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Leading Well: Becoming a Mindful Leader-Coach Executive Summary

by Steve Gladis, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar

This is an excerpt from Gladis’ book, Leading Well: Becoming a Mindful Leader-Coach. Gladis co-teaches the Positive Leadership Certificate Program for our center and serves as CEO of Steve Gladis Leadership Partners.

Leadership is all about how you show up at work. And leaders who learn to be present in a mindful way rather than be distracted by regretful thoughts of the past or anxious thoughts of future develop great people, teams, and organizations. Leading Well: Becoming a Mindful Leader-Coach presents a road map for starting that journey to mindful leadership coaching. Here’s an executive summary of the book.

How Does the Mind Work?

For the purposes of this book, the brain is defined as the physical organ, and the mind relates more to our abstract thoughts – is the working brain. The brain operates on both emotional and rational levels. Often the emotional brain hijacks the rational brain and takes leaders and their teams on a mindless, unproductive, and even destructive ride. And one small structure, the amygdala, is at the center of it all. The amygdala sits in the middle of the emotional brain, the limbic sysem, and acts like a threat detector, much like a smoke alarm. It constantly scans for threats, both real and imagined. Unfortunately, the amygdala often reacts to mind-manufactured (imagined) threats where there are none, causing the brain to spiral into overreaction and dysfunction. Further, forceful leaders with authority and power who spiral out of control can seriously damage people, teams, and organizations. However, leaders who learn to become mindful can counteract this natural tendency to overreact to threats, especially the imagined ones. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of one of the most effective mindfulness programs in the world, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines it this way: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

How Do You Become Mindful?

This chapter describes how you actually can become purposeful, present, and nonjudgmental – in other words, more mindful. Simply put: “Stress finds you. You have to go looking for relaxation,” says David Gelles in Mindful Work. When leaders become stressed, they pass it along to their teams through emotional contagion that spreads like a psychological epidemic throughout the organization. How does that work? The body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is easily triggered by threats – both real and imagined – and sets off a chemical cascade triggering the “fight-or-flight” reaction in the body. Conversely, the “rest-digest” parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – triggered by mindful breathing – releases a whole array of calming and restorative rest-digest chemicals, the exact opposite of the threat response. The best way to switch the mind from fight-flight to rest-digest is to focus on rhythmic breathing. This is like the “big switch” that sets you on a new less reactive, more thoughtful track. The steps of mindful breathing are simply laid out in this chapter: first sitting quietly, breathing in and out; then, as the mind wanders, bringing it back to the breath, which exercises the mind’s control over threats and brings it back to calm. The more you practice mindfulness, the greater your ability to control the fight-flight reaction. The more mindful you are, the more present you become as a leader.

How is Mindful Leadership Coaching Used to Solve Problems?

Great leaders solve big problems. Some leaders engage in inefficient ways and dissipate energy if they follow some leadership models. However, efficient models build strength and energy. For example, there are autocratic, bureaucratic, charismatic, and democratic leadership models. Some leaders use a command-and-control approach, and others are “fixers,” who strive to save people. Fortunately, there are options among the various models, and the coaching model has emerged as a powerful one that focuses on helping people solve their own problems. This leadership coach-approach not only saves a leader’s energy but also builds employee engagement. The Leadership Problem-Solving Coaching Model helps develop leader-coaches, who assist others to solve their own problems. Based on the idea that people closest to the problem possess the most current information and are the most likely to solve the problem, the coaching model follows four simple but powerful steps:

  1. Problem: Get the person to accurately define the real problem or issue.
  2. Present: Determine the current state and impact of the problem.
  3. Possible: Examine the best possible future state, ideally what the future could look like.
  4. Plan: Outline the first steps that move people toward the best possible state and become committed to the solution.

How is Mindful Leadership Coaching Used to Develop Talent?

Talent development is at the heart of any successful business. No people, no mission. In a highly competitive world, companies must recruit, train, and retain talent. The ability to develop talent separates great leaders from the merely good. This is especially true today with baby boomers exiting the workplace in droves. Boomers are being replaced by millennials, who have both very different experience levels and a different view of work. Moreover, they are interested in frequent feedback, clear boundaries between work and play, and professional development. To adapt to this shift in worker philosophy, companies are adjusting their performance management systems.

Fortunately, with a simple adaptation, the leadership problem-solving coaching model provides an outstanding development and retention tool. First and foremost, the adaptation requires leaders to schedule periodic meetings with team members to discuss their careers. These should be conducted in an informal manner separate from performance appraisal sessions. Such meetings should happen two to four times a year. Further, a simple tweak of this leadership coaching model makes all the difference. Instead of starting with the problem, start with the possible. Here are the steps:

  1. Possible (future): What do employees see as their best possible career state in the next year or two?
  2. Present (state): Where are they new regarding readiness for the possible future state?
  3. Problem: What must they do to get form the present to future state? Essentially, they need to answer the question: What is the gap between the present and possible future states?
  4. Plan: What’s the plan to move forward?

What’s the first step, and how will their leader know they have done it? This developmental leadership coaching process might seems like a luxury or a burden for leaders; however, it provides the competitive edge in recruiting and retaining the talent of the future. Moreover, the more mindful and present the leader-coach and the coachee are during the coaching session, the better the solutions to problems.

How is Mindful Leadership Coaching Used with Groups and Teams?

Several-to-One Coaching: While one-on-one coaching provides an opportunity to reflect and thoughtfully solve problems, several-to-one leadership coaching amplifies the experience. In essence, four to five people coaching one person happens best when one of the participants act as the “managing coach,” ensuring that the other coaches follow the coach-approach process by asking questions, not giving advice.

One-to-Many Coaching: If you’ve ever sat through an endless, painful, and rambling committee or staff meeting, one-to-many leadership coaching is for you. The two critical problems facing most group meetings, regardless of size, are a woeful lack of structure and the disruptive presence of dominant, overly aggressive personalities. One-to-many coaching overcomes both of these issues. As in several-to-one coaching, one person must fill the role of “managing coach” to ensure that the group focuses on the four-step coach-approach process by asking questions rather than giving advice. This approach requires discipline and leadership, but the results are well worth the effort.