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Mindful developer: Improving your effectiveness through the enhanced sense of presence

We live in times of unprecedented change. The VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous)[1] reality has been penetrating our economy and the HE sector has not been immune to it. In the last few years, we have been affected and challenged by: BREXIT, changing emigration policies, financial cuts, REF, TEF; which have put pressures on universities and resulted in reviews of current structures and ways of operating.

This has been impacting on how leadership, management and staff developers work. We and our teams have been under a huge pressure: often under-resourced, managing multiple projects and stakeholder relationships, constantly balancing the creativity of planning a development and the focus of its implementation, working long-hours, often in our private times, running from one meeting to another, being affected by the ailment of our times: “busy-ness”.

The nature of our job is to focus on helping leaders, managers and staff to grow, succeed and be the best they can be. We dedicate our time to listening emphatically, challenging existing assumptions and old frames of reference, developing and implementing support which enables others to thrive whilst staying healthy and balanced.

But have we got the same empathy, focus on thriving and wellbeing for ourselves? Are we aware of what we need? Are we taking care of ourselves? How are we coping with the information overload? Are we present enough to be able to effectively do our job?

A few years ago I had a moment of awakening. Working part-time for the University of Sheffield and part-time running my own coaching and training business, I had a lot on my plate to manage. It was one of those days, when I was rushing from one thing to another. I was facilitating an action learning set for leaders in the morning, then meeting with a senior manager to discuss his development needs, and then running a 1:1 coaching session. My mind was struggling to focus. It was catching up with what I was doing before or planning what I was going to do next. I felt stressed. I caught myself red-handed: I was not fully there! Not fully present for myself or for my clients. I knew then that something in my approach would have to change so that I could continue effectively helping others.

This started a process of exploration into how I can regain control over my mind. How I can engage in this demanding portfolio of work and be at my best for each client? How can I be focussed, balanced and creative whilst coping with the increasing demands on my time?

That is what led me to mindfulness.

Mindfulness, as defined by Shauna Shapiro is “intentionally paying attention with kindness”. It allows us to put ourselves in the present moment and become more sensitive and perceptive to what is happening in our context. It promotes a deeper sense of engaging with life and others.

Mindfulness can be developed through meditation, body scan, breathing practices and through movement exercises such as yoga or mindful walking. It can also be cultivated through working and interacting with others in a more mindful way. Mindfulness encourages a neutral observation of how things unfold internally and externally without trying to fix anything. It helps to gain insights and control over how our mind works. It strengthens our resilience and makes us more accepting and compassionate.

Mindfulness has become the most exciting journey for me. It took me into the depth of my mind and allowed me to become more aware of my thought patterns. I have gained more focus and presence. I started noticing more clearly what was happening around me and being able to respond to it more creatively. I could tangibly feel calmer, happier, more resourceful and more effective. I have also noticed how my relationships with others deepened and became stronger.

I was fascinated with how the mindfulness approaches have been transforming my life and became curious about how they can help my clients and staff that I have been working with. I started sharing the mindful principles and techniques and overlaying them with knowledge of neuroscience, generative coaching and positive psychology, which became the basis for mindful development® – my integral model for developing others.

Working with mindfulness, as a developer I have found a sustainable way to take care of myself whilst supporting others. It has allowed me to find the essential work-life balance, manage my emotions better, stay more focussed when presented with challenges, communicate more clearly, influence more powerfully and think more creatively.

The results of mindfulness techniques can be seen quite quickly. For example, practising breathing exercises just for 3 minutes can help to sooth anxiety and alleviate stress. However, ultimately, mindful development is a long-term approach. It requires dedication, practice and willingness to face yourself at all levels: mental, emotional, physical and at the level of values and purpose. I believe that long-term it can fundamentally transform our lives, and help our clients and the organisations that we work for. It seems to be a must in these times of uncertainty and rapid changes.

