On Leadership, Anxiety and Stressful Decisions

Making Tough Decisions

So as a leader, do you feel like you are forced to make decisions much quicker and under more stress than you would like? Are you finding yourself in an anxious state when decision-time is near? And how do these decisions work out for you and your team?

Chances are that making great decisions while you are feeling anxious and stressed just might surprise you…

On Making Decisions

There is no escaping it: we all have to make decisions:

  • Some will be small and inconsequential whilst others will change the course of world history.
  • Some we can mull over and others must be instant; we may not get a choice.
  • The one thing we hope for is freedom to make decisions objectively based on best information and in a calm frame of mind.

But most often life is just not like this. We are faced with rapidly changing, high stakes emotionally charged decisions that fuel anxiety and over time cause emotional and physical stress.

Wouldn’t it be great to sit back let the anxiety subside and then decide? If you were a field commander faced with the possibility of being overrun by the enemy YOU DON’T HAVE TIME – DECIDE NOW!

“Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety. ~Rose Kennedy

On Anxious Decisions

There is a strange but eventually understandable phenomenon where anxious decision makers are more likely to seek external advice, are less able to discern good from bad advice and will accept advice even from people with conflicts of interest. The greater the intensity of anxiety and stress the more driven to habitual and external advice we become.

Maturity is achieved when a person accepts life as full of tension.”  Joshua L. Liebman

Re-framing anxiety can free us from seeking questionable advice and making inappropriate habit-based decisions. Fear drives anxiety and when we misunderstand the physical sensations triggered by fear, excitement, uncertainty, time pressure and importance we view the decision from a skewed perspective.

On Living In Reverse

Well, the good news arising from the basic research of Soares and colleagues is that “Stress-induced changes in human decision-making are reversible.

For those of you with a neuroscience inclination the author’s general conclusion can be interpreted as “chronic stress biases decision-making strategies in humans toward habits, as choices of stressed subjects become insensitive to changes in outcome value“.

Using functional brain imaging techniques, they demonstrate prolonged exposure to stress in humans causes an imbalanced activation of specific brain networks governing decision processes.

Importantly and reassuringly, a longitudinal assessment of the stressed individuals showed that both the structural and functional changes triggered by stress are reversible and that decisions become again goal-directed once the stress is removed.

Stress As An Option

I can hear you saying something along the lines of, “but the stress never goes.” This may be true, but you can alter the way you perceive the stressors and adopt mitigating measures such as mindfulness meditation, yoga or tai Chi to offset the downsides of pressure and stress. All of these practices have been proven to reduce physical symptoms of stress.

Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.”  Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind

Q: How can you re-frame your perception of anxiety generating situations? Let’s assume you can’t simply sit waiting for anxiety to subside or rely on advice or look for perfect solutions?

A: Don’t wait until you’re faced with high stakes instant decisions.

  • Start small and become accustomed to physically and emotionally sensing anxiety associated with small low impact decisions.
  • Appreciate the small buzzes you get next time you have to select from a complex menu, or your partner asks for a decision on which dress or suit they should buy. This is what I call “decision-making homeopathy.”

It gets you comfortable with the physical and mental sensations of anxiety. Then later up the stakes by taking notice of your reaction to decision-making in increasingly stressful situations until you know you can make decisions under heavy incoming fire.

Your objective isn’t to squash anxiety but to function effectively alongside it, doing what must be done.

If you don’t believe me then take a short while to watch Kelly McGonigal’s fantastic TED talkHow to make stress your friend” where she shows you that stress can actually protect you and help you live longer; it’s just how you view stress that matters.

Your Actions Today

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 rate your anxiety prior to, during and after today’s decisions?
  • Whose advice did you seek for today’s decisions?
  • Did this advice alter your decision?
  • How anxious do you feel others are when they make decisions (scale of 1 to 10)?
  • Did they seek you advice?
  • Did your advice bias their decision in your favour?
  • Did you make decisions based on habit or adaptation to new circumstance?

Recommended Reading

Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan by Francesca Gino


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Gary Coulton

Dr Gary R Coulton is CEO of Adaptive Intelligence Consulting Limited
He empowers leaders to release their Adaptive Intelligence
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Leaders: Do Not Allow Anger To Lead Your Life

Walking on Egg Shells

Do you ever find yourself justifying your anger or actually believing that angry outbursts serve a useful purpose? Do you ever believe that anger is what makes you special?

