Foundations of Leadership Presence: Mindfulness of Thoughts

Sep 14, 2017

I was driving home from a meeting recently after a long day of work. My partner who was in the car with me said,

“It doesn’t feel like you are here with me,”

To which I snapped, “I still have three more things to do when I get home – I’m thinking about them.”

His reply:  “Great, I’ll be present for both of us.”


This conversation served as a powerful reminder of how, even with all of the training I do in presence and mindfulness, it is so easy to get lost in thought and not pay attention to what is right in front of me.

I know I am not alone in this – especially in our 24/7 wired world where the distractions abound, being mindful of our thinking is difficult but a critical skill for leaders to develop.

But, what does it mean to be “mindful of our thoughts?”

Why is it important?

And how do I do it?

What does it mean to be mindful of our thoughts?

At a very basic level being mindful of our thoughts means paying attention to the steady stream of thoughts that runs through our minds. You can do it now – just notice the next thought that pops into your mind, and the next one, and the next one. People often confuse the idea of being mindful with stopping their thinking. While better attention and focus may be an ultimate outcome of being mindful of your thoughts it isn’t the starting place. We start by just noticing.

Over time and with ongoing attention to our thoughts we start to notice patterns or habits to our thinking. These patterns of thinking take the form of core beliefs, assumptions, and stories that may be largely unconscious but have a significant impact for how we live and lead.

Why should I care about being mindful of my thoughts?

In answering this question one of my favorite quotes from Gandhi comes to mind;

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

The conditioned patterns of our thinking shape everything we do. They color the way we view the world, the way we feel, the words we speak, the actions we take and how we live and lead.  When we leave these conditioned patterns unexamined and unquestioned we remain trapped in outdated systems of thinking and beliefs that keep us stuck. This is true for teams and entire organizations as well.

This brings to mind another great quote, this one from Albert Einstein;

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Just yesterday I was with a client who has a very prestigious and important role in health care. One of the goals in our work together is to create more balance in his life so he can spend more time with his family, however every time he tries to leave work early, he gets caught up in the details of things on which his team should be working.

When we explored the thinking that was driving this behavior which was contrary to his stated goal (leaving work at a reasonable hour and spending time with his family), we found a deep-seated belief that his reputation was on the line if the document wasn’t perfect–and that he was the one who had to make it so. This thought has big implications for how this client leads and lives.

So how do I become mindful of my thoughts?

The starting point for developing greater mindfulness of your thoughts is to pay attention to your thoughts. It may sound a bit silly but simply developing the ability to observe your thoughts is like developing a muscle.  It takes practice.

This becomes particularly important when we are upset, stressed or angry – a simple practice developed by author Byron Katie is to use the following four question process:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or No, if no, move to 3)

  2. Can you absolutely know that its true? (Yes or No)

  3. How do you react, or what happens, when you believe that thought?

  4. Who would you be without the thought?


So when my client above paused and asked himself “Is it true?” his answer was, “yes, it feels true in the moment.”

But, when he considered the second question, “Can you absolutely know that it is true?” he had to admit that “no” he couldn’t possibly know it was true. In fact he works with many very talented people who might be able to achieve a good result if he let them. This willingness to question his belief opened up the possibility of a new way of thinking.

As we explored the question of “What happens when you believe that thought?” (that the document must be perfect, and that he must be the one to make it so) he recognized that he: works long hours missing time with his family, and takes projects away from people making them feel incapable rather than coaching them to succeed.

Finally, when we moved on to the last question “Who would you be without that thought?” he realized that by letting go of this thought he would be more present and available for his family as well as a better teacher, mentor and coach to his team.

This process of becoming mindful of and questioning his thinking is but a beginning.  Although our habits of thinking become wired into our nervous systems and take time and practice to change, just the acknowledgement that an old belief was driving him which might no longer be accurate was a start to a new way of leading and living.

What about you?

What are the patterns of your thinking and beliefs?  What thought patterns may keep you stuck or limit your effectives?

Are they true?  Can you be sure they are true?  How do you react when you are believing them?  And, who you would be without these thoughts?

In the words of British philosopher James Allen,

“You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts will take you”