Mindfulness, Self-Compassion Are Effective Tools For Today’s Leaders

By Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute

Today’s leaders are required to handle multiple complexities and ever-changing shifts in technology, competition, the economy, and employee expectations. During challenging times, some leaders, in their efforts to do the right thing, may tune-out self-awareness, fearing that it will get in the way of clear vision and making appropriate and fair decisions.

In the past, a mark of a good leader, in some organizations, was to ignore their own human experience and to make decisions based on data and facts; to be controlled and emotionless and face the hard choices with their armor on. Other leaders, in an effort to lead by example, strive to put others before themselves, and nurture the well-being of the team.  However, this approach can also encourage ignoring or minimizing one’s own experience.

Shutting down our self-awareness, in my opinion, is as effective as shutting off our headlights at night as we drive down new roads; how do we navigate the journey if we refuse to shine the light on where we are?

Two tools that can be very helpful to today’s leaders are mindfulness and self-compassion. Research shows these two approaches can optimize decision-making, improve emotional intelligence and resilience, and enhance personal and professional growth.

Mindfulness is described as paying attention, on purpose, without judgment, to the present moment (Kabat-Zin 2003). By being fully present to the current moment, you are able to see more clearly and respond more effectively to what is needed most. Numerous studies have shown mindfulness has a positive effect on pain, stress, depression, anxiety, and overall health. Studies also indicate that practicing mindfulness for short intervals (three minutes) throughout the day can have the same positive effect as meditating for 30 minutes.

Quick mindfulness exercises can include:

  • Focused breathing for 2-3 minutes. Sit quietly and follow the air as you inhale and exhale, notice when your mind wanders off and bring it back to your breath.
  • Checking in with yourself throughout the day: What am I feeling? (Remember to refrain from judgment, just notice.) Or do a quick body scan: Do I feel any muscle tension? Where?
  • Being fully present as you go for a walk (What am I hearing? Seeing? Smelling? Feeling?) or take a shower (What does the water feel like? What colors do I see in the bubbles? What does the soap smell like?)

Self-compassion takes mindfulness a step further, and research indicates it can also greatly enhance leadership effectiveness. Most of us, whether we are leaders or not, try to motivate ourselves with shame, blame, criticism, and judgment. Often times we speak to ourselves in ways we would never speak to a friend, family member, or even a stranger! Yet, most of us think that if we show ourselves kindness, we will become complacent and lose motivation. Research indicates that self-criticism actually undermines our ability to grow and to meet our goals.

Self-compassion is accepting who we are now, in this moment, with all our vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It is about acknowledging our human experience, and offering our self the same kindness, compassion and support we would offer to a friend or loved one.

In the book “Self-Compassion,” author Kristin Neff describes self-compassion as having three core components: kindness toward yourself when you are struggling, acknowledging that everyone struggles sometimes (it’s part of being human),  and identifying ways you can be kind to/encourage yourself.

Self-compassion can enhance our ability to become self-aware, to connect with others, to learn from failure, and to continue to grow. Mindfulness can enhance our ability to be fully present, to see clearly and respond effectively. And those are, in my estimation, some very admirable and essential qualities for today’s leader.

Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute
Denise Hellekson, The Village Business Institute

About the blogger
Denise Hellekson provides EAP counseling, training, consulting, and crisis response services for The Village Business Institute. She has a master’s degree in Community and Rehabilitation Counseling from St. Cloud State University; and is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and a Qualified Neutral under Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (Mediator). Hellekson has many years of experience in counseling, advocacy, and consulting services.