If you have ever thought that being angry is good thing…think again!

Leading Your Life

Anger should not be allowed to lead you through life.

Once while conducting a performance review, I had the opportunity to have a discussion with an employee about the attitude she displayed with other employee in her workplace.

The general observations from others about this person were that she was miserable, unpleasant and downright mean. She was quite aware of her reputation and was completely unrepentant about it. She actually seemed to take comfort in the fact that she was able to make her mark in life by repelling other people.

Just as some people take comfort in their own despair, some wallow in their own repugnance to others.

This lady did not smile, did not frown, did not laugh; did not cry…she seemed in fact to be completely devoid of any and all emotion. Most of her responses to my questions were comprised of one-word answers, shoulder shrugs and grunts.

The more I spoke to her, the more unresponsive she became.

Finally, I felt compelled to tell her that I was concerned about her attitude toward me. At that point, she bragged that most people don’t like her attitude and that she had recently enrolled in an anger-management course because of “other issues.”

I asked if anger was a big part of her life and she responded in the affirmative.

At that point I noticed, for the first time, a small curl of a smile at the corners of her lips. That prompted me to ask her if she enjoyed being angry. She quickly responded, with a full-toothed smile, “Yup, I sure do!”

Through further discussion, I learned that this person had lived a very difficult life which included abusive parents, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and a nasty divorce. It became clear to me that the events of her childhood had left her with a very negative view of the world and a need to escape it through potentially harmful behaviour.

Her past also led her to uncontrollable bouts of rage and anti-social behaviour. Because she was unable to overcome her personal issues, her life was a mess and her future was extremely bleak. Despite the fact that she was clearly spiraling into oblivion, she refused to accept that she needed to change. I have lost touch with her over the years, but I fear the worst.

This lady’s story is much more extreme than most, but many people suffer from the inability to control their emotions.

Some of those people carry around a well-concealed virtual hand grenade filled with explosive rage. For much of the time the grenade is hidden, but often it is just waiting for the pin to be pulled so that it can explode and splatter hot, angry, emotional shrapnel all over anyone unfortunate enough to be in its path of destruction.

Anger is not only wasted energy…it is a powerful, harmful force that has the capacity to destroy lives and end careers.

Psychological science has identified a condition known as “Borderline Personality Disorder” which is known to bring on the symptoms of uncontrollable rage that I have describe here. Theorists and psychologists agree that this disorder is often a result of disturbing traumatic events from an individual’s childhood.

Sometimes the person is not even aware of, or cannot remember the event or events that may be causing their distress. Instead, they will often inflict their rage on others, all-the-while justifying it as something positive and a personality trait that other people should simply accept or become accustomed to.

What they seem not to understand is that their behaviour is unacceptable in a civilized society and that they are systematically driving people away.

Even people who are not the direct object of their rage will avoid any sort of meaningful relationship with them out of fear and revulsion.

I have known a few angry bosses over the years, but until recently I simply chalked it up to an old-fashioned command and control style of leadership. I now believe that some of the rage I witnessed in those leaders was a result of an undiagnosed psychological or emotional condition.

Those leaders were able to hide their conditions behind their positions because unpleasant, angry bosses like Ebenezer Scrooge and Lou Grant were the stuff of popular culture and entertainment. During that era, we all knew that to be a leader, you had to be tough; and to be tough, you had to express anger.

Modern society now agrees that anger towards others is neither normal nor acceptable regardless of one’s position in life.

Psychologists have found that professional “talk-therapy” or coaching can provide extremely good results and a lessening, or complete elimination of inexplicable, long-term, rage events.

Of course, that will only work if the individual inflicted with the problem is able to admit to himself or herself that his or her behaviour is unacceptable.

They must also be willing to look in the mirror and tell the person looking back that a change is absolutely essential.

Acknowledgement of the problem is often much more difficult to endure than the eventual therapy.

If you have feelings of anger that cause fear or discomfort in others, do something about it. Admit that you have a problem and take steps to deal with it. You owe it to yourself to allow tranquility and contentment to overrule the exasperation, rage and despair in your life.


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Wayne Kehl

Wayne Kehl is President and CCO at Dynamic Leadership Inc
He is author and behavioral analyst who lectures on leadership and motivation
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Leaders: 4 Ways to Improve Your Ability to Think and Learn

Think and Learn

Successful leaders need to think and learn on a consistent basis. It’s been proven that stress reduces our ability to learn.

