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How Leaders Can Develop Their Skills With One Simple Habit

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The following is a guest piece by author Matt Tenney.

If your schedule is anything like mine, finding time to consistently devote to your own leadership development is likely quite a challenge.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a well-rounded leadership development program that didn’t require you to add anything to your schedule?

You can. In fact, research in neuroscience suggests that you can transform simple, daily activities – like brushing your teeth, commuting to work, and preparing coffee – into opportunities to change both the function and structure of your brain in ways that improve both business acumen and emotional intelligence, two key drivers of leadership performance. All you need to do is change the way you do things you’re already doing each day.

For most of us, our default mode of operating in the world is to be caught up in our thinking. We live as though we are our thinking, as though we are that voice inside our heads that is constantly blabbering away.

By making a subtle inner shift, called mindfulness, we can actually become and remain aware of our thinking, as though we’re watching it on a heads-up display, or listening to it as though it were a radio station. We can become and remain self-aware.

Nearly everyone already does this many times each day. However, it’s usually unintentional and we don’t sustain the perspective of being mindfully self-aware for more than a few seconds before we’re sucked right back into being our thinking again. Thus, we don’t realize much benefit from our experiences of mindfulness.

This is similar to our relationship with running. Almost everyone runs. But many people only run when they’re late, or to cross the street. These brief, infrequent acts of running provide almost no benefits other than arriving to a destination a bit sooner. However, people who run intentionally 3-4 days per week for 20-30 minutes realize a great number of benefits, such as improved sleep, reduced stress, clearer thinking, increased energy, etc.

Likewise, when we make the effort to intentionally become mindfully self-aware more often, and for longer periods of time, we realize a number of valuable benefits. Perhaps most important for leadership development, we can systematically train to improve both business acumen and emotional intelligence.

Rewiring the Brain for Better Decision Making
We make countless decisions every day. We probably feel as though we generally make those decisions completely rationally. However, that is most likely not the case. We likely make many decisions each day that are not entirely rational, and that would not yield the optimal business outcomes.

The problem with decision making isn’t necessarily that we don’t know what to do. The problem is that we are subject to decision making biases, called cognitive biases, which cause us to unconsciously make decisions that are less than optimal.

The idea of cognitive biases was introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s. Their work showed quite clearly that people often make decisions that deviate substantially from what strict rationale would indicate is the correct choice.

Tversky and Kahneman also showed that they could predict quite accurately when people would act irrationally, because the irrational behavior was due to measurable cognitive biases. This work on cognitive biases became the foundation for the field of behavioral economics and resulted in Kahneman winning the Nobel Prize in 2002.

When we become mindfully self-aware, we become aware of thinking and the emotional state of the body. Research suggests that this objective view of our thinking and emotional state, which mindfulness provides, frees us up from our conditioned, habitual ways of acting and deciding, and allows us to make more consistently rational decisions.

For instance, Virginia Tech researcher Ulrich Kirk and his colleagues used a tool of behavioral economics, called the ultimatum game to test the effects of mindfulness on decision making. The game involves deciding whether or not to accept an unfair offer, even though it is clearly the best decision.

The researchers found that mindfulness practitioners were twice as likely to make the rational, best decision. While deciding about accepting an unfair offer, non-practitioners showed brain activation in a neural network involving emotion, cognition, and brain areas related to the sense of self. Mindfulness practitioners had a completely different brain activation pattern with increases in the posterior insula and the thalamus, which are associated with body awareness.

Winning the Hearts of Team Members
The well-known research of Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis suggests that emotional intelligence accounts for as much as 90% of what separates stellar leaders from average leaders. For leaders, good decision-making ability is not enough to achieve long-term success. We must also be able to build and sustain team cultures that have positive emotional climates.

A team with a positive emotional climate is almost always going to outperform a team with a toxic climate over the long-term. Of course, the leader has the greatest impact on the emotional climate of the team. Whether that impact is positive or negative is a function of the leader’s emotional intelligence.

Mindfulness training may be the most effective tool there is for improving emotional intelligence. This is because the foundational competency of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, and mindfulness training is essentially self-awareness training. Research in neuroscience suggests that mindfulness training changes both the function and the structure of the brain in ways that improve self-awareness.

One of the first studies to show this was conducted by Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard University in 2005. The team discovered that in practitioners of mindfulness regions of the brain associated with self-awareness are measurably thicker. Other studies, like this one conducted at the University of California at Berkley, suggest that mindfulness training results in highly refined levels of self-awareness, allowing us to notice subtle aspects of ourselves that untrained people are not able to notice.

A Practical Guide to Getting Started
Although it’s certainly not easy, transforming all the mundane moments of the day into opportunities to rewire the brain for better business acumen and better emotional intelligence is a simple, straightforward process, outlined below in four steps.

1. Make a list of all the activities that you engage in every day that don’t require you to be actively planning, analyzing, or otherwise thinking.
2. Commit to practicing mindfulness — as described below — during one of those activities, each time you engage in that activity, for one week.
3. At the start of week two, continue practicing during the activity from week one, and add a second activity.
4. Continue adding an activity each week until you’re making the effort to practice mindfulness during every activity on your list.

Before beginning an activity — such as brushing your teeth — it can be helpful to pause for a moment, take a breath, and remind yourself that you’re going to practice being mindfully self-aware during that activity. Then, simply let go of intentionally thinking and make the effort to be curious about what your experience is actually like in the present moment. Keep alive the attitude of What’s happening now? and notice whatever sensations there are to notice. This is your foundation.

Thoughts will surely arise during the two minutes dentists recommend you spend brushing your teeth, and that’s okay. This is an important part of the training. By making the effort to notice those thoughts and not be pulled into them, you are gradually rewiring your brain for better self-awareness, and thereby for leadership excellence.

Matt Tenney is the author of “The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule“. Matt’s clients include Wells Fargo, Marriott, Keller Williams, The Four Seasons, and many other companies, associations, and universities. To learn more about Matt’s work, visit his website www.themindfulnessedge.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MattTenney1.

© 2016 Matt Tenney, author of “The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule“.

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