Monday, 10 December 2012

Coping with Leadership

There are many characteristics of leaders that are trotted out as being crucial for their personal success and that of the organisations which they manage and lead.  A shortlist of these traits includes superior cognitive skills and knowledge, fortitude, persuasiveness, decisiveness, charisma, authenticity, insightfulness, personality and character.  Obviously these range from ‘harder’ almost measurable qualities to those which are more a matter of subjective impression.

Managers and leaders are barraged with advice from consultants, TED gurus and the bookshelves of airport concession shops: be flexible & adaptable, be firm & have more of a backbone, keep it simple, deal with complexity, adapt, stick to your strengths.  Really, is it any wonder leaders who take this stuff seriously don’t become bipolar with the apparent conflicting advice.  Management is a notoriously trendy academic discipline; one of the best critics of guff at its most absurd is Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times and author of Who moved my Blackberry.  One of the trends I’ve noticed becoming more and more prominent in blogs and articles in the Twitterverse is management and leadership theories based on the truth claims and practices of Eastern spirituality.

A meditative practice which is receiving an enormous amount of attention these days – and not just in the pages of the Sunday Times Style section. Psychologies magazine or Oprah – is mindfulness.  It doesn't surprise me when these periodicals promote the latest, trendiest pop psychology ‘findings’, but mindfulness is being sold by management consultants and bloggers at the Harvard Business Review, which I find deeply alarming.  According to a specialist in the worldviews and practices of eastern religion, Marcia Montenegro, mindfulness isn't just a meditative practice but is an outlook on life derived from the Zen Buddhist notion of detachment; "detachment in Buddhism is necessary because Buddhism teaches that attachment to this world, to your thinking, to your identity as an individual self, and other attachments, such as desires, keep you in the cycle of rebirth.”

Now those who give mindfulness a go and sing its praises might say that these things are not of interest to them; it’s stress-relief and a break from ‘over thinking’ that they’re hoping to achieve so that in the end they can become better, more effective managers and leaders. 

Take Bill George in a recent HBR blog, “Mindfulness helps you become a better Leader.”  When he was executive vice president of Honeywell in the 1980s he says, “I was caught up with external measures of success instead of looking inward to measure my success as a human and a leader.  I was losing my way.”  George tried a TM workshop in 1974 and now considers meditation to be a key component of his daily routine; he says it has helped him to "stay calmer and more focused in my leadership, without losing the “edge” that I believed had made me successful.  Meditation enabled me to cast off the many trivial worries that once possessed me and gain clarity about what was really important.  I gradually became more self-aware and more sensitive to the impact I was having on others.  Just as important, my blood pressure returned to normal and stayed there.”  He also says that he never adopted the spiritual portion of TM but that the physical practice has become an integral part of his daily life.

Another example is Peter Bregman’s recent HBR blogpost, "Try Meditation to strengthen your Resilience".  Bregman is also is a keen proponent of meditation which he began to practice in order to find relief from the highs and lows of emotions he felt as a result of the various sorts of feedback he received from his writing and presenting.  He explains, “unless you find solid footing in your consistent, unshakable Self, you’ll be thrown off balance and lose your way.  You’ll change your mind at the first resistance.  You’ll become overconfident when praise abounds. And you’ll make poor decisions, just to feel better.”  Bregman says that he was in search of “something more solid, an alternative to being tossed around by external events that didn’t rely on pretence.”

He goes on to say that he found the solution to his problem in meditation: “As I followed my breath in and out, I noticed something I hadn’t paid much attention to before.  And paying attention to it changed everything.”  Through meditation, Bregman claims that he was able to find his unshakable Self which would help him to maintain his "equanimity, peace, clarity and judgment in the face of changing circumstances and pressures".  Meditation, he believes, allowed him to see that this 'Self' is always there, “watching.”  He then goes on to encourage readers of his blog to try meditation for themselves rather than taking his word for its benefits.  The result of concentrating on one’s breath, he says, will be that “you will notice that your mind is thinking about something…the person noticing those thoughts?  That’s you. That’s your Self.”

Bregman says, "you are not your thinking.  You are the person watching your thinking."  The concept he's trying to articulate is the Buddhist notion of the witness or observer which is not strictly a person at all.  Nevertheless, Bregman believes that it is detachment which gives a person control over their thoughts and emotions and greater courage in the face of risky situations because, he claims, “you’ll know, no matter what happens, that you’ll be fine.”

Here’s the zinger of his article and the part I find most disturbing: “Having a strong relationship with your Self will make you incorruptible.”

What does that even mean?  It isn’t clear at all that this has anything to do with thinking or behaving in a moral manner.  It’s the detachment associated with mindfulness, the Buddhist seventh step of the Eightfold Path.  As Marcia Montenegro explains on her website, “if one practices mindfulness meditation on a fairly regular basis, that person may eventually adopt the worldview behind it, leading one to believe that the process of detachment is at work.  However, since the self is real, there can be no true detachment; therefore, no liberation or true peace results from mindfulness.  The techniques of mindfulness meditation lead one to enter an altered state, the same state one is in when under hypnosis.  In this state, the meditator’s critical thinking and judgement are suspended, and anything can enter the mind.”  She states in another article:

Mindfulness meditation is not designed for stress reduction or or to be a trendy dabbling for harried Westerners.  It is rigorously religious and strictly spiritual.

What bothers me about the accounts of these two men’s meditation experiences is that they appear to be buying into the meditation trend without critically considering its origin or purpose.  They're simply saying that they found something which they believe is enhancing their ability to lead by controlling their cognitive functions.  Since they don’t believe in a spiritual realm, they think that it isn’t playing any role in their meditative practice.  I think this is like ordering a mimosa for the orange juice and stating that the champagne won’t affect you because you don’t believe it in.  Whether something is true or not is not dependent on whether someone believes it to be true or not.  Meditation, as Christine Pack so elegantly puts it, is like spiritual crack: “entering into an altered state of consciousness is playing with spiritual dynamite, and not in a good way.”

Is coping with stress important to leaders?  Clearly.  Is meditation, mindful or otherwise, the best way to accomplish this?  Obviously not.  There are many ways to lower blood pressure and heart rate including hobbies, creating art, walking, listening to music, writing a poem, reading fiction or having a bath.  OK, so walking your dog isn't going to make it into the HBR's blog, but it's far better for one's physical, mental and emotional health than suspending one's rational thought in order to detach from reality.

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