I recently had occasion to read Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s seminal work entitled Mindfulness (De Capo Press, 1989).This ground breaking book has spawned many subsequent studies which have taken her findings and applied them to diverse fields. The word itself has become a term of art for the practice of staying intellectually attentive, creating new contexts and categories of meaning, and implementing new frameworks or perspectives for work, play, problem solving, and life in general.
The opposite of mindfulness, of course, is mindlessness and the impact of the latter on organizations is evident in phenomena such as conflict, fatigue and burnout in leaders and stunted potential, boredom, and feelings of helplessness among employees. Organizational effectiveness can also be diminished and opportunities for growth hindered.
This has me thinking about my own experiences working with leaders who seem to be struggling, who seem to be drowning in the repetitiveness of their jobs or who have lost the joy and excitement of leading others, and whose organizations have plateaued as a result. In contrast I have observed executives who always seem to find ways to get a “second wind” and to bring new energy and motivation to their work – who periodically reinvent themselves and their organizations for even greater accomplishments.
Langer’s research has demonstrated that “changing of contexts…. generates imagination and creativity as well as new energy. When applied to problem solving, it is often called reframing.” However, “changing contexts is only one path to innovation. Creating new categories, exploring multiple perspectives, and focusing on process all increase the possibility that a novel approach to a problem will be discovered” (p.136). The challenge to managers is to risk deviation from the routine way of doing things.
It is possible for organizational leaders to find their “second wind” if they can become more mindful. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone is often difficult, however, especially for managers who have become entrenched in a consistent style or who have cultivated employee relations based on stability and consistency. If managers can take the risk, challenge their previous ways of thinking and acting, and engage employees in similar exercises of mindfulness, a great deal of energy can be generated with employees feeling more energized and valued for their contributions.
If managers feel they can’t function as the internal “disrupter,” they may have to identify an “outsider” who has the capacity and the credibility to challenge the status quo and who can stimulate this kind of mindful thinking. Such outsiders may come from within the company, but very often independent consultants can fill that role more effectively. An outside consultant is typically engaged on the basis of recognized knowledge in mindful leadership, has demonstrated skills and experience in leading others into new modes of thinking, and can constructively challenge others, including top management.
This is where I come in. Many CEOs of smaller nonprofit organizations lack the insightfulness or courage to employ individuals to serve as disrupters of the very systems and processes they developed to keep the organization functioning. And rare is the CEO who is confident enough to be challenged by contrarians within the organization who are willing to “rock the boat” or “step outside the box” in order to encourage innovation or greater efficiency. A skilled consultant, on the other hand, can notice things that others take as untouchable givens. “Just as a traveler to a foreign culture notices what people indigenous to that culture take for granted, an outsider in a company may notice when the corporate natives are following what may now be irrational traditions or destructive myths. When routines of work are not familiar, they cannot be taken for granted and mindfulness is stimulated” (Langer, p. 137). As an outside expert, a consultant’s perspective has a measure of objectivity and credibility, as much because it is being paid for as it is because of the unique or revelatory insights it brings.
The question for CEOs of nonprofit organizations is, “To what extent is the mission of our organization being hindered by mindless thinking and action?” And the correlative question is “How can I become a more mindful leader?”