When Things Fall Apart: A Way Forward With Mindfulness

All legal advisors
30 June 2020

Most of us do not take these difficult situations as a time to learn. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We are used to all kinds of escaping - all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it. There are so many ways that have been dreamed up to entertain us away from the moment.” (Paraphrased from Pema Chodron (2017) When Things Fall Apart.)

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, might seem to be talking of addiction, but in this blog I suggest that she is pointing to something very fundamental in human nature and something that also might be driving you to make decisions sub optimally and too quickly.

Leaders, lead.  And, when the world falls apart, leaders step up to set direction and find solutions.  If you’re a leader who has done this, these last four months, how was that for you?  Exhausting? Exhilarating? A wild ride? Bits of everything?

Pause for just a moment and consider that whilst you may have been well intentioned and your team might have expected you to be an heroic leader, what actually might have driven you is a desire to “run like crazy” from uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Before reading any further.  STOP.  Notice for just a minute the landscape of yourself.  Notice whether your fight or flight system has been activated by the recent challenges and how if you are activated, this can trigger you to FIX IT NOW.

The natural tendency is to want more certainty more quickly than is realistic.  Most of us hate ambiguity.  The effect of this is that it encourages us to believe we need to create the “new” normal way too early and so we make decisions based on our imaginings.  That is really dangerous.  For example, let’s say we jump to a conclusion about the forecasted economic recovery and we make staffing decisions.  We could lose talent, or we could cripple our cash reserves by acting too precipitously.  But that is what leadership is about right?  Making a judgement call about the future.

Yes, and, well, no.  Yes.  All organisations want a direction of travel and they rely on leadership to steer the “ship”.  But most leaders take on the challenge individually which can mean their personal fight or flight reactivity is what is driving the ship, not, as they’d like to believe, their cool headed, rational thinking.

The antidote is simple, but not easy.  Mindfulness is a way to become aware of how we are reactive in the face of difficulty and instead builds a steadfastness by developing a personal awareness of how we cope with circumstances that push our fixing button.  Then, allowing yourself more time and space to pause and take time before deciding, demanding, doing.  But most importantly, mindful leaders do not work alone.

In a recent field study I observed a leadership team as they considered a Doomsday Scenario, it was December 2019 so they may have been prescient.  As they worked together as a team, the most senior leader - but note, not THE leader - kept saying, “I don’t know!”.  As researchers, I counted, and she said it 12 times in 40 minutes.  That’s odd I thought, and I asked the others in the group what affect it had on them.  Unexpectedly despite having a deep sense of unease, the team loved it.  The effect on them was to be more creative, more generative, more participative, more engaged, more honest, more energetic, more innovative.  The adjectives just kept rolling out.  They all agreed that the resulting strategy was stronger and more credible because they had stayed with that uncomfortable feeling.

In short.  Leaders alone, you don’t have to know everything; you don’t have to fix everything.  When you find yourself rushing to fix: stop for a moment: are you running like crazy because you just can’t stand being uncomfortable?  A famous management writer, Karl Weick, says that the strongest act of leadership can be to say “don’t know” and inviting others to contribute makes the solutions stronger, better and more sustainable.



Written by Jenny Robinson:

Born in New Zealand, Jenny has built and run several successful companies and the commercial radio station she co-established when she was 18 years old continues to this day.  She came to the UK to pursue her career and became an equity Partner in Towers Perrin a global Consulting Firm.

After a magical early career, about 15 years ago, Jenny suffered a tragedy which caused her to spend almost a year poleaxed. Her rehabilitation back to a full life was through the madness of alpaca farming and learning mindfulness.  With her joie de vivre fully re-established, Jenny began to blend the “whole d*** lot” into a compelling package of leadership development, coaching and mentoring. 

Now, she runs her own UK-based consulting firm, which is currently engaged by the biggest bank, biggest healthcare provider, biggest insurer, a leading tech firm, a Hollywood film studio and a global children’s charity. 

She works on leadership development and as a mindfulness coach to senior executives. 

Jenny, along with Dr Phil Renshaw is the author of Coaching On the Go: How to lead your team effectively in 10 minutes a day published by FT/Pearson (2019).

For further details, please visit http://www.mindfulnessathinton.uk/.


Jenny recently participated in a joint webinar with MD of Arken.legal, Dave Newick: Less Stress, More Strategy - Mastering Mindfulness during COVID-19. View the recording here.