Arianna Huffington Assesses the Realities of Workplace Burnout

Once again, Arianna Huffington hits the nail on the head about what is happening in our 24/7 technology-oriented, always-on workplace. Her comprehensive view — Burnout: The Disease of our Civilization — captures how the culture of the workplace impacts our lives, our success and the success of our organizations.

In reading this astute assessment, I could not help but think of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Coming to Our Senses” and Kabat-Zinn’s crusade to bring mindfulness into everyone’s life. Like Kabat-Zinn, Ms. Huffington’s explores the benefits and need for mindfulness and other mind-body practices to address the stress, low productivity, lack of creativity — as well as failure — that result from burnout. Her Third Metric campaign is an important effort that will lead to needed change in our corporations and organizations. Let’s hope she and other thought-leaders continue to get traction in the business press and the mindshare of our leaders and executives.

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Clinging to Mindfulness – The Art of Rock Climbing

Clinging to Mindfulness – The Art of Rock Climbing.

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Clinging to Mindfulness – The Art of Rock Climbing

Coming off the 8-week UMass Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, I thought back to canyoneering and rock climbing at Zion National Park when I heard the following quote from Joanna Marcy

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“Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: Not the outcomes, but the motivations you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you chose to follow.”

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Mindful Leadership: Can Sports Teach Us Anything That Mindfulness Can’t?

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A “Sporting” Conundrum

It was a casual discussion with friends over a delicious meal. There was lots of lively conversation about politics and social issues when the topic turned to sports and their impact on women’s success and leadership abilities. Then the discussion became contentious.

One perspective, expressed by a college advisor, felt the fixation on sports is not helping students in their college and professional pursuits. In fact, this fixation was de-valuing the non-athlete and taking too much time away from intellectual and academic pursuits. The other perspective, expressed by women who had worked in corporate environments, believed in the value of team sports for women’s success. In their view, post-Title IX women had a stronger sense of confidence and better team-building skills that translated to being a better managers and leaders.

The debate, as I found among my friends, can bring out some very strong opinions and passions.

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Mindfulness from a Prison Cell

Last week there was much focus on South Africa and the transformation of this country by Nelson Mandela. As President Mandela continues to fight for his life — and heal his lungs damaged during his prison term – one cannot help but reflect on the contribution of this amazing and inspirational leader.

Richard Stengel collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography and traveled with him everywhere. Eating with him, watching him campaign, hearing him think out loud, Stengel wrote Mandela’s Way.  Stengel offers insightful lessons for leaders and he also touches on two qualities that contributed to Mandela’s leadership legacy — magnanimity and empathy.

Reflecting on these qualities and how the practice of mindfulness is being preached for business leaders, I could not help but wonder if Mandela’s time in prison and solitary confinement moved him into almost a constant state of mindfulness. Not that we want to find ourselves in President Mandela’s solitary confinement cell, but in a sense it’s having that time of deep reflection that executives, leaders and managers struggle to find in today’s “on” world.

Stengel writes of his interaction with Mandela about the impact of prison on the person, on the leader, he became:

“Many times I asked him, how is the man who emerged in prison in 1990 different from the man who went into prison in 1964? He kind of hated that question. But finally, out of frustration, he said to me, ‘I came out mature.’ In a way, that is such a key line. Prison was his great teacher. Prison was kind of a crucible for him. It taught him the long view. The young man who went into prison, in his mid-40s, was a passionate, tempestuous “rabble-rouser,” as he called himself. He was much more of a firebrand. Prison changed him. In some ways, what Mandela’s Way is about is learning those things that he learned in prison at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay.”

The definition of magnanimity captures so much of what we look for in our leaders — loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity. According to Mandela, this quality helped him be more controlled, self-disciplined, more measured and to take the long view of what he needed to accomplish. What comes immediately to mind is Mandela’s brilliant and unique venture to unite the apartheid-torn land by enlisting the Afrikaner’s national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. That required a truly magnanimous leader.

Similarly empathy, a quality most often cited of strong leaders, is demonstrated so often and so frequently that it’s hard to chose what best captures Mandela’s ability to reach out and “address the hearts” of his friends and enemies. One example Stengel notes is how Mandela learned the Afrikaner’s Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. His leadership was based on the strength of what he believed in – uniting South Africa.

