Leadership 2020 Newsletter: Mindfulness

We held our first Leadership 2020 design session all the way back in 2010. We had already done research, surveys, and program reviews in the preceding two years, but we needed something more.

So we brought together 15 people willing to disrupt the typical approaches to leadership development and training. Some came from the social sector, others came from business, but they all brought wisdom and curiosity—each had observed, questioned, tested, engaged, mentored, reflected, and been at the edge of innovation in their field.

That one-day design session gave shape to a Leadership 2020 program that has remained more or less the same since day one. We began by identifying our three pillars of great leadership—personal, practice-based, and participatory. We later added a fourth pillar—perceptive—and built atop them a generative curriculum and a unique pedagogical approach to leadership development.

In the seven years since there have been countless books and articles and presentations on the need to reimagine leadership in a similar way. So what was it that enabled our group of 15 people—most of whom didn’t know one another—to really see what kind of leadership was truly needed? How were they able to sort through the noise what everyone else thought was important (labour relations, financial analysis) and envision a new way forward? I think it has a lot to do with presence.

According to Otto Scharmer, an MIT professor, researcher, and author of several books on this idea, the success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on what we do or how we do it, but on the inner place from which we operate.

As leaders, we can be educated and practiced in many areas but if we are not actively engaged in discovering our own internal processes, patterns, strengths, and blind spots, then we too risk becoming focused merely on the what and the how of our work instead of the purpose of our work, the “place from which we operate,” and (perhaps most importantly) the people we need to engage with and learn from and create space for.

Our design team brought their presence and awareness to the discussions back in 2010 and they wisely identified the first pillar of leadership development as the personal—in other words: “we are the work.” And that’s the unifying theme of this very first new-and-improved Leadership 2020 newsletter.

Insight and mindfulness

I have been practicing Vipassana or “insight meditation” off and on (mostly off) for the past 37 years. When I was able to sustain my daily practice of meditation, I felt more grounded, centred, and resilient. But lately, I have been rather inconsistent in my practice.

That was until several Leadership 2020 participants inspired me to rekindle my Vipassana practice. And I have since found some wonderful teachers that offer their guided meditations online. Here are a few of my favourites.

Tara Brach – Dr. Brach is a psychologist who has woven mindfulness practices into her work on trauma and healing. She offers dozens of guided meditations on her website and resources for everyone from beginners to advanced practitioners. (She also has two beautifully written books: Radical Acceptance and True Refuge.)

Sharon Salzberg  Sharon has been a meditation teacher and practitioner for over 40 years. If you are a podcast lover, check out Sharon’s Metta Hour podcast. She applies her insights to everyday life and invites a diverse array of practitioners to the program (including Dan Siegel, bell hooks, Ram Dass and Inner City Youth).

Kristin Neff  Dr. Neff is a researcher and teacher who has been at the forefront of mindful self-compassion practices. Her website offers guided meditations, self-compassion resources, and tips for your own meditation practice.

Implicit or unconscious bias

Over the past few years, we have shared many articles about implicit bias and, more specifically, the work of Mazarhin Banaji and Tony Greenwald on ‘blindspots’ or the hidden biases we all have.

In work that Wedlidi Speck and I have been doing on cultural safety, we have been repeatedly reminded how powerful, insidious, and harmful implicit biases can be when they serve to maintain the dominant orders and privileges.

Implicit biases are unconscious and this makes them very hard to uncover and address. However, mindfulness practices can help us observe the thought patterns that reflect these biases.

The Implicit Association Tests curated by Harvard’s ‘Project Implicit’ can offer insights into some of our implicit attitudes. And once we are able to see these biases in action, we become much more able to understand and address them. You can take the Implicit Association Tests here.

Decision-making and bias

This article by David Rock and Heidi Grant Halvorsen builds on the work of Banaji and Greenwald (above). It explores contemporary neuroscience research to show how new organizational practices can shift even the most ingrained thinking.

The authors explain some of the more common types of bias and describe the ways in which our biases show up in the workplace and how they affect decision making and human resource practices. For example: “People overestimate the degree to which they can control negative effects of a disaster, and underestimate the time and effort it would take to prepare.

But thankfully, the authors also offer some strategies for mitigating the negative impact of our biases. You can read the full article here.