We take a look at the responsibility that leaders have towards embracing mindful leadership and why it should matter to an aspiring founder.
Tech startups move fast, scale large, and the most successful ones serve millions of customers every day. It's no understatement then to say that tech startup founders have a lot on their plate. The pressure to succeed is intense because people have invested their money and their trust in your ability to chart a profitable course for the business through its establishment and into maturation. In addition, your staff have likely swapped job security in the hope of returns through ESOP while being part of something more exciting and fulfilling than the drudgery of corporate life.
The truth is, customers do more than just purchase a startup's product or service — they are joining a journey. This can mean a significant investment in cost, time, and people in adopting new solutions. The last thing they want is for their faith in a startup to be shattered by the company going belly up and all their time, money, and effort going to waste.
This is why a founder's attitude, mindset, and decisions have profound effects on the business.
What is mindful leadership?
Early thinkers on mindful leadership, such as Harvard Business School professor William W. George, posit that the intersection between predominantly eastern philosophies, including mediation practice, combined with western values systems, is necessary for modern business leadership. Indeed, leaders who are self-aware and practice self-regulation of their thoughts, emotions, and values bring more presence and self-compassion to growing their business and generating positive outcomes for their company and its people.
Mindful leadership starts with the founders themselves. Practically speaking, a mindful leadership style affords founders an understanding of their motivations and drivers, and how these play directly into the organization-building element of their work. Moreover, founders who understand their strengths and weaknesses in a non-judgemental, self-compassionate way can adopt a deliberate approach to finding people and services that complement them where they need the most help, resulting in a more resilient and better-resourced operation.
How to become a mindful leader
While the theory of mindful leadership sounds enticing, the practice is, as ever, more challenging. Founders are busy people — everyone from investors to staff and customers want a piece of their time, not to mention the constant need to focus on growth. Spending time developing your mindful leadership toolbox may feel like a luxury, but it's precisely the opposite; it's business-critical.
There are practical steps founders can take to establish and practice a mindful approach to their leadership style, and it all starts with developing self-awareness.
1. Understand your motivations
The first step on the road to self-awareness is about understanding your motivations and how they influence your state of mind. Motivations drive each one of us, and often they're deeply personal. If your startup is the car getting you where you want to go, your motivations are the fuel. Founders who understand their motivations can start building systems to support their goals and energize their efforts or in other words, “make the fuel for the car more efficient.”
Founders must take the time to ask (or remind) themselves why they are embarking on their journey. Asking simple questions about yourself can profoundly impact how you view your business. For instance, you might conclude that the drive to succeed in the face of others’ doubts about you is what led you to become a founder. Then, decisions you make about growing your business take on a certain hue; for example, you might back yourself when others tell you you’re wrong and spend time researching and testing your original thinking to ensure you’re on the right track. Equally, you'll gain an awareness of when your motivations may work against the interests of the business.
In startups with two or more founders, it's also important to discover and discuss each other’s motivations to see where you align or deviate from each other's intrinsic reasons for starting the business. The more open and aware you are of each other’s reasons for being there, the better you will work together.
2. Take time to establish your values
If your motivations fuel your commercial success, then values are the signposts along the road to help you get where you're going in one piece. Successful companies have strong corporate cultures built upon clearly communicated and often reinforced values. Simply put, the right set of values can guide founders and businesses towards tremendous success.
In startups, a business' values are often an extension of a founder's own. We often hear founders talk about terms like trust, diligence, and respect - and all of these are, of course, excellent values to imbue an organization with. However, from a business standpoint, it could be argued these values are somewhat universal to thriving company culture. A mindful leader understands that the most potent and useful values come from their core being and are more profound and powerful because of their source.
The rags-to-riches story of Chatri Sityodtong is one to reflect upon when you think of where values can lead you. One of Asia’s most well-known faces, a serial entrepreneur, and the founder of ONE Championship, Sityodtong is no stranger to a leadership approach firmly rooted in shared values, on an individual and a company level. To him, values of integrity, happiness, excellence, continuous improvement, teamwork, and loyalty are what make a great leader. From his Harvard MBA stint (while famously surviving on $4 a day) to founding a $500 million hedge fund; to his current media empire now valued at over US$1billion, Sityodtong has often talked about a values system that can make or break a leader.
From those all-important key hires to customer considerations and relationships with boards, a founder's values can help bring authenticity and clarity to decision-making and guide founders on responding (note: not reacting) to different situations. Suppose you hold empathy as a value, for example. In that case, being present to empathy in day-to-day interactions can positively impact your thinking on how to interact with your staff or improve customer experience.
A values exercise
Set aside some time to write down your values. Write every value you can think of the first time around - both for yourself and the business. Importantly, be wary of landing on values for the company that don't align with your own - it won't equal success. Then, whittle these down until you have values that can't be reduced further into any other value. Five values are usually a good number to strive for.
If you have co-founders, conduct the exercise together. Where your values align, you'll have discovered a logical place to start to develop core values for your company. Notably, the process of translating personal values into organizational values requires more than a single exercise between founders. It's about looking at what type of company you want to build, from interacting with customers to attracting new talent and working with your investors.
