I Wish I Had Read Creating Mindful Leaders Earlier in My Career

By: Josh Bersin

Share with your community

Our new book, Creating Mindful Leaders, came out in April 2018! As a preview of what to expect, we’re excited to share the foreword to the book by our friend and renowned human resources (HR), talent and learning expert, Josh Bersin.

Leadership is one of the most complex and difficult roles in business. You are constantly under pressure to perform, people watch every move you make, and your entire success is based on your ability to motivate, align, and support others. How do you take care of yourself in the process?

Over the years, I’ve studied leadership and HR, meeting with the world’s leading CEOs and talking with HR teams about their need to develop better leaders. I’ve come to a very simple conclusion: Leadership is not a job, it is a career – one that requires each of us to do a lot of thinking about ourselves.

As I got to know Joe Burton and read his book, my immediate reaction was simple: “I wish I had read Creating Mindful Leaders ear- lier in my career.” We all lead in unique ways, but when you bring it all together, “mindful leadership” really is the destination we all seek.

Great Leadership Is an Enormously Complex Topic

Let me start by saying that “being a great leader” is a complex and heavily researched topic. There are thousands of books and workshops on the subject, hundreds of leadership models to follow, and billions of dollars of consulting, assessment, and coaching spent on this issue. And yet, many companies still end up with toxic work cultures.

Why? Because being a good leader is difficult, success can be fleeting (a great leader in one situation often fails in another), and people approach the problem in different ways. As we’ve studied leadership development over the years, the biggest thing we found is that “environment” matters more than almost anything else. We, as leaders, have to be very sensitive to the team, company, business situation, and culture of those around us. And when your environment involves constant change and disruption, this critical need to be a good listener and good observer of the world is only possible if we are resilient and mindful.

To make this whole topic even more difficult, the expectations of leaders keep changing. When I entered the workforce in 1978, working originally for Exxon and then IBM, people moved into management in a slow and predictable way, and managers were essentially “the boss.” You had years to prepare for management and leadership, and once you made it you had established rules and practices to follow. Companies were stable during those times, so people were patient to wait their turn, and once you were in a management role you were suddenly part of the club and everyone gave you a little extra deference.

It wasn’t always easy to move into leadership, but the patterns were clear: Companies promoted people who were well liked, people who could rally teams to succeed, and people who were committed, hard-working, and often workaholics by nature. I call this the hero leadership model, and it demanded a lot of grit and toughness to succeed.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the theme of leadership started to shift. The labor market became more competitive, we entered the “War for Talent,” and leaders had to take on a new role. Suddenly leaders were not expected to direct and allocate resources but rather to inspire, empower, develop, and support our people. It now became okay for leaders to show their vulnerability (“Authentic Leadership” was the rage) and we expected leaders to be more open about their company financials, their personal challenges, and their strategies to succeed.

Today the world has changed again, and, so too, has the nature of work. Every employee is asked to be a leader in almost every role, and we found that 40% of us now work for leaders who are younger and perhaps less experienced than we are. Each one of us leads a team, a project, a meeting, or some group of people at work, and our behavior and activities are easier to monitor than ever. Imagine a situation where you are just tired and stressed out and inadvertently say something you regret: It might be captured on video, and could be shared in a private employee chat room or online with the entire world. The expectations for leaders are higher than ever before, making it even more important to slow down, relax, and think before you act.

My Leadership Journey

In my case, I started my career as an engineer, then worked for years in sales and marketing, and didn’t aspire to be a leader for many years. I had the opportunity to work in some great companies, so I could observe, learn, and model myself after many great managers and executives. My boss at IBM, for example, was such a wonderful manager (he ran a sales operation on the West Coast) that he felt like a father figure for most of us. When he passed away years later almost the entire sales organization showed up at his funeral. He was mindful in a very traditional way: He would sit in his office with his suit coat on (we all wore suits and ties in those days) and often gazed out the window, thinking hard about a situation and then speaking slowly before he would react.

In my case, I was thrust into management early in my career (before I felt ready), and tried to learn the ropes by watching others, reading books, and taking some classes. As an engineer I thought I could decode the job and make sense of it, but years later I learned that much of leadership is just being a holistic person. So I bum- bled along for a while, and I was probably not nearly as mindful as I could be.

In the year 1997, at the age of 41, I learned about the importance of mindful leadership in a big way. I had taken a new job as VP of Marketing at a small software company and within a few weeks the CEO had a heart attack and had to step down. The founder, who lived 120 miles away, had no interest in running the company so I was asked to be the virtual CEO overnight. A job I never wanted was thrust upon me, and the stress level was higher than I could have imagined.

While I have always been a calm person on the outside, I am competitive by nature, so my passion, energy, and fear of failure suddenly came to the surface – transforming me into a workaholic, stress-filled executive. With the new volume of issues to manage I found myself struggling to find enough hours in the day, and as a result worked very long hours and hardly slept for over a year. We managed to sell the company and I then went into an even more stressful job as an executive at the acquiring company. I’d slip into being the kind of “commanding” leader that Joe describes in his research. Was I mindful? Not at all – and in retrospect it was one of the most difficult times in my career. Like so many leaders, I had never been trained (and was not intuitively equipped) with the right tools, techniques and mindset to be calm, focused and resilient in the face of ongoing adversity.

