Leadership 2.0

Executives and managers can improve their leadership skills by embracing mindfulness.

Here’s a crash course in the psychology of better business

It’s the type of leadership impasse that occurs every day in America. An executive—we’ll call him Edward—rises through a company’s ranks to become CEO. The company is producing good, but not great, products and profits, and Edward senses the organization is troubled. Morale among employees is generally lagging. Turnover is above average for his industry. And Edward is often the last to hear about problems within the workforce, which is a classic symptom of leadership dysfunction in a business. Edward prides himself on being a good listener, but he knows he could be doing a better job at hearing his employees, responding to their concerns and being more in touch with them.

Edward’s problems are hardly unique. And while they may seem daunting, he’s not the first CEO to face these workplace issues—and he won’t be the last.

But, as some of his fellow CEOs have discovered, there's a comprehensive and worthwhile solution. Edward needs to embrace a conscious approach to leadership—one that involves self-awareness, mindfulness, active listening and the ability to build and maintain close relationships. In short, he needs to embrace the tenets of the psychology of business.

Connecting science and business

While a psychology-based approach to business leadership may sound like a new phenomenon to some, the benefits of mindful leadership have been extensively researched and proven effective. “The Mind of the Leader,” a book by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter based on assessments of 35,000 leaders and interviews with 250 C-suite executives, demonstrates business leaders need to harness their mindfulness, selflessness and compassion, so they can meet their employees’ need for meaning, purpose, connection and happiness in their jobs.

“Who you are is how you lead” is one of the philosophical tenets of The BB&T Leadership Institute, says Steve Swavely, PhD, a senior vice president with The Leadership Institute who heads its development programs. “Understanding who you are as a person and how you got to be that way is critical to understanding your own leadership strengths and weaknesses. And this understanding is a necessary step to making productive changes.”

Studies have shown psychology-based training, in behavior such as active listening and methods to avoid acting on autopilot, is inherently practical. It’s been shown to improve employees’ engagement and productivity, which help increase a company’s performance. After all, employees who have higher levels of job satisfaction and a strong rapport with their managers are more invested in their jobs and their companies.

A culture of corporate mindfulness enhances employee focus, reduces stress and improves teamwork, according to “Contemplating Mindfulness at Work,” a 2015 analysis of 4,000 scientific papers on mindfulness. The analysis was led by Darren Good, a professor at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, and Christopher Lyddy, a professor at Providence College School of Business. “Remarkably, scientists have found the results of mindfulness consistently benign,” Lyddy says. “Of the thousands of empirical studies we read, only two reported any downsides to mindfulness.”

Yet, corporate America isn’t widely embracing conscious leadership. “Historically,” Lyddy notes, “companies have been reticent to offer mindfulness training because it was seen as something fluffy, esoteric and spiritual. But that’s changing.”

Getting everyone rowing in the same direction

Some of America’s largest and most successful organizations are implementing psychology-based training. Aetna, Google and the US Marine Corps are educating their workforce about the psychology of business and providing them with the needed space and time to master the lessons. Teachers at these institutions often concentrate on enhancing self-awareness through meditation, yoga and similar activities. But it isn’t just working for large companies; the approach has produced outsized results for small and medium businesses across industry sectors.

“Leadership is so crucial for success, whether we’re talking about a business, a school or a family,” Swavely says. “In the United States, we haven’t done a good job of training great leaders. Too often we look to Hollywood. But a leader is not a charismatic person on a soapbox shouting orders. It’s a person who is involved with the followers, doing the work with the followers and getting them all rowing in the same direction by listening, asking the right questions and, when appropriate, giving directions.”

Located in Greensboro, North Carolina, The Leadership Institute is unique in its emphasis on psychology-based leadership training. In fact, its consultants all have a graduate degree in psychology or counseling, and many are licensed psychologists. The Leadership Institute itself, situated on a serene, wooded ridge with a lake view, features a LEED-certified complex with plush conference and meeting rooms, a meditation space, a fitness center and 48 single-occupancy rooms for overnight stays.

