A useful book on leadership mindfulness

Pause for Breath. Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations by Amanda Ridings

The theme of this engaging book is leadership mindfulness. Conversations would be enhanced if we slowed the conversations down and paused for breath before and during the dialogue. In the pause for breath, we might be able to give more attention both to our own reactions and to the other person as well as to the quality of the dialogue between us. The book outlines simple exercises to develop self-awareness as well as practices to pause for breath.

The book presents a really easy to understand explanation of key parts of the brain where Ridings refers to Buddhist teachings by Clive Homes: the reptilian, mammalian and frontal lobe parts of the brain. The reptilian brain is our basic brain and is largely hardwired for survival. We can’t overrule it but we can be aware of it and manage its impact. Our mammalian brain is characterized by Clive Homes as our meerkat brain: alert, chattering, nervy and sociable. Then we have our frontal lobe brain which enables perspective, reflection and thinking. Pausing for breath creates the space for the frontal lobe brain to think and to reflect on what the reptilian and mammalian parts of the brain are saying; this creates the potential to change our contribution to the dialogue.

Having paused for breathe and become aware of our internal dialogue, our words can become more skillful. Drawing on research by David Kantor on communication, Ridings suggests it may be helpful to consider our contributions to the conversation in terms of four players: movers, opposers, followers and bystanders. A mover offers a proposal, a follower supports the proposal, an opposer challenges the proposal and a bystander contributes clarification. Each contribution – and the contributions are circular rather than linear – can expand the dialogue and skills can be enhanced for each.

One of the key challenges for leaders today is resolving wicked, or complex, problems. Ridings looks at this and explains how a complex problem has inherent ambiguity and uncertainty. She says “If we move to action too quickly, paradoxical and unintended consequences tend to arise.” So we need to think about complex problems with others. For public sector leaders this will often mean multi disciplinary or multi agency groups, but, says Ridings, this is challenging due to our habit of thinking alone. Ridings summarises William Isaacs work on the four habits of thinking alone as:

  • recycling the past
  • imposing our views on others
  • separating matters that are fundamentally connected
  • being certain of our beliefs and believing them to be unchanging

Skillful leadership group thinking to resolve complex problems therefore requires a great deal of self-awareness and mindfulness. This is enhanced by the breathing exercises outlined in the book.

Finally, one of the most significant points presented in the book is the link between pausing for breath and resilience.

Breathe in the air

Pause for breath

Ridings says:

 “If I am knocked off-balance and react, but am mindful, then I notice, pause for breath, and am able to recover by refining my posture, breathing, centering and accessing my finest leadership spirit.”

That’s certainly helpful advice for today’s hard-pressed public sector leaders.