Slow down to speed up

Date published: 21 December 2015

Mindfulness is fast becoming the new “must have” for executives to support self-regulation, promote effective decision making and protect themselves from toxic stress says new report from Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

The report, titled CFOs and the c-suite - leadership fit for the 21st century, challenges the assumption that traditional leadership training is sufficient to prepare the c-suite for today's environment. The report puts forward the case for mindful leadership, supporting sustainable behavioural shifts, enabling better decision-making and preventing damaging corporate scandals.

Jamie Lyon, head of corporate sector at ACCA, explains: “Businesses are now operating in a brave new world where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. Technology in particular has increased the pace of change exponentially and we have seen more volatility and ambiguity in the past eight years than in the three decades before that. In this new environment, the ability to focus on what is important has become a prized commodity for the c-suite.”

Palma Michel, co-author of the report and mindful leadership advisor, says: “In order to thrive in today’s VUCA world, applying yesterday’s business frameworks, solutions and behaviours to tomorrow’s problems won’t work. The challenges are new, and they require a new set of leadership skills.

“The increase in competition, risk and uncertainty that comes with this new reality can often lead to caveman-like fight-flight-freeze reactions for many senior executives. When people are faced with change or feel under pressure, there is a tendency to fall into fear-based reactivity instead of being able to respond according to what the situation requires.”

Jamie Lyon believes a change in approach could help stamp out the kind of questionable decision making that leads to a culture of bad business practice: “It is precisely in those stressful moments when leaders risk falling into a fight-flight-freeze-reaction. We see it so many times when businesses are faced with pressure to grow or compete. The decisions taken by those in charge lead to crisis or controversy. From HBOS, Toshiba and Tesco through to most recently Volkswagen, the roll call of scandals is long and on-going.

“As pressure builds and it comes to the crunch, values and best intentions so often go out of the window and behaviour is driven by a short-sighted fear-based reaction.”

To combat this, Palma Michel suggests mindfulness: “Research in neuroscience suggests that mindfulness training has the power to alter our brain structure for the better. In particular, to change our unconscious, fear-based response to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.”

This, according to Jamie Lyon, leads to a capacity for better self-management.

“Culture comes from the top. Using mindfulness, c-suite executives can ensure they act with integrity even when under great pressure and this authenticity of behaviour will trickle down through the organisation.”

Palma Michel says that mindfulness allows CFOs to manage their inner landscape and get into a different relationship to their thoughts, emotions and stress.

“Mindfulness trains the ability to stay focused and create mental space as well as increase awareness of self, others and the broader system c-suite executives operate in. This allows them to skilfully respond to what any given situation requires.

“Paying attention to what is happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment allows leaders to take a step back, become aware of what is happening and make better choices as to the course of action they decide to take. It may initially seem a totally alien concept when applied to the corporate world but simple mindfulness practices can be used by business leaders to enhance the decision making process, especially in the midst of particularly turbulent circumstances.”

According to Palma Michel, in addition to delivering better decision-making, mindful leadership is also vital when it comes to unlocking the full potential of the modern workforce: "Increased awareness of others, especially when it comes from a compassionate place allows CFOs to become more effective relationship managers. Being able to align people behind a common purpose and getting them to do the things that are required, not just because they are told to, but because they actually care about the people, enables CFOs to be more inspiring, wise and effective leaders."

Jamie Lyon summarises by pointing to the future: "This style of leadership will become increasingly important as the next generation of professionals arrive in the workplace bringing with them a more collaborative, community-based approach to work.”

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