Leading mindfully is a radical challenge to corporate orthodoxy
Book review: Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair
I sometimes wonder whether we have reached peak mindfulness in the corporate world. So widely discussed – apparently embraced by banks, Google, the US Army – yet so hard to integrate into organisational culture. Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair at first looks like a contribution to the bandwagon. But it is, in fact, a profoundly subversive exposition of the philosophy of leadership. It takes us to places that aren’t routinely part of the discourse of management theory: the role of the senses, the pursuit of happiness, the erotic dimension of leadership. In its evocative depiction of what leading with integrity looks like, it highlights the malpractice inherent in leadership as we know it in most organisational contexts. Reading it before and after the Brexit referendum, I also found in the book insights on how Britain finds its way through the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead.
The first part of the book takes us through some paradoxes to be found at the intersection of mindfulness and leading. First off, leadership is often construed as a position or as an act undertaken by someone in authority but it is perhaps better understood as a process of influence between people that may be exercised by anyone, with or without authority. It is associated with thinking but is best exercised when it draws on non-thinking states such as sensing, intuiting and simple awareness. Leading is perceived as providing answers but is most effective when it is founded on listening and giving attention. Taken as a whole, leading mindfully eschews the messiah model of all-knowing leader and in fact places a premium on not knowing; instead of dominating the ground, leading involves stepping back and grounding oneself the better to let other people take the stage.
This takes us to a different, less narcissistic, view of what it means to be authentic in leading. Amanda Sinclair’s earlier work made a strong argument for scaling down the ego-driven aspects of leading. Here, she expands the discussion to deconstruct the fashionable idea of authenticity. Counter-intuitively, authenticity can turn into the fabrication of a narrative of how a leader’s backstory influences their leadership vision: artfully contrived, albeit while drawing on elements of truth. The problem with this approach is that it gets authenticity back to front. Just as Robert Phillips gleaned that the quality of trust in business is something that is earned not declared, so Amanda Sinclair points out that authenticity is an outcome of leadership not a strategy.
Mindful leading flows from being genuinely present to those you seek to lead, shifting your orientation from what you are doing to how you are being. This, in turn, is cultivated through how you seek to be as a person in your whole life: including but not restricted to what you practise when you’re in leadership mode. Leading mindfully is founded in the cultivation of mindfulness as part of your ethical being. It is built on understanding the sources that have shaped your leadership identity over the course of your life, not on extracting nuggets from your biography to weave into a useful leadership narrative. And here we encounter another paradox: although leading involves putting ourselves on the line, it entails becoming less absorbed with ourselves in order to be free to attend to the needs of others. As Amanda Sinclair puts it:
“Authenticity offers an overly simplified remedy in my view. While there may be some circumstances when it is helpful to others for us to hear and see heartfelt enactments of what matters to us, giving one’s self too much solidity can sometimes hold us in approval-seeking, failure-avoiding, anxiety-reducing and control-maximising spaces. Leading mindfully, then, may be less about you than about what happens through you… What this insight means to me is that it’s good to be ourselves lightly, with openness and presence, but without too much vested in our views or needs. The real identity task in leadership … is to step back from the drive to enact ourselves or perhaps inflict ourselves mindlessly on others.”
Here then is a challenge to the directive view of leadership. This needn’t be a binary choice. There are times when command and control can be entirely appropriate – not just in certain military scenarios or at times of national emergency but on the hospital ward or in the broadcast studio. But because it may have been effective for some given situations, it has become normalised to contexts where its application can be counter-productive. The UK may have been particularly susceptible to this, having cultivated norms of leadership through wars, empire and heavy industry. But even in contexts where a directive approach is applicable, it is rarely the only answer.
The core of Leading Mindfully is focussed on the emotional and spiritual aspects of leading – the relational considerations of how people respond to each other beyond the rationality of why a particular strategic direction makes sense. Sinclair discusses the role of the body in leading: how paying attention to one’s breath can create space to awaken the mind to what is happening in the moment; or how attunement to other physical sensations can provide valuable data about what is happening in oneself before the mind has begun to make sense of it. Sensing what things are like for people around you gives leaders the capability to grasp what is going on in an organisation or situation, and to correct course if necessary.
