Co-authored by David Brendel, MD, PhD
If we conceptualize the mind as a muscle, with regular exercise, the possibilities are infinite. While it was once believed that the brain had reached its maximum capacity by early adulthood, it is now understood that it actually has the ability to continuously form new neural connections and reorganize itself throughout the lifetime. This concept known as neuroplasticity, is a relatively young discovery in neuroscience, and one that is being optimized by many in business.
In addition to physical wellness programs, organizations are now beginning to offer their employees services such as mindfulness, executive coaching, and other ‘mind-training’ modalities, in an effort to harness this cognitive potential. In our professional practice, we implement several evidence-based approaches to help new leaders excel, including what we refer to as the ‘4 M’s’ model of leadership training: Mindset shifts, Mindfulness skills, Medical wellness and Meaning structures. Attention to these four critical areas can help employees in any field make a successful transition to first-time leadership roles.
1. Mindset shift
The most effective starting point in any endeavor is a positive mindset. Taking on a leadership role for the first time not only requires learning new habits, but letting go of old ones as well. One habit that can be detrimental to our ability to perform at our best is negative self-talk. Falling into the rabbit hole of negative thinking or self criticism is a guaranteed setup for failure. As a leader, one is often tasked with critical decision-making, some to be made in a matter of seconds. This leaves little room for self-doubt. Thanks to neuroplasticity, it is possible to restructure our cognitions ― in other words, to literally change our minds. By identifying, challenging. and replacing self-defeating thoughts with more realistic and hopeful ones, we can shift a limiting belief system.
Some initially resist the idea of mindset shifting, for fear of losing their ‘edge’. Herein, amidst the irony, lies a perfect example of a false belief -- that a rigid, knuckle down attitude is a requisite for success in business. This attitude may work for some, but at what cost? As we’ve learned over the years, chronic stress is a leading contributor to a number of serious health issues, not to mention increased healthcare costs and lower productivity. On the other hand, relaxing into one’s role with confidence and ease, will not only make you better equipped to lead, but will improve your overall well-being. Learning how to get there is the next step.
2. Mindfulness skills
Mindfulness -- or the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally (as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn) -- is increasingly being shown to improve both physical and psychological well-being. The benefits of any mindfulness practice, whether sitting meditation or more informal techniques such as mindful listening or controlled breathing, are endless. In the workplace, emotional regulation is imperative. The extent of one’s ability to modulate difficult emotions thoughtfully and appropriately rather than reactively, not only affects skills such as decision making, but can also determine how one is perceived by others. This is essential to consider when moving into a first-time leadership position. Increased focus, another benefit, enhances the ability to think strategically, thus empowering leaders to navigate unforeseen challenges as they inevitably arise.
In a culture of instant gratification and shrinking deadlines, one of the most frequent questions posed by those new to meditation is: ‘What is the least amount of time I need to practice in order to reap the rewards?’ As my meditation teacher would say, 30 minutes per day is ideal, but if you don’t have the time, then 60 minutes! If you want to excel in any capacity, practicing self-care is a must. But in our imperfect reality, even a few minutes of mindful breathing during a busy, stressful day can be helpful.
3. Medical wellness
According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and motivation theory, only when our most basic needs for survival are met, such as food and shelter, can we move on to the next level of self-actualization. This same idea applies to the workplace in terms of thriving within an organizational culture.
Just as an athlete must maintain the body in peak physical condition to perform at his/her best, successful business leaders must develop habits to maintain prime mental shape. Without an adequate amount of sleep, good nutrition and other behaviors essential to optimal brain functioning, the ability to reach one’s maximum potential becomes compromised. Only when our brains are functioning well can we lead others effectively.
4. Meaning structures
Careful self-reflection about your values, mission, and legacy can bring the mental clarity and behavior changes you need for success in management roles.
Behind any successful endeavor must lie a motivating factor or purpose. As humans, we are driven by reward and motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, in his famous memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, provides a poignant illustration of the importance of meaning to the human spirit. Inspired by his own experiences, he developed Logotherapy and Existential Analysis , a psychotherapeutic approach based upon the premise that as humans, we are motivated by meaning, or an inner pull to find a meaning in life. Groundbreaking leaders such as the Wright brothers or Steve Jobs (who was a regular meditator) all share at least one thing in common. They each had the ability to see something before it existed, and the boldness to bring it to fruition. Much like an athlete visualizing his next move, for a goal to be manifested, it must first be envisioned. The best leaders are inspired and guided by a greater meaning.
Like any transition, moving into a leadership role for the first time can be challenging, and will require practice and patience. Honing in on the four critical areas -- the ‘4 M’s’ -- is essential: Always maintain a positive mindset, practice mindfulness, maintain medical and psychological well-being, and be guided by a greater meaning. If you do so, whether you are getting ready to lead a staff of 5 or a corporation of thousands, you will be primed for success.
Allison Abrams and David Brendel provide executive coaching and mindfulness skills training to corporations and organizations.