Yesterday, I had the honor of being a guest facilitator at a transformative leadership retreat with colleagues Heather McLeod Grant, Chris Block, Lance Fors, and David Havens. The retreat curriculum is built around the a framework called “I-WE-IT” that covers mindsets and practical skills that today’s social change leaders of all generations need as we move towards more collective approaches.
I-WE-IT is a tripod of inter-connected skills for leaders: the individual leader (I), the power of teams or networks (WE), or the system that they are trying to change (IT). Without one of these legs, you’ll fall over as a leader. Making a real big difference demands that leaders do interior work to gain a self-understanding of themselves, develop relationship building skills and facilitating the work work of groups and leveraging their professional and organizational networks, and a clear and actionable understanding complex systems change. The training took place at a beautiful retreat center and incorporated the time and space in the agenda for participants to reflect and make important shifts in their practice.
What I love most about taking a “we approach” to training is that I get to participate and learn. Yesterday, the first day of the training focused on I to We. We started with mindfulness from Chris Block, improvisation from David Havens, and Heather and I co-facilitated a session on networks. Expect a few blog posts from me on these topics, but in this post I’d like to reflect on what I learned about mindfulness lead by Chris Block, CEO of American Leadership Forum in Silicon
If you don’t know Chris Block, he is a gifted storyteller. He started the session on mindfulness sharing a story about an encounter with a taxi driver in Nashville who answered the “how are you are today?” with the words “Mindful,” and shared some wisdom and practical tips about incorporating mindfulness into his life. Chris asked out to strip away any of the religious or spiritual associations we might have with mindfulness and think about why social change leaders need to incorporate mindfulness.
He shared a definition from thought leader Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” It can be practiced simply with just paying attention to your breathing. Chris pointed out that there are countless studies physical and stress reduction benefits of a daily meditation practice,yet many of us don’t do it.
Chris made us stand on our heels and said that is what our busy, crazy days are like. Standing on your heels is not comfortable — but it is how we are rushing from task to task. When we see other people and ask how we are, we say “busy.” We have busy pistils. We need to be centered and face the day on the balls of our feet — and be ready for it. Mindfulness can do that. It helps keep us calm, make better decisions, collaborate more effectively with others, and see the big picture of the system we’re trying to change.
Mindfulness brings clarity to social change leaders. He demonstrated this by ringing his bell with the plastic wrap still on it. It made a dull sound. But when he struck the bell without the plastic, it made crisp, clear sound. He had do a series of deep breathing exercises to have experience mindfulness. After the we did the exercise, we reflected on the experience. Many participants, like me, had been exposed to mindfulness practice or had done exercises like this. But the problem is that we don’t make take on the challenge of transfer, incorporating it into our daily work.
Chris offered some wisdom on this. “The only way we change is if we change.” He also told us that we can breath into the future or past. You can’t do lots of breathing the day before you know are going to be busy – you have to do it consistently. He suggested that you wrap mindfulness into an existing ritual or habit. He shared that he got started by practicing five minutes of mindfulness when he brewed coffee in the morning, one of his daily rituals. He challenged us to be consistent with mindfulness and to make a beginning.
He gave everyone in the room time to journal – to jot down some notes about how we might do this. Since I have made a commitment to walking, I’ve been practicing walking meditation every morning, but I want to incorporate what I learned. I made a commitment to just get started every morning with a five minutes of breathing as part of my morning ritual and use the Headspace app for extended practice. In addition to writing this down in a journal, I also used an app called “Future Me“(recommend by David Havens) where I can send a post dated email to myself to remind me of the change I committed to and to see if I’m on track.
Later in the day, Heather McLeod Grant, David Havens, and I walked the labyrinth for a walking meditation at the retreat center, pictured above. You walk through the maze, following the path and thinking about your problem or challenge on the way in. Once you reach the center, you release and on the way out you get ready to accept a change or solution. It is more intuitive approach, but the benefit is that you shift from on your heels running forward approach to stepping back.
You can go deeper into mindfulness work, if you want. I’d recommend reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners to get started and Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself. As a nonprofit leader or change maker, have you incorporated mindfulness into your daily routine? How has it helped you become a better leader? If you have not incorporated mindfulness, what is holding you back?