This article is the second in a series on mindful leadership from expert and consultant Puja Madan. To understand what “mindful leadership” is and why it’s critical for your organization, read this article. To learn how to create calm in your work environment, keep reading.
My client Kevin’s stress had only grown since he got promoted to the position of Area Business Manager at his company, a recently-acquired technology company that was quickly expanding. He now had multiple regional business managers working under him and there had been significant changes in the organization’s structure and systems, as is often the case with acquisitions.
Kevin shared his concerns with me:
“I worry constantly if I’m doing enough to help my managers navigate these changes. Are they developing in the best way? Are they feeling secure and motivated? They’re all different in their work and communication styles—am I able to coach them do bring their best to work?”
What Kevin was experiencing is known as “power stress.”
What Is Power Stress?
Power stress is subtle and debilitating for purpose-driven leaders. It occurs when leaders become aware of the influence and responsibility of their position and feel additional pressure to make the right decisions for their teams and organization.
Research shows 88% of leaders report that work is a primary source of stress in their lives — and that having a leadership role increases the level of stress. In addition, more than 60% of leaders cite their organizations as failing to provide them with the tools they need to manage stress.
High levels of power stress in leaders can spiral into all aspects of personal and team development. Power stress:
- Reduces empathy
- Impacts productivity
- Limits clarity and direction
- Increases reliance on old patterns of behavior
As a result, leaders experiencing power stress can’t effectively relate to others or adapt to changing circumstances. When their methods fail to achieve results, they become more stressed, further reinforcing the cycle. This stress trickles down to employees, creating a culture devoid of inspiration, clarity, and solidarity.
Sloppy Management vs. Mindful Leadership
Leaving power stress unhandled leads to sloppy management. And that sloppy management is costly.
Employees lose motivation and loyalty or often quit from not being heard or seen. Employees can become physically sick as well as prone to anxiety and depression if they’re under-appreciated and abused by their superiors. In fact, research shows it can take a full 22 months to restore stress levels to a healthy range after the exit of a toxic superior. All in all, poor leadership costs U.S. companies an estimated $360 billion each year.
To counter power stress, leaders must learn to manage themselves effectively. As we discussed in my previous article, a leader’s greatest asset is her capacity for self-awareness, which paves the road for self-mastery.
Mindful leaders inspire loyalty, commitment, and innovative ideas. They draw the best out of their teams and are excellent communicators. They become in tune with others and have high degrees of emotional intelligence and motivation for power and achievement. Mindful leaders embody the idea of a properly sailing ship — its sails impeccable, aligned, and free of energy-leaking holes — will move confidently and powerfully towards its destination, paving the way for others to follow.
But how do we get there when the seas are currently feeling so rocky?
Understanding the Roles of Primordials and Peace-makers
Not to be dramatic, but within each of us exists the dual and polar opposite natures of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
There are ancient parts of the brain that when triggered make us close-minded, selfish, and destructive to our own well-being and that of others. Hello, Dr. Edward Hyde! Let’s call these parts the primordials.
Primordials, as the name suggests, have been around for millions of years. They are millions of years old, geared for war, operate without permission, and are quick to react through the actions of fight, flight, or freeze. The primordials protect us from all kinds of life-threatening scenarios. If an earthquake with a magnitude of eight hit right now, it would be the primordials that would haul us into safety without us having to make a single decision consciously.
Also co-existing in the same brain are other parts that are wired to collaborate, express empathy, and work things out with others. Howdy, Dr. Henry Jekyll. Let’s refer to these parts of the brain as the peace-makers.
The peace-makers are much newer, more rationalized, and civilized. They weigh options before decisions are made and plan for the future. They pause, reflect, and verify if danger is real before reacting. They deploy words and body language that convey harmony, safety, and friendliness. As the new kids in town, the peace-makers represent us in the world and cultivate two of the most valuable qualities needed to succeed as leaders: trust and likability.
Once leaders understand these two brains exist within every individual — and begin to focus their awareness on which part of their brain they are feeding — they can develop resiliency and mitigate stress within and around them.
So, how can we re-wire the brain so the peace-makers dominate and tackle challenges instead of the primordials?
How to Rewire Your Brain to Mitigate Power Stress and Build Resiliency
There are myriad mindfulness techniques that can begin this re-wiring process. In this article, we will look at the simplest and most powerful one.
There’s a famous saying: “When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.” Mindful breathing can change how leaders show up in the world and navigate its challenges. The benefits of slower, abdominal breathing are well documented and mindful breathing is at the core of Eastern mind-body practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation.
A few things change when we practice mindful breathing:
- The ventral branch of our vagus nerve, also known as the “smart vagus” (and one of the peace-maker parts of the brain) kicks in. This immediately has a calming effect on the body and mind. It grounds us and brings us back into the present moment and our bodies. Conversely, stressful thoughts can pull all the energy to the head, making us literally air-headed and frazzled.
- The central nervous system begins to return to a state of equilibrium. This means any action we might have taken as a result of the stress can now be avoided. Because, remember, primordials can cause us to use actions and words that can wreak irreparable damage.
- Mindful breathing suppresses any excessive arousal in the body such as panic attacks. Longer, abdominal breathing has been known to address mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.
How You Can Begin the Practice of Mindful Breathing
First, set an intention for when and how long. Once a day or three times? What times of your day are most conducive for pausing and re-setting?
Once you have clarity about the logistics, set a timer for the duration to which you have committed. My suggestion: start easy, with 2 minutes, and ease your way up to 5 or 7 minutes over time.
After setting your timer:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose and into your stomach. Count to four. The hand on your stomach should rise.
- Exhale and count to four again, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale.
- Continue to breathe this way until the timer goes off.
- Repeat throughout the day.
This mindful breathing technique forces the brain to create longer, slower brain waves, which in turn influences your emotional states. From this calmer, relaxed space, we are primed to make healthier choices no matter what our external circumstances bring.
Try Mindful Breathing and See What It Does for You
There are many more ways to manage power stress that we cover during our trainings, but breath work is easy to begin and yields great results right away. I look forward to your thoughts and comments on this practice.
Next week, we’ll explore different meditation styles so you can find the one that will accelerate your presence and power as a leader.