5 Scientifically Proven Mindfulness Skills that WILL Make you a Better Leader (and a better person)

As a pastor, I’m always looking for ways to enhance my leadership. I believe good leaders should never stop learning. In the past few years as we’ve learned more about the human mind and brain, science is affirming an ancient contemplative practice rooted in church history and scripture, mindfulness. It’s helped me so much that I’m currently writing a book on Christian mindfulness. Five basic skills comprise the essence of this practice. In this post I explain those skills that will benefit any leader.

First, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation. It’s setting aside daily time to be still before God, to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our minds, but filling our minds with thoughts of Him and His Word. And it’s not some weird new age practice. It’s a science based practice that helps us disengage from automatic and unhealthy thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions to simply be in God’s presence. It’s both a devotional practice and a way to live each moment.

Last year hundreds of studies were published that showed the benefits of mindfulness. Here are a few of them.

  • improved memory
  • less anxiety and depression
  • a healthier heart
  • better ability to cope with stress
  • enhanced relationships
  • less reactivity
  • overall improved well-being

One scientifically proven tool is called the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire based on the five skills I’ve described below. You can take this inventory here to evaluate how well you practice these skills. If you want to read more about how to develop them, I recommend the book, In this Moment: Five Steps to Transcending Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience. The authors explain the skills in depth.

Skill 1: Observing. In this skill you learn to notice what’s happening inside you and in your immediate surroundings, like zooming in with a camera lens.

Skill 2: Describing. In this skill you use your words to convey what you’re observing. This involves learning to label your emotions and describe bodily sensations.

Skill 3: Detaching. In this skill, you learn to keep your unhealthy comparisons, predictions, and evaluations about your life from sticking to your soul, akin to how  food slides off a Teflon coated frying pan.

Skill 4: Loving yourself. Loving yourself does not mean we become self-centered. Rather, we practice what Jesus told us to do when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. It means that we learn to love ourselves as we are, rather than basing our view of ourselves on other people’s approval or on our own performance.

Skill 5: Acting mindfully. This skill means that we learn to become more aware of what we are doing as we are doing it. We learn to be in the moment rather than being on autopilot or trying to get to a ‘better’ moment.

Developing these skills helps leaders be fully present for those they lead and care about.

The more present you are as a leader, the more effective your leadership.

What benefits have you read about or learned that mindfulness brings?

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Do You Problem Solve too Much as a Leader?

Good leaders help team members solve their own problems with their own insight. Average leaders tend to solve their team members’ problems, thus truncating their opportunity to grow themselves. So, how do we help our team members learn to problem solve on their own? In this post I begin with a story and then suggest ways to problem solve in a balanced way.

Archimedes was a brilliant Greek scientist. He lived 250 years before Christ and is best known for inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the Greek king, King Hiero II. The king was concerned, however, that the goldsmith has substituted the cheaper metal silver for some of the gold. He asked Archimedes to find the truth without melting the crown.

This stumped Archimedes until a flash of insight hit him. One day as he took a bath he noticed the water level rise as he stepped into the tub. Suddenly he realized that by making a few mathematical calculations he could use water volume displacement from the crown to determine if it were made of pure gold. In his excitement, so the story goes, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.”

Thus, we use the word “eureka”  for personal insight. Through this insight he discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold, a not-so-good discovery for the goldsmith.

Leaders tend to be tellers.

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We communicate goals and strategies by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.
  • We teach by telling.
  • And we tend to solve our team’s problems by telling.

When a team member comes to us with a problem, it’s often expedient to give a quick answer if we see the solution. We tend to be more experienced so it can be easy to see the solution. But when we solve their problems too quickly, we can create other problems.

  1. We can inadvertently foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation to follow through because people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas.
  2. We can rob them from learning how to problem solve, an important leadership quality.
  3. We can diminish opportunities for them to experience the joy of those ‘eureka’ moments.

I believe this is the key to helping your team learn to solve their own problems: ask questions.

Jesus often asked questions when he wanted to teach important concepts. The Gospels include 135 questions Jesus asked. He asked questions to create readiness to learn and to get his listeners to think for themselves.

Consider five compelling reasons to ask your team more questions.

  1. Questions help your team see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue about their problem they are trying to solve that they otherwise might have missed.
  2. They help foster innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  3. They help your team self reflect. Telling someone an answer may stifle her need to thoroughly think through the answer for herself.
  4. They provide perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  5. They help your team focus on the real issue.

Asking good questions can become a potent team development tool to put into your leadership toolbox. 