Fight or Flight

Our response to stress is born from the “Fight or Flight” response that is critical in danger.  In these types of situations like a car accident, we need the rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and sugar in our system to boost our energy.

This short-time reaction to a short-term situation is not only beneficial, but it is required for survival.

Long-term exposure to the “Fight or Flight” response causes physiological changes that reduce our ability to learn.

The Franklin Institute reported that Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford University neuroscientist, showed that “sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, the part of the limbic brain which is central to learning and memory.”

The institute goes on to say this about chronic stress:

“Chronic over-secretion of stress hormones adversely affects brain function, especially memory. Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories.”

Good News! It’s reversible

Arline Bronzaft, PhD, an expert on the stress of noise pollution, conducted a study in the 1970’s in a New York school.  Some of the classrooms faced a loud subway rail and others were quiet.

Her study documented that by sixth grade, the children in the noisy rooms were a year behind those in the quiet rooms in reading skills.

But good news was right around the corner. This noise-induced difference in reading skills was reversed after acoustical tiles were installed that reduced the noise of the subway trains.

However good remedial methods are in reversing negative efforts on learning in humans, the great news is that it is all preventable.

Great News! It’s preventable

Here are four ways to improve your ability to think and learn by preventing stress

Positive Thoughts

Our thoughts can reduce stress in our lives just as sure as they cause stress in our lives.

Napoleon Hill author of the best-selling book Think and Grow Rich said:

We are what we are, because of the vibrations of thought which we pick up and register, through the stimuli of our daily environment. Resolve to throw off the influences of any unfortunate environment, and to build your own life to order.”

Here are some environmental influences that can occur each day, and ideas on how to reduce their stressful impact on your life:

Demands on your time become more than you have time to deliver. -Recognize what is important-Organize what is due-Prioritize when it will be done
New situations arise -Learn  from the facts available-Seek guidance from others’ past success-Do the best you can
You doubt your own abilities -Remember your past success-Focus on common experiences-Tell yourself you can

Soothing Rhythms

Studies show that brainwaves resonate in time with the rhythmic stimulation. Slow beats encourage the slow brainwaves that are associated with meditative states.

The first experience a newborn has in the hospital is stress: bright lights, poking, prodding, cold air and using its lungs for the first time.  Of course babies cry, I would to.  All birth room doctors and nurses know by training what every mother knows by instinct: the baby will be instantly soothed by placing it on the mother’s chest so the familiar rhythm of her heartbeat can be felt and heard.

There is a large industry for swings and bouncers for children as they move into the toddler ages.  Why do they sell so many? Because the soothing rhythm of moving back and forth calms the stressed toddler.

Music has the same effect on stress.  California State University music therapy professor Ron Borczon said, “The most powerful aspect of music is rhythm…Rhythm will help you get more excited when sped up; when slowed down, it helps the body calm down.”

According to Elizabeth Scott, M.S., wellness coach, author and health educator, “The change in brain wave activity levels that music can bring can also enable the brain to shift speeds more easily on its own as needed, which means that music can bring lasting benefits to your state of mind, even after you have stopped listening.”

Tip for Success:

Invest in music, sound machines, or, if you can afford it, move to the beach to hear ocean waves to stimulate your brain with soothing rhythms that will help prevent stress.

Regular Exercise

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. If you’re not an athlete or even if you’re downright out of shape, you can still make a little exercise go a long way toward stress management.”

Exercise fills your brain with endorphins.  This natural chemical produces what is commonly known as a “runner’s high,” which brings a positive and energized outlook on life.

While you exercise you take your mind of the day’s stress as you concentrate on the weights you are lifting, or the tennis ball you are hitting, or the laps you are swimming.  You will return to your stress causing issues with a calm perspective, able to think through your options.

Tip for Success:

Schedule time each day to get up and move away from your stress.

Inspirational Atmosphere

In John Maxwell’s latest book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, he says this:

“Everyone needs a time and a place to pause and reflect.”

Here’s a quick description of the contents of my inspirational atmosphere – my home office.

The first section contains a collection of many different bible translations, in depth bible studies, and recent translations of ancient historians like Josephus.    This section keeps me grounded on my foundation of leadership.

The second section contains a picture of my wife and me at the very spot where we met.  I also have pictures of my two children at school and in sports.  This section keeps my focus on my number one leadership assignment.

