Last updated on April 5th, 2019 at 11:26 am

Two of the most courageous elements missing from most business environments is the combination of vulnerability and mindfulness—at all levels, practised with intention, consistently and wholeheartedly.


Sure, there are pockets of places that excel at inviting in this level of humanity, but it’s not commonplace. What’s regularly experienced, is the toxicity where leaders and employees are judgmental of themselves and others, pushed to their limits, expected to perform well at all times—even in their off hours. And without any incremental recognition, considerations or compensation.

Regardless if you’re a people leader, an employee, hold a support role, or drive the strategy for the company, listen up.

Mindfulness and leadership

If mindfulness increases your awareness of destructive patterns, helping you to recognize them before they run rampant, and, if vulnerability enables trust, engagement, and respect, imagine how much more enjoyable it could be to strive towards organizational and one’s own professional goals by simply being yourself.

I recently had lunch with a friend, she’s a past colleague, and I asked her how things were at work. After thinking about it she said, “I feel like we haven’t gotten anywhere under the ever changing leadership. I’m not recognized for getting my stuff done on time or within budget, I’m not acknowledged for managing multiple teams, and am even encouraged to offer an opinion to improve a program—but they’re quick to ignore suggestions because there’s no time to assess its success. We do the same things over and over again. It’s discouraging. I hope I get packaged out.”

The human connection is missing from most workplaces, and it’s the thing we crave the most. We’re taught to keep a distance and to uphold an image at work. The projected office image is confident, authoritative, decisive, competent and so on. There’s no space for vulnerability or connection.

Leadership approaches are actually the key driver of human dynamics in the workplace.

Traditional leadership

Traditional leadership involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” They set direction, hold the vision, are the captains of the ship. They may answer to forces outside of the company and therefore don’t have time to manage the people element. There are leaders in their organization who are held responsible for that. In its time and place, this type of leadership may have served a purpose—and to an extent still lives in regulated industries like finance/banking where order and process is expected.

Servant leadership

The idea around servant leadership is to share power, put needs of others first and help people develop and perform as high as possible. Servant leaders focus on their people and the witnessing of talent, skills and drive. They bring heart and see people. They create the time to manage and work alongside others rather than from the front or above.

Servant leadership differs from the traditional—one invites people in and the other, well, is outdated.

Imagine a matrix organization with lots of levels, each with their own hierarchy and system competing to survive. There could be a mix of both traditional and servant leadership styles in such a place, each competing with one another to be rewarded, recognized or to claim the next rung on the ladder on their way up to the top floor.

Changing values

The financial crisis of 2008 left many employees with the sense they wanted a role in accordance with their personal values. Leaders wanted to lead better. Employees wanted to work for a person/company that aligned with what mattered most to them.

The crisis exposed the delusions of measuring success in monetary terms. This in turn made many people feel a deep unease at being pulled away from their true selves. There was an awakening across boardrooms, office lunch rooms, and team off-sites. They began to show up with greater intention.

So, be honest with yourself. What is your default leadership style? Do you secretly long to have that title and everything that comes with it? How do you mindfully go about achieving that goal? How do you engage with those around you?

Research shows people subconsciously lack authenticity. Just by looking at someone, we download information on others. We can’t help it. We’re simply programmed to observe others’ states so we can interact appropriately. It’s through this internal process and the information gathered that we create resonance—and it happens so quickly that we’re none the wiser that it’s happening.

So if resonance isn’t created—and if you’re a leader managing people, programs and having to answer to senior management—what is there for you to do? How can you be more authentic, mindful to what is present?

How can you show vulnerability and still lead effectively?

By showing heart. By being human.

I once worked for American Express in Canada and during my time there, we had a female president. My very first interaction with her as president was in the ladies washroom. She was already at the sink and I about to join her. “Oh, Sophie, hi!” she said. “I understand you live north of here like I do, how was your commute in today? It was really slow, wasn’t it? You’ve got two boys at home too, right? Do they go to school near your home or do you need to drop them somewhere as part of your morning drive in?”

I was floored. The president knew me by name, took the time to find out something about me and then jumped right in to develop rapport. She held a traditional leadership role because of her position, and still found the space to bring an opportunity for connection, relatability and humanity. I learned quickly why she had a loyal following. While she held a tough position, her position didn’t hold her.

We internally recognize what someone else is feeling. If it’s fake, it causes discomfort with others. People’s intuition can pick it up. Your employees are constantly looking at you to see if they can trust you, to be able to comfort them amid the chaos of their day to day.

You can also be forgiving.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerance of error. Forgiveness means patience and encouragement of growth. Instead of becoming upset by a mistake, give your people the opportunity and the time to learn how to analyze and fix the situation. Remember when you were a baby looking to walk. Your parents let you fall and stumble, and in no time, you were running all over the place. It’s kind of the same here—you needed to learn how to do it on your own. An organization’s culture of forgiveness can improve employee productivity and reduce employee attrition.

Servant leaders bring out more in their people by showing vulnerability and modelling mindfulness. They are more adept at paying attention and keeping reactive behaviour under control, putting time aside each day to pull back from the intense pressures of leadership to reflect on what’s happening. They’re equipped to strip aside the unimportant things to nurture passion in their work for themselves and for others, show compassion and develop the ability to empower their staff.

Sophie Turner is a professional coach, mentor, facilitator, social entrepreneur and creator of the Marquee Profile and founder of The Conversation Project, inspiring action for conscious living.
image: washing feet for mother in Buddhism Thai monk preparation via Shutterstock
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