An interesting brain process occurs when we get a eureka insight.

Several different brain waves course through our brains every day. During sleep, your brain produces delta and theta waves. When we’re awake and our brains are at rest (i.e., during daydreaming), alpha waves occur. When we are awake, alert, and focused on something, the beta wave is most prominent. But the fastest wave is called a gamma wave that sweeps through our entire brains over 40 times per second through a process called synchrony. Similar to what happens to an orchestra when a conductor raises his baton and brings the whole orchestra to attention, the gamma wave sweeps through our brains and brings it to attention when we experience a eureka insight. Several benefits occur from the gamma wave.

  • New brain maps get formed in the eureka moment.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere which processes information intuitively and holistically increases its activity by making subtle connections. This fosters insight by connecting disparate bits of information which otherwise may have seemed inconsequential.
  • The brain produces the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. As a result, a eureka insight actually feels good which makes us want more insight experiences.
  • The solution to the problem, the eureka insight, gets stamped deeper into our brains creating greater ownership to the solution and more motivation to follow through on it.

So what can you do to ask more and better questions to foster eureka insights in your team. Consider three suggestions.

  1. Practice the art of the W.A.I.T.
    • WAIT is an acronym for this question. “Why Am I Talking?” In meetings and conversations with others when you sense you may be dominating, mentally ask yourself this question. It has helped me listen more carefully and talk less.
  1. Ask the question, “What do you think?”
    • This handy question helps when you sense a team member wants you to solve his problem. You may immediately know the answer, but if you answer it too quickly you may foster unhealthy dependency on you that you want to avoid. So when a team member asks you to solve his problem, first respond with, “What do you think?” Remember, self generated insights create better buy-in than quick answers.
  1. Use the AWE question.
    • Michael Stanier suggests this question in his great book, The Coaching Habit. AWE stands for, “And What Else?” He suggests we use this question 3-5 times in a coaching or problem solving conversation. He calls it the best coaching question in the world. It helps pull out insight from a team member that might be missed if you end the conversation too soon.

Try one or more of these suggestions when a team member wants you to solve his or her problem.

What kinds of questions have helped you develop your team?

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6 Ways to Add Interest to your Leadership Training Meetings

There are good meetings and there are bad meetings. I’ve been in and led both kinds. I once attended a webinar lecture that was definitely a ‘good’ meeting. The facilitator used a technique that leaders can use to increase attention and retention in their leadership training meetings. Here’s what she did in that training meeting that you can try to improve yours.

First, some background about my state of mind as the meeting began. Drowsy from a poor night’s sleep and in a brain fog because of too many carbs for lunch, I forced myself to log in for my class. Had I been given a choice, I would have taken a nap instead. My attention level was low. However, the professor used several simple techniques to rouse my attention. As a result, I learned a lot from the lecture.

On one power point slide she printed a single URL. She cued up the slide in this way. She said we were about to do an exercise that required us to focus for 30 seconds on people in the video who wore white shirts and were throwing a ball to each other. We were to count the number of times they passed the ball. She also commented that most people’s attention span lasts only 12 seconds.

Immediately part of my brain alerted other parts to pay attention because something was about to happen. These internal dynamics helped elevate my attention with a shot of norepinephrine, a brain chemical related to adrenalin. In this 30 second exercise she literally used 6 techniques that woke me and helped me learn better.

  1. Curiosity: The exercise woke up the part of my brain that is drawn to novelty. Novel things get our attention more easily than common things.
  2. Challenge: I was drawn into the lecture by the prospect of competition with others and with myself. I now wanted to learn.
  3. Motivation: The 12-second rule motivated me. I thought to myself, I know I can pay attention longer than that.
  4. Relevance: Related to the challenge, not only was I good with numbers but the exercise was relevant to the current topic about attention.
  5. Anticipation: In anticipation I sat up in my chair, opened my eyes wider, and felt my heart rate elevate.
  6. Satisfaction: After the exercise, I felt good because I had beaten the odds and gotten the right answer. This good feeling was due to the increase of another neurotransmitter, dopamine, which makes us feel good when it enters our brain’s pleasure center.

The next time you schedule a leadership meeting, try to use several of these simple techniques to increase attention and thus improve learning.

What techniques have you tried that have helped enhance your leadership meetings?

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Is this Leadership’s Missing Ingredient? (neuroleadership)

Whether we lead a church ministry, a para-church organization, or run a business, Christian leaders want to lead at our best. Books, leadership seminars, coaching, and mentoring can all help us grow our skills. I’ve used all three to develop mine. Recently, though, I’ve realized an emerging and rapidly growing field is filling a gap in spiritual leadership. It’s called neuroleadership. I explain it in this post.

