is the same in our relationships with our family members.

Mindfulness in our careers - Most people spend the majority of their lives at their place of employment. How we spend our careers, therefore, is absolutely critical to our own sense of happiness. In addition, a carefully selected career can become an outlet for the achievement of our purpose in life. We can exercise mindfulness in our work through the careful observation of coworkers, ourselves, and the dynamics between each of these. We must be mindful of our own emotional and spiritual reactions to the work and the environment in which we labor. Working toward the ideal in this area will yield great success.

Building Our Mindfulness Muscles
Mindfulness is a powerful skill that can be learned (or relearned?) through practice. One way to do this is through practicing mindfulness in things we habitually do every day. In the presentation, Daron had us list several things that we do every single day out of habit. He advised us to pick a few of these and begin to exercise mindfulness - purposefully pay attention in a different way - to everything we do. Here is the list I came up with:
  • Eat breakfast
  • Kiss my wife
  • Read with my daughter
  • Pray
  • Drive my car to work
  • Drive home from work
  • Check my email
  • Send an email
  • Write in a journal or on a blog
  • Fill my cup with water
  • Say hello to coworkers
  • Make the bed
  • Fold clothes
  • Mow the lawn
  • Shower
  • Go on a walk

I will select a few of these and will be more mindful of these activities.

30 Seconds of Reflection
We have been doing 30 seconds of reflection at the end of each leadership session. Here is what I wrote down: I feel like I am pretty good at being mindful of what is going on. I feel like I have obtained many of these skills through my education as a researcher, as well as through self-reflection and through studying and understanding psychology (at least at a basic level). However, there is a certain peacefulness and calmness that comes through the kind if observation and mindfulness that Daron is teaching. I would like to develop more awareness of and gentleness in my emotions. Ultimately, understanding and shaping who and what I am is most important. The development of character is paramount. All of the skills and abilities in the world cannot compete with a passionate, compassionate, centered, purposeful individual. It appears that mindfulness practice can aid me in becoming aware of and developing these kinds of characteristics. 

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