Many years ago, I was told that a teacher learns more from her student than the student learns from the teacher. This has certainly proven to be true in my experiences as a teacher, whether I was teaching business law, fourth graders or mindful leadership. And, as importantly, I have noticed that when I am open to the full experience of the moment, the lesson offered is exactly what I needed to learn.
A case in point:
It was the last class of a seven-week mindful leadership course and I had invited the class to share an impression or intention from our work together. One manager, in a quiet voice, shared his discovery with us.
He said, “All my adult life I have been striving to change fear into hope. And what I discovered in these weeks is that what is truly important is not the fear or hope in the future, but the work to be fully present for now.” He then paused for a few moments and with a brightening on his face, and a small smile, he added “I suppose the same is true of the time and energy expended on disappointment and satisfaction with events of the past.” It was a pivotal moment and stopped many of us in the circle. I was keenly aware of these words penetrating deep inside of me.
Of course, it is the very work of mindfulness to be present, to notice when the mind drifts to the future or the past, and to redirect the attention to this moment. But it was the characterization of changing “fear to hope” in particular that was the hook for me in that moment. How much effort is expended as we notice our fear and encourage ourselves, and those around us, to change those feelings of fear about the future? In fact, how much energy is wasted on characterizing the future in any way? Would the way in which we meet this moment be changed if instead we could notice when the mind is spinning, hypothesizing, catastrophizing, or optimistically or pessimistically delusional, and then intentionally bring it back to being with the present moment?
Of course, it is the very work of mindfulness to be present, to notice when the mind drifts to the future or the past, and to redirect the attention to this moment.
But, haven’t we been trained as leaders to “rally the troops” and “be positive” and speak about challenges as “opportunities” when speaking about the future, especially in difficult, fear-provoking situations? We still identify the challenges but we always have a plan that is aiming to change concern and fear into hope and optimism. I have been in the room when these messages are delivered, and have, in fact, delivered some of these messages to teams I have led. They serve a purpose but, if I am fully open to all there is to feel and see and hear in those moments, there is also something lost. Something difficult to name or measure, perhaps it is the feeling when something, doesn’t sit completely well with the speaker or the recipients.
Would a more fact-based, transparent message be more well received? Is it okay to name the fears, the concerns, and then be most focused on the path forward without the need to work so hard to change the fears about the future into hope? The only way to know is to try it for yourself… but I have been a part of meetings when an organization faces challenges and the leader paints the “great opportunity” picture. There is something that seeps out of the room at those moments, even though there may be clapping and smiles.
And I wonder if the better message is to look at where we are now, including those things around us that have changed and that “keep us up at night.” To name the worries and the concerns, and to remember that we are in this together and we are committed to doing our best work. And then to simply speak of a path forward, one step at a time, with an acknowledgement that we don’t know how it will end, but that we can be most flexible and responsive if we are present for each moment rather than looking to fulfill an optimistic guess about the future.