Provision #730: Mindfulness Matters

Laser Provision

In her extensive research and writing on trust in schools, my wife, Megan, notes that trust is hard to define because it is easier to describe the absence than the presence of trust. Trust is like air: we take it for granted until it becomes polluted or scarce. Mindfulness works the same way. So many definitions describe mindfulness in terms of what it is not: not distracted, not judgmental, not reactive, not bored, and not attached to an outcome. Although these statements are all true, they do not help us very much when it comes to incorporating mindfulness into our life and work as leaders. What, exactly, are we supposed to do and how, exactly, are we supposed to be? Read on to get some answers.

LifeTrek Provision

It’s hard to believe that in last week’s Provision on leadership lessons from Yoda, that tiny green character known as a “Jedi Master” in the Star Wars universe, I would forget to include what is perhaps Yoda’s most famous saying of them all: “Do or Do Not. There is no try.” How could I forget that! I have included that saying on several occasions in Provisions, with the first time being in the fifth issue of Provisions, all the way back on February 27, 1999: Own Your Life. In 2002, I returned to that quote with a Provision titled, Stop Trying. Suffice it to say, that quote is one of my favorites.

So I added that into the online version of last week’s Provision, connecting it to one of Yoda’s other famous sayings, “To be Jedi is to face the truth, and choose.” Trying to do something without actually doing it represents a failure to choose. We may be carrying around thoughts of what we are supposed to do, want to do, ought to do, or should do, but all such thoughts are illusions. They represent what is sometimes referred to as “mental musterbating”: beating ourselves, over and over again, with thoughts as to what we “must” do. Such thoughts fail to inspire behavior change or hope. They rather provoke gridlock, brought on by the guilt of procrastination and the frustration of failure.

That’s why many coaches invite our clients to take a serious look at their “To Do” lists. In many cases, these are not “To Do” lists at all. They are rather lists of all the things we are not doing. Such “Not Doing” lists are not helpful to anyone. They just keep getting longer and longer, triggering stress, overwhelm, and impairment of life. Yoda was right: “Do or Do Not. There is no try.” Go through those lists and clean them up. Throw away the things you are not doing. Keep the things you are doing, because that is who you really are. And if you don’t believe you can do that, you might want to watch Yoda say that himself in a short, 43-second YouTube clip.

Whatever we do or do not do starts in the mind, which is why mindfulness is so important to great leadership. What we believe, how we pay attention, and how we manage our emotions make all the difference in the world.

It may be tempting to think that Yoda’s philosophy is just a modern expression of the old notion of the “power of positive thinking.” That would reflect, however, neither the nuances of Yoda’s understanding nor the definition of mindfulness itself. Yoda is not saying that thoughts become things as a matter of course. There is no simple, cause-and-effect relationship between what I want and what I get. In the movie, Yoda’s prot•g•, Luke Skywalker, learned that the hard way as his spaceship sank back into the swamp. If it was easy to manipulate things in the physical world by thinking of things in the mental world, the world would be a very different place, indeed.

No, the relationship between thoughts and things is much more subtle and nuanced than that. In fact, the more attached we become to an outcome in our minds, the less effective we become as leaders. Attachment not only leads to suffering, as the Buddhists would say, it also leads to judgmental thoughts and demanding strategies in the course of how we communicate with others and go about our days.

Such thoughts and strategies are exactly the opposite of what Yoda was demonstrating to Luke in the swamp. Getting things done was not a matter of making something happen at all. It was rather a matter of allowing something to happen that would make life more wonderful. That was the life-giving agency of the Force, which Luke was not yet able to channel but which Yoda was able to muster fully despite his small size. Mindfulness was the key.

So what qualities make for mindfulness? It’s easier to describe what mindfulness is not than to describe what it is. Mindfulness is not being distracted from what is happening in the present moment by thinking about stuff that happened in the past or that might happen in the future. Mindfulness is not trying to do two or more things at once, better known as multitasking. Mindfulness is not judging what is happening in the present moment in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, sacred and profane, or moral and immoral. Mindfulness is not getting emotionally hooked by what is going on in the present moment. Mindfulness is not working or pushing an agenda. Mindfulness is not ignoring the obvious, seeing only what we expect to see instead of what is there.

