“How can I be a better leader and motivate my team during COVID? Is that something you do?” my client asked longingly. “My thinking’s never been as positive as I’d like, and I know I’ve paid a price. I also need something to fall back on when things get hard–can you help with that?” Without waiting for my reply, he went on to describe what others have called an all-too-familiar moodiness, which often results in one of two default stress reactions whenever he’s triggered—abruptly snapping at those around him, or shutting down and disengaging further. 

I was struck by his genuine yearning and evident commitment to finding answers to his questions. Palpable was his bewildering sense of how or where to begin better knowing and growing himself and his team. Audible were the undertones of self-doubt and faithlessness in his ability to execute on any of it, while also acknowledging feelings of guilt and shame about how he was, or more to the point, wasn’t showing up and inspiring his team.

If you find yourself more frenetic than calm, choosing fear and worry over equanimity, feeling frustrated and easily triggered, you’re not alone. The world is changing all around us. If you want to keep up, better know and grow yourself, and successfully balance concern for your team with the need to move your organization forward in an efficient, productive manner, it’s time to embrace these three emotionally intelligent practices. 

Emotionally Aware And Mentally Fit

Using long-established practices and wisdom about the mind from Eastern traditions like Buddhism in a secular manner, mindfulness is a practice for developing self-awareness and self-compassion, which results in a greater sense of calm, clarity, easefulness, and ultimately, more effective engagement and authentic leadership.

Mindfulness enhances our ability to be aware of our thoughts, feelings and surroundings moment to moment in a nonjudgmental way. A particularly critical skill for my client, who shared that his mind is constantly spinning, thinking of a thousand different things, jumping between subjects, and oftentimes, he isn’t actually aware of what he’s thinking about or why. All too often, his ego gets involved, protecting, resisting, being fearful, causing him to over-analyze and even second-guess himself. By being fully present and aware of, but not overwhelmed by, his emotions, however, he’s learning how to make decisions with more clarity and wisdom, and stay focused on achieving his organization’s goals, rather than responding with fear and anger, which often results in sub-optimal outcomes. Research shows that mindfulness practices expand an individual’s capacity to remain focused, diffuse conflict, build collaboration, perform under pressure and positively influence the behavior and well-being of others.

Being able to stay calm, open-minded, and quickly adapt to shifting circumstances in this wild new world, is and will continue to be a competitive advantage.

To begin practicing mindfulness, try this centering technique the next time you’re presented with a frustrating email, triggering event, or challenging personality.

  1. Slow down and notice the feelings in your body. Is your breathing quick and shallow? Is your face flush? Is your chest tight?
  2. Take 5 deep, fortifying breaths in, and long exhales out.
  3. As you do so, feel your mind begin to center and calm itself. When your thoughts sneak back in, as they will, just notice you’ve been distracted, let it go, and come back to your breath.
  4. Check in with your body again. Are you still holding tension? If so, repeat steps 1-3 until your body has relaxed and released the stress.
  5. Come back to the email, event, or individual and reexamine the situation. Feeling more settled, with a clearer mind, you can see a way through. Can you access the intuition and creativity that has gotten you here. Can you respond in a way that allows you to set the tone and show up as the leader you want to be, instead of the reactive, dismissive one.
  6. Your team respects and appreciates you more, because you show up for them, rather than shutting them down.

Better Know And Grow Yourself 

Leaders who want to raise their self-awareness must prioritize time for quiet introspection and reflection on their life stories, crucibles and experiences to better understand how these contribute, oftentimes unconsciously, to their motivations and behaviors. In a nutshell, great leaders do this by practicing self-inquiry and self-acceptance to better know and embrace their whole selves. They spend time exploring their emotions and considering how their behavior affects the people around them. They engage their anxiety and feelings to grow themselves and their team. 

Without the steady current of anxiety flowing just beneath the surface, my client is finding he’s now better able to set the tone and lead in a more conscious way.

He’s using the leadership challenges that arise to actually complete his own process of self-discovery and growth, signaling it’s safe for everyone on his team to do the same. Firmly committed to creating a humane work environment so that the best in his employees can thrive. Research shows that teams with psychologically safe workplace cultures have employees who are less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who are more productive and successful. 

Love And Accept Yourself

In the process of becoming more self-aware, great leaders learn to accept their weaknesses, failures, and vulnerabilities, just as they appreciate their strengths and successes. In learning to do this, my client is developing self-compassion and the ability to relate to the world around him in a more authentic way, more comfortable acknowledging his vulnerabilities, gaps in his knowledge, and mistakes he’s made, rather than trying to appear perfect and as if he has all the answers. In understanding himself and who he is at a deeper level, he’s learning how to reframe his failures and negative experiences into positive growth opportunities. 