3. Self-awareness as self-regulation
While it is paramount that founders have a set of values as their North Star, these are more the philosophical constructs to help prepare the way for what's most important; maintaining a heightened level of self-awareness from moment to moment throughout the day. Self-awareness is different from focus and we often tend to confuse the two. Focus is more immediate - we can use it to zoom in on a specific problem or task, but these are generally external situations and circumstances. On the other hand, self-awareness is a rigorously practiced form of self-focus, a constant awareness of one's state of mind and physical condition and responding consciously to the signals your brain, emotions, and body are sending.
What self-awareness boils down to in the day-to-day is relentless self-regulation.
Psychiatrists Vago and Silbersweig offer perhaps the most succinct definition of self-regulation, “an ability to effectively modulate one’s behavior”. The key here is the term “modulate” - it’s about dialing up and down your thoughts, feelings, and physical state to positively impact your responses (note: not reactions) to situations and circumstances. In the context of a startup, self-regulation becomes a powerful tool for founders to get the most out of every minute in their day and every opportunity that comes their way. For instance, you might crack a product innovation that excites you, and purposely let your team see your excitement to elicit a similar response in them. Conversely, when you're feeling tired and stressed, a mindful leader will be aware of their inner world, notice the signs, and choose to minimize the impact of being tired and stressed in your voice, your body language, and your decision-making.
A note on decision-making
Before making an important decision, take a moment to take stock of your state of being at that moment; what are you thinking and feeling? Are you feeling anxious or annoyed? Perhaps, you didn't sleep well the night before and are feeling a bit run down. Bringing attention to your inner world is the core practice of mindfulness. Coming from a place of responsiveness rather than simply reacting is how you master yourself. That self-awareness will help you self-regulate to take that important decision, or maybe even decide to come back to that decision at a later time.
The body knows - recognize physical signs first
If 'mindfulness' was a startup, it would be a bit of a misnomer because mindfulness is not just about being present to your thoughts - it's also about being aware of your emotions and physical state. Thoughts create feelings, and feelings generate physical sensations. Given that it's difficult for most people to stay present to every moment of the day, our bodies often provide the first signal that something is happening in our inner world.
Take fight or flight, for example. At some point in our lives, we have all felt it - the rush of blood through our bodies, our heart beating out a rapid tattoo in response to a perceived threat. These are the physiological responses to fight or flight - the adrenaline-fed survival response that's carried over from when humans were still contending with other species for resources. Fast forward to a few million years, and fight or flight makes for an awkward companion in the boardroom.
In the high-pressure environment of a tech startup, reactions or decisions from leaders in fight or flight mode can have disastrous consequences. It's important to recognize the signs because, in fight or flight, blood flow increases to the body at the expense of the brain. Great for running away from saber-tooth tigers, not so much for making major decisions on fundraising or dealing with challenging customers. Mindful leaders present to their circumstances will be able to catch the early signs of fight or flight and employ techniques like breathing to bring the physical response under control.
After all, physical awareness extends to all states of being: an aching jaw may be from a bad night's sleep and indicate tiredness. Feeling slow of thought might mean you're dehydrated and need to drink some water. Anxiety may come out in the form of a rapid heartbeat or faster breathing. Founders who train themselves to remain present in their physical state can better manage their state of mind.
Practical tips towards mindful leadership
Entire schools of thought have been written on what we've barely started to cover here, so one of the best things you can do as a founder is to start to research a mindful approach to leadership for yourself. Moreover, there are simple things you can do right now to start to take control of your mind, emotions, and physical state.
The benefits of controlled breathing are as old as the Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation, going back millennia. Bringing focus and awareness to your breath can greatly reduce the physiological effects of stress, tiredness, and anxiety. A steady count of seven seconds breathing in, and 11 seconds breathing out repeated several times can work wonders in a pinch.
2. Get support
Successful founders know when to ask for help from experts outside their realm of expertise, and when it comes to developing a mindfulness approach, it's no different. Explore the option of securing a professional coach or mentor who can help set your feet on the path and guide you along the way.
3. Learn about the concept of "responsibility"
Most of us think we know about responsibility as being accountable or having a duty to deal with something and exert control. That's certainly part of it. However, in the context of mindful leadership, the term takes on a new meaning: it’s really two words. ‘Response-ability’ is an individual’s ability to respond, not react, to situations and circumstances, and to realize that the ability to choose our responses with care rests with us. We would recommend looking up ‘Responsibility’ by American author Werner Erhard, a leader in personal improvement and transformational leadership.
4. Lastly, read
We can’t cover all of the numerous perspectives, philosophies, and tactics on mindful leadership here, but there is a wealth of excellent sources of information. We are sharing a few here to get you started as you embark on your inner journey.
- On the importance of practicing mindfulness and self-care: Investments, Not Indulgences and Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!, By Ed Batista
- What makes a leader by Daniel Goleman (book here)
- On the benefits of being aware of and using emotions: Beyond Reason, Using Emotions as You Negotiate by Fisher & Shapiro
- Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness by Vago and Silbersweig