‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’
(In search of lost time, Marcel Proust)

In today’s business world, being a leader means having to constantly respond to changing contexts, and manage on several fronts simultaneously. At the same time, leaders are asked to think strategically while operating under pressure, always in conversation (in inner dialogue), via social media or within their immediate environment.
Many clients, leaders who are physically and emotionally out of breath, testify to their need for a greater capacity to reflect and simply be present. In search of more time, these leaders imperatively feel the need to free up space in their daily lives to be able to reflect and pay particular attention to themselves and their environment as well as to organizational issues, both punctual and for the longer term. For them, this ability to be attentive is, more than ever, a key leadership competency.

Inviting reflection and developing presence

The Latin root of the word reflection, flect, means “to bend”. The act of reflecting means “re-folding”. When you fold something, the surface comes face-to-face with itself. To Jonathan Gosling (Professor emeritus, Exeter University) reflection is a dialogue between yourself as the actor and as an observer of the actions you take. It consists in extracting meaning from our daily experiences. Effective management should therefore be between action on the ground and reflection, action without reflection being “thoughtless.

During a recent coaching session, a client was expressing frustration at being incapable to find time to step back. His inability to create space in his schedule to be fully present to himself, his state of being and to engage in reflection had an impact on his capacity to lead consciously and effectively. Not to mention the physical impact this constant heightened state of being and feeling has on one’s overall health.

To acquire a new vision, to be able to perceive with “new eyes”, we must slow down and become fully aware, mindful of our thoughts before ‘acting’. This makes it possible to look at oneself both as an observer and as an actor, thus re-folding the thoughts and actions we engaged in. Reflecting is an active process, explains Gosling. It means wondering, probing, analyzing, synthesizing and making connections to gain new insights.

In his book entitled “In search of lost time”, Proust, while eating a madeleine, this little cake he made famous, describes an experience that is particularly representative of a moment of pure mindfulness:

‘No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself.’

Reflection, a key strategic activity

Mindfulness constitutes an important foundation and ally in the art of reflection. Being fully present, observing without judgment, with a curious and open mind, invites new insights. It also provides the opportunity to draw new conclusions about actions or experiences stimulating one’s creativity.

Mindfulness: a muscle

But how can we succeed in creating a habit to find “lost time” and practice the art of reflection by developing our mindfulness muscle? In Times magazine, Kate Pickert describes mindfulness as a conscious ‘revolution’ (The Mindful Revolution). Pickert believes that mindfulness acts as a muscle that must be constantly exercise in order for it to become second nature.
Meditation and mindfulness are often confused as being the same. Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we non-judgmentally pay attention in the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced while meditating. Similarly, we can eat mindfully (think of Proust and his madeleine), breathe, read and walk mindfully. A leader can also participate mindfully to a meeting, being fully present to the participants and to the field without judgment and goodwill.

The health benefits of a mindfulness practice are well established. Many scientific studies have shown the positive impact of mindfulness on our health including on hormones, blood pressure, the immune system, etc. In a recent article entitled ‘why is mindfulness in the workplace important in 2019‘, psychologist Carl Lemieux describes the effects of stress on our body and the benefits that the practice of mindfulness can have on reducing the health. This is one of the reasons why many organizations and institutions offer mindfulness programs as a means to increasing wellbeing.

Embodied mindfulness leadership

Leaders and managers call upon coaches to help them develop new skills and competencies as well as to help them adopt healthier habits. The coach will focus the partnership on the actual development rather than the results. As Ralph Emerson is often quoted to have said ‘the journey is the destination’. Focusing on developing new skills such as reflection and mindfulness allows the leader to perform more consciously, and effectively and to embody the new skill whatever the circumstances. A leader who has anchored reflection in his daily life, by developing the practice of mindfulness, becomes a more competent leader. He is able to recognize his state of being and react intentionally and consciously to events in order to think and plan more strategically. Mindfulness has been proven to improve cognition, concentration and empathy. This naturally has a positive impact on both the results and its ecosystem.

The mindful leader is aware that it is possible to choose new behaviours and create new and healthy habits. At any time, one can go beyond one’s usual operating modes and see the multitude of alternatives available to us. It is a simple change of perspective, a broader vision – what Proust calls “new eyes”. The leader who engages in reflection, totally present to herself and to her environment, without judgment, better perceives and gain insights on her blind spots. It is in this state of presence that new opportunities are seen, and transformational and creative strategies emerge.
Proust’s quest, what he calls lost time, may in fact be a quest to live the present moment in greater awareness, fully mindful and conscious of the significance of the experience. It therefore seems essential in the current global context that our leaders adopt practices such as reflection to develop their presence and “effectively respond to the complex, ambiguous challenges of 21st century leadership”.

Being – the heart of leadership

Reflection and mindfulness – key practices and skills helping leaders act consciously, from a place of greater clarity and compassion at the service of the organization, the humans within it and self.

*Excerpt from an article co-written by Professors J. Gosling and H. Minztberg, SHRM (2004)
** The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism, Barrett C. Brown, Phd.