woman leader, staring out into the distance, focusing on more mindful personal leadership


Personal Leadership: The Role of Mindfulness in a Time of Crisis

There are many challenges facing leaders right now. But the one they may be overlooking is the need for personal leadership.

Publish Date: April 15, 2020

Read Time: 6 min

Author: Ryan Heinl

/ Resources / Blogs / Personal Leadership: The Role of Mindfulness in a Time of Crisis

There are many challenges facing leaders right now. But the one they may be overlooking is the need for personal leadership—making sure they are focusing on themselves as much as their teams.

Ryan Holiday, fellow philosopher, stoic, and author once wrote, “See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path, now is the path. What once impeded action, advances action. The obstacle is the way.” 

I don’t think I can recall a quote more appropriate for the present moment. Moments of significant change are hard, and you could argue hardest for those few who many look for leadership, direction, and dare I say… hope.

As leaders we are expected to act, to do the hard thing in the face of crushing uncertainty. And what becomes apparent quickly in these chilling moments is that the way you look at the situation, the way you take it in, let it become you, let it pass through you, determines the outcome of your endeavors.

The need for personal leadership

The first person you need to lead is yourself. Let’s pick through Ryan's wisdom for a moment and talk about the importance of personal leadership. And why being mindful in times like these is so important.

To preface this, I am a cynic and a skeptic at heart. I am never one to say, “Think positive thoughts and they will happen.” However, I do believe in seeing the truth, and in doing so giving yourself the opportunity to perform at your best. This requires a honed awareness of what your mind is telling you, and this is what Ryan means when he says, “See things for what they are.” When you see the events related to the coronavirus in this way, you see that this is just a virus. It is not good or bad, in contrast to what your mind might be telling you, it is doing what viruses do.

Wishing it never happened or that things were different serves no one. There is no value judgment inherently attached to it. It just is. And you have no control over it (unless perhaps you are a virologist or biomedical researcher).

This awareness frees you from all the energy you might put into lamenting the absence of a different reality. It frees you to do what needs to be done. It frees you to be a leader. It also allows you to realize this is just the newest problem you need to wrestle to the ground. A new and sudden opportunity to outmaneuver the competition. A way to focus on what really matters for your team and for the future of your business. As Ryan puts it well, “The obstacle is the way.”

Practical ways to move your mind and practice personal leadership

At this point you might be thinking, “Easier said than done.” I don’t disagree, but there are practical things you can do to move your mind into this frame, and bring personal leadership front and center.

1. Set yourself up for success by getting enough sleep

It might feel heroic right now, even necessary to go without sleep. And I realize I am far from the first person to tell you that you need to get plenty of sleep. However, the data now available pertaining to sleep and its impact on performance is irrefutable. I won’t drag out all the studies for you here but suffice to say lack of sleep has significant and lasting effects on learning, memory, and mood (Tell me which of these capacities you can easily go without in a time of crisis?). 

Being sleep-deprived is so like being intoxicated that by objective measures it’s almost indistinguishable. It increases risk-taking behavior and poor judgment at the same time. 

Prioritize sleep and the behaviors that enable high quality sleep as a top priority. This will give you the extra internal capacity you need to be more aware, more present, and more thoughtful. In short, it’s the key to mindfulness.

2. Deliberately exercise compassion for your team. 

Being compassionate is not about giving people a pass or lowering expectations. It’s about making efforts to understand someone through a lens of kindness. This isn’t that hard to do right now because we are all going through the same thing for once in human existence. It’s scary, it’s uncertain, and it’s challenging.

Let your people know you understand they are feeling these things and you are feeling them, too. Then let them know the only way you will get through this is together. Push them, challenge them, but make sure they know you understand them and care about them. They need both right now.

3. Actively monitor your derailers. 

Under times of significant stress, we all act in ways that do not represent our best selves. We become impatient and easily irritated, we withdraw, become directive, we argue more, and become increasingly critical. These feelings boil up inside us and before we know it, we’ve acted out in ways we regret. Unfortunately, there is little time for that right now. Your team sees you only intermittently and they are constantly stressed.

I hate to put more pressure on you as a leader, but every interaction with your team members just got a lot more important! What this means in practice is each interaction counts, so you need to bring your best self to each one. Start to check in with your emotions during meetings. How are you feeling about what is happening? Are you feeling those pings of impatience? If you do, take a moment and breathe out slowly. I promise you this feeling will pass. Then turn your focus back to your team member and how you can support them in the current challenge they are facing.

Focus on what you can impact

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can tell you practicing just these three things will lead you to better outcomes under these conditions. By keeping personal leadership front and center, you will focus your attention on the things you can immediately have an impact on as a leader: your people. And this is surely where your attention is best served.

You can’t know what will happen even two weeks from now these days, but what you can do is the next thing, and then the next, and then next after that. What’s even better, is you can help your team to do that, as well. Do what we can. Endure what we must. The obstacle is the way.

Explore DDI’s Virtual Classroom solution and see a list of courses available for virtual delivery.  

Ryan Heinl is Director of Product Management and Leader of DDI’s Innovation Lab, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, CrossFitter, mindfulness junkie, and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).

Topics covered in this blog