Mindful Leadership in the Time of Pandemic
Feb. 1, 2021
by Stacey Guenther
In this time of pandemic and as it drags on and on, it is more important than ever that we have the ability to sit with and in discomfort. And we can only do that by slowing down, by turning into (instead of away from) the discomfort, and through a heightened sense of self-awareness. And with those practices comes an increase in compassion and empathy, both toward self as well as toward others.
As we face the fear and disruption caused by COVID-19, many of us find ourselves in a heightened state of sustained stress as we need to be persistently vigilant and aware, which throws our physiology into a state of chronic stress response with our nervous system up-regulated and our awareness being subsumed as we scan for threat (Hanson, 2009). As a social species, COVID-19 directly impacts our need for connection with others (Porges, 2020) as we are unable to share space and must maintain physical distance. And yet, cooperation is exactly what is needed for all of us to survive and thrive. Based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 2013), we are having the experience of being in the bottom of the triangle, focused on the basic needs of safety and security. And our most vulnerable in our society are also at the very bottom, worried about food, shelter, and survival.
As a doctoral student and someone interested in spiritual and personal growth, my experience has been bifurcated. Like most human beings on the planet, I, too, am preoccupied with an underlying low-grade anxiety focused on safety and security as well as concerns about our society, political landscape, and prolonged lack of contact with other human beings. Simultaneously, I am spending a great deal of time at the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the self-actualization realm, which McLeod (2020) characterizes as needs related to realizing one’s full potential, personal growth, and peak experiences. Kaufman’s (2020) new model based on Maslow’s work is broken into two categories: security and growth (Figure 1). In order for us, as a society, to learn and grow from what is currently in front of us as the most vulnerable among us are exposed to unimaginable threat, we must be able to hold both the need for security as well as the need for growth. And not only must we hold both sets of needs, but we must be able to sustain these essential tensions in order to create a positive outcome from the current disorientation (Wergin, 2020).
Kaufman’s Transcendence Model (Kaufman, 2020, p. xxxv)
A tool for working with these essential tensions is mindfulness (Wergin, 2020). According to Kabat-Zinn (2009), mindfulness is “moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to” (p. 2). Smalley and Winston (2010) explained mindfulness as “attention to experience as it is happening – that is, in the present moment” (p. 9). Whether it is a state or a trait (Smalley & Winston, 2010), it is the ability to be with life as it is coming at you, i.e. meeting challenges head on instead of ignoring, escaping from, or turning away from difficulty. Mindfulness is generally cultivated in one of two ways: through the committed, sustained practice of mindfulness meditation and through novelty (Langer, 1989/2014). In the past 20 years, mindfulness has been empirically studied with findings indicating that the benefits are many. Among the benefits are reduced stress, improved immune system, increased self-awareness, improved attention and concentration, enhanced positive emotions, and increased interpersonal skills and relationships (Smalley & Winston, 2010). In short, cultivating mindfulness allows us to become more aware and focus, which support our sustainment of the essential tensions of our time.
In this time of COVID-19, truly a VUCA time (Bennett & Lemoine, 2014), we are sitting in a time of transition when the old way has ended but the new way has not yet begun (Bridges, 1991). We are in a polarity of immense sadness AND amazing possibilities (Figure 2), according to Scharmer (Presencing Institute, 2020), and we do not yet know how our society will shift and what is ahead. It is uncomfortable to be sitting in uncertainty. And because it is uncomfortable, we want to hurry it along instead of just being with what is happening. Being-ness is, in fact, what the Earth is calling us to do right now. We are being compelled by natural forces to confront and accept our discomfort. And how is it that we can become comfortable with the discomfort? According to Wergin (2020), “Holding the essential tension…requires us to accept and be comfortable with contradictory ways of thinking and feeling without being compelled to resolve the contradictions” (p. 146). In the time of transition, we do not know yet what is coming next, so resolution is not possible. What we are faced with is finding ways not to resolve, but instead to reconcile with ourselves, our communities, and our fellow human beings.
Polarity of Immense Suffering and Amazing Possibilities
As a certified leadership coach, I work with leaders on moving toward being more comfortable with the essential tensions of the time by helping them to build self-awareness around how they are going through the shifting landscape of COVID-19. It is the ultimate change process happening simultaneously on the individual, team, organizational, community, and societal levels. The starting place is self-awareness. A leader can build their own awareness by reflecting on how they are engaging in this time of change and transition. A useful tool in building this awareness is Kubler-Ross’s model for change and adjustment, also known as the stages of grief (Kubler-Ross, 1969). As we sit in this transition, not knowing where our world is going or where we will land, we are also in the process of grieving things that we know will not be part of our futures, or may be absent from our lives for a long period of time. By leaders becoming aware of their own change cycle, they can share that awareness with their teams and organizations, thereby demonstrating an ability to pay attention, to be self-aware, and to acknowledge the difficulty of this experience. A leader’s experience with this type of mindfulness and self-awareness and then sharing that experience can open the possibility of their team members becoming comfortable in doing the same for themselves. A group process around how the team is collectively engaging in a change can be a powerful experience that normalizes the difficulty, allows members to become aware that they are not alone, and provides a caring, supporting environment. Ultimately, that support and care helps for members to down-regulate their stress responses. This collective processing also opens the possibility, when they are ready, to engage in intentionally creating a future together. This future state can be examined through conversations on what they would like to continue from the time before COVID-19, and what they would like to let go and leave behind. Similarly, a conversation about what they finding to be supportive and productive elements of doing their work and working as team in the current situation as well as what they would not like to carry forward builds on the future possibilities. With an examination of the past and present, the leader and team can collectively map out a future state that works for all and creates a climate and culture supportive of bringing best selves to work.
Bennett, N., & Lemoine, G. J. (2014). What a difference a word makes: Understanding threats to performance in a VUCA world. Business Horizons, 57(3), 311–317. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2014.01.001
Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Perseus Books.
Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger Publications.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (2nd ed.). Random House.
Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. Teacher Perigee.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. Macmillan.
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McLeod, S. (2020). Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Porges, S. W. (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic is a paradoxical challenge to our nervous system: A polyvagal perspective. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17(2), 135–138.
Smalley, S., & Winston, D. (2010). Fully present: The science, art, and practice of mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Wergin, J. F. (2020). Deep Learning in a Disorienting World. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.