Leaders are human. That means they have emotions, just like the rest of us. They react to uncertainty, the need to take risks and emotional triggers just like the rest of us. What does the flock need from its pastor and lay leaders in these very risky and uncertain times? They need them to be human. But they also need them to know how to practice mindfulness. “Wait,” you stammer. “You mean we need them to be off observing soap bubbles in the sunlight?” No. Not that kind of mindfulness, although soap bubbles in the sunlight are a moving prism of color that is wondrous to behold!
In crisis times, the people need their leaders to be in touch with and in control of their own emotions. Hear me! In touch with and in control of…not devoid of or denying their existence. It’s that kind of mindfulness to which this refers. The flock needs to know its shepherds, lay and ordained, are feeling what they are feeling but are in control of those feelings so that they can make deliberate and measured choices.
Courageous leaders faced with a crisis are not afraid to reveal that they share some of the emotions of their followers; in this case of Covid-19, anxious, a bit fearful of the unknown impacts or the duration of this event, and perhaps even exhausted by the effort to distinguish hype from fact. But, those emotions are shared in order to establish or maintain a connection with their followers. Their followers want BOTH that connection and the assurance that the leaders, despite the high emotional charge of the situation, are controlling their emotions in order to craft trustworthy responses.
So how does a leader increase this kind of mindfulness and so have the courage to walk into emotionally laden situations? First, a courageous leaders gets in touch with their own range of emotions. They recognize their presence, give the emotions names and examine their own past patterns of behavior when these emotions were at play. This can be done with a journal, a trusted friend, and/or a therapist, but it must be done in order for the leader to be able to recognize these emotions and their related energy. Remember why this is important: Leaders must be able to share their emotions in appropriate ways in order to remain connected to their followers.
With the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve seen all kinds of evidence of leaders who have not done this work and so have been publicly responding with everything from downplaying and denial to hyper-vigilance and prophecies of doom. Neither end of the spectrum comforts, encourages, teaches and therefore leads the flock. What is needed are leaders who know how to look at their own emotions, give them names, a history and perhaps a pattern of behavior that flows from them, and then are able to determine what levels of emotion create that much-needed human connection in a crisis situation.
And what of the emotionally laden “emergency” situation that needs a more immediate response from a leader? How do leaders exercise mindfulness and therefore lead out of a place of measured control? They stop. Emotions can be like a runaway freight train on a downhill track. Once they get a hold of you, they seem unstoppable. But, the courageous leader knows how to jump on that runaway train and hit the brakes before it crashes. They know how to stop. Pause for a minute (5 is better) and breathe out anxiety and breathe in calm. The military calls this breath exercise “combat breathing.”  Meditation/yoga experts call it prana.  Therapists have a number of breathing techniques to reduce anxiety  The point is this: high stress situations produce fight or flight reactions. Mindful leaders recognize their own physical signs of fight or flight, and are able to short-circuit them with breathing techniques, or with a short walk, a strategic pause  and with the next skill: memory. They are able to short-circuit the knee jerk response and so access the energy of the emotion, its name and perhaps its signals, all in service to their leadership. What results is an emotionally honest but measured and thoughtful response to the situation. That’s what effective combination of connection and direction that people want from their leaders in a crisis and mindfulness makes it possible.
Next week we will look at the Courage skill of Memory.