Government Leadership and the Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness means consciously choosing how one responds to a situation rather than reacting impulsively or defensively.

Mindfulness means consciously choosing how one responds to a situation rather than reacting impulsively or defensively. MassanPH / Getty Images

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

By teaching themselves to move beyond impulsive reactions, executives can become more thoughtful—and more effective.

When we think about the skills that executives need to be successful, such as making good decisions, regulating their emotions and stress levels, and forming strong and healthy relationships with others, an important foundation for those skills should be mindfulness. Luckily, there are simple but powerful steps that anyone in a leadership position, or hoping to be in one in the future, can take to gain its benefits.

So what is mindfulness? It means taking time—even just a split-second pause in an important or stressful conversation—to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. It also means consciously choosing how one responds rather than reacting impulsively or defensively. While the concept might strike some as touchy-feely, it’s a well-researched technique with proven benefits for those who manage large and complex organizations—and one that’s especially useful in a government environment where a hasty decision can face harsh public scrutiny.

There are two very different ways to gain mindfulness skills. One is to go through life, including at work, being battered back and forth by unwise decisions and reactions rooted in old habits and well-worn scripts. Those life experiences can, over time, be a teacher and help you grow, but it’s bound to be a long and arduous path.

The far less stressful approach is to accept and embrace the fact that we are all limited, flawed human beings who sometimes make unwise decisions. But by learning and using mindfulness practices, we can avoid hitting the potholes of life as often. We can learn to identify those potholes and walk around them.

How specifically can one be more mindful? One of us (Marc Margolius) teaches a three-step process, reflecting a quote often attributed to psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The first step is to adopt a stance of non-judgmental curiosity by simply observing one’s own thoughts and emotions. That could involve pausing to witness, without criticizing, how one habitually reacts to a given situation or person—not to be upset with one’s reaction, but simply to acknowledge it.

Federal executives may be familiar with the concept suggested by leadership scholars Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy: “going to the balcony,” meaning getting perspective on an organizational conflict or challenge. Step one of mindfulness is very similar, but focused inward, on the balcony of the mind. It’s about getting perspective on one’s own typical reactions.

The second step is to be aware of having the possibility of choice, realizing that we have a range of options in responding to a stimulus. In other words, we don’t need to react the same way we have so often in the past and can instead choose healthier and more productive responses. We—not our bad inclinations or past character flaws—are in charge.

The third step is to choose the value or set of values that one wants to use in responding to the situation. For example, you could ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to present myself as in this moment?” Maybe it’s someone who is kind, trustworthy, humble, strong, generous, grateful, direct, responsible, empathetic or organized. In fact, you might even envision yourself as a painter with a canvas in front of you: What set of colors (values) do you need to use in this moment? Maybe a bit of humility mixed with some wise boundaries, plus a dab of self-assertion.

What might these three steps look like together? Say that Jade is a branch chief within her agency and gets an email from a member of her team saying that a draft memo due to her for review will be delayed—an email that makes her immediately angry. Her first inclination is to fire back a strongly worded email to the subordinate and his team.

Instead, she pauses. She takes a minute to observe how even with the work she’s been doing to be more empathetic toward her hard-working staff, she still angers easily when there are setbacks, something she often justifies because of the importance of her agency’s work. She focuses on the choice in front of her, about how to respond to the delay.

In the end, Jade chooses to respond calmly and with understanding, knowing that her staff is doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. Her mindful response helps the branch avoid a pothole. Her staff ends up being grateful for her understanding and working extra hard to complete the task as soon as possible.

In a nutshell, mindfulness is about learning to respond rather than react. It’s an approach that should be in every leader’s toolkit, helping them be more thoughtful and successful. On a more personal level, it’s a technique that can help all of us become the people we want to be in this world — driven by the values we want to live by, not the habits of our past.

Andrew Feldman is the founder and principal consultant at the Center for Results-Focused Leadership, which helps public agencies use evidence, data and strategy to improve their results. He also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast, with more than 200 interviews. Rabbi Marc Margolius is the senior program director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He hosts the institute’s daily mindfulness meditation sessions and teaches an online program called “Awareness in Action” designed to cultivate character through mindfulness.

NEXT STORY: Infrastructure Tops Mayors’ Concerns for 2nd Year

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.