'The real root of leadership dysfunction'

by Michael Bunting09 Aug 2016
Why do leaders falter and fail? Is it due to a lack of knowledge, misguided strategy, or poorly-applied techniques? Rarely.

At the core of leadership dysfunction is a behaviour that is hardly ever seen, let alone taught in leadership books and trainings. It’s something everyone faces and most of us indulge in daily, even hourly, without ever recognising it.

The root of leadership dysfunction? Absentmindedness. Most of us spend a substantial amount of time lost in thoughts about the future and the past – in other words, lost in absentminded thinking.

Much of that time lost in thought is focused on negative thoughts:

“I should have said this…”

“Why did I forget that?”

“I hope my investments are going to be okay.”

The science is clear that this habit is damaging for our health and wellbeing. As one study concluded, “[A] human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

So how can we manage the absentmindedness that is robbing our happiness, damaging our health, and crippling our leadership? The first step toward managing anything is to be aware of what it is we’re trying to manage.

Try tidying up a room in the dark: it’s obvious we cannot manage what we cannot see clearly and objectively.

In the case of mindful leadership, we’re trying to manage our state: our body, mind and heart, and by extension our words, actions, behaviours and habits. Using the previous analogy, what keeps the room “dark” is absentmindedness.

Absentmindedness can be defined as being inattentive or distracted, or zoning out. It undermines our awareness and keeps us “in the dark”. Put simply, we cannot be self-aware or truly aware of others when we are distracted by our thinking.

For example, when we are mentally preparing our answer while someone is speaking to us, or rehashing meetings or interactions in our mind we are giving up our present-ness and in doing so sacrificing our health and happiness.

Over the years of teaching mindfulness to thousands of leaders I have invited them to put what they have learned to the test in their own personal context. Invariably they have found that awareness and absentmindedness are mutually exclusive; their greatest shock is realising how much of their lives is spent in an absentminded state.

Absentmindedness and your health

Neuropsychologist and bestselling author Dr. Rick Hanson once told me that being consistently lost in thought is one of the most damaging things we can do for both our mental and emotional wellbeing, and our brain health.

Most of our thinking typically defaults to negative patterns — in part based on our collective biological history.

Why are our default thought patterns negative? As Rick explained, the brain’s negativity bias evolved because our ancestors lived when lethal dangers were real and ever present.

In a world where the “carrots” were sex, shelter and food and the “sticks” were snakes, lions and injuries (which generally meant death), it paid to focus on the sticks. If you missed a carrot today, you’d have another chance tomorrow. But if you missed a stick, well, no more carrots…ever.

In the modern world, life-threatening situations are relatively unusual. But given our natural tendency to focus on the negative, combined with a habit of inattention and being lost in thought, we spend much of our time in a mentally constructed fight, flight or freeze mode.

This unnecessary and inappropriate activation response leads to our accumulating wear and tear of the body and mind, called allostatic load. This allostatic load is a major cause of physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses.

In the context of leadership, the negativity bias and allostatic load rob us of self-awareness and energy. It over-focuses us on threats and makes it harder to learn from positive experiences.

It’s like wanting our brain to perform like a Ferrari while driving it through the mud every day. 

Absentmindedness is a thoroughly ingrained habit for most of us. We eat, drink, sit through meetings, and much more, pretending to listen, but all-the-while fixated on our own thoughts about the past and future, unaware of what is happening around us.

We can arrive at our destination in the car and not recall the journey at all. The critical point is that absentmindedness pulls us from reality, preventing us from seeing things clearly, both within ourselves and others.

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 www.mindfulleader.net