By Josh Ehrlich
When he was just nine months old, Vasu Sojitra lost his right leg to a blood infection. When he was 10 years old, he taught himself to ski (the instructors didn't know how to teach one-legged skiing, but that didn’t stop Vasu). Now he hikes up mountains and skis down backcountry trails. He doesn't bemoan his situation, which he simply calls his "lifestyle." He accepts it.
Acceptance doesn't mean passivity, resignation or complacency. It means facing reality. It means learning to manage life's ups and downs without fighting them. Vasu didn't succumb to loss. He found a way to embrace it and to seize opportunities. Now he is focused on giving back and being a model for others. He has found his lighthouse.
Vasu provides a beautiful example of how we do not always have control, but we do always have choices. When we treat ourselves and our situation with acceptance, it enables us to live meaningfully and joyfully no matter what life throws at us.
I call this self-acceptance, and it is built on four intrinsic pillars:
- Alignment. Living in sync with our core values and purpose (our lighthouse) so we know where we are going and why.
- Self-regulation. Riding the waves of our feelings and not over-reacting to them we rebound quickly from setbacks.
- Facing reality. Looking at our situation objectively and with equanimity we do not have to fight against what is.
- Self-support. Treating ourselves with kindness and gentleness rather than criticism unleashes our energy and ability to experiment and learn.
Building self-acceptance depends on our paying mindful attention to our own process. We need to unhook from focusing so much on outcomes and pay attention to what is happening inside. Mindfulness is present-focused, open, and engaged attention with a quality of warmth towards ourselves. Practicing mindfulness via meditation and related exercises can help us train ourselves to be self-accepting.
In contrast, self-esteem is based on extrinsic, vulnerable sources. We build self-esteem by trying to achieve things, looking for approval, and accumulating stuff. When all else fails we resort to puffing up and rely on fantasy. ("I'm great, right?")
Leaders perform well when they feel good about themselves. Few do perform well, though, because we are constantly raising the bar and asking them to do more. In addition, they try to build self-esteem rather than self-acceptance. Look around your organization. Would you rather follow a leader who is trying to build self-esteem or one who is focusing on self-acceptance?
Research on mindfulness shows it has a powerful impact on well-being and effectiveness. Not only do we become more physically resilient, we make better decisions, learn faster, and are more empathic. The implications for leaders are also clear. Mindful leaders are more creative and inspiring, and build stronger relationships and have better retention and engagement. No wonder high performance companies like McKinsey, Google, and BlackRock are all teaching their employees mindfulness.
Besides teaching mindfulness we can change our organizational systems to support the development of cultures where employees have time to think and reflect. Our current performance management systems focus employees on rewards for outcomes. We can shift the focus to the process that gets us those outcomes (shifting from the what to the how). Clients and customers pay us for outcomes, but innovation and improvement come from attention to process. Once a year ratings and bonuses focus employees on self-esteem factors (“What have you done for me?”).
As HR People + Strategy board chair Edie Goldberg suggests in her recent HRPS blog, a more fluid performance management system with regular narrative reviews shifts the conversation to self-acceptance factors (e.g., how well are you improving processes and learning?). This is intrinsically motivating for employees and produces more sustainable results.
Leaders can also play a key role by building mindful teams. They can align their team’s attention by regularly talking about where they are going, why, and how. Making sure a significant part of each employee one-on-one is focused on the future and development helps balance processes and outcomes. Leaders can also establish simple routines that ensure time to think, such as exchanging the breathless 60-minute back-to-back meeting schedule for a saner 45-minute norm. They can set realistic expectations, for example, regarding how quickly team members must respond to email, and set boundaries on working evenings, weekends, and holidays.
As social animals, we are wired to seek approval and try to achieve higher status. But as Vasu's story illustrates, we can rise above this and be more than animals. Mindful self-acceptance provides a path in that evolution.
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Josh Ehrlich is a senior advisor and coach who helps leaders drive innovation and change. He is a leading authority on succeeding in demanding environments and an expert in mindful leadership. Josh is the chairman of the Global Leadership Council—an international network of specialists in leadership and organizational transformation. He will be speaking at the upcoming HR People + Strategy Annual Conference on the topic of Global Mindfulness. Josh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.