The third section contains pictures of the United States of America’s most important historical leaders, and copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Emancipation Proclamation. This reminds me whom and what made America the great country that it is.

The fourth section contains many shelves of leadership books that I have read and continue to re-read.  These are my textbooks in leadership where I perfected my life’s dream.

The last section contains memorabilia from many trips and seminars that reminds me of how very blessed I am to have had these experiences in life.

Tip for Success:

Create a place to pause and reflect that surrounds you with wonderful memories that takes your focus off of you and directs it to what is really important in your life.


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Denis McLaughlin
Denis McLaughlin is President of Leadership GPS, Inc.
He is a Leadership Development Expert, Coach, Teacher, Speaker and Writer
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Leadership Perspective: Not Just a New York State of Mind

Empire State BuildingAs I watched the coverage of the shooting around the Empire State Building last month, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the frightening Gallup poll results that were documented in the first chapter of Mindful Stress Solutions for Today’s Leaders.

It went like this:

  • 14% of workers feel like striking a coworker
  • A quarter feel like screaming or shouting because of job stress
  • One out of ten is concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent
  • Almost the same number are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace
  • Eighteen percent of those same respondents have experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

The alleged shooter, Jeffrey Johnson, had been fired from his job at least a year ago (details still coming in as I’m writing this) and fatally wounded a co-worker who may have been his boss at the company where Johnson had worked.

Turning Tragedy Into a Teachable Moment

  1. If a tenth of us are afraid that a colleague could actually become violent, we have an obligation as leaders to be fully immersed in the culture of our respective work places. Because it is natural for us to be concerned about how the image of our work environment reflects upon us as individual leaders, we can oftentimes choose to portray the culture of our business to others as better than it actually may be.
  2. Although there are no guaranteed strategies that could prevent a similar tragedy, there are steps we can take as leaders to lessen the risk.  For example, a former employer of mine went to great lengths to assist affected employees during a recent downsizing by providing job placement and other services that helped many to walk away with a less bitter taste in their mouths.
  3. It is critical that we build cultures of impermanence in today’s workplaces.  In this economy, it is financially suicidal not to constantly think five steps ahead of our customers and keep adapting our strategies, processes, work flows and training to align with where the market is heading.  That means we must constantly evaluate our organizations, from job applicant screening questions to coaching and colleague engagement efforts, to ensure that we view ongoing change as an indicator of a company’s success and of an individual’s job security.  In fact, the litmus test of this culture of impermanence is the presence of a large number of colleagues who view their employer’s lack of change as a possible indicator of future instability.

Building a Culture of Impermanence

As leaders, we oftentimes work very hard to calm the waters of uncertainty within our teams by portraying impermanence as the evil to be eliminated.

When change inevitably appears, it is hardly surprising that the stress levels of our workplaces increase exponentially and push the statistics mentioned earlier even higher.

We must work every day to help our teams to focus on their roles as they pertain to the overall sustainability of the larger organization.

In a prior Linked 2 Leadership post, I stated this:

Even with existing colleagues, we can adopt a culture of impermanence through training and the practice of mindful techniques.”

Within that paradigm, we need to make sure that we all understand that those roles will change over time and why those changes should be welcomed as a sign that our company’s top leadership is focused on staying ahead of the competition.

Communicating Change

Therefore, we must watch the language that we use with our colleagues and ensure that it aligns with this shifting culture.

As we design our PowerPoints and whiteboard diagrams, we must be mindful of how we box ourselves into roles and responsibilities that can mislead employees into thinking that there is no gray area.

In fact, we need to make sure that, to the extent possible, we stay very transparent about the likelihood of workplace impermanence (e.g., having a front-line worker responsible for communicating pending work-flow changes and gathering input to help peers feel that they are a part of the change process).

The Benefits of Proactive and Mindful Leadership

As with all proactive leadership, we have an opportunity to evaluate our individual and company’s preparedness for change.

We may never know the extent to which our efforts in this regard might possibly dissuade someone from causing harm to others but is the lack of tangible proof enough to keep us from, at the very least, taking another look at our work cultures?

