Excerpt from “The Mindful Leader” by Michael Carroll
Enjoy this excerpt from a recording that stresses the importance of mindfulness in the workplace, particularly among those in a position of authority, from Michael Carroll’s The Mindful Leader: 10 Principles for Bringing Out the Best in Ourselves and Others.
Part One Introduction: Inspiring the Best in Ourselves and Others
As workplace leader, it seems that we are always trying to grow the business, meet the deadline, close the deal, and finish the project. And the speed and pace can be intense – getting it done faster, better, cheaper, and smarter. Such a style of leadership with all its ambition and energy has its benefits no doubt, but it also has a profound blind spot: in our relentless pursuit of “success,” we too often forget to live our lives. When we lead a career that is sharply focused on being more successful, more admired, or just more comfortable, we can deceive ourselves into neglecting the world around us. We end up managing our lives like projects rather than actually living them. Consequently, for mindful leaders, cultivating this ability to be at work and throughout our lives is not just a nice idea or an interesting thing to do. Rather, by learning to be at work we discover how to stop kidding ourselves and respect the world around us. In the next several chapters we will explore the importance of learning to open respectfully and realistically to our workplace as it unfolds in the present moment.
Chapter One: Opening Up to Workplace Realities
The kinds of leaders we encounter at work are generally what we call “top-down” leaders. We are all pretty familiar with this approach. There is the boss who has the “top” job and tries to get others “down” in the organization to do things. Small organizations such as medical teams and big organizations such as governments all have a leader at the top and others down below who are expected to follow. All of us at times are the leader and at other times the follower, and when it’s our turn to lead, we work hard to get results. Surprisingly, becoming the boss at the top is usually more distressing than we expect, but nonetheless, we do our best to get the job done. While overly simplistic, this is the kind of leadership we normally encounter at work, and we tend to take such an approach pretty much for granted. This kind of “top-down” leadership can be quite effective for managing organizations. Setting priorities, allocating resources, directing strategy – these and much more can best be done when we, as leaders, have a wide view from atop an organization. And when top-down leadership works, we all feel pretty good. We know what’s expected of us, we have a clear sense of purpose, and we all pull in the same direction. But things don’t always go so smoothly at work, and instead of pulling in the same direction, we can sometimes feel as if we have lost our way: we can feel “misled” and a bit discouraged, as if a burdensome and limiting “lid” were placed on top of us and our workplace. Lids are common at work: unreasonable deadlines, rude colleagues, careless managers, onerous bureaucracy, frivolous demands – unfortunately, the list is long and familiar. Such lids are permitted to cover organizations when we, as leaders, lose our perspective and become out of touch with the realities of getting the job done. Instead of taking a wide, realistic view of work, we mistakenly hurry through our circumstances, overlooking advice, chasing deadlines, ignoring business facts, and frantically pursuing success. And despite all our good intentions, such a narrow, determined view derives us to put lids of pointless pressure on ourselves and others – demanding results rather than inspiring them, chasing opportunities rather than inviting them, insisting on respect rather than earning it. In the end, when lids are placed on organizations, we can find ourselves losing patience with our lives and in turn trying to conquer or dominate our work rather than accomplish it.
While such lids may be familiar to many of us, they are also a most bedeviling, pervasive, and unintended feature of our modern workplace. Hundreds of studies have documented the effects. According to the Yankelovich monitor, 18% of full-time American workers are considered “workaholics,” working more than 50 hours a week – up from 13% in 1999. The Journal of Psychosomatic research reports that panic attacks, chronic worrying, and depression have increased by 45% in the US over the past 30 years. In The American Institute of Stress has documented that 1 million American workers are absent from work each day due to stress. Many organizations work quite hard trying to remove these lids in order to encourage trust, candor, and mutual respect –often with limited results. There is no blame here, of course. We all create the lid to some degree – boss and subordinates together. Most leaders I have met throughout my career are often dumbfounded at how people in their organization feel pressured to keep their mouths shut and avoid risks. And most employees are equally dumbfounded at the fact that their leaders seem to be in the dark about the pressures to conform and not rock the boat. Everyone to some degree is well meaning; everyone to some degree is out of touch. And all of us to some degree create the lid. From a Buddhist point of view, however, removing the lid of pointless pressure and regaining a realistic view of work is a vital spiritual challenge if we intend to lead a confident and inspired life. As workplace leaders, our intention is not to create pressure cookers for our colleagues, and none of us want to stew in our own juices. While top-down leadership has many benefits, Buddhism, does not permit us to view livelihood simply from the top down, nor can we wait for someone else to take the lead in contributing to our world. In fact, for Buddhists, learning to become a leader who can inspire and build a decent world without lids is at the very heart of living a spiritual life, and traditionally, to become such a leader requires us to travel what is called the bodhisattva-warrior path, or the way of the mindful leader.