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In a Bad Spot? Try Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a not a concept most of us are likely to encounter at work. This excerpt from the new book Resonant Leadership describes how self-awareness can help you stay calm in a crisis.

Navigating the unknown
When dealing with a crisis or the unknown, we simply cannot predict what is to come. It takes confidence and optimism to let go of preconceived notions while also studiously opening oneself to new information and solutions. The process of opening up can make us feel vulnerable, even afraid. Many leaders simply shut down in order to avoid this kind of uneasiness. Many also shut down to prove to people around them that they are decisive and know what to do (even when they do not). Avoiding openness—and vulnerability—results in a narrow focus and can ultimately cause you to slip into mindlessness.

Most of us experience times when it seems easier to give up what we believe, step away from our principles and go along with the status quo. Sometimes, behaving in the politically correct way is a lot easier than staying true to ourselves. Then it becomes all too easy for people to demonstrate values only when someone is watching them or it is convenient. Sometimes we feel vulnerable simply because no one seems to see things as we do, and no one else seems to have the courage to stick it out and do the right thing. When we feel like this, it is easy to lose confidence in ourselves, to question whether in fact we are doing the right thing or just being stubborn. Knowing where your personal line is, and also having people around you who share your values, whom you can trust and talk to, makes a huge difference.

Dan Sontag, Vice President and Head of the Advisory Business at Merrill Lynch, stepped onto what he referred to as "Wisconsin spring ice" when he began managing the private client business at Merrill Lynch. Why spring ice? Well, the landscape looked solid and safe, but in fact the surface was perilous, and just underneath the waters were raging. He was managing people who had just yesterday been peers, and he was doing it at time when the industry and the company were in turmoil. At Merrill, the new top team had defined a radically different strategy. Many of the old guard had left, and the web of relationships that had been the mechanism for influencing decisions was disrupted. Certain key aspects of the company's culture were not standing the test of time. A new culture had not yet emerged, so those rules that guide behavior in small and large ways in a business were simply not as clear as they had been in the past.

When faced with this kind of turbulence, mindfulness becomes even more important. You need more, rather than less, information, and it is generally more difficult to get. You need to leverage your strengths and find those people who are succeeding despite the disruptions. You need to stay calm.

Dan's response? He told us that he got very, very clear about those few core beliefs that had always guided his decisions and behavior, even in the midst of confusion and change. He also held onto the following tenets:

  • Build trust through clarity and consistency.
  • Make sure you never profess beliefs when people are watching, only to act differently when the temperature rises and the pressure is on.
  • Know that you will feel uncomfortable, even vulnerable, because in the midst of real change around you, the rules are not clear and politically expedient behavior is very tempting.

It takes courage to stand on fragile spring ice, carefully choosing each step based on conviction. In high-pressure situations like Dan's, many people point outward: They find reasons for their problems outside of themselves. They blame others or the situation and they look for excuses. Good leaders point inward: They take personal responsibility for what is happening and what needs to be done, even when circumstances play a definitive role. Dan Sontag routinely asks himself, "What is my part in creating this situation and what do I, personally, need to do about it?"

In high-pressure situations . . . most people point outward: They find reasons for their problems outside of themselves.

Mindfulness starts with self-awareness: Knowing yourself enables you to make choices about how you respond to people and situations. Deep knowledge about yourself enables you to be consistent, to present yourself authentically, as you are. We trust—and follow—people who are real, who are consistent, whose behavior, values, and beliefs are aligned. We trust people whom we do not constantly have to second-guess.

Honing the skills of mindful attention to oneself enables us to make better choices because we recognize and deal with our internal state—thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions. We are then better able to make sense of people and situations around us. Our perceptions are clear, not clouded by our own filters, biases, and unexplored or unacknowledged feelings.1 Through purposeful, conscious direction of our attention, we are able to see things that might normally pass right by us, giving us access to deeper insight, wisdom, and choices.