Amanda Sinclair observes that conventional wisdom often brackets out of leadership attention to emotion:
“Leaders keep their own feelings at bay and seek to curb others’ emotional expressions largely because it is safer that way. They sometimes confuse leadership with being in control, or at least looking like it, when in fact the opposite is more often true. Almost always the things that get in the way of leadership being enacted are unexpressed or repressed feelings. Allowing feelings in, and encouraging people to permit themselves to feel, is the gateway to inspiring and influencing others.”
And, in relation to a police chief’s work on domestic violence, she says:
“Intense and difficult feelings are often the central element of leadership work. They are not a side-effect of leadership actions. Acknowledging, shaping and directing feelings is the work.”
These insights seem pertinent to the Britain revealed by the Brexit referendum, a society which harbours strong, repressed feelings among large sections of the population. The Remain campaign, conducted entirely at the level of the rational argument for the status quo, failed to sense the wells of resentment of the existing order and thus failed to make a case that could engage people at an emotional level. The Leave campaign addressed itself entirely to the emotional factors with an insouciance for the rational that has led many to conclude that we are now cast into a post-truth politics. The ascendancy of Donald Trump in the United States and of the Corbynistas in the UK Labour Party demonstrate how the centre of gravity of a democracy can be thrown off kilter by these dynamics. If, as Ben Chu has observed, respect for the truth and scientific evidence are a barrier to descent into totalitarian abyss, then we need to learn desperately and quickly how to reconcile the leadership that resides in rationality with the mindfulness which pays attention to the broader picture.
The book closes with reflections on the place of love in leadership. This is not a concept that is much addressed in corporate culture and seems remote too from the post-Brexit landscape. Sinclair, though, links leadership strongly to love – which she presents as the drive to connect and unite. If our politics at present seem driven by the contrary desires to disconnect and divide, perhaps this points to a deficit of love in our political discourse. We may yet plumb the depths, but in Sinclair’s quoting of Martin Luther King we are reminded that hateful conditions sooner or later bring forth their antidote:
“Power at best is love implementing the demands of justice. And justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Sinclair’s argument resonates with Robert Greenleaf’s advocacy of servant leadership. It’s in the emotional core of leading, rather than the instrumental objectives of it, that people are likely to find their purpose.
One of the great strengths of this book is how it drags mindfulness from the domain of retreat from the stresses of life – where it is so often positioned in corporate culture. There’s no pretence that mindfulness is a panacea, nor that it can be attained without a significant commitment to practice. But that practice can be undertaken firmly in the thick of day-to-day leadership:
“In Buddhist philosophy, the mind and the heart are the same thing. The role of leadership with these teachings is building a strong, warm and compassionate heart. This is not a sentimental or indulgent activity. It’s a life’s work, requiring practice and perseverance, and it’s where many other good qualities come from, including wisdom and, often, insight. Cultivating compassion – a feeling for others and a desire to help relieve their suffering – is thus a very practical activity in leadership.”
To my way of thinking, mindfulness also raises questions about the influence on leaders of the systems and networks of which they are a part. Sinclair alludes to this in her discussion of the sources of one’s leadership identity. Leading mindfully implies becoming aware of how those influences are playing out in any given moment. Leaders often subconsciously align with corporate agendas uncritically, when sometimes they should be bringing scepticism to what they are being asked (or think they are being asked) to do. This is the foundation not just of ethical leadership but also realisation of the limits of management. There are dark sides to management: the way it invites leaders into colluding in the fiction that they can achieve the impossible, or the way those held responsible for an organisation’s corporate interests can lose sight of the interests of the broader communities of which they are part. The dark side fosters in apparently good people management that (to give a few examples) avoids taxation while capitalising on a society’s investment in public services, pollutes its own backyard or exploits poor labour conditions by pitting workforces in different countries against each other and offloading risk onto employees through zero-hours contracts.
These are questions for which those corporate cultures which jump on the mindfulness bandwagon seem ill-prepared. They seem more interested in mindfulness as an antidote for the pressures they pile on their staff. Their embrace of mindfulness is welcome nonetheless. In embracing mindfulness, they set in motion a dynamic that has its own momentum. To lead mindfully is to awaken to one’s presence as a leader. It begins with attunement to one’s self and those with whom you’re in immediate relationship. But before long, it puts questions of justice, equity and stewardship firmly on the agenda.
Image courtesy Britt-knee.