All that and more encompasses the notion of mindfulness. It’s no wonder, then, that it takes practice to cultivate and embody mindfulness as leaders. There is not a leader nor even a person on the planet who does not fall prey to these tendencies. They are, in fact, hardwired in our neurobiology. The brainstem • sometimes referred to as our primitive, Reptilian brain • is constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. It is awake at all times, even when we are sleeping. That’s why we don’t stop breathing! But for all its survival value, the brainstem’s constant vigilance, sending out alarms with coded threat levels to the rest of the brain, works against mindfulness. It is the source of what Buddhists so aptly refer to as the “monkey brain”: the ceaseless chattering of the mind.

Such chattering does not contribute to great leadership. That’s why so many great leaders establish disciplined habits of mind, replete with regular rituals and practices, to help us stay focused. Meditation is only one of many such practices. The STOP Tool (Step back, Think,Organize your thoughts, Proceed), developed by Tim Gallwey, is another that I have written about frequently. Nonviolent Communication, with its four distinctions, has enabled many leaders to move beyond knee-jerk reactions to more reflective, life-giving responses. However we get there, the message is the same: mindfulness matters.

Here’s my take on what mindfulness is and how we can cultivate mindfulness in our work as leaders. Each ingredient of my understanding represents the opposite of what mindfulness is not.

  • Mindfulness is focused attention. Mindfulness starts when we bring our attention to what is happening in the present moment. This is best done with a gentle rather than a forceful spirit. Focused attention is not a matter of self-control. We are not commanding the powers of attention; we are rather inviting our minds to settle down and to focus on something. When our minds wander off, we gently bring them back. Returning to focus is a critical part of mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness is single tasking. Mindfulness starts with turning off our cell phones! That’s a metaphor, of course, for managing our environments so as to support our intention of getting and staying focused. How many times have you interrupted your conversation with someone to take a call or to attend to an entirely unrelated matter? How do you think they felt when that happened? Great leaders make people feel special by staying engaged with conversations and tasks until there is a sense of closure.
  • Mindfulness is seeing perfection. There is a saying in the coaching industry, often attributed to one of the founders of the modern coaching movement, Thomas Leonard: “Everything is perfect just the way it is, even when it’s obviously not.” That saying reflects the mindset of great leaders. How can that be? Here is at least one way to understand the obvious: things are what they are, and that means they are perfectly designed for our own learning and growth. Think about it.
  • Mindfulness is charge neutral. Although leaders have emotions as much as anyone else, both positive and negative, great leaders manage our emotions in real time until we are charge neutral in the contemplation and consideration of events. Whatever is happening now is happening now. Getting all worked up, one way or the other, can interfere with wisdom. Great leaders learn how to manage our brainstems and their accompanying Limbic systems.
  • Mindfulness is openness to possibility. Yoda raised that spaceship from the swamp not because he set his mind to it and made it happen. It happened because Yoda was open to the possibility of it happening. What a different take on leadership from mental toughness and determination! By staying open to and inviting possibility, great leaders generate great results which surprise even us. We don’t know the outcome ahead of time, but we trust it can be wonderful.
  • Mindfulness is noticing novelty. I have written before about the difference between foveal and peripheral vision, most recently in April of last year in my Provision on the rituals of great leaders. Too often we see only what is in our clear line of sight, and then only what we want to see. Mindfulness encourages us to see the big picture and to notice stuff that is different than we might expect. When such curiosity carries an appreciative spirit, it often becomes the hallmark of innovation.

These are some of the positive attributes of mindfulness that great leaders come to embody and practice on a regular basis. No one does them all the time. But great leaders have a way of doing them more of the time than others. And this doesn’t happen by accident. It happens on purpose. Great leaders set our intention to show up and to carry ourselves in a mindful way. With practice anyone can increase how often and how well this happens. We’re never more than one decision away from making it so.

Coaching Inquiries: What is your decision when it comes to mindfulness? How do you show up and carry yourself in life and work? How well do you embody the six attributes of mindfulness identified in this Provision? What could help you to embody them more fully? What is one thing you could do right now that would make you more mindful? Who could join and support you on the journey?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click HereTop

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

My particular favorite Yoda quote is: “Do or do not… there is no try.” To do it justice, you must say the word “try” with revulsion and disgust. I use that quote a lot. One of my friends swore I had an autoresponder defined in my email client that replied this quote if any message had the word “try” in it. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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