Friday, 21 June 2013

Leadership & the Capacity to Tolerate Pain

In today’s culture we hear a lot about leadership and in many ways live under the assumption that all people must aspire to some level of leadership in their lives.  Leadership does come with its benefits:  Permission is given to have influence; there is a measure of prestige and increased pay associated with leadership; leaders navigate change and shepherd visions; leadership can be a fun ride...  Often, it is also painful.  In fact, church consultant Peter Steinke states that leadership must include the capacity to tolerate pain.  This is true not only in the church world; it is also true in the business world.   We don’t hear much about this reality in leadership literature yet most leaders with whom I speak agree that pain and its partner, loneliness, are a part of the leader’s job description. 

One of the “greatest hit” articles in the Harvard Business Review is entitled Level 5 Leadership:  The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.  Jim Collins, the author of this article, states that excellent leaders give away credit and take on critique.  This is excellent advice but in the midst of a hard go when the people around the leader have not done their job well, this is hard advice.  And it leads to the pain and loneliness leaders are required to tolerate.

When leaders work at culture change, make mistakes, engage naysayers, mediate disputes, hear critique, manage organizational failures they come face to face with the challenges and pains associated with leadership.  How leaders tolerate pain defines their leadership.  Will leaders blame others for their pain?  Will they lash out against the people they are leading?  Will they become blind to their own contribution to their pain?  Will they become destroyed by the naysayers to the degree that their capacity to shepherd the organization’s vision is compromised?  OR, will they digest (and release) the pain in order to stay grounded and focused on both the organization’s overarching vision as well as what modifications are required of them (not the others) in order to more effectively live into this vision?  Excellent leadership must include the capacity to tolerate this pain.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Mindful Leader

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”  (William O’Brien)   
I have mulled over this quote at least 100 times.  Is this true?  If it is, I am both humbled and well, scared.  And maybe we should all be.  O’Brien after all was not talking so much about consultants as he was business leaders.  If this is true – it demands of those of us who see ourselves as leaders in any way, “How are we attending to our inner condition?”  
My own journey of leadership has led me directly and indirectly again and again into the practice of mindfulness.  While the term mindfulness emerges from the Buddhist tradition, every religion has some version of mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness itself has entered the mainstream in North America to the degree that its benefits no longer reside solely with those who would consider themselves religious.

Mindfulness has four fundamental principles on which it rests:  Attention, awareness, acceptance and release.  Attention invites us to focus on the now, to live fully in the present moment.  Why?  Because to lead well we must have the capacity to listen deeply to the wisdom as it is being revealed to us in whatever moment we find ourselves.  In addition, to be fully present to this moment we must allow our egos to rest in order to be fully present to the other, whoever that might be.  Part of our problem of course is that as we seek to live fully in the moment, our mind stirs up memories, judgements (of self and other), associations and distractions – all of which draw us away from the moment and all of which can enslave us to the protection of our egos.

Mindfulness invites us to become aware of these memories, judgements, associations and distractions, to accept them without judgement and then to release them.  If we are honest, many of us would recoil from the thoughts, feelings and sensations that make their way through our bodies.
 The wisdom of mindfulness is this:  We cannot release that which we have not accepted.  Further, as we practice non-judgement toward ourselves, we learn the discipline of practicing non-judgement toward the other or the situation; allowing a deeper wisdom and compassion to emerge.  

Having both accepted and released themselves, mindful leaders become grounded and almost strangely calm, yet very present; they listen deeply and with compassion for the wisdom emerging in whatever situation they – and the people they are serving – are in.  This is at the center of their gift to the interventions they lead.