Fuelling the Mindful vs Behavioural Leadership debate

09 Dec 2013

Judy LissingBy Judith Lissing.

There are many executives who strive for career progression roles, and when they get there, are not prepared for what it is – nor do they necessarily enjoy what was the dream. The higher your career advances, the more difficult it is to create the necessary dynamic balance of personal, community and professional life. Working unsustainable hours can disconnect leaders from friends and self. You may even lose sight of your original purpose and ideals as you get caught up in the ‘doing’ of the tasks at hand, focusing on achieving outcomes and KPIs.To direct others, leaders must learn to focus their own attention. When we talk about being focused, we often mean thinking about one thing whilst filtering out distractions. Neuroscience research shows that we focus in a number of ways and for different purposes and we draw on different neural pathways to do so. Daniel Goleman in his book Focus refers to three broad areas of focus -yourself, others and the wider world. In doing so he sheds new light on the practice of many critical leadership skills and describes why and how mindfulness is what he terms ‘smart practice’ for successful leaders.

Mindfulness is the art of learning to ‘just be’ and as Jon Kabat Zinn says, it can allow one to reclaim their position as a ‘human being’, not just a ‘human doing’. It is often described as paying attention without judgment. It’s the capacity to remain in present moment awareness as opposed to being stuck in our heads, our thoughts.

Our society puts great value on thinking about things critically and in many situations being judgmental is a prized quality, however, too often our judgments and criticisms invade our personal interactions, preventing us from listening and hearing clearly what is being said by others and from taking on-board valuable non-verbal queues. We’re too busy thinking of our next answer or refutation to listen.

A Mindful leader is attentive and observant, connected with the people she/he leads. And importantly, this connection comes from a place that is sincere and heartfelt. We know this as ‘authentic leadership’. Mindful listening requires a high level of attentiveness and in turn, this allows a deeper connection to develop. Connection that permits possibilities to emerge and opens us to solutions that may be less obvious when struggling with a stressed, problem-focused frame of mind.

The reason for this is not just philosophical but physiological. It has to do with the way our bodies and brains have evolved to deal with stress. When we are stressed our heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increases. We secrete stress hormones that prepare our bodies to run or to defend our territory (Flight-Flight or Sympathetic Nervous System response). Humans have evolved in this way because the caveman who stopped to consider the magnificence of the oncoming tiger instead of fleeing would become its dinner and not pass on his genes. The genes that survived belonged to individuals who instinctively ran or fought back in the face of danger. They reacted to the problem rather than thinking about it, and this rapid unthinking reaction is an essential survival quality when life is threatened.

In the business world our lives are rarely in danger, but it may feel that way because of workplace pressures. And our body reacts in the same way as it did when the tiger came bounding out of the bushes. As we curb the inclination to fight or flee, blood pressure continues to rise and stress hormones become toxic, causing stress-related illness.

The result is frequently reactivity and a problem-focused mindset


Our natural relaxation response (Parasympathetic Nervous System) opens and broadens the mind to consider alternative solutions and responses. Creativity and lateral thinking are enhanced.

Mindfulness, and in particular the practice of meditation, trains your mind to slow down and see the spaces in your life, the spaces where you can take the time to consider your responses thoughtfully instead of reactively. It develops within us the capacity to be present and observant; to listen deeply, authentically, and truly see what’s happening both for ourselves and for others. It encourages us to let go of the stories, habits and views we hold on to and identify with, considering others’ viewpoints with open acceptance. And it teaches us to be open and non-judgmental of both good and bad experiences with equanimity and courage, even with preparedness to express vulnerability.

Mindful leadership is significant for building resilience in an era when there is a high need for adaptability.

Judith Lissing is a Clinical Hypnotherapist, Mindfulness Trainer and Wellness Coach, with more than 15 years experience in teaching mental resilience and meditation. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree with Honours in Immunology and a Masters degree in Public Health, and is an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at UNSW.

Judith brings an evidence-based approach to her teaching of Mindfulness. She holds a deep conviction and passion for sharing meditation with others, born from more than 30 years of personal meditation practice. She also teaches pain management to people with chronic and life-threatening illness.

Judith Lissing Ph 0433 496 390 or email meditate@yourmindcoach.com.au