Invitation to a mindful exploration: Before you move onto the next activity, I would like to invite you to pause. Sit up straight; put both of your feet on the floor, palms resting on your laps.  If it is safe to do so, please close your eyes for a moment and connect with your breath. Where do you feel your breath most strongly? In your nostrils? Chest? Stomach? What is the rhythm of your breathing? Do not try to change it. Just become curious of it. Observe how your breath enters your body, filling your nostrils, lungs and stomach and how it leaves the body when you exhale. Just follow your breath for a couple of minutes. Breathe in and breathe out. Then, open your eyes. What have you noticed as a result of this brief practice?

[1] VUCA – is an acronym developed by the American Military to describe extreme conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous


Self-compassion as an alternative to building self-esteem based on competition 

“Strive for more! Work harder! Be the best!”

These are the messages that we are constantly exposed to in our society.

Working hard, aspiring to achieve one’s goals, aiming for excellence are obviously very useful qualities to have, both in our professional and personal lives. However, there is a price that we pay if we focus on them too much.

Social emphasis on achievement and self-esteem can cause a lot of suffering. From an early age, we are taught to build our self-esteem by competing with others, striving to be better, get beyond average… This helps us to ward off unpleasant feeling of inadequacy.

However, comparing ourselves and competing with others also makes us feel disconnected. We view other people as potential “obstacles” to be overcome in order to keep our position and mark our territory. As a result of that we feel separate from others. This contradicts our main reason for aiming for success in the first place, which is to belong and be loved!

Self-esteem based on competing with or seeking approval from others is usually quite fragile. One moment we can be at the top of the world, when we are noticed, valued and praised. Next moment, when we fail and are not wanted or criticised, we feel defensive and crushed. Mistakes and failures make us insecure and anxious. Building self-esteem through competition may cause loneliness, isolation and prejudice. It may leave us powerless and distraught, particularly after the failure or a moment of challenge.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, can bring us learning, inner strength and empowerment.

Kristin Neff, associate professor or human development at the University of Texas, describes self-compassion as: “being kind and understanding towards oneself in instances of pain and failure, rather than being harshly critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience, rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and experiences in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them”.

Contradictory to common perception, self-compassion is not a way to avoid setting and achieving goals, becoming lazy and self-indulgent. Self-compassion offers deeper and more sustainable motivation, as it alleviates suffering and helps us to be happy and thrive.

When we use self-compassion, we start seeing failure and challenges as learning opportunities. We face them with greater calm and look for opportunity to grow from them. By preventing detrimental effects of self-criticism, self-compassion enables us to maintain peace of mind and retain energy. It offers a stable sense of self-worth which doesn’t fluctuate much over time as it is not dependent on how successful we are at competing with others.

Self-compassion is good for our nervous system and general wellbeing. When we compete or harshly criticise ourselves, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated and we operate in the fight or flight mode. This increases levels of stress hormones such as cortisol in our body. We are in survival mode. Self-compassion, on the other hand, triggers the mammalian care-giving system and releases hormones related to love and creativity such as oxytocin.

There are many more benefits of self-compassion.

The question is – is self-compassion something that we are born with or can it be cultivated and developed? Research all over the world proves that self-compassion can be learnt! It may take some careful consideration and practice to rewrite those learnt behaviours of harsh self-criticism and competition, but it definitely can be developed.

Kristin Neff suggests practicing three elements of self-compassion:

1. Self-kindness – being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we experience difficulties and problems – instead of criticising ourselves for shortcomings and failure, recognise that being imperfect and making mistakes is human, that experiencing life difficulties is inevitable. We cannot always have what we want, but we can decide not to add to our suffering by fighting against what is or feeling stressed and angry.

2. Recognising “common humanity” – sometimes when we fail or suffer, we feel like the only individual on the planet experiencing it. But all humans suffer. We are all imperfect, vulnerable, fragile and prone to mistakes. Seeing our predicament as a common human experience makes it less lonely, less scary.

3. Mindful approach – self compassion invites us to observe our thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative with openness, awareness and curiosity. We don’t need to repress anything, just neutrally observe what is happening in our minds so that we may gain clarity in any given situation.

How much self-compassion have you got?

How do you treat yourself, especially in the moments of challenge and failure?

How your attitude towards yourself is projected onto those who live and work with you?

How would your life be if you had more self-kindness in your life?


Leadership and Management Development blog

Contains a number of articles on leadership and management development related issues