Putting the Zen in (Mindful) Leadership

I know what you’re thinking.

I need to find my breath? Set an intention?

Give me a break. I’m at work.

I’ve spent most of my professional career waking up each day visualizing a pie: You can’t eat the whole thing at once, you’ve got to take it one slice at a time. Sometimes I’ll picture triaging the pie by choosing the one slice that I have to eat first, or right now, either because I want to or because I have to in order to get to the next piece. But the whole pie never really leaves my brain. It’s always in front of me. And oddly, even as I remove the pieces, I always visualize the whole pie.

Enter Justin Talbot-Zorn, legislative director to U.S. representative John Conyers (D-MI), who’s here to suggest there’s a better way to manage what’s on your plate. Remember, Justin’s a Capitol Hill staffer who’s got a million meetings popping up throughout the day in addition to last-minute, urgent taskings that require his brain to be in overdrive. So if he’s constantly got the whole pie in front of him all day long, would he ever really be able to give each piece the attention it needs?

Justin maintains there is an overlap between mindfulness and leadership, and the purpose of his session was to present an overview of mindfulness techniques and their applicability to challenges in management and public service.

Nearly 200 NextGen Summit participants turned up just after the lunch break for Justin’s Mindful Leadership session on July 21. They might have thought the subject matter would offer their own minds a well-deserved rest because the session promised a meditation exercise.

Closed eyes and all.

There was meditation, yes, but rest, I would say no. Looking around the room, I think most people looked energized and stimulated.

Let me take you through where Justin, who has served as a mindfulness meditation teacher in the Congress and has studied extensively in Zen, Vipassana, and Shambhala meditation traditions, tried to take us. I could be wrong but I think his intention was to lead us on a journey ultimately to find authenticity, which Justin asserts is absolutely crucial to becoming mindful, to being an effective leader.

Find your breath

Before starting, Justin asked us to take 4 minutes to write a few sentences about why we are engaged in public service.

He asked us to take a moment to make sure our posture was straight but comfortable. The idea is to sit upright but without feeling any tension or strain in your back.

Then he asked us to find our breath and to allow this breath to be a simple anchor for our mind and body.

When your mind starts to wander, come back to the breath, he told us. Let the breath be a container for your mind.

As the thoughts arise, Justin asked us to notice the thought, acknowledge it, invite it in, let it know “I see you,” but then come back to the container, to your breath.

Next he asked us to imagine smelling our most favorite food or bottle of wine and to smell the air around us with the same interest as if we were a gourmet chef or a sommelier.

As he told us often throughout the exercise, there is no way to do this wrong.

As thoughts would pop into our heads, he reminded us to invite them in, tell them “I see you,” but then return to the breath.

It’s the breath in this moment that is all that matters right now, Justin said.

He asked us to feel how the breath interacts with our body. “As you breathe in, how does it feel in your stomach, in your legs? Right here, right now.”

So as those distractions arise, notice them, but then return to the breath.

Find your intention

Next Justin asked us to hold in our imagination or our mind’s eye someone we love dearly. From this connection with our simple breath, he asked us to hold the intention that the person be happy, safe, and well.

And then we did the same thing for a person we know but not well, maybe a person who works at the grocery store, and then for a person who irritates us.

He asked us to take deep breaths and to open our eyes and move our arms and toes before our second writing assignment. Then we took a few minutes to write down how we specifically envision our contribution to public service in the next six months.

Achieving mindfulness

Justin asked participants around the room to talk about what was different after the meditation exercise.

“My mind was clear to write down thoughts.”

“I felt more grounded after the breathing exercise. Before I was digging into memory reserves; after the exercise I was more connected with my thoughts.”

“Ideas came more easily and without pressure. During the first exercise, I wrote an idea and then crossed it out. During the second exercise, I was free writing.”

Sometimes we come into work so scattered, Justin said, trying to come up with creative ways to deal with what’s being thrown at us. He suggested that using simple meditation to connect with your breath and take notice of your thoughts can have a big impact on the quality of your thoughts.

You’ll start to notice the thought arrive into your mind but you’ll go back to your work. This is different from what we instinctively do, which is as soon as a thought pops into our head we drop what we were working on and focus on that thought for a second or two until the next thought pops in.

“If I’m doing a million things that stimulate me and I’m not connected to my breath it’s impossible to think coherently about a thought project,” Justin said. “When I’m scattered I’m focused on doing one thing for one second and there’s so much that I’m missing.”

Paying attention on purpose

There’s mindfulness in many different cultural traditions, Justin said, but typically not in the workplace.

One reason for this, Justin suggested, is because our minds are conditioned to judge, and especially in the workplace this is not necessarily a bad thing. While this is an impulse worth preserving, if we are constantly judging it is impossible to be mindful.

By learning mindfulness we can prevent the thoughts that go haywire in our brains from distracting us. For example, when “what’s for lunch” or “why did that person just say that to me” pops into our heads, we can notice the thought and not fight it, not judge it, and return to the anchor.

When we’re constantly judging ourselves we are not acting mindfully or skillfully, Justin said. And this could have an impact on our blood pressure, our memory, and our sleep patterns, all of which affect our performance at work.

Mindful leadership

So how does mindfulness have an impact on leadership?

Lots of research backs up the idea that practicing mindfulness and presence generates the kind of situational awareness that promotes creative solutions and compassion, Justin said.

It’s the same idea of putting on your oxygen mask first during an emergency when you’re on an airplane.

“I have to stabilize my own mind as a precondition for doing my work,” Justin said.

The way we function in society is about stimulus and response, and the idea is to cultivate the space in between stimulus and response so we can have the power to choose our response.

Mindfulness helps us do this, which is imperative in an age of connectivity where we’re really just doing one thing for one second. Today successful leaders are moving beyond fixed ideology because principles are of course important but the world is constantly changing and successful leaders are adaptable.

“Even when something bad comes up or when something goes wrong can be an opportunity for a leader to be present,” Justin said. “Adversity can be an opportunity to wake up. Every moment that you’re present you have an opportunity to make a decision.”

Mindfulness tools in the workplace

Justin agreed it’s challenging to practice mindfulness if you work in a cubicle. In that situation he recommends taking three conscious breaths wherever you are. Use your breaths to help you allow whatever is happening around you to go on as you let the breath become everything.

Take a walk – feel your footsteps. As you eat, let the anchor be the taste of the food.

Get creative with this, Justin said. There are a million ways to get more present, and the more you develop your career as a leader, this will become really essential.

What institutions need right now is charged action and the missing ingredient is leaders working with an air of authenticity, he said.

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

From July 20th – 21st we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

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Avatar photo Leah Anderson

I was in this session and this is a great recap. Even in a packed room, Justin had full participation from the audience with these exercises. I’m bookmarking this post to refer back to – thanks for the all the detail!