So what is neuroleadership? Essentially, neuroleadership takes what neuroscience is discovering about the brain and applies it to the art of spiritually leading. You can see a cool animation here by clicking on “What is neuroleadership?” David Rock, author of a great book, Your Brain at Work, coined the term.

Interestingly, the bible affirms neuroleadership principles. The word ‘mind’ appears over 140 times in scripture. Solomon writes in Proverbs that as we think so we are. The Gospel writers tell us to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength. And the Apostle Paul reminds us that we experience true transformation when we renew our minds. Curt Thompson who wrote Anatomy of the Soul writes that neuroscience is much like a magnifying glass to help us see things we may not otherwise have seen. But a magnifying glass is only as good as the light that illuminates the object we are looking at. That light, for a Christian, is God’s Word.

When pastors and Christian leaders learn and apply neuroleadership principles, they will develop into competent leaders who . . .

  • stay cool under pressure.
  • improve relationships with others.
  • consistently make wise ministry decisions.
  • strategize and navigate change well.
  • learn to inspire others through their teaching.

To maximize our minds and brains, consider these three essentials.

  1. Learn how the brain works. Without trying to become an anatomy expert, take a few minutes to Google “brain” and read a few articles about how the brain works and its anatomy. You’ll also find several good YouTube videos as well. This four-minute video summarizes the techniques scientists are now using to learn more about the brain. This 55-minutes video by David Rock explains how understanding the brain can make a big difference in your leadership.
  2. Practice good brain care habits. Adequate sleep, healthy food, and regular exercise all help keep your brain sharp and functioning well. Scientists have also discovered that managing stress also protects the brain.
  3. Learn the art of self-awareness. Often our brain focuses on negative thoughts that take up precious brain space we need to think and lead well. When we “think about what we are thinking about” we have begun to win the battle against negative thinking. The Apostle Paul speaks to this issue in Phil. 4.8 when he writes,Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

So, as you grow in your leadership, consider how to use your brain to maximize your life and leadership.

In your education and experience, how have your insights into how the brain works helped your leadership?

I unpack this concept in detail in my latest book, The Brain-Savvy Leader: the Science of Significant Ministry.

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  1. When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brains
  2. 9 Signs Your Hormones May be Hijacking Your Leadership

Stop Multitasking: it Makes you Dumber (and 4 Ways to Improve)

Productivity for leaders demands wise time management. But will multi-tasking make us better time managers? This study says no. A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common “productivity tools” can make one as dumb as a stoner. (David Rock, Your Brain at Work, p. 36) If you get sucked into multitasking, consider these 4 ways to fight against the tendency.

Many leaders, including me, have too often convinced themselves that multi-tasking leads to better time management. Actually, it doesn’t. Researchers have shown that when we try to do two mental tasks at once, our cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight year old (Rock, p. 34).

Although we technically can do two tasks at once, it dramatically slows our mental processing. So, if you think you are saving time by multi-tasking, you really aren’t. Neuroscientists call this dual-task interference. Because the high level thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) works in a serial fashion, one item at a time, when we multi-task we clog up its processing speed and actually reduce our effectiveness.

Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft captured the essence in the term continuous partial attention. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.

So what can we do to moderate this tendency?

  1. Imbed repetitive tasks deep into our long term memory so we that we can actually do them without thinking. An example is driving. We don’t really think about driving because we’ve done it long enough to make it a habit. Such habits don’t require the executive functions of our brains. Rather, they are stored into the part of our brain that stores routine functions, the basal ganglia.
  2. Prioritize your tasks for the day. Every day take a few minutes to plan your day so that you do the most mentally taxing things first. This appointment with the executive center of our brains assures we do our best thinking for what demands it.
  3. Turn off notifications on your computer or mobile device. I thought in my iPad and iPhone all I had to do was to keep an app out of Notifications. I just realized that I have to go into settings and turn off notifications in each app. When I read, I hated getting the reminders at the top of the screen which interrupted my train of thought. I no longer get them.
  4. Determine when you will attend to those tasks that interrupted you. When I write or study, I turn off email. But every hour or so when I take a break, I will turn it on and quickly look at email and respond to those that I can in the moment. That way I can focus on that which requires my mental energy and check off those less demanding tasks at those scheduled times .

How do you handle the multi-tasking monster?

My latest book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, provides practical insight from brain insight on many areas of leadership.

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