Leader Mindfulness - running the show when you don't have all the answers

Spot the Seismic Shift

Seismic shifts are impacting businesses and placing entire industry sectors at risk of disruption. This is happening whether or not we choose to see it. Three of these shifts are globalisation, technological advances and emerging workforce demographics.

In 2015, over half of the world’s wealth resided in the West. By 2030 over half of the world’s wealth will have shifted to the East. With wealth comes power, and esteem. Much of what we understand to be desirable, fashionable and cultured will be influenced by Asia.

Technological advances in the next 15 years will rival the changes we have lived through in the last 30 years. It seems science fiction is merging with reality when we have AI programs outperforming fighter pilots and teams of lawyers, crime prediction technology that outperforms police, chatbots outperforming customer service agents and the world’s first successful teleportation.

Millenials are now the largest demographic in the workforce and they are not working in exchange for the bottom 2 layers of Maslow’s hierarchy – namely; money to meet their survival and safety needs. Millennials assume their survival and safety is secure. They are seeking paid work that gives them the higher order needs of belonging to a great group of people, ongoing learning opportunities in their areas of interest and self-actualization now – not when they retire.

The organisations that survive these seismic shifts will perceive, respond to, and harness the latent opportunities in these new realities. The organisations that thrive will do so by responding in healthy ways to ongoing uncertainty.

Leadership in the face of uncertainty

Due to the seismic shifts upon us, decades of industry experience, technical know-how, and the esteem associated with been-there-done-that is not enough to lead effectively for today or tomorrow. The leaders I work with see clearly that they are running the show without all the answers. However, they are often dealing with a workforce that responds to increasing uncertainty with anxiety. As a senior executive said to me recently: ‘My staff actually want me to know everything. They challenge me to make decisions they should be making as though I am the holder of all the right answers’. This is a typical response to the anxiety that arises in the face of uncertainty. 

Another typical human response to anxiety is to manufacture a sense of stability in our outside world. We can find examples of this everywhere. When we get married we say we have ‘settled down’. There is no sense that our selves and our relationships will continue to evolve. When we see children we exclaim “Oh how you’ve grown - 9 years old now. Well done you!” But for adults, there are no accolades for the natural, very real change and development that occurs throughout the lifespan. We have manufactured a sense of the static adult, on the long straight ride to the finish line. We do this to calm our own anxiety about the impermanence of life. Next time you catch up with that old friend of yours try saying “Oh how you’ve aged – you’re 54 now. Well done you!” So attached are we to a stable, static adulthood it is hilarious to even contemplate this.

Likewise in business, humans are at risk of manufacturing false narratives of stability to calm our anxiety. Think about Kodak’s now famous decision to shelve the digital photography prototype invented in their own R&D lab. Or Nokia’s now famous derisive response to the presentation of smart phones invented first in their own organisation. We can ask ourselves how did Encyclopaedia Britannica make the decision not to go online? In the 1990’s I asked this very question of a c-suite leader within the company. He told me “Our leaders believe that parents will always value the education of their children.’ The rest is history.

There is a healthier, more functional approach to dealing with the anxiety that arises in the face of uncertainty. Instead of manufacturing a false narrative of stability to calm our anxiety we can simply note our anxiety without judgement and move forward with curiosity into the world, this is mindfulness. Mindfulness trains our brain to seek novelty in the now moment, to be present to the finer nuances of change and to remain open to new information even if that information is unpleasant to us. Effective leaders are trying to do this, and more and more, they need to be guiding their workforce in this as well.

Mindfulness for Leaders

Before we can show others how to be present to each now moment, we need to gain an experiential understanding ourselves. The good news is: studies show the positive impacts of mindfulness practice commence very early. Only 5 minutes of training created improvements in negotiation performance (Reb & Narayanan, 2014), and only 15 minutes of mindfulness training resulted in better decision making (Hafenbrack et al., 2013). Whilst these benefits may be temporary, only 11 hours of training has been shown to create structural changes in the brain (Tang et al., 2010).

Mindfulness is the deliberate attention to the now moment with acceptance and curiosity for the good the bad and the ugly. Mindfulness practice can be likened to going to the gym. Some days you need to force yourself to get there. You go because you know it will equip you for a longer and better life. In the case of mindfulness less age related degradation in neural tissue (Luders at al., 201%), reduced decline in fluid intelligence (Gard et al., 2014) and disease resistance (Davidson at al., 2003). Similarly to going to the gym, some days are pleasant, some are difficult.

Mindfulness practices do calm the mind but they are not a day spa for the mind. Generally, people find early on in their practice that their mind is surprisingly erratic, scattered and distracted. As we practise the discipline of attending to the breath we find that, more and more, we can master our attention as opposed to being mastered by it. We can see emotions such as anxiety arise and disappear again and our reactivity to them diminishes (Arch & Craske, 2010). With practice, the duration of challenging emotions also diminishes (Davidson 1998). With this experience, we can respond to the world more effectively, aware of our responses to uncertainty, rather than automatically reacting in inappropriate ways merely to quell a strong and seemingly interminable felt-sense of anxiety. 

More than ever before, leaders need skills to be present to the now and to support their workforce to thrive amidst uncertainty.


Isabelle Phillips has a 20-year mindfulness practice and over 15 years in leadership consulting throughout Asia Pac. Her leadership consulting business Mackerel Sky – Leadership Matters offers a ten-week Mindfulness training programme to senior leaders to support the embodiment of contemporary, post-heroic leadership styles that drive healthy, thriving workplaces. She is also a Director of Mindfulness for the Global Village. 


Metis Policy and Strategy are proud to be working with Isabelle and Charlotta of Mindfulness for the Global Village to produce a diversity and inclusion framework with a twist.

Often diversity and inclusion strategies outline actions which can only be undertaken by management, and target specific groups, when actually we all have a role to play and we should all feel a sense of belonging within our workplace.

So we've decided to do something about it. Unlike many other diversity and inclusion initiatives, we are bringing together a group of professionals from all spheres of organisational life to share ideas on actions and behaviours that create diverse and inclusive workplaces for everyone. Demonstrating that change is made up of practical actions undertaken by individuals. The framework will be released as a complimentary gift to Australian organisations with recognition passed onto all participants, who will all be listed as co-authors. Watch this space for its release. 

If you have a project you would like to bring to life contact us. As policy and strategy professionals we are able work with industry experts to understand the challenges at play and the best way to execute meaningful action. 




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