I don’t think anyone would disagree with the idea that to prevent burnout in any aspect of life, sometimes you need to stop, take some time for yourself, and step back. Throughout my career, I have found an essential middle ground between the perpetual intensity in leading an organization and the burnout that leads to completely stepping away—and I've also found that it often goes unnoticed or unknown.
I think this middle ground is akin to the daily practice of mindfulness, of being able to use pockets of your day (even if they’re only moments at a time) to ground yourself and bring you back to the present moment. Not only is it something that will help you individually, but if practiced consistently and implemented regularly, it will help your teammates and your company overall.
I’m no stranger to the level of communication, work output, management, and general housekeeping required to lead a large organization. Many of us—leaders or otherwise—can look back over our careers or lives and pinpoint hundreds of moments where we could have made a better decision, reacted better, or chosen a different path. Unfortunately, that line of thinking, though easy to fall into, doesn’t do us any good if we seek a path of continuous improvement. And often, when we look back, we think about when we could have pushed ourselves harder, put in more effort, and possibly achieved the outcome we were looking for. Instead, I have found that to reach our long-term goals, we must do the opposite: take the time to slow down, reassess, and ultimately be led to a clearer understanding of how to move forward.
There are many, albeit similar, definitions of mindfulness. The one I like best comes from an article called What Is Mindfulness? which defines it as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
What I especially like about their explanation of the practice is that they add that mindfulness is a quality that every one of us innately possesses. Rather than having to learn it as a brand-new skill, you must focus on accessing what’s already within you. Now, this will feel applicable to almost everyone in many facets of life, whether you lead a company, a team, or a family or move through this world as a functioning human being. But when it comes to leadership, the act of mindfulness, or slowing down, can be imperative to your company’s success.
There are many prominent and apparent situations that many of us have experienced in our work or daily life. An easy example: a colleague or direct report has told you about a mistake they made, and it’s your job to fix it. If you haven't harnessed your ability to be mindful at that moment, you might lash out, react angrily, and come to a “solution” that may not be the best or even the right one.
At that moment, you’re not only hurting your relationship with that person, but you may also be hurting the business, the client relationship, and yourself. That’s one very specific example, but to handle these situations on a broader level, the concept of mindfulness is something you must incorporate daily, even when there are no stressful situations to react to.
Like anything, the key to success is practice. When you start practicing slowing down on a micro level, whether that’s using those first few sips of coffee in the morning or on the walk to your car at the end of the day, you end up putting them to work on a macro level.
In 2017, the workplace consulting firm Life Meets Work took a close look at what it does to a company when employees view their leaders as “stressed out.” After surveying 1,000 college-educated U.S. employees, only 7% of respondents felt that stressed leaders could effectively lead their teams. An even more impactful learning from the study was that more than 50% of respondents believed that if their leader could not handle their stress effectively, they were “harmful or irrelevant to their job and the organization’s performance.”
Slowing down, mindfulness, reducing stress—no matter what you call it—we know that psychologically, it’s essential for our brains as human beings. But as a leader, it is all the more important because you aren’t just hurting yourself; you’re hurting those you employ and the business you run. When you can learn to deal with your stress more healthily and productively, your employees will feel more secure in their roles and can begin to adopt and learn from you as they manage their own teams.
For many of us, slowing down seems utterly counterproductive to keeping a business moving and growing. If someone had told me to “slow down” at the start of my career, I would have rejected the idea immediately. But as I’ve honed this skill and applied it to my daily life, I’ve seen the wonders it can do for my business and my team—and conversely, what happens when I don’t take that time. Like any habit, it will take time to ingrain it into your system, but there’s no better day to start than today.