It will be easy to chalk up the incident in New York as the violent act of a disgruntled ex-employee.  Mindful leadership reminds us that we have the ability to relieve the suffering of others by giving them options when responding to stressful situations.  Or as William James put it,

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  • What mechanisms do you have in place to evaluate the culture of your work-place? 
  • What is the template for taking action based on regular workplace culture assessments?
  • Do most of your employees yearn for stability vs. change? 
  • Do leaders in your organization understand the impact to stress levels by assuming stasis should be the cultural and colleague engagement default setting?
  • What are the teachable moments from well-publicized workplace violence events that can be applied to your business today and in the long term?


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Erik Engburg
Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
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Leader Failures: The Art of Falling on Your Butt

Leader Falling Down

Not all leaders have a perfect path from inception to glory.  There are books, blogs, countless keynotes and movies filled with money-making stories of leaders overcoming failure. 

If a leader learns from mistakes made, then leadership skills can evolve, grow, and flourish.

Waiting My Turn

Like many others at my current company where I have spent the last 20 years, my role as a formal leader has increasingly been reduced. As the economy fails to recover and Baby Boomers can’t afford to retire, the heaviness at the top grows continually larger resulting in crowding in the upper layers.

Talented potential leaders are stuck below the next rung on the ladder and competition at the top breeds a cut throat “survival of the fittest” culture.

If you work for a large corporation, have you noticed this same trend?

In the “balanced world,” these great leaders would be successfully managing big teams and growing their people and the corporate revenue.

But in the real world, those talented leaders, if lucky, are put into individual contributor jobs, trying to make as much positive impact as possible in the shadows of some great and some not so great leaders who are permanently cemented in their positions.

Many leave to pursue better opportunities. If they remain, small mistakes mean big tumbles. I have made my share of skid marks, leader lessons, and recovery still-pending…

Finding Yourself On Your Butt

On Your Butt

After falling on my butt as a leader multiple times, it was extremely ironic when the analogy of falling on my butt became literal.

As a Certified Career Development Instructor, I hadn’t taught a class in over a year. I felt as an instructor, I needed to have a positive career story for my students to be inspired.

Previously, the story of being non-technical in a technical company and how I worked my way up from a temporary administrative assistant to a director of a high performing team was the motivation behind teaching.

Getting others to rise to their potential and love what they do fed my desire to teach and to grow others. My struggle to get my leader ability back on track these last few years didn’t seem like a story worth sharing. When an instructor had to cancel, I hesitantly agreed to cover.

I had taught the class many times so I wasn’t concerned on the delivery; I was concerned with my credibility.

Falling on My Butt

I was lucky that the class was extremely energetic and engaged. 30 minutes into the session, I was walking backwards (never a good idea… and in wedges none the less…) in the front of the room and tripped over a chair, landing flat on my back.

As the students gasped and I heard “are you okay?

I lay on the floor looking up at the ceiling thinking “I just fell on my butt… Wow fitting; how awesome!”

I laid there for a minute pondering my next move….

Option A:

Jump up, tell my students to play hooky the rest of the day and run out of the room?


Option B:

Do the same thing I had been doing for the last few years with my leadership stumbles:  Get up, brush myself off and do my best to deliver the most awesome class ever.

I decided on the latter.

The Power of Focusing on Solutions

I do have to admit that due to my less-than-graceful stunt, the class was focused on my every move. More so for my next potential face plant than the compelling delivery of the content I am sure.

After class I had a student come up to me and say “You handled that [embarrasing situation] with such grace, what a great day!”

My response to her was “Well, what else could I do, run from the room screaming?”

The unscripted fall reminded me of the lessons I have been living as a struggling leader and that I need to keep top of mind:

  • If failure wasn’t an option for leaders, we wouldn’t have many in this world
  • Failure, if used as a vehicle to learn, adapt, improve, can help a person become a better leader
  • When you fall, get up and keep going. Even leaders are human
  • People fear perfect leaders if there is such a thing. Failure, fumbles and stumbles bring leaders a little closer to the heart of their followers.
  • Don’t blame others for your missteps. When mistakes happen, look inside first, always

I am still worn from trying to land solidly on my feet in an ever challenging environment but at least after my class experience, I know that when I literally fall on my butt, I can get back up on my feet and deliver.

What are some of your stories of failure and recovery?


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Cheryl Dilley
Cheryl Dilley 
is a Program Director at Intel Corporation
She is a transformation leader, coach, and program strategist
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Leadership Equanimity Through Self-Awareness

Self Awareness

Because our world requires such complex interaction and our brains are not naturally equipped to respond effectively to all that stimuli, human beings must adapt.

