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A little leadership training may go a long way

2015 December 8
by Sheila

With a nod to my colleague Sharon Leon, this fall, I took an elective! It felt a little indulgent, and I enjoyed the opportunity. I participated in Mason’s Positive Leadership Certificate program which is professional development for both GMU employees and anyone in the greater DC area. I met people doing interesting things at my own institution, as well as others working in government agencies and running small businesses.

This course was steeped in new research from fields in psychology and neurosciences, and focused on how the relatively new specialty of positive psychology can be used to foster workplaces where people thrive. Other topics covered were mindfulness, well-being, coaching, and strengths-based teams and leadership.

Before the program began, I was excited to have the chance to read and think about the building blocks of strong and thriving organizations, but was a little skeptical of what the “positive” meant and nervous this would be too touchy-feely. The course instructors designed exercises that encouraged a lot of self-reflection and discussion, something I wasn’t quite prepared to do with a bunch of strangers. Soon I realized that becoming a good leader or manager begins with you (with me), and the only way to change habits or reactions that our brains do automatically is to be self-reflexive and to practice new habits.

World's Best BossWe reflected on our best bosses, and how they made us feel. Often the best bosses were good coaches who asked questioned and listened carefully. It turns out that the list of characteristics of our best bosses matched closely to Gallup surveys & the four themes they summarized that define a good leader:

  • Inviting Trust–competence, respect
  • Showing Compassion–empathy, and celebrating and crying together
  • Instilling Hope–vision for the future, direction
  • Projecting Stability–consistency, security, strength

Instructor Steve Gladdis emphasized that when a leader doesn’t showcase these four qualities, employees can feel like their work isn’t valued, might feel despair because there is no vision for the future of an organization, or they may not want to stay with that organization because it appears to lack stability. Most leaders/managers aren’t born with the ability to do all of these things, most people have to learn and practice to develop these abilities.

Some of the best things I learned related to practicing and cultivating mindfulness. “Mindfulness” as a term is used a lot lately. Our instructor Beth Cabrera relied on Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s definition:”Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

The benefits of mindfulness are a calm, clear mind; focus; and emotional intelligence. Cabrera’s advice to the class was to slow down, stop multi-tasking, go outside, use transitions in our day as cues to STOP–stop, take a deep breath, observe, and then proceed–, and to add meditation into our day. Mindfulness is not something that our brains naturally want to do, so it requires practice.

The benefits are attractive, as it offers individuals more self-control over emotions and increases the ability to handle difficult situations, to truly show compassion, and to help us manage and focus our energies. Big companies are encouraging mindfulness for their employees to help their focus, productivity, and creativity.

Another way for increasing productivity and enthusiasm is for each of us to do things that we are good at and enjoy. We took the Gallup Strengths Finder test, and learned how to balance out teams with people with different skills and strengths. The optimal balance is that 80% of the time we are doing something we are good at and like, leaving 20% for the stuff we do not like. (How does your job stack up?) In class, we discussed being willing as a manager to shuffle tasks and rewrite job descriptions. Often, those small changes often make a big difference in a person’s satisfaction level at work. As does the belief that individuals are contributing on a daily basis to a bigger goal beyond their work stations. Managers and leaders need to remind people about the greater good they are doing.

During class, the historian in me was always thinking about ways that positive psychology and mindfulness practices embraced by large companies today compare with efforts by industrial capitalist to create company towns and factory-based leisure activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Time to do some research.)

Some of the case studies we read about in the class relate more to work environments outside of academia, but still much of it is relevant for anyone who is or wants to become a department chair, an academic advisor, dean, et al. For example, coaching techniques can be useful when advising a student or a peer. Understanding your own strengths and how to put together teams of individuals with complementary strengths and skills is useful in many arenas of academic life. And, mindfulness can not only improve our work, but the kinds of interactions we have with friends, families, and colleagues.

I have been practicing some techniques from the course. I’m trying to start conversations with a question that focuses on the positive: what is going well today? I’m noting things I’m grateful for each day. I’m meditating on my work days, walking outside with my head up and not in my phone to notice the world around me, trying to listen better, and to reduce multi-tasking. The last one is not always easy, since I have prided myself on my efficiency while multi-tasking.

In finding my strengths and learning more about management techniques, I will be thinking how best to use them in my current position and in future endeavors.

Further reading:
The books we read for this course, and a few other resources, are available in this Zotero library.

Natalie Houston often writes in the general area of mindfulness and productivity for ProfHacker.

Harvard Business Review blog offers a lot of interesting articles, many focus on management, but also about organizational structure, social dynamics in the workplace, and other things. If you use the Sage plugin for Firefox, you can read the articles through the feed without needing to subscribe.



One Response leave one →
  1. Sharon permalink
    December 8, 2015

    As someone who is pretty ready to throw in the towel, your account of the points and lessons from this experience offers at least a pointer in a the right direction. Thanks for sharing in a concrete way.

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