That good leadership of others begins with effective control of the self has been a secret to few generations.
The Roman Emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius identified the importance of mastery of the self in the 2nd century AD, writing in his Meditations “you have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength”.
This is not to say that approaches to achieving this self-possession have not changed dramatically over the centuries.
As western Christendom revolved around the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith until the Reformation, diligent and committed obedience towards God was seen as the path towards ideal existence. Individualism and introspection came to the fore with the advent of Protestantism, in effect restoring the stoics’ faith in self-awareness.
Much later, Victorian mores championed emotional asceticism and fortitude. The tragic impact of two world wars rapidly exposed the porous nature of this denying concept of self-fulfilment, ushering in a more candid approach to vulnerability.
Today’s approach resembles a mixture of the more sensible aspects of all of these: pursuit of disciplined self-control in the knowledge that we are not perfect creatures. The current and proliferating weapon of choice for achieving this is the practice of mindfulness.
What started as a recreational and private exercise – the origins of which trace as far back as its ancient Buddhist inception – has recently grown in use and publicity, with even government sectors and large corporations adopting it.
Examples of mindfulness increasingly permeating the political landscape are manifold. A few are mentioned in The Guardian’s interview with mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who in fact happened to be visiting the UK’s House of Commons at the time to advocate his discipline.
There is even The Mindfulness Initiative which is dedicated to encouraging more governments to bring the practice and its positive benefits into action. It is catching on, as this quote from its website suggest: “As of January 2017, 145 British MPs and peers, and 250 staff, have completed an adapted 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course in Westminster”.
At its core, mindfulness is an exercise in hyper self-awareness. Researcher Rimma Teper’s description might convey the concept more effectively than an abstract explanation:
“So for instance, if I feel angry, I might try to observe my thoughts without getting caught up in them. I would also pay attention to the bodily sensations that accompany that emotion, like my heart beating quickly. By paying attention to the way in which the emotion unfolds in your body, step-by-step, mindful people are able to delay and dampen the rumination or overblown reaction that often accompanies it.”
The benefits of business leaders and policy-makers applying such a practice are therefore obvious. Enhanced level-headedness will theoretically lead to more rational decisions, devoid of the limitations imposed by partisanship or impetuosity.
As a tennis player who has been doing mindfulness myself for some time now, however, I can assure that the seemingly rudimentary concentration required is far from easy to achieve.
I began applying mindfulness because I had what an expert would call bad “executive control” under extreme pressure on court. Executive control is the psychological term for self-control, and so this essentially meant that – when in the most pressurised of moments during a match – any sort of emotion risked escalating uncontrollably, thereby becoming a distraction in itself. This could be happiness, hope, frustration, nerves etc, or anything else. At times these would prove difficult to restrain, therefore impairing any sort of focus on the process of the match.
As mindfulness enhances awareness of emotions, it endows you with the vital ability of remaining their master. Teper put it well – we are more likely to “dampen overblown reactions” to our feelings. This is surely a skill as overwhelmingly useful in the world of business and politics as it has proved for me in the world of sport. It is clearly one of the rare examples of 21st century crazes which are actually tremendously and indisputably beneficial.
The slight caveat to this widespread use is that any newcomers, piqued by mindfulness’ global inertia, must remember that its roots are sunk deeply in the personal. If one jumps aboard simply because of herd momentum, the core introspective and self-accepting tenet is instantly lost.
By all means be inspired by the example of those around, but the drive must come from within. Once it does, the journey towards enhanced self-mastery has already begun, one seen as an imperative aspect of leadership across the generations.
The Persian poet and philosopher Rumi once advised us to “live in the nowhere that you came from, even though you have an address here”. Mindfulness enables just that, grounding us firmly in the origin of our very existence: our mind.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks