Mindful Leaders Begin with the End

I read a lot of criticism over season seven of Game of Thrones. Many people seemed frustrated with the way the whole season was paced. Everything was sped up. Sometimes whole groups of characters would disappear from one place only to reappear in another. There were critiques over the way characters behaved and acted.

Many of these same criticisms were/are used when talking about another show: Lost.  For many years, Lost was must-see TV. Wednesday nights were Lost nights. There were podcasts, blogs, and books all dedicated to Lost. It created this entire subculture of people trying to figure out every mystery contained on this strange island. Yet something happened towards the end. There was a great deal of frustration and consternation over how they were going to manage to end this story. The writers had put together so many mysteries that it seemed impossible to resolve them all. The critics were correct. Even after the finale and an after finale special, there are still mysteries of Lost that are just simply unresolved.

The one criticism that I heard consistently through Lost was the fear that the writers didn’t really know how to end this juggernaut. It had gotten too massive for there to be any type of satisfactory resolution for these characters that we had come to care about over the course of six seasons. People were worried that the creators and writers didn’t have an end in mind when they started writing the show.

This happens time and time again with art. Creators start to create something and don’t know where something will take them. They are on a journey with the creation. They don’t know how the story will play out. Writers often write in a three-act structure.

  • Act One – This is the setup. The beginning. It introduces the problem.
  • Act Two – This is the confrontation. The middle. The hero’s journey.
  • Act Three – This is the resolution. The end. The conclusion to the story.

The problem with the three-act structure is that it can often have a really good Act One, a decent Act Two, and a bad Act Three. I believe it is because most people (including myself a lot of the time) get stuck in Act Two. We just don’t know how to get out of it. We become bogged down in the confrontation of the problem and we allow the confrontation to dictate our next steps.

Mindful leaders see the three-act structure differently. They see the setup and know the problem, but instead of going straight into the confrontation they think about the outcome. They imagine what the end will be like. They think about the outcomes of each action. They chart a course knowing the destination. This happens through a process called visualization and anyone can learn how to do this.

  1. Think about something going on in your life right now. This could be a problem you are working through, an ongoing issue that has been bugging you, an upcoming test, or just how this day is going to go. (Act One)
  2. When thinking about this problem, what do you see as the best possible outcome? What is the resolution that brings the most good? How is this issue best reconciled? If you are just looking at your day, how do you want your day to go? (Act Three)
  3. Visualize the conversations that you need to have in order to resolve the problem. Focus on the what solutions are necessary to correct the ongoing issue. What things would be most effective for you to study for the upcoming test? What needs to happen this day to make this day go the way you want it to go. (Act Two)

Take a Breath

What is the first thing that you do after you are born? Breathe. Your lungs fill with oxygen. For the rest of your life, you have to breathe to live. Our bodies need oxygen to make our engine work.

When my children get upset or frustrated the first thing that I try to do is get them to breathe. I look at them on eye level and say, “Take a breath.” They know what that means. It means to breathe with daddy. Inhale through your nose as much air as you can, and then exhale through your mouth all that air. We do this three times together. In and out. After we are finished, I ask them to tell me what their dilemma is.

It is something so simple, so easy, and so natural that many of us forget that we are doing it. Breathing. We all have to breathe to live. The oxygen fills our lungs and helps our body to function. It increases blood flow through the body and especially to our minds. We remember the story better. We find details that we lost. We see the picture more clearly.

Breathing helps us to think better.

Yet this important step is sometimes lost in our efforts to think faster. We don’t take a moment to breathe before we act. Just being intentional about your breathing helps the information flow. It gives the brain much-needed oxygen and a moment to pause. When I am about to undertake something important the first thing I do is sit down in a chair and take a few moments to breathe. It clears my mind and opens up my creative space.

Breathing helps us to feel better.

I was hiking up the side of a mountain and I noticed that I started feeling nauseous. My chest was a little tight. I sat down on a rock, drank some water, and took three deep measured breaths. My head cleared. My stomach felt better. My lungs were full again. I had to pause on the journey to breathe before I could continue on. After I made it up the rest of the way, I turned and looked back at that spot where I paused. It was about halfway up. Without taking a moment to breathe, I wouldn’t have finished the climb.

Breathing helps us to live better. 

One summer I took lessons in kettlebell strength training. For the first four lessons, we didn’t even touch a kettlebell. I was starting to get anxious. Why am I paying for kettlebell training when we don’t actually use the kettlebells? Instead, we learned intentional body movements set to breathing. We learned when to inhale and when to exhale. Session after session we worked on breathing and movement. Finally, the instructor got out the kettlebells. Only then did I realize that he wanted us to have the right breathing and the right movement before adding weight. It was the movement and the breathing that made the kettlebell movements more powerful and more effective. Breathing makes everything you do better. Ask a competitive shooter and they will talk to you about breath control. Ask a swimmer and they will tell you about breathing exercises.

Reflection

Want to try something to help you lead more mindfully? Before you make your next big decision take three intentional breaths. Slowly inhale and slowly exhale. Three times. Try this with your next few decisions.

The Goal of Mindfulness in Leadership

A question I hear asked a lot goes something like this: “Will mindfulness help me make the best decision?”

The best reply is: “Mindfulness will help you make an awake decision and be fully aware of that decision.”

Everyday we make hundreds of decisions without putting much thought into them. What will I wear today? What should I eat for breakfast? Which route should I drive? Where should I park? What should I do first at work? Should I check my email or Facebook? Should I read this blog post? What should I chose for lunch? How many cups of coffee should I drink?

You get the idea. Everyday. Hundreds of decisions made without much thought whatsoever. The goal of mindfulness is to change the way you process information and make decisions. It is waking up our brain to function intentionally rather than automatically. Do you know what every single diet in the world has in common? Awareness. From Paleo to Weight Watchers, they all make you become more aware of what you are eating.

So how will mindfulness help me make an awake decision? Three things:

  1. Mindfulness raises your awareness of the outcomes. When you think about the decision to logical outcomes you become aware of what affects this decision will have. This gets easier the more times you make decisions. Our brains start to notice patterns. If I have a snack of something salty at bedtime, I am going to want a snack of something sweet. So should I have that snack of something salty knowing the logical outcome?
  2. Mindfulness gives you a moment of reflection. I am not saying slow down and procrastinate on a decision that should have been made already. I am saying that mindfulness helps give you a break to take it all in, and this break will more often than not be fruitful in getting to the right decision. Ever notice comments on social media? I would say most of them have not been fully processed before posting. If I take a moment to process, my response is not as tied to emotions as if I just blurt out the first reaction.
  3. Mindfulness lets those around you catch their breath. I have been around high functioning people and around low functioning people. Most people are somewhere in-between. Pausing for others is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. I was trying to figure out the best decision to make with a group of people, and one of the people took a moment to share something while I was quiet. Their input changed my decision. If not for that brief pause, I might have had made a poorer decision.

Reflection

Why not take a moment today and reflect on a decision that you have made recently? Was it the right decision? Who was affected by the decision? Could it have been a better decision? Would you have made the same decision looking back at it? What would have changed? The more we become aware of our decisions, the more we grow into better decision makers.