Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion? Oh My!

Part One of Three: Resonant Leadership and Mindfulness
Author: Eleanor Moore

So how do qualities like mindfulness, hope and compassion factor in to Leadership? Why should we, or the organizations we work with, care if the leader is benevolent as long as they operate in a fair, even, consistent manner and get results?

In their excellent book “Resonant Leadership” authors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee make a strong case for using specific exercises designed to help sustain good leaders and protect them from the ills of burnout. They describe how leader burnout or “power stress” impacts negatively on their professional and personal lives, work teams and the organization.

Resonant leaders are able to give of and care for themselves. They develop emotional intelligence in themselves and others. In short, they are AWAKE, AWARE and ATTUNED.

Now many of us have been exposed to the advantages of developing the four domains of emotional Intelligence (EI) and their competencies.  The science behind this fairly ground breaking work of Daniel Goleman indicates that EI can account for the difference between being a great leader and an average one.

But EI is not enough in of itself to sustain great leaders. Leaders by virtue of their position, are at risk for stress; it comes with the job description.  Today’s leaders are under increasing pressure. Changes in technology and the business environment create more complex communication and decision making. We see it in the headlines:’ Hydro to cut 900 positions’, ‘Healthcare to reduce staff by 15 percent’.  Leaders are put in a position of power stress that without active acknowledgement and management becomes chronic.  In response to power stress, leaders can continuously sacrifice themselves to their job and succumb to things like exhaustion, fear, anger or other ineffective and unhealthy coping to get away from the source of stress. And this is dangerous for a leader. The human brain has an “open loop” system when it comes to sharing emotional clues. Our bodies tell the truth, even when we do not mean to tell it!  The work team will catch the leader’s emotions. When a leader is impatient, frustrated or STRESSED, staff can become defensive and self-protective. They too will want to get away from the source of the stress! Not only does this downward spiral affect a healthy work place, it has risks for individual health.

There is significant neuroscience that details the health risk of stress on the human body: cardiac events, suppression of the immune system, increases in blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels, to name a few.

So what’s the antidote? Boyatzis and McKee make it clear it’s not just some R&R (rest and relaxation). It’s a new R in town, and it means Renewal: a conscious process which invokes physiological and psychological change to counter the effects of chronic stress and sacrifice. Renewal invokes a brain pattern and hormones that changes our mood, perception and behaviour while returning the body to a healthy state. The parasympathetic system is aroused by the limbic brain to produce particular shifts in production of hormones, among them: oxytocin in women and vasopressin in men, both key in reducing blood pressure and activating the immune system.

Renewal isn’t something that will occur by itself, it is a developed habit. And it begins with mindfulness, hope and compassion.

It takes a lot of self-control to manage the inevitable stress and power dynamics in senior leadership. Given the intensive focus required of leaders, work demands can actually train the mind to ignore or not notice other things going on around us. Combine this with the difficulties staff often have with providing accurate feedback to those in leadership positions, especially negative feedback, and it can really compromise the opportunity for leaders to “get all the facts”.  Attending to the practice of mindfulness requires connection with others and in attending to others and the environment, gives us more data and more accurate information. These factors can lead to better decision making.

The practice of mindfulness, or meditation, can counteract the negative impact of work and help in achieving a relaxed and open body. A body in this state facilitates learning, listening, and being present. It supports and fosters self-reflection. It helps you witness and observe the way your automatic thinking shapes your behaviour and your world. The more you meditate, the more “space” is created for observing and letting go of past ways of acting, and for learning new ways of being.

Mindfulness is really just paying attention to present moment experiences with open curiosity and a willingness to be with what is. It keeps our minds from being lost in past or future, which is where stress lives, and it counters automatic thinking.

Mindfulness can be practiced as a meditation or a quality of attention we bring to daily life. It is a skill we can train to reduce stress and promote well-being. Here’s the science behind mindfulness, it:

  • Improves physical health (boosts the immune system)
  • Increases attention and focus
  • Helps with difficult mental health (fosters well-being and less reactivity)
  • Increases happiness

Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness as it affects the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for sequential logical thought, flexible thinking, delayed gratification, and regulating body and brain states. It is often called the CEO of the brain.  Meditation helps counter act age related cortical decline: as you get older, your brain thins out. Meditation also impacts on areas of the brain responsible for self-awareness and compassion.

Developing mindfulness can take as little as 10 minutes daily. For the benefits you can derive, that’s a pretty good return on your investment!

For more ideas on developing mindfulness, here’s some websites you might find helpful in beginning a practice that works for you.



Stay tuned for Part Two on the Resonant Leader and Hope.

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