Over the 20 plus years since, I have had the opportunity to start and run my own company, meet with hundreds of leaders around the world, study leadership in detail, and learn from an amazing set of leaders at Deloitte. Looking back and now reading Joe’s book and the impressive bevy of supporting research and clinical studies that he presents, I would say that learning to be mindful is perhaps the most important life skill any leader can acquire.

Enter Mindfulness and Meditation

I read “The GE Way” by Jack Welch many years ago and there is a quote I always remembered: “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” He was referring, of course, to the many businesses at General Electric he was trying to turn around, and how important it was for his leaders to have an unbiased perspective of the market changes and competition they face.

But I now read this quote in a very different way: Great leaders really do “face reality as it is,” and that means they have a very mindful way of being. They actively cultivate emotional intelligence. They have an uncanny ability to listen, they pick up signals about what’s going on, and they sense how to bring out the best in people (including themselves). They are often quiet, they may tend to speak slowly, and they often pause and think before they act. As Joe would say, they act out of choice rather than compulsion.

Some of this is based on physiology and psychology, but much of mindfulness comes from practice and experience. For most of us, leadership is a new and constantly changing beast; we are always a little bit off-center, so we have to cultivate the ability to pause and reflect (take a breath) so we don’t react in the wrong way.

No matter how much experience you have, being a leader can also be vexingly hard. When a situation goes sideways or someone is underperforming, you are often at a loss about what to do. Some of us react quickly, become loud and aggressive, and feel we must control a situation to make things better. The “I” versus “We” leader syndrome explored in Chapter 18. We wake up in the middle of the night, we ruminate obsessively about problems, we are pressured by our stressed-out superiors, and we worry about our personal reputation. I believe these pressures explain why an increasing number of senior leaders seem to do unethical things: The personal pressure to succeed, especially if you are competitive by nature, coupled with the implicit power we have, can create bad behavior.

Underneath it all, of course, leadership is about people. If we as leaders (and this means everyone, not just those of us informal managerial roles) can’t give other people a feeling of energy, clarity, and alignment, we simply are not doing our jobs. And we cannot do this if we are not taking care of ourselves. This is what Joe’s book is all about – cultivating the skills to be resilient in the face of ongoing pressure and the ability to apply those skills to improve your own mental and emotional wellbeing, relationships, and performance.

Over the past five years I’ve been studying wellbeing at work, and I have become a huge fan of meditation and mindfulness myself. While I am certainly not an expert, I now take time to go for walks, I avoid the elevator and take the stairs, and I relish my time alone to read, listen to music, or exercise. I now understand the importance of downtime to allow the brain to power down, so that I can power up and power forward. Has it made me a better leader? I certainly hope so, but I wish I had read Creating Mindful Leaders long ago. Without any doubt, the practices presented here create the foundation for a sustainable competitive advantage for leaders at any stage in their career.

Remember as you read this book that taking care of yourself has an enormous “force-multiplier effect.” Everyone at work observes how you behave, so your ability to be mindful, emotionally intelligent, listen, and be calm will also have a calming and focusing effect on others. That creates a more healthy high-performance culture. If you work hard (as most of us do) we must understand the impact we have on our colleagues, families, and children – they need us to be healthy and happy. And of course our customers, stakeholders, and business partners are impacted too – so taking care of yourself is vital.

I want to thank Joe for writing this timely, useful, and very readable book. I hope the powerful and actionable insights presented here help you to “face reality as it is,” and be more present, healthy, and effective in your own leadership journey.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter on the latest industry updates, Rethink happenings, and resources galore. Simply follow the link to the footer and enter your email.

Related Resources

To prepare future generations for a diverse and inclusive workplace where employees feel they belong,...

Learn more about Rethink

Take care of your people with Whil’s evidenced-based solutions that support the well-being your entire employee base in all aspect of their lives - from personal to parenting, and professional

Build strong school communities and healthy, safe learning environments for all your students with RethinkEd’s evidence-based strategies and technology solutions across SEL, Special Ed, Behavioral & Training

Start, grow and manage your practice with Rethink’s workflow automation and evidenced-based clinical best practice tools that help you optimize outcomes and operations

Support your members and your provider networks with Rethink’s solutions that support autism care management across your network while offering unique value-added services to your members.

logo rethinkfirst white

Together We’re Powering Potential

Transforming the Behavioral Health landscape requires scalable platforms that address a broad range of mental, emotional, and wellness needs. At Rethink First we are proud to work across the continuum of care to help individuals and the people they care about live healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives.

The leading behavioral and mental health enterprise platform to support working parents, caregivers and their families.

Award-winning solutions empower districts and their educators to improve outcomes and wellness for all tiers of students and to build healthy and safe learning environments.

Fully integrated workflow automation and evidenced-based clinical tools help behavioral health organizations optimize outcomes and operations.

Patent-pending clinical solutions and member engagement services streamline autism care management processes and support outcomes for health plans, providers, and members.