Mindfulness: A mental practice achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts and physical feelings.
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …" If, Rudyard Kipling
I grew up listening to "If," as it’s my father’s party piece. I am, like many, drawn to it because of how it portrays a vivid example of Emotional Intelligence (EI). I’ve recently reflected on the title - "If" - and recognise what a big challenge it is. Whilst most of us aspire to this, the reality is it’s not easy, especially when we are being challenged, blamed or doubted (in the words of Kipling) and our first instinct is to defend rather than keep our heads.Warren Bennis said, "good leadership is about making sound judgements when confronted by crucible moments." This was echoed recently by Theresa May in the midst of her own challenges, as she acknowledged, "The test of a leader is how you respond when tough times come upon you." Our most admired leaders, such as Mandela, Churchill, and Gandhi, have all shown the capacity to hold steady. These masters of Emotional Intelligence can deploy it when it matters most, at difficult and challenging times.
The Emotional Intelligence Profile (EIP3) provides a route map for how to develop habits which make us more likely to hold steady under pressure, e.g. self-awareness and personal power. However, in order to power these up when the going gets tough, we also need to cultivate a strong and stable mind. The most effective way to develop this capacity is through the practice of mindfulness, "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally" (Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of modern mindfulness movement). Mindfulness develops an awareness of our inner and outer world that gives us the opportunity to choose our responses rather than react, and sustained mindfulness practice strengthens the muscle of our mind.
Once considered a little left-field for the business world, evidence of its effects and the publication of the parliamentary working party paper on mindfulness in the workplace is making it easier for organisations to implement mindfulness intervention in support of well-being and resilience, as well as increased focus, creativity and productivity.
The relationship between EI and mindfulness is now well established. The Harvard Business Review’s Emotional Intelligence Series includes mindfulness, and more organisations are following the example of Google who has run its aptly named "Search Inside Yourself" mindfulness based EI programme for many years.
There is some debate as to which comes first, with many (Google being one) positing that to develop EI, we first need to train attention through mindfulness, whereas others emphasise the importance of EI in developing mindfulness e.g. Daniel Goleman. For me, the question is reminiscent of the chicken and egg debate, and the key point is that together they can form a powerful alliance, that they mutually reinforce one another.
A Powerful Alliance
1. Mindfulness enhances the development of EI
Neuroscientific studies have shown us that mindfulness changes our brain in ways that develop our EI. There is also increasing evidence to show how this works for different aspect of EI:
Mindfulness practice develops our emotional expression and control – our ability to stay with difficult emotions rather than suppress them or react, i.e. to "keep our heads" (Brefczynski et al, 2008). Mindfulness helps us to see the transitory nature of emotions and to realise that we are not our emotions and know when times are tough, "this too will pass."
It deepens our self-awareness by strengthening the habit of attending to our moment to moment experience and observing our inner world of emotions, thoughts and intuitions. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight, sums this up nicely by defining mindfulness as a "transformative reflective skill of focused attention that helps us see and shape the internal workings of mind."
Our personal power or "response flexibility" is enhanced through mindfulness, i.e. the capacity to pause before we act and see the whole range of choices open to us. Sara Lazar has shown how mindfulness develops our "observing self," the basis of our executive control which increases the power of the neocortex, giving us the power to choose our response.
Most heartening, is that through the process of observing ourselves non-judgmentally, we can build a better relationship with ourselves and others, which develops self-regard and regard for others. Dr Paul Gilbert, Clinical Psychologist and author of The Compassionate Mind, states "of all the skills that will help you to develop compassion towards yourself and others, mindfulness is the most valuable.
2. EI provides a purpose for mindfulness
On the other hand, mindfulness is also more powerful when practiced within the context of EI. Canadian neuroscientist, Donald Hebb coined the phrase "what wires together fires together" to describe neuroplasticity. This basically means we can change our mental habits and attitudes through how we focus our attention. Mindfulness strengthens our capacity to build new habits by strengthening our capacity to focus our attention on areas of our choosing.
EI provides mindfulness with a sense of direction, so that a strong and stable mind can be used to develop helpful habits. Without a context of what to cultivate, mindfulness could be limited to a stress management or a productivity tool.
3. Together they accelerate leadership mastery
Leadership has never been harder nor more necessary. As our world gets more complex, we need leaders who can keep their heads, stay true to their principles despite being challenged, find clarity in the noise and make strategic decisions based on systems awareness and an understanding of long term impacts. Essentially to think better and bigger – this is where mindfulness and EI really are a powerful alliance, they can transform the mind and performance of leaders.
Nick Petrie’s model of vertical leadership development, cultivating the ability to think in more complex, systemic, strategic, and interdependence, has EI and mindfulness as its core practices. For me, this capacity to develop leadership mastery, to enable wiser and more compassionate leaders, is the what if and the real potential of this powerful alliance.