A Leader’s Mind Matters

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I have held various leadership roles throughout my career, yet it is only recently that I realized how to embody what I believe in; to truly walk the talk. Prior to that, I was not walking the talk, at all. Thoughtful leaders often seek out knowledge, strategies and advice in order to improve their leadership abilities. I did. It included reading leadership books, asking colleagues for advice and attending leadership conferences. All with the aim of garnering that elusive, sage advice. I listened to colleagues, leaders in their own right, talk about leadership and about the things they read and believed in, but they rarely appeared to walk that talk either. Sure, those seven principles from that one book or that leadership framework I learned about at a conference was interesting and felt like it could work, but I realized I was rarely implementing them with any consistency. And it wasn’t just me.

What is going on? Why do leaders quote leadership gurus and pass out books on leadership when they themselves struggle to implement those very principles? I believe their intentions are good and I also think they, like me, really do believe the tenants of the leadership style they are trying to implement match their personal values. But walking the talk requires a step that is rarely talked about. A step that involves actively taking care of ourselves and one that can positively strengthen the area of the brain responsible for the executive functioning skills leaders need in order to really walk the talk. That step is called many things: self- reflection, mindfulness, taking a pause.

Mindful practices can actually build and strengthen the wiring in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, where skills like reasoning, empathy, compassion and self-control originate. Humans are not born with these skills and as leaders, because we are often faced with stressful, emotionally charged and often unexpected situations, it is easy to go into autopilot and react instinctively rather than respond intentionally. So, what’s wrong with that? Well, when we lead by instinct we tend to fall back on the old classics: fight, flight, or freeze and forget all about those leadership principles or our personal values for that matter. Let me give an example. As a young leader of an organization, one of my classrooms was assessed for quality interactions and environment. When the results came back, they were not good. I became angry, marched back to the classroom and confronted the teacher, in the middle of instruction, about what went wrong. Emotions were high for both of us and I stormed out. When I look back now, I realize, I felt threatened and I reacted out of fear; fear of failure, fear the school would suffer from this assessment, even fear that I was not a good leader (which was clearly the case in that moment). If I had trained my brain to pause or take a step back, I would have approached that situation in a very different way. I would have realized I was bringing emotions to the moment that did not belong there. I would have found a way to strengthen the trust between the teacher and me. Instead, I had damage control to do.

So, if you had asked me prior to this scenario playing out if I thought storming into a classroom and confronting a teacher was a good idea, I would have said no. See, I have a personal set of values which includes believing kind, respectful conversations, where best intentions are assumed, is the right thing to do. I know what you’re thinking…. if you believed that, then why did you act so differently? Why aren’t you walking the talk? For the same reason that many leaders believe in a positive leadership style yet are unable to embody it – because we haven’t trained our brains. By training the brain to reflect on our behaviors without judgment, to pause before responding to a stressful moment and to consider the perspectives of others when building relationships with staff, a leader can go from just reading about a powerful leadership style to one who walks the talk.

So how does one start the work of building the brain? I see it as a three-legged stool: gratitude, mindful practice and intention setting. Expressing gratitude on a regular basis can improve the brain’s ability to find the positive in life. Begin a gratitude journal or read about others who have made gratitude a daily practice. Next, mindful practice. It does not have to be formal. Try a free app on your phone with guided breathing or just find a quiet spot to sit for just a few minutes each day to reflect. Finally, intention setting can mean reciting the same positive mantra every morning or creating a new one every day. It should be something that sets you on a positive path for the day and can even be used to remind you throughout the day. Here’s one I like that I adapted from a quote by the Dalai Lama: “I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself and to expand my heart out to others. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others. I will not get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

And with that, I end by expressing my gratitude to you for taking a few minutes to read my post.

Dr. Marnie Aylesworth

15 thoughts on “A Leader’s Mind Matters

  1. Sara Kiehn says:

    Dr. Aylesworth,
    It is always refreshing to learn that those in leadership also value mindfulness! Thank you for sharing your leadership journey…I appreciated it.

  2. Dina Hartford-Stipetic says:

    Your strategies to support our mindfulness are practical! I appreciate the honesty in sharing your own initial struggle. And I especially appreciate the hopefulness you exude that we can be different, better, for ourselves and for those we support! Thank you, Dr. Aylesworth

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