We must teach ourselves how to manage the stressors we face in an emotionally intelligent way so that we can be better leaders.

Responding to Emotions

By practicing how we respond to our emotions, we become the type of mindful and equananimous leaders that our colleagues choose to follow.

In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman discusses developing self-awareness within leaders as the “leadership paradox” because it requires us to connect with our personal values before we can lead anyone.

As leaders, we must understand at a deeply personal level exactly what drives us, how our emotions align with what we wish to accomplish with our teams and how those goals are translated into action.

As Goleman puts it:

“Self-awareness . . . is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions.”

Not surprisingly, this requires us to be mindful of those feelings and physical states that drive our behavior.

Foundation of Self-Awareness

Bringing our attention to our emotions is the foundation of self-awareness

Mindfully becoming aware of each emotion (“Right now, I’m feeling angry”) tees-up the succeeding steps.  Next, we pull those emotions apart to see what’s underneath.

By taking one feeling and peeling away its layers we will inevitably see more fundamental root-level emotions.

And by paying attention to them, we then can start addressing the broader impact to ourselves and our teams.

Like many, I have held on to anger and allowed it to bleed into my interactions at work and home.  A colleague may not come through effectively on a deadline and, rather than mindfully responding to that emotion, I allowed my anger to carry over to conversations with other work colleagues and even brought it home with me, resulting in being clipped in exchanges with my family.

Breaking it Down

I have had to learn how to pay attention to that emotion in that moment and break it into pieces.

For example, I might be able find fear lurking behind my anger.

I’m dependent on this colleague to be successful and, if they don’t come through, my job may be at risk.

Or resentment,

Why doesn’t she share my sense of urgency on this project?

By mindfully attending to these sub-emotions and challenging their root, we begin to own our emotions and they begin to change.

With practice of self-awareness (yes – awareness can be a learned trait), we become able to more objectively observe and respond the emotion rather than be consumed by it.

Being Aware in the Present

By being aware (mindful) of the present moment, we bring greater attention to what we are feeling. 

The goal is not to eliminate the emotion but to be aware of it.  Sometimes, being aware of the root emotion is enough to lessen its impact but oftentimes that awareness has no effect or actually strengthens it.  That’s OK.

The goal is merely to bring attention to the emotion without the burden of eradicating it. 

As we practice being mindful of these emotions, we become more adept at understanding their origin and thereby minimizing their impact.

As a result, we can lessen their unintended consequences on our ability to lead effectively.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like anything we do, this gets easier with practice. 

Consistent awareness to our emotional attachments and their unintended consequences can lead to deeper analysis.  You may even find yourself intentionally digging into your personal vault of emotions and peeling them back in order to pay attention to their sub-emotions.

This is the work that starts to rewire ourselves so that we may begin to neurologically build new pre-frontal cortex pathways that provide healthier choices for us.

Confronting Emotions

It’s heady stuff, so tread carefully. 

Confronting emotions that are the foundations of our personalities (e.g., judgment of others, low self-esteem, loneliness, the need to be perfect) can be draining but the reward is being able to lessen our suffering, as noted mindfulness author Pema Chodron writes in Getting Unstuck (2005).

Chodron compares this self-awareness practice with having scabies,

“scratching the itch of discomfort provides only temporary relief but spreads the disease.”

In other words, we must dig into what’s behind what we’re feeling if we want to move away from short-term relief (scratching) for long-term relief (no itch).

Exploring Emotions

But we have to be willing to do the work. 

Chodron calls it “shenpa” (the Tibetan word for attachment) and highlights how we get hooked and consequently stuck on thoughts that affect our behavior long after the catalyst has passed.

She points out that we need to explore these emotions that hook us and that will lead us to self-awareness.

But don’t start there.  We have enough work to do right now with those daily examples that are getting in the way of our ability to lead with equanimity.

As we peel back our emotional layers, we expose those basic feelings and beliefs that are at the root of many of our leadership barriers.

Modeling New Behaviors

With our newfound recognition, we may start to model a new behavior for those we lead.

In situations where displays of anger have traditionally been the norm, they are replaced with demonstrations of calm and, over time, our colleagues learn the benefits of choosing more equananimous responses when confronted with work-related stressors.