Understanding your environment and the people around you
For a leader, each conversation and exchange is an opportunity to gather valuable information about people, groups, and cultures, while building relationships and resonance. Attending carefully to our human environment and our relationships enables us to see details we may have missed and generate more accurate ideas about what is really going on. We notice subtle patterns in people's behavior, group dynamics, organizational processes, and even worldwide events. When we are mindful, we are more in control of ourselves and situations simply because we see reality more clearly.

Judi Johansen, president and CEO of PacifiCorp, an investor-owned utility company in the western United States, sees mindfulness as a way of life and a necessary baseline for success as a leader of a complex business.2 Some years ago, when she was still practicing law, Judi represented the "Lilliputians" in a case that would determine who would determine electric rates in one part of the country. At the low point, Judi's clients were not even at the negotiating table, much less influencing decisions. Judi describes reading the situation this way: "I saw that the path they were going down was not going to get them where they wanted to go. I saw disunity in the group." She saw that the one hundred or so representatives of the small companies did not share an agenda and as such could not possibly fight the big guys.

It would have been easy to attend to the loudest, most powerful voices in her client group, or to attempt to hammer out a common position by herself (she did know what she was doing, after all). But Judi was paying attention to the dance between people and groups. By listening to their conversations, watching how they interacted, and noting what they hinted about one another in one-on-one discussions with her, she saw subtle signs of competition and mistrust among the members of the group. She also noticed the opposing side's quiet satisfaction in the face of this situation.

And Judi acted on what she saw. One memorable day, she managed to pull all one hundred-plus clients together in the parking lot of a hotel. Microphone in hand, she recounted what she had seen: the disunity, how it was not serving them, how their opponents loved every minute of it. She pointed out how obvious it was—to everyone except themselves. She called on them to reach across the competitive boundaries and join together as one voice. It worked. Judi's mindful approach to both the environment in which she was operating and the people with whom she was dealing—her careful awareness and attentiveness to this delicate situation—resulted in the group members putting their competitiveness aside, getting a seat at the negotiating table, and ultimately achieving their aims.

Some years later, Judi found herself in yet another situation in which her mindful approach to the environment and people would be crucial: she was appointed as the first female administrator at Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency selling electricity and setting energy policy affecting four states, fifty-two Native American tribes, investor-owned utilities, public utilities, numerous commissions, and various state and local governments. Talk about complexity: Judi's job was to create the blueprints for and then to build commitment to plans for allocation of finite resources across multiple constituencies with insatiable needs.

To succeed, Judi had to scan her environment. It was not enough to rely on the institutional folks whose job it was to monitor information and opinion. She had to get personally involved. She needed to be up close and personal—talking to people, listening to what was said as well as what was not said. Judi constantly assesses how people perceive things, noticing everything that goes on. She watches individuals and the dynamics between people. She tracks body language as carefully as what is said, noticing everything—even people's annoying habits at meetings, which can impart valuable information about their level of anxiety, competitiveness, acceptance, or rejection of ideas and the like. She has trained herself to interpret—accurately—the conversation that goes on behind the words. When she studies people, she generates hypotheses about their underlying feelings, motives, relationships, etc. She tests her perception subtly, and when she is that much surer she really understands what is going on, she can act based on this deeper understanding.

In the end, she has succeeded time and again, managing to support the creation of numerous plans that optimize resources and that have not only met the needs of constituents but have also enabled them to make the necessary tradeoffs at critical junctures.

Today, Judi's mindful attention to people and to her environment gives her the ability to truly understand the needs of her organization and its constituencies. As she puts it, "Mindfulness is a way of life. This is what I do."

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business School Press, from Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Copyright 2005 Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee; all rights reserved. To order, please call (800) 988-0886.

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Richard Boyatzis is a professor in the department of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve.

Annie McKee is co-chair of the Teleos Leadership Institute and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.


1. Self-Awareness: The ability to monitor one's thoughts, feelings, and responses enables us to engage more effectively with others. See Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

2. Much of the information about Judi Johansen in this chapter is taken from author interviews and correspondence, 2004.