Leadership is practical, it ultimately involves purposive action. It’s the face of our managerial work that engages others and the situation at hand. So, whether it’s a C-level executive on a big stage presenting a bold new vision or an operations manager solving an emergent problem after hours, they lead insofar as they engage both the situation and challenge as well as the people charged with handling it.
Given the bias for action implied by this characterization of leadership, what is the meaning of mind, let alone full-minded leadership? That’s what I’ll discuss in this short article.
Mind in its simplest meaning is conscious awareness. Awareness of what? Well, that depends. The scope of our attentional awareness is quite elastic. It can be reactive or responsive, an important distinction. The former state arises from a constricted scope, often narrowed by stress, strain, or fear. The latter, responsive awareness, implies a breadth of scope, formulation of purpose, and freedom to choose.
The narrowing of mind can manifest in our thinking, i.e., less reflective and flexible, and less able to “problematize” the presenting situation. Full-minded leadership is just the opposite. It broadens and deepens thought. But the inputs that an open mind draws upon are not simply ideas or concepts produced by the intellect, taught in text books, or embedded in formulaic procedures.
Mind as the Summing Factor
Our rudimentary inputs come from sense experience, but that experience arrives at eyes already trained see what something is and what something means. We’re rather immediately inclined to interpret and judge. We are born into a world and nurtured by parents, teachers, and traditions to make sense of what our senses provide. That is, until those habitual ways of meaning-making fail to work.
Fortunately, the interpretive, networks of meaning shaped by culture that we adopted naturally are not our only resource for sorting things out. Indeed, that’s where mind in its most distinctive aspect comes in. When we choose to do so, we can attend with curiosity to what we are feeling (emotional mind) and thinking (cognitive mind), and also to our bodily sensations (somatic mind). This further step in mindful attending and inquiry acts like a summing factor, bringing to mind what we are aware of as a whole.
Multiple Pathways, One Mind
Full-minded leadership, then, is our capacity to synthesize the inputs of experience, to intuitively take their lead, follow their semantic and non-semantic sense. Calmness, equanimity, and insight arise and are maximized in this synthesis. It is the task of the leader to translate this understanding into words, bring it into discussion with others, allowing them to question it, and to test its truth and validity.
In emergent situations opportunities for discussion may not be feasible or appropriate; what’s needed is immediate practical guidance for action. But afterwards there will be time and opportunity for learning conversations. In any case, these multiple pathways of input merge and yield a fuller understanding with practical implications for action that we may not have otherwise anticipated.
None of this happens when we are in a state of acute stress or beleaguered by chronic stress. Not only are our adaptive capacities arrested under these circumstances, they begin to decline (decompensation). This is illustrated in the Challenge-Development Curve (to the right).
Mindfulness practices are a vital moderating variable (points B1, D1, and F1) in alerting us to an approaching inflection point and needs for adaptive change. It can be learned, and it may be a basic survival skill in today’s fast-moving world.
To be sure, this is not mere problem solving, nor is it some “woo, woo” mystical idea of leadership. Its efficacy for mitigating the cumulative effects of stress and for bolstering performance is well established in empirical research. Its benefits include improved cognitive and social-emotional functioning, increased resilience, and greater happiness. Something we could all use, right?
Finally, there is no better way to model the resilient, adaptive capacity full-minded leadership than to first cultivate a personal mindfulness practice. Others will notice the difference when tense moments arise, when difficult conversations are needed, when the sense of challenge becomes daunting. They’ll welcome the leader’s more composed presence and effect, they’ll want to learn more about how to achieve it themselves. Who knows, you may start a contagion of healthy development!
 An attitude of curiosity that seeks to make sense of a situation while suspending any immediate inclinations of judgment or action. It thereby invokes a reflective pause, allowing inquiry, analysis, hypothesizing and considered appraisal of the situation before acting. This reflective pause is part of adaptive development (see Figure 1).