There’s a mindfulness exercise that the strongest leaders need to try

Best friend or worst critic?
Best friend or worst critic?
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High-profile leaders have plenty of potential critics: Shareholders who want to see a return on investment, customers demanding better service, employees who want more from their jobs, peers who question their life choices.

But their most brutal critic is likely the one looking back at them from the bathroom mirror.

We’re not necessarily talking about any kind of pathology here, though self-criticism can be associated with depression and other clinical conditions. What strong leaders often share, according to Kasia Olszko, a Barcelona-based mindfulness coach for corporations and individuals, is a belief that constant control of their emotions, and a scathing inner voice driving them onwards, is the best way—indeed, the only way—to get things done. These heads of companies, departments, and creative projects might be extremely good at exhibiting compassion to their employees, colleagues, and families, she says, but they struggle to talk to themselves as they would to a friend.

Olszko, who credits researcher Kristin Neff with developing some of this thinking, explains:“The bottom line is, are you being your best friend and supporter throughout the work day, or are you being your passive judge, and biggest critic?” The approach you choose “impacts the way you then lead others.” 

The first step towards an answer is a deceptively simple mindfulness practice called self-compassion.

Why mindfulness?

Olszko’s suggestions come at a time when mindfulness is increasingly being recognized as a potential antidote to the stresses of modern working. It also ties in with calls for more compassionate, human-centric leadership styles, and the recognition that admitting weakness can truly show strength.

While we might know intellectually that being less hard on ourselves makes sense, many people—particularly high achievers—find it truly difficult to put into practice. Once they get over the hurdle, Olszko says, the rewards are great, and include personal growth, greater creativity, and the ability to tackle seemingly intractable problems like fear of public speaking.

Olszko, who was a TV producer before moving into coaching, said that she’d learned a lot about managing others through the practice. Her leadership style in television was about perfectionism and never making any mistakes, she explains. While it produced good results, it was a high stress environment that didn’t make people happy. Now, she says, she advises leaders that while it’s fine to try and avoid mistakes, creating a culture in which errors aren’t experienced as fatal can make teams more relaxed, creative, and open.

“I work with leaders who just say, ‘it shouldn’t be difficult,’ or ‘it’s not that bad,’” and that “a good leader should always be strong, and always have a solution,” Olszko says. “There is an enormous weight and responsibility on leaders…but very little acceptance of how hard that can be.”

The problem with pushing yourself

A pressure to “be strong” manifests slightly differently for men and women, Olszko suggests, with male leaders more often under societal pressure to appear successful and powerful, while women are pushed to hide their emotions lest they find themselves labeled overdramatic or even hysterical. Blocking out the need to experience negative emotions simply forces them into other channels, she says, whether that’s burnout, ill health, loading stress onto employees or one’s family, or using alcohol and other substances to find release. 

Simply changing the way we talk to ourselves, in those private mental conversations we all have, can make a huge difference to personal wellbeing, and have knock-on effects, she says.

“Self compassion creates this space where it’s ok to feel all these emotions. It’s ok that I feel shit today, and it’s ok that I don’t have a solution,” Olszko says. Facing those emotions quickly is a sign of your strength as a leader, and can make you more empathetic towards other people, she says: “If you don’t allow yourself to experience difficulty, if there is no space for you to be vulnerable, then you usually don’t allow others to experience that either.”

Easy to learn, suprisingly hard to do

To demonstrate the impact of self-compassion, Olszko led me through a meditation via Skype. The person meditating is instructed to think of someone they love, and concentrate the force of their good wishes and positive thoughts on that person. There was also a repeated phrase, or mantra, to “say” in one’s mind, wishing the person peace and happiness. This is very easy to do when picturing a partner or child, a parent or dear friend.

Then Olszko asked me to expand the thought to a wider circle, including friends, relatives, and colleagues. Still, this wasn’t hard. Next she asked me to focus on an even wider group, including strangers, people I might see on the way to work or on the news. Still, pretty easy. 

Finally she asked me to direct the force of that love, and the words of encouragement and praise, to myself. Even though by that point I’d worked out what was coming, the imperative was so difficult and surprising that I burst into tears.  

Do-it-yourself self-compassion

For those without access to coaching, there’s a way to try out self-compassion and get a taste of its potential power. Olszko suggests three steps: Data-gathering, dipping a toe, and then gentle immersion. The process is spread over a couple of weeks, but doesn’t have to stop there. 

  1. Become aware of your inner dialogue: Write down any moments when you notice how you’re talking to yourself, as well as how the thought makes you feel. Olszko says that making physical notes is more effective than simply trying to mentally record such moments. After a week, you’ll have a tangible record of your inner monologue.  
  2. Take a self-compassion break. We all experience difficult emotions. During such an experience (or immediately after, for example if the emotional moment happens in a meeting) take a minute to sit with the feeling, acknowledge it, and admit that it’s ok to be experiencing the emotion. (The concept of “common humanity”—reminding oneself that, at the very moment you’re feeling something, thousands of others are feeling the same thing across the world—can help us escape the “suffering bubble,” Olszko suggests.)
  3. Develop a mantra. This can be simple—”I’ve got your back” or “It’s ok”— or something more nuanced. The key to the mantra is that it should be the thing you would say to comfort a close friend, or a child. In moments of stress, try to say those words, internally, to yourself.

Some people will find the third step too difficult, at least to begin with. Our internal taskmasters, who admonish us to work harder and never slacken the pace, are powerful. In that case, Olszko suggests, deep breathing and touch—placing a hand on your chest or stomach—are also effective self-soothing techniques. 

This might not be the end of the journey, but it’s a strong beginning: Mindfulness is predicated on the idea that once a person has noticed what is happening, they’ve made the biggest step towards changing it. Olszko says that much earlier in her career as an actor she would get so stressed by castings that she could barely perform. Self-compassion would have transformed the experience, she says.

“Now, when I’m stressed, I go: ‘I’m stressed.’ It’s ok…I’m experiencing this,'” she recounts. “I don’t have to not be stressed. I’m just a human, and it’s fine.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Kristin Neff as a coach. This has now been changed.