You made it through this year, here’s what you need to do now to thrive in the next
It’s the end of another year, and if you’re a senior leader, chances are this past year’s journey has been another rocky road. It’s possible that, when all was said and done, your organization’s performance these past 12 months came out fine. Good for you. But what about the road ahead? If you’re like most, it’s hard to project with any confidence – and you know the reason: The environment you, as a senior leader, are trying to navigate is without a doubt more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous than ever before. It was true last year. It was true for the two years before. It’s not changing. In short, this is our new abnormal.
Uncertainty is unavoidable, yet the road through it need not be rocky. There are proven ways to navigate and to thrive in this new abnormal. There are also ways to unintentionally keep the road rocky and to amplify the uncertainty – one obvious, one less so. The obvious one is to make the error of thinking about the uncertainty as if it’s temporary. The less obvious and more dangerous one is this: failing to be mindful.
Mindfulness. It’s a shame but a fact that many people, leaders included, mistakenly think of mindfulness as some non-business-related platitude that gets the occasional nod, but mostly remains buried within an organization’s wellbeing program marketing materials. In truth, mindfulness is the heart of wellbeing – individually, organizationally, and for the wellbeing of the business itself. Mindfulness is about ordering your brain around what’s most important first, it’s about being clear about the order of what drives what, and it’s about the ability to keep it all in proper balance, and in synch with the times. Clear-headedness. A clear order to things. Seeking balance with the environment in which you do whatever you do. Take note: I’ve not offered one word about meditation, yoga, a walk in the woods, or any of the tools so often associated with mindfulness in popular speak. It loses the point to think of mindfulness as being about the way to do it. The paths to being more mindful – as a leader, as a person – are many. What matters, especially in a wobbly world, is the recognition that without conscious mindfulness about what we do and why we do it, and commitment to staying mindful, we leave ourselves and our organizations open to the whim and the wallop of an ever-changing world.
Okay you say, I get it now, but how do I begin to be a more mindful leader? Mindfulness expert Jon Kabot-Zinn offers up a way. He suggests that mindfulness is the simple awareness that life, business, change itself, isn’t about “the objects” – you know, all those duties and deeds and “things” that fill our lives, our jobs, and our time; it’s about the attending. He just means it in a way you likely don’t expect, or practice.
Let’s get clear about the objects first. In a business, they’re all those things that day-to-day grab lion’s share of our attention … the projects we pursue, the products and services we produce and sell, but just as much the metrics around those things we diligently chase, track, and scrutinize. So important do these objects of business become, that it’s shockingly easy for those objects to grab so much of our attention that they suddenly become the reasons for doing themselves. As they do, they shift from being what they actually are – supportive and temporary, to being treated as primary and paramount. Why we pursue them gets assumed, even lost. So too does how those objects and our efforts fit into the surrounding environment and context in which we strive. You could argue that the objects need more attention, but that’s not what Kabot-Zinn means when he talks of attending. The attending he’s talking about isn’t about the objects. Being mindful, he makes clear, is about attending to the reasons why you pursue those objects in the first place. When all is said and done, mindfulness is about reminding ourselves that the objects have importance, but only in a relative sense. When we fail to see that, and when the landscape around us inevitably shifts, our risk of being taking off course and hurled down another rocky road rises exponentially.
When we talk of attending to why we do what we do, we are really talking about giving things like purpose, mission, and culture primary focus – not just in concept, but in our decisions and actions every single day. A volatile world isn’t survived or succeeded in just by being proficient at herding objects. Leaders today need to attend to the bigger things that drive and ultimately ensure the value of all the supporting objects. They need to do it daily. They need to do it by forging cultures of leadership. Short of that, they’ll find themselves this time next year looking back on another rocky road and forward to an uncertain future.