How mindfulness helps leaders with feedback

by Michael Bunting16 Aug 2016
Kevin Pickhardt, the CEO of Pharos – a print management company in the US - teaches everyone in his company the mindfulness principle of moving toward difficult emotions rather than running from them.

“Anger and fear are not something to try to eliminate,” he said.

“They are something to embrace. They are there to teach us, to awaken us and get us to pay attention to something. When we feel those feelings, something important is going on that we need to learn from.

“And we learn from them by recognising and living with discomfort — we learn to live with the void of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

By cultivating our ability to tolerate our difficult feelings and stay open instead of contracting into defensiveness, we can discover so much more about ourselves.

Our self-awareness can grow exponentially, and with it our capacity for transformation and real change. This is another gift of truly looking inward without defensiveness — the vulnerable path.

Through mindfulness, a banking executive client I worked with was finally able to discover the deeply rooted childhood trauma that was dictating his self-destructive behaviours and threatening his job.

Through mindfully leaning in, and not running from his distressing feelings of fear and vulnerability, he began to break the old patterns, the defence mechanisms designed to protect him.

He learned to breathe through the triggers that arose when he felt challenged or criticised. He slowly became aware that it was okay to feel scared or vulnerable, and that he wouldn’t be physically harmed or lose his job or lose respect.

In fact, he discovered that as he allowed himself to be vulnerable, the opposite happened: he won greater respect — and he kept his job.

Mindfulness is not a process of selecting which aspects of life we want to deal with. It is the practice of embracing all of life, both the joy and the pain.

By “embracing” I mean being present, being honest and compassionate with ourselves and our experience, without negotiation or resistance. This is the way to a truly wonderful life with so much less fear, angst and fixation. This is how we build our resilience, inner strength and equanimity, and therefore our overall wellbeing.

Opening up to tough feedback is challenging for everyone, including leaders. But as difficult as it is, there’s something even more challenging: realising the hidden cost of not opening up, and recognising too late the credibility and life you’ve lost because of it.

As a mindfulness coach, my team and I have had the privilege of guiding thousands of leaders and their teams through the process of opening up to tough feedback, through live leadership feedback sessions. Feedback in these sessions is focused on their leadership, not the team’s performance.

Fascinatingly, about 90% of the leaders we work with immediately start rationalising and defending their weak spots. “I only micromanage the team because they are not delivering quality work!” Or, “I know the team might think I don’t hold people accountable for poor performance, but that’s because I care so much about being kind to people.”

Sometimes I jokingly (and kindly) sum it up for them, “Okay, so are you saying that your behaviour is justifiable in all circumstances and you have nothing to work on in yourself?”

They usually backtrack pretty quickly, responding, “Of course not!” But astonishingly, within minutes they are back to rationalisation. One CEO we worked with even asked for a quota of rationalisations in his session, because opening up and really listening and self-reflecting was proving to be very challenging for him!

When I went through this same session with my own team, I’ll admit that I felt pretty bruised afterwards. However, it was an enormous turning point in my own leadership. The absolute, fundamental key was being willing to stop the rationalisation and blaming, and start getting real with myself.

Our lives will never be free of challenges. The thorns will always be there. But with mindfulness, challenges never seem so big they threaten to overwhelm us. We can access that calm centre and see our life and the problem in a broader context.

Inevitably thorns will still penetrate our mindfulness sandals. It’s really not a perfect process — we are human after all. This is another reason to be deeply kind and patient with ourselves on the journey toward full presence and accountability. There are more than enough thorns out there; we don’t need to add our own.

Taking accountability may seem like the hard path. But remember, it is easier to wear sandals than to cover the world with carpet. In this insight lies a great freedom, and a truly a priceless gift for yourself and for those whom you connect with every day.

Related stories:

Why leaders avoid taking accountability

Michael Bunting is the bestselling author of The Mindful Leader and A Practical Guide to Meditation, and co-author of Extraordinary Leadership in Australia and New Zealand. He runs leadership consultancy WorkSmart Australia, a certified B-Corp. For more information, visit