Three ways leaders disconnect from reality

by Michael Bunting10 Aug 2016
Sadly, I have worked with too many good people who have become numb, burned out, alienated from their families and their team members, as a result of a steady diet of clinging, avoidance and numbing.
In their quest for success they have indulged in endless worry, obsessive planning, values compromises, aggression and more. Eventually they come to recognise that these habits cannot produce the inner wellbeing they long for, and their lives are living evidence of this.
There are three underlying ways we lose connection with reality:
1. Resistance/Avoidance

This is an “anything but this experience” attitude. It can manifest as fear, anxiety, worry, procrastination, avoidance, frustration, irritation, complaining, arguing, judging, even hostility or hatred. Things are not good enough or safe enough for us. Our thoughts can be mildly resistant (“I wish it wasn’t so dull today!”) to intensely resistant (“I can’t stand anyone who disagrees with me!”).

There is a definite sense of argument, and mild to extreme unease with our life as it is (or was). That argument with our life adds unnecessary stress to our system.
Self test:
  • Am I easily upset, frustrated, or derailed?
  • Do I procrastinate, worry, or fear things that I shouldn’t?
  • Am I critical, hostile or angry towards others?
  • Am I overly focused on what happened in the past, or about something working out in the future?
2. Clinging/Idealisation

Children know this one very well: “Are we there yet?” As adults we play the “I’ll be happy when…” or the “When…then…” game. We are unconsciously restless and dissatisfied with what is in front of us. But instead of focusing on the negative, we yearn for the “next ideal thing”, that next promotion, car or holiday house. “When I get [x], then I’ll be happy!” This sets up an endless quest for the ideal experience.

We want the room neither too hot nor too cold, and if it’s not just right (which it very rarely is) we suffer and crave a more ideal experience. Another aspect of clinging is greed. We cling to prized possessions, people, ideas, prejudices, jobs, status. In that clinging there is a fear of loss, and therefore a consistent stress in our system.
Self test:
  • Do I frequently focus on the next goal or achievement without genuinely enjoying the present?
  • Do I feel like happiness is just beyond my reach, right now?
  • Do I value or cling to relationships, possessions, and/or achievements more than I should?
  • Do I worry about losing those things and obsess over maintaining them?
3. Delusion/Numbing

We can call this zoning out or becoming numb, and it is a deadening of ourselves. It does not have the aliveness or strong “itch” of the other two, but it is still very much a form of absentmindedness. This could be as simple as overeating, drinking too much alcohol, excessive T.V. watching or overusing our phones.

But on a more subtle level, it is a kind of habituation, a sense of neutral passivity. Things aren’t fresh or alive or exciting, they are just kind of okay. Daydreaming is a good example of zoning out, as is driving your car to work on autopilot and not remembering the journey.
Self Test:
  • Do I turn to habits or addictions to zone-out?
  • Am I constantly checking social media sites, or turning to technology during brief moments of down-time?
  • Do I “lose time” – not remembering what I did, or what was said, or what happened while I drove somewhere?
  • Do I feel like life is just okay?
There is good reason why the English language associates wisdom and connection with the word “sense.” Think of the words sensational, sensitive, sensible, common sense, makes sense. Conversely, our language associates an absentminded life with disconnection from the senses — think senseless, insensitive and nonsense. I have yet to meet someone who wants to live a senseless life, yet this is exactly what an absentminded life is.
Next time you hit a roadblock, consider whether or not you’re engaging in absentmindedness. If you are, remember that being present is the antidote. It is possible to gain both outer success and inner wellbeing – and mindful leadership paves the way towards achieving both.
This is part two of Michael Bunting’s article on ‘The real root of leadership dysfunction’. To read part one, click here.
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