Mindfulness means consciously choosing how one responds to a situation rather than reacting impulsively or defensively.

Mindfulness means consciously choosing how one responds to a situation rather than reacting impulsively or defensively. MassanPH / Getty Images

Government Leadership and the Power of Mindfulness

By teaching themselves to move beyond impulsive reactions, executives can become more thoughtful—and more effective.

When we think about the skills that executives need to be successful, such as making good decisions, regulating their emotions and stress levels, and forming strong and healthy relationships with others, an important foundation for those skills should be mindfulness. Luckily, there are simple but powerful steps that anyone in a leadership position, or hoping to be in one in the future, can take to gain its benefits.

So what is mindfulness? It means taking time—even just a split-second pause in an important or stressful conversation—to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. It also means consciously choosing how one responds rather than reacting impulsively or defensively. While the concept might strike some as touchy-feely, it’s a well-researched technique with proven benefits for those who manage large and complex organizations—and one that’s especially useful in a government environment where a hasty decision can face harsh public scrutiny.

There are two very different ways to gain mindfulness skills. One is to go through life, including at work, being battered back and forth by unwise decisions and reactions rooted in old habits and well-worn scripts. Those life experiences can, over time, be a teacher and help you grow, but it’s bound to be a long and arduous path.

The far less stressful approach is to accept and embrace the fact that we are all limited, flawed human beings who sometimes make unwise decisions. But by learning and using mindfulness practices, we can avoid hitting the potholes of life as often. We can learn to identify those potholes and walk around them.

How specifically can one be more mindful? One of us (Marc Margolius) teaches a three-step process, reflecting a quote often attributed to psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The first step is to adopt a stance of non-judgmental curiosity by simply observing one’s own thoughts and emotions. That could involve pausing to witness, without criticizing, how one habitually reacts to a given situation or person—not to be upset with one’s reaction, but simply to acknowledge it.

Federal executives may be familiar with the concept suggested by leadership scholars Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy: “going to the balcony,” meaning getting perspective on an organizational conflict or challenge. Step one of mindfulness is very similar, but focused inward, on the balcony of the mind. It’s about getting perspective on one’s own typical reactions.

The second step is to be aware of having the possibility of choice, realizing that we have a range of options in responding to a stimulus. In other words, we don’t need to react the same way we have so often in the past and can instead choose healthier and more productive responses. We—not our bad inclinations or past character flaws—are in charge.

The third step is to choose the value or set of values that one wants to use in responding to the situation. For example, you could ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to present myself as in this moment?” Maybe it’s someone who is kind, trustworthy, humble, strong, generous, grateful, direct, responsible, empathetic or organized. In fact, you might even envision yourself as a painter with a canvas in front of you: What set of colors (values) do you need to use in this moment? Maybe a bit of humility mixed with some wise boundaries, plus a dab of self-assertion.

What might these three steps look like together? Say that Jade is a branch chief within her agency and gets an email from a member of her team saying that a draft memo due to her for review will be delayed—an email that makes her immediately angry. Her first inclination is to fire back a strongly worded email to the subordinate and his team.

Instead, she pauses. She takes a minute to observe how even with the work she’s been doing to be more empathetic toward her hard-working staff, she still angers easily when there are setbacks, something she often justifies because of the importance of her agency’s work. She focuses on the choice in front of her, about how to respond to the delay.

In the end, Jade chooses to respond calmly and with understanding, knowing that her staff is doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. Her mindful response helps the branch avoid a pothole. Her staff ends up being grateful for her understanding and working extra hard to complete the task as soon as possible.

In a nutshell, mindfulness is about learning to respond rather than react. It’s an approach that should be in every leader’s toolkit, helping them be more thoughtful and successful. On a more personal level, it’s a technique that can help all of us become the people we want to be in this world — driven by the values we want to live by, not the habits of our past.

Andrew Feldman is the founder and principal consultant at the Center for Results-Focused Leadership, which helps public agencies use evidence, data and strategy to improve their results. He also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast, with more than 200 interviews.

Rabbi Marc Margolius is the senior program director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He hosts the institute’s daily mindfulness meditation sessions and teaches an online program called “Awareness in Action” designed to cultivate character through mindfulness.