Becoming a more mindful leader

Mindful leadership—it’s a phrase that when first heard I wanted to pass off as some buzzword nonsense. But in more than a few mediums, I begin to see and hear people in different corners and perspectives chime in, as I learned more I began to realize that mindfulness is actually quite important when it comes to leadership. I ask myself, would I want to be lead by someone who wasn’t mindful of their actions? I have begun to feel it’s important to strive to be more mindful in all I do.

So what is mindful leadership? And how can it relate to military leaders and noncommissioned officers? Jan Bruce wrote a great article for Forbes on how to become a mindful leader. She writes, “Mindfulness practices are useful because they help you become aware of, and then to rewire, how you interpret and react to what happens.”

In other words, a more mindful military leader is one who takes in information, processes it, and does not immediately jump to a reaction or conclusion. From there, it allows more creative thinking on every front, she writes. And really, creative solutions is what Army leadership is all about.

So how do you begin to incorporate mindfulness into your day-to-day activities? Like with anything, I recommend choosing a path and starting small. The easiest way I see to begin adding mindfulness to your own internal processes and to begin somewhere like the AAR system, which already calls for reflection. In an after-action review, it’s important to dive into what happened, what worked and what didn’t in order to improve upon the action in its next iteration. By incorporating this deeper level of reflection, you may find yourself looking to new, more creative or different-from-the-norm approaches. It opens the mind to what you might have missed if you just checked out mentally and ran through the standard questions.

Just like you shouldn’t enter an AAR with preconceived notions or expectations, the same when it comes to exercising mindfulness. Take a moment to clear your head, breathe deeply and listen to what your soldiers are saying.

The Army has already clued into the positive implications of mindfulness as well. In 2015 researchers began looking to mindfulness to help with military resiliency. An article discussing the research describes the practice as “a state of mind where the brain is considered to be attentive of the present moment without judgment.”

Full-blown meditation may not be for everyone, but taking a moment to set your intentions before an exercise, meeting or mission is definitely worth the benefits. You’ll feel mental clarity and focus that only comes when you take your time and review a situation from all angles.

Humor me. Next time you have an important meeting or project deadline looming but you can’t seem to organize your thoughts, take a moment. Put your phone on silent, close the door to your office, or even walk out to a place where no one can bother you. Heck, even walk out to your car if it’s the only place to find quiet and privacy. Close your eyes and take five deep breaths. On each inhale count to four, and on each exhale count to five. When you’re ready, open your eyes and see how feel. Is your mind clearer? Do you feel calmer? More relaxed? I find if I do this exercise before I begin writing, words flow smoother and I’m less distracted.

There are several apps and places on the web you can go to learn more about mindfulness and meditation. I personally enjoyed this Highbrow course on bringing meditation into your everyday. Give it a shot, your 36o-degree contacts will appreciate it.

CSM (Ret) Dan Elder,
U.S. Army, Retired