A beacon in the mindfulness mist

Not all books on psychology’s hottest topic are created equal, finds Liz Mellon

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Let me start this review with a confession. I have always had a soft spot for anthropologists.

It seems to me that the quiet practice of observing in order to understand, without interfering and thus changing what is being observed, has to be one of life’s greater capabilities. And Deborah Rowland uses her anthropological background to great effect in the research underpinning this book. There is a danger that her work will get lost among all the books published on mindfulness in the last five years (there are over 23,000 titles out there today, not forgetting the colouring books).

I hope it doesn’t. Why? First, because this builds on Rowland’s earlier research, where she discovered four actions or behaviours practised by successful leaders of change. This is important because her current research is not jumping on any mindfulness bandwagon. In Sustaining Change (2008), she and Malcolm Higgs also found two complementary inner states – self-awareness and egoless intention – that accompanied the four behaviours. Still Moving now expands those inner states from two to four, through more empirical research, including stepping back into the corporate world to run two large change projects herself. In addition, her research moves beyond understanding how mindfulness can support the individual leader by reducing stress and enhancing wellbeing, to drawing a direct link between mindfulness and the successful leadership of change. This takes us beyond self-help and into the highly useful realm of organizational transformation.

The key finding is that mindfulness alone – staying calm, connected and resourceful in challenging circumstances – is insufficient. It has to be married with the capacity to see the world systemically. This is not systems thinking, but perceiving and understanding a large complex system, especially the ability to tune into the emotional climate of an organization. The book alternates between stepping back to the original four behaviours, and unpacking and linking the two mindfulness capabilities (staying present and curious, and intentional responding) and the two systemic ones (tuning into the system, and acknowledging the whole) to those behaviours. Rowland combines the art of doing with the art of being – both essential, in my view, to leading, let alone leading change.

I was particularly intrigued by the two systemic capabilities, because these require the leader to use the emotion they are feeling – not as an individual reflection of their own personal drama – but as a clue to interpret how the system is operating or even projecting on to them. I was pleased to see a core finding from my own leadership research – the capacity of being comfortable in discomfort (Inside the Leader’s Mind, 2011) – reflected in Rowland’s finding that systemic insight requires the leader to be comfortable with not being comfortable. The more that research uncovers and reconfirms important fundamentals, the better the guide we can offer leaders to be at their best.

This book is fun to read, beautifully written and packed full of business stories.

Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change

Deborah Rowland