  • How do your emotions drive your leadership decisions?
  • Can you think of a time when you didn’t recognize how your reaction to your emotions led to poorer-than-expected outcomes?
  • What kinds of reflective opportunities exist for you to practice being aware of how your emotional reactions drive behavior in your workplace?
  • Do your direct reports have a tendency to mirror your emotional reactions?  If yes, is there opportunity to practice being more self-aware in order to model equanimity to your teams?
  • What specific steps can you start taking today?


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Erik Engburg
Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
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Painful Leadership Lessons

Pain and Suffering

Because of a disease called Avascular Necrosis, I had both of my hips replaced when I was in my early forties.  When replacing my left hip, a specific type of prosthesis was used to help stabilize me so that I could supposedly rehab more easily. 

Risky Business

Included in the many risks of this type of surgery, the use of this type of prosthesis opened me up (pun intended) to a 1 in 3,000 risk of having chronic pain post-surgically.

I guess I should have gone to Las Vegas rather than to that operating room because I beat those odds and have been living with often-crippling and ongoing pain in my left knee, thigh, hip and my coccyx for well over ten years.

The Treatment and Leadership Rehab

After two years of frustration and what seemed like an infinite number of referrals and treatments, I had to give up looking for “cure” for my pain. Doctors, including the head of Orthopedic Reconstruction Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, advised me to start learning how to live with my pain and abandon my search for a permanent fix.

Ever since then, I have expanded my mindfulness practice as a way to get closer to the Buddhist saying,

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

During this life transition, I have found myself incorporating many of the lessons I have learned into my leadership style.

Learning From Pain

On an individual basis, I utilize almost exactly the same lessons that Kate Bartolotta describes in her post Eight Things I Learned From Pain.   Along with the terrific medical care I receive from my pain management doctor, I have been able to manage a level of pain that can incapacitate many.

I have learned the lessons of impermanence first hand through my efforts to get through each moment of pain and translated them into techniques of mindful change management for myself and my work colleagues.

Specifically, understanding that nothing is permanent has helped me to help others understand that change, like pain, is inevitable but suffering is indeed optional.

On Honesty and Control

As my teams and I peel back the layers of corporate culture impermanence, we have to be honest about those components over which we have control and, more importantly, those we do not.

Without that understanding, we can not lead those on the front lines who demand stability in an unstable environment.

While my pain is oftentimes exacerbated by my own actions (e.g., doing too much), it also has a nasty habit of flaring up for seemingly no reason as if to remind me that it can never be completely controlled.

In that same way, business leaders have to learn that, no matter the effort put forth by themselves and their direct reports, change (pain) is not always under their control.

Getting Through It

In order not to suffer:

We have to learn the lessons of impermanence and understand how to respond to the attending emotions of change rather than simply reacting in a non-productive way.

This obviously is a painful process (again, pun intended!) and is an ongoing one that must account for the skeptics and naysayers. Believe it or not, those Debbie Downers find positive behavioral and emotional reinforcement by inviting further pain into their lives.

Demanding permanence from management is looked upon by one’s peers as a reasonable expectation regardless of the suffering that undoubtedly follows when ongoing change comes down the pike.

However, your leadership team can learn quickly, as mine has, that the inevitability of impermanence has to become the culture in your organization in such a way that, in its absence, the team becomes concerned when further change is late in arriving!

Ongoing Follow-Up

Living with pain has changed my life.  I have become much more patient, less judgmental and an infinitely better listener and leader who can help businesses realize the long term gain and ROI that results from the utilization of mindful leadership techniques.

Don’t get me wrong – if Aladdin comes along tomorrow with the magic lamp, I’m ready for my pain to go away!  However, the mindful lessons of impermanence I’ve learned have become the gifts that my pain has brought to me.

By sharing with others and, by recalling these lessons during our particularly “painful” episodes, we can more easily move from suffering to living!

  • What form does your pain take and what lessons can you learn from it that applies to your role as a leader? 
  • How can you mindfully recognize those moments when your suffering or the suffering of your team is a barrier to moving forward? 
  • What are the strategies you can employ to become “unstuck” in those moments? 
  • What are some similar barriers that team members have learned to overcome that you can leverage in training that will help others recognize the impermanence of painful moments regardless of whether or not they are controllable?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Erik Engberg

Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions 
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook |  Twitter | Web | Blog | 412.477.5469

Image Sources: crossfitiota.files.wordpress.com


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