A recent NYT op-ed column by Bill Keller noted that Mandela was a consummate negotiator. “Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun.”

And to think, this man developed into such an amazing leader not testing and experimenting with his leadership style over some 30 years. Instead he found his voice, his commitment and his passion to lead by spending these years in a meditative and mindful journey – imprisoned physically but freer than most of us in his ability to go deep within to explore and uncover what he needed to do.

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Mindful Leadership: Can Sports Teach Us Anything That Mindfulness Can’t?

A “Sporting” Conundrum

It was a casual discussion with friends over a delicious meal. There was lots of lively conversation about politics and social issues when the topic turned to sports and their impact on women’s success and leadership abilities. Then the discussion became contentious.

One perspective, expressed by a college advisor, felt the fixation on sports is not helping students in their college and professional pursuits. In fact, this fixation was de-valuing the non-athlete and taking too much time away from intellectual and academic pursuits. The other perspective, expressed by women who had worked in corporate environments, believed in the value of team sports for women’s success. In their view, post-Title IX women had a stronger sense of confidence and better team-building skills that translated to being a better managers and leaders.

The debate, as I found among my friends, can bring out some very strong opinions and passions.

It has so many perspectives and views based on our personal experiences and observations that the only area of agreement is to accept that we do not agree.

In reflecting on this debate — and thinking about my own beliefs in the power of mindfulness to enhance leadership skills — I decided to investigate what research has found about the impact of sports on women’s leadership and success. I uncovered two studies:

  • The first is a summary of research and commentary from the website Care2 on the 40th anniversary of passing the Title IX legislation and its impact on training new generations of leaders. It cites research conducted by Dr. Leanne Doherty from Simmons College focused on the role of sports cited by recent female candidates running for Congress. Care2 also points to EMILY’s List and the ranking of several members who competed in sports in high school or college.
  • The other study is based on a global survey conducted by EY (Ernst & Young) that links the role of sports in the development of leadership skills for female executives and their ability to motivate teams. The EY survey of 821 senior managers and executives (40% female, 60% male) found that in comparing C-level female respondents to other female managers, far more had participated in sports at a higher level. Interestingly, 55% of the C-suite women had played sports at a university level, compared with 39% of other female managers.

Sports v. Mindfulness Question

Returning to my thoughts on mindfulness and leadership, I could not help but wonder whether sports could do more than a mindfulness practice in honing and enhancing leadership skills. Let’s look at the qualities often mentioned in leadership training, particularly in the emerging focus on mindfulness as a path to enhanced leadership. The qualities more often mentioned include:

  • Discipline and Commitment
  • Confidence, Clarity and Creativity
  • Attentiveness and Awareness
  • Trust
  • Openness and Empathy
  • Magnanimity

I believe anyone who’s had been in a team sport would fully claim most of these qualities are critical to achieving a level of accomplishment in a sport and being part of a winning team. For the captain (aka leader) of the team, these qualities are even more important. So what then could sports possibly teach a leader that practicing mindfulness could not?

The Experience of Losing and Winning

What a team sport does that deepening our introspective skills cannot do alone is give us the day-to-day and week-to-week experience of winning and losing – of knowing that each game won is often followed by one that you lose and vice versa. Through these win/lose experiences we learn how to gracefully lose, respect your competitors and keep find equanimity (or keep your cool). Each time you lose a game, you learn that the world does not collapse, that there is another chance. Even more, you look at each game with a new, refreshed attitude and learn to let go of those deflated feelings of defeat.

In a sense, this experience becomes the foundation that enables each of us to develop our underlying leadership qualities.

For those who have not competed in a team sport, our understanding of how to overcome the devastation of feeling the experience of losing comes through years of working in the “real world” where projects are canceled, products lose out to the competition, start-up companies fail and jobs are eliminated. While these real-world experiences are a part of everyone’s career, it takes longer to gain the long-term perspective that we need as leaders.

In looking back at my “friendly discussion” about the value of sports, I wish I had thought this through before and been able to eloquently defend my belief in sports for women. Just like team sports can get us to our goals of leadership and effectiveness easier and faster, so too this little bit of research would have made my argument stronger and more convincing.

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