It was many years ago that villagers in Downstream recall spotting the first body in the river. Some old timers remember how Spartan were the facilities and procedures for managing that short of thing. Sometimes, they say, it would take hours to pull 10 people from the river, and even then only a few would survive.

Though the number of victims in the river has increased greatly in recent years, the good folks of Downstream have responded admirably to the challenge. Their rescue system is clearly second to none: most people discovered in the swirling waters are reached within twenty minutes, many in less than ten. Only a small number drown each day before help arrives — a big improvement from the way it used to be.

Talk to the people of Downstream and they’ll speak with pride about the new hospital by the edge of the waters, the flotilla of rescue boats ready for service at a moment’s notice, the comprehensive health plans for coordinating all the manpower involved, and the large number of highly trained and dedicated swimmers always ready to risk their lives to save victims from the raging currents. Sure it costs a lot but, say the Downstreamers, what else can decent people do except to provide whatever is necessary when human lives are at stake.

Oh, a few people in Downstream have raised the question now and again, but most folks show little interest in what’s happening Upstream. It seems there’s so much to do to help those in the river that nobody’s got time to check how all those bodies are getting there in the first place. That’s the way things are, sometimes.

~A Fable by Dr. Donald B. Ardell

No matter what kind of leader you are – be it in a team, your community or an organization – you are required to make decisions that impact many stakeholders. In the above fable, how would you approach the problem of saving drowning people in the village? Is your default mode for problem solving to efficiently find the quickest solution and implement immediately or do you tend to stop to observe, gather data, and explore diverse perspectives before you contemplate the solution and consider its implementation?

According to the adaptive leadership framework (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky 2009), the most common cause of failure in leadership is due to treating adaptive challenges like technical problems. While technical problems can be solved using current know-how, structures and procedures, adaptive challenges cannot be recognized, understood or resolved using existing schemas, structures and procedures. Addressing adaptive challenges often requires changing existing assumptions, habits, and priorities.

A bigger problem, however, is recognizing that the current problem is adaptive. We get so used to seeing the environment in a certain way that when a problem appears, as it did for the Upstream people, there is an urgency to solve the problem with the fastest solution drawing from existing knowledge of the problem. Despite the best intentions of the people involved, in the absence of the ability to step back to see the problem with fresh eyes, one is likely to merely address the surface-level symptoms. In order to thrive in rapidly changing environments within which most businesses operate, it is vital for leaders to develop sophisticated ways of seeing, thinking, acting and relating. Hunter and Chaskalson aptly point out in the Handbook of the Psychology of Leadership, Change and Organizational Development (2013),

“A critical skill for adaptive leaders is the capacity to be mindful–to be present and aware of themselves, others and the world around them, to recognize in real-time their own perceptions (and their potential biases), their emotional reactions and the actions they need to take to address current realities more effectively.”

The focus of the remaining post is to examine ways in which mindfulness training, an intrinsic aspect of the Search Inside Yourself program, prepares leaders for adaptive challenges. More specifically, we will explore how mindfulness supports the adaptive leadership process involving three key activities: 1) observing events and patterns in your environment; 2) interpreting what you are observing with multiple perspectives; and 3) designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations.

If you are new to mindfulness, please read this article on mindfulness. For now, we will use Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness,

Mindfulness is “The awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

I. Attentional Training develops Observation

Our attentional capacity is limited. A 2010 Harvard study indicated that 47% of the time our mind wanders away from the task at hand (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). Further, if you have ever tried to stop to observe your mind, you will have discovered that in the absence of any kind of mental training, we have little control over our thoughts. (If you like, you can pause here to close your eyes and take a few seconds to observe your mind. Is there one thought or many; do the thoughts stay the same or change; do you have any control over your thoughts?).

Attentional training develops the ability to not only enhance your control over what to direct your attention to, but also the quality of your attention. For instance, do you need to narrowly focus on the implementation of a project or do you need to expand your focus beyond routine projects to a broader awareness of your environment – within the organization and outside the organization – to discover any changes or shifts that you should know about. As such mindfulness not only develops your ability to focus, even in the midst of chaos, but also cultivates meta-awareness, which is the ability to observe your thinking processes and to shift between narrow focus and open awareness. (For a review of the benefits of mindfulness as it pertains to attentional training effects on the brain, please see Tang et al 2015.)

II. Non-Judgmental Attitude facilitates Multiple Interpretations

Adaptive leaders are required to draw multiple interpretations based on their observations. In the absence of awareness, you are likely to draw interpretations that are most familiar.

“Most interpretative patterns are fashioned unconsciously and with lightning speed, throwing us into immediate action before we can ask ourselves, “Is my explanation for what is happening correct? What are some alternative hypotheses?” To practice adaptive leadership, you have to take time to think through your interpretation of what you observe, before jumping into action
(Heifetz et al 2009).”

In order to capture a wide array of perspectives, you will need to consider a wide array of sensory information, including what others are saying and doing, body language, emotions, and what is not being said. The ability to entertain multiple and seemingly contradictory perspectives without reactivity is a skill that can be developed with mindfulness. Further, body scan, a mindfulness practice, can also enhance one’s ability to get real time information about emotions and bodily cues in oneself and others. (Again, Tang et al 2015 provide a review of the neural mechanisms underlying bodily awareness that are enhanced by mindfulness.)

III. Creating Space for Skillful Interventions

We make 95% of our daily decisions unconsciously (Bargh and Chartrand 1999). Because of limited cognitive resources, our brain tries to automate everything, including problem solving. Even when we are not on autopilot, we are likely to draw from the pool of solutions that are comfortable and/or familiar to us, which limits our options and creativity to deal with adaptive challenges.

Within the Search Inside Yourself training, there is a particular mindfulness technique – Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect, and Respond – which trains people to stay open to perspectives emerging without giving in to the initial solutions or reactivity that is our default mode. It trains leaders to stay with the discomfort of not knowing and allowing multiple perspectives to emerge based on earlier observations and interpretations. This is a systematic process of stabilizing attention using the breath and then drawing on the wisdom of the body and emotions to notice old patterns and create the space for new solutions.

This technique practiced individually and collectively can create space for discussions that facilitate creativity rather than evoke reactivity in people. Even beginners who have tried this technique in my trainings often report seeing new perspectives in dealing with a challenge or the people involved. It works every time, all you have to do is do it, which is not always comfortable, because it asks of you to hold back your urge to solve the problem and stay with the discomfort of what ever is emerging without suppressing till you gain new insight. With practice, the process becomes faster and you start to connect the dots for new solutions much faster.

The above is a summary of the few ways in which the Search Inside Yourself’s mindfulness-based emotional intelligence training develops adaptive leadership skills. For more information about Search Inside Yourself or other mindfulness-based program for leadership development, please email me at

Meanwhile, please use the comments to share your insights and questions on this topic.

Are you able to recognize adaptive challenges in your personal and professional life?

What is your default mode to solve problems?

How do you develop your skills of observation, interpretation and problem solving?