The Leadership Institute offers its programs to BB&T executives, managers and employees; corporate clients; and, as part of its commitment to giving back to its community, public school principals and college students. The new campus is a place for leaders and emerging leaders to pause the fast-paced pressure of business and education, reset their minds and learn how to be more conscious of their actions and beliefs.

While The Leadership Institute’s programs have five core product areas—leadership development, talent, team optimization, change management and employee engagement—the bedrock of The Leadership Institute’s programs is a 5-day course called “Mastering Leadership Dynamics,” a crash course on how to become a more effective leader.

Shortly after entering The Leadership Institute, participants in a Mastering Leadership Dynamics program meet Swavely or a consultant from his team. Some of the participants are apprehensive, but Swavely, who holds a PhD in clinical neuropsychology from Georgia State University and is a licensed psychologist, understands.

As a prerequisite for taking a job at The Leadership Institute 12 years ago, Swavely was required to take Mastering Leadership Dynamics himself. The program emphasizes self-awareness and being conscious of one’s own behavior.

It also involves understanding one’s beliefs—some of which may have been in place since childhood—and circumventing one’s negative or counterproductive attitudes, something Swavely knows about firsthand. Part of what he’s gained from the program is an appreciation of how some of the early messages he received as a child were preventing him from being as effective as possible in his career and as a leader. For example, Swavely’s father consistently told him, as a child, that he had to be smarter than everyone else to be successful. These messages sometimes were delivered as admonishments for less-than-stellar results. They were also derived from well-meaning conversations with his father about, for example, grades in school. “If I came home with three As and a B, my dad would focus the discussion on the B.”

Growing up in that environment led Swavely to believe he wasn’t smart enough, so he grew to automatically overcompensate by always needing to be “the smartest guy in the room.” Through Mastering Leadership Dynamics, Swavely was able to recognize this less-than-endearing behavior, learn to manage it differently and become a more productive and likable team player.

A master class

On a clear-skied afternoon, Swavely leads a visitor through The Leadership Institute for an impromptu tour. Throughout the building, waves of sunlight stream through its glass exterior. “It’s all about bringing the outdoors in,” Swavely remarks. The campus environment is designed to be relaxing and comfortable, where type-A personalities are encouraged to “slow down, hit the pause button and do some self-reflection,” he says.

After a full day in the classroom on the first day of Mastering Leadership Dynamics, Swavely’s team gives the executives a brief break for dinner and then leads the participants into a self-reflection room decorated with a thick, dark carpet and a semicircle of comfortable chairs. In this setting, participants begin the process of examining the messages they received as children and that helped form their existing belief systems and self-concepts as working adults. The process of self-discovery comes through a combination of exercises and group discussions about the revelations created by the exercises. It’s a deep dive into understanding how some beliefs are contributing to their leadership and career success, while others are sabotaging them without their conscious awareness. The end game is to identify which belief systems are working for them and which are working against them. The former they keep, the latter they discard.

One of Mastering Leadership Dynamics’ rules is participants must be strangers. “No one can know each other,” Swavely says. “We want them to feel safe to talk about the environment they grew up in and how that environment has contributed to the person and leader they are today.”

Swavely teaches the participants that for their employees to be happy, they need constructive input, a feeling of being valued and clarity about their roles and the overall company. He also stresses that good communication depends on good relationships. Part of strong communication is discarding one’s self-limiting, automatic beliefs and unproductive views. For example, Swavely notes, you can’t let your personal feelings about an employee affect your relationship with that employee and the rest of the team. The role of a leader is to develop strong, positive relationships with their team and leverage those relationships to inspire the team to higher performance. “Just to be clear, this is not about driving your people to burn out, but rather inspiring them in a manner that they want to give the discretionary effort that makes the difference between good enough and great.”

Of course, it’s difficult for people to change their behavior in the workplace, especially if they’re not aware anything is wrong with their interaction with other employees.

“Many executives and managers believe leadership is about telling people what to do,” Swavely says. “It’s not. Great leaders help people discover their own answers. Leadership is about listening and helping people discover for themselves the solutions to the problems they’re tackling. That’s the psychology of leadership right there.”

By John Railey
Illustration by Shout

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