I Don't Need Mindfulness, But the Guy Next to Me Sure as Hell Does

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Mainstream conference in Denver several weeks ago. Mainstream brings together the world's leaders in maintenance, reliability and safety in industries like oil, gas and power.

I was asked to speak on "Leadership and Stress" as it relates to the workplace. As a driven perfectionist, it's a topic I know well. And as a leader running public companies, I've driven my fair share of stress.

I accepted the invite for two reasons. First, I wanted a peek inside an industry that's been vilified for not pushing alternative energy sources fast enough. More on that later.

Second, speaking to an oil & gas crowd about the role of mindfulness in the workplace kicked my judging mind into overdrive. Surely, the starting point for this crowd would be "mindfulness training is a bunch of hippie bullsh*t."

Yup. Check. Confirmed. The crowd was skeptical. But that eased as we found we have a lot in common. I come from a blue-collar family. It was a tough beginning. Alcohol and drug abuse were rampant in my family. I lost two siblings along the way. From an early age, I learned to ignore stress and do whatever I needed to in order to succeed. Humor, long hours, and tenacity were my weapons.

That was a great approach. Until it wasn't. Like the audience at Mainstream, I worked nonstop to chase promotions, stock, and bonuses en route to success. But when I hit 40, my body started to break down. My back went out three times in a year and I developed asthma and insomnia. Two years ago, mindfulness turned out to be game changer for me. But, I had the same starting point as this crowd: mindfulness meditation training was definitely not for me. Until it was.

I shared that I had to jump three hurdles before trying mindfulness. The first was data. I wanted the science. Second, I wasn't looking for a new religion. Third, who else was doing it? Even at 46, I still wanna be with the cool kids. I saw the science, some 3,500 studies in the past five years alone. I saw that a secular approach was possible. And I saw that the top performance driven cultures were already embracing it (from professional athletics to universities to Fortune 500 execs). Check. Check. And check.

At Mainstream, the crowd appreciated that mindfulness has also gone mainstream. Thank you neuroscience, Mark Bertolini, Arianna Huffington, Lebron, Congressman Ryan, and the list goes on. Hearing that the last two Super Bowl champs use mindfulness training resonated with the crowd. And hearing that Tom Brady needed a little less breath when meditating got a cheap laugh (sorry, Patriots fans).

During the evening social, I was struck by the openness of the attendees. Here were 350 execs dedicated to the safety and reliability of the industrial plants and machinery that largely keep our nation running. Their collective mission is to serve customers and protect their employees. They operate in high-stress industries where, if something goes wrong, communities are impacted and employees could be seriously injured or worse. I was honored to be there.

I used to find it easy to joke about oil and gas folks being fat, rich, happy. I can now tell you most are not. These are normal people, just like us, pushing the ball uphill in public companies. They work hard to live life while working in highly competitive, stressful industries. And most were knee deep in R&D, investing in alternative energy solutions. In hindsight, it shouldn't have surprised me to learn they probably think about (and invest in) the future of alternative energy as much as anyone. Their future depends on it.

What was surprising was that they were open about the elephant in the room. Despite their focus on the reliance and reliability of "assets", there was clear recognition that they didn't take care of their own stress. It was accepted as a given.

This group isn't going to slow down so my key message was simple. Reliance and reliability starts with the individual. It doesn't matter how much you spend on the plant & equipment if the individual doesn't show up calm, focused and in the right mind.

A CEO from Houston summed it up over beers. "We could all use mindfulness. It's a stressful business. No one will admit they're stressed or that they need attention training. But when they're working on equipment where lives are on the line, they'll sure as hell want the guy next to them to have it."

I would still like to see alternative energy move faster, but I'm grateful for having an eye opening experience. I don't know as much as I thought I did. It's nice to meet people who are just like me (if I'm open to finding that). And it's a good thing that mindfulness is also going mainstream.