Leaders who develop self-awareness and self-compassion are more resilient, better able to cope with high levels of stress and pressure, rather than revert to emotional outbursts, or shutting down and withdrawing, just when their leadership is needed most. In taking a constructive attitude towards his leadership efforts, rather than a critical or harsh one, my client is building his capacity to navigate challenges and unpredictability, while also maintaining his ability to empower his employees to perform at a high level, even under challenging circumstances. When handling difficult conversations, or addressing team members who are emotionally triggered, and/or struggling with a project, he’s consciously choosing to lean in with compassion—he acknowledges and validates, which are leadership qualities that build trust and rapport, and foster improved communication skills and stronger relationships. 

So why don’t leaders everywhere use these simple tools to build more creativity, loyalty, and resilience in their organizations? Because they don’t know how.

They don’t teach you how to tune into yourself and those around you, or how to hold space for your team at Harvard, or any other Ivy League institution for that matter. But this is the deciding factor. This is what allows the cream to rise to the top. And anyone can do it. You just have to have the courage to be honest and open to other possibilities and perspectives. The courage to examine yourself. The courage to work through your shadow spots, rather than denying or defending them.

Conscious leaders hold themselves accountable to the same, if not higher, standards as their team.

They speak with integrity, lead with authenticity, and earn your respect and loyalty.

They listen with the intent to understand, rather than just respond. 

They shut up and listen, rather than shut down, the people around them.

Think back to the last problem you and your team had to solve. Did you shut up? Or shut down? Were you a generous leader, building up those around you?  Or were you quick to remind them why you’re at the top?

We’ve all had that boss that makes you excited to be on the team. You work harder for them. You finish your work and leave for the day feeling energized and having accomplished more, just having been in their presence. Don’t you want to be that boss? It starts with listening to understand and leaning in with compassion.

For some of the greats, this comes naturally. But for most, they work hard, behind the scenes with experts like myself and my colleagues, to reboot the programming that successfully got them to the top, but won’t keep them there. Somewhere along the line they had to make the switch and learn a different way of operating. Being a conscious, inspirational leader is absolutely a learnable skillset.

To begin raising your self-awareness and practicing compassion for yourself and those around you, try this exercise:

Begin by finding a 5-15-minute brain break, a quiet space to think, as part of your morning routine, lunch break, or end of work day ritual. Whether using the centering technique already mentioned, mindful walking, meditation, or even journaling, incorporate a supportive, calming phrase on each exhale, like “This is hard right now,” “I’m not alone, other leaders are facing similar challenges,” or “What would I say to a friend who was struggling with a similar challenge?” By building our capacity for self-compassion, we’re training our brain to incline towards self-kindness, making it an easier and more habitual response when things are tough. Try this for even one week. The benefits outweigh the effort, I promise. It’s a necessary part of being able to lead in a more sustainable and impactful way. It’s how you show up as the best version of yourself for your team, and your family. 

Increased Connection And Collaboration, Greater Trust And Loyalty

Cultivating a more human-centered and compassionate approach to leadership eliminates the long-held belief that leaders need to have all the answers and be perfect all the time, while also removing limitations on growth and scalability. My client is learning to leverage the resources and talents of his team, who collectively are better able to guide the operations than he could alone. Consequently, he’s freeing himself up to spend more time asking those working around him what they need to thrive. Listening with compassion, acknowledging and validating, and always seeking to enhance his employees’ development in ways that unlock their potential, creativity, and sense of purpose.

Here’s what listening with compassion looks like, try it the next time someone on your team comes to you with a problem:

  • Stop what you’re doing and make eye contact, allowing them to feel seen.
  • Lean in and nod along.
  • Ask them for suggested solutions, as a positive outcome typically depends on their input and buy-in.
  • Thank them for sharing their challenge with you.
  • Then go and work together, identifying an appropriate path forward and asking how you can best support them.

Research shows the result is higher levels of commitment and increased engagement, which ultimately reduces costly turnover. Moreover, my client’s well-trained and trusted team members are developing into future leaders, thus helping to ensure the long-term viability of a thriving organization and healthy workplace. 

Great leaders know themselves as well as they know their craft.

Importantly, they also practice compassion for themselves and those around them. Compassionate leadership creates stronger connections between people, improves collaboration, raises levels of trust and enhances loyalty.

Studies find that compassionate leaders are also perceived as stronger and more competent.

If you want to keep up in this wild new world, better know and grow yourself, and successfully balance concern for your team with the need to move your organization forward in an efficient, productive manner, shoot me an an email and we can talk.