Mindfulness practice is popular these days and is about developing the ability to observe one’s feelings and thoughts as they flow into present reality. The Dalai Lama refers to this observant awareness as the “fundamental innate wisdom of clear light.” The ability to observe oneself in action is fundamental to being emotionally intelligent. Many people are now applying mindfulness to work in the business world.

However, being mindful and self-aware is a state of “not doing.” How can we apply self-awareness in a very practical behavioral way to leadership? What skills related to self-awareness can be effectively employed in organizational life?

First, whether you meditate or not, the key is to be “present” anytime, anywhere, no matter what you are doing. Pay attention in the moment to the feelings you experience in your body, the emotions, bodily sensations, and the thoughts and judgments going through your mind. This is rich data that can inform your choices about decision making and how you communicate with others, how you handle yourself in the moment. You can practice being present and get better at it over time. Y cuanto mejor te vuelvas, más consciente te volverás.

Una mayor conciencia de uno mismo tiene ramificaciones prácticas en la vida organizacional. Si su deseo como líder es inscribir a su gente en la colaboración para crear un entorno de aprendizaje, es importante estar consciente de los pensamientos y sentimientos que pueden desencadenarlo para causar resultados negativos. El estrés puede conducir a conductas deficientes en la comunicación, a menos que sea lo suficientemente consciente de sí mismo como para saber cómo lo está afectando en la forma en que habla con los que le rodean. Entonces podrá gestionarlo adecuadamente.

In this regard, it is important to distinguish between responding and reacting.

When you react, you are out of control, a victim of your feelings, thoughts and attitudes. When you respond, you responsibly choose the outcome you want and you choose what you say and how you say it to be appropriate for the desired outcome (regardless of what feelings, thoughts or attitudes you may have).

The ability to respond rather than react is a crucial factor in creating a safe and trusting work environment. For example, how can employees feel free to express their innovative ideas or constructive suggestions if the CEO is defensive or aggressive?

So, very practically, you must be sure to listen and acknowledge, no matter what you are thinking or feeling about comments with which you disagree. In the heat of the moment, decide what type of communication would be appropriate for the situation. Then, make sure that what you say leads to a positive outcome for both you and the other person or audience.

Make sure that what you say leads to a positive outcome for both you and the other person or audience.

This means, make sure your tone of voice, facial expressions and body postures are congruent with the message and the outcome you want to achieve. This is emotionally intelligent communication. But it would not be possible without self-awareness.

Paying attention to these elements of yourself is crucial to your success as a leader. I remember a CFO in Silicon Valley who instilled fear in everyone, which caused employees to avoid him even when they had important information to give him. Why were they scared? He never smiled! And he didn’t realize this. Once he recognized this habitual gesture, he started smiling and suddenly everyone found him much more approachable and easy to deal with. Colleagues said, “He’s a different person now!”

Besides being present and attentive, feedback is the most important way one can develop self-awareness. A senior executive at a global bank had a reputation for being a cold, insensitive bully and, criminally, none of her managers had given her feedback on her impact. Her behavior was causing massive organizational problems affecting thousands of employees. She spent a very shocking and painful day listening to the verbatim comments of colleagues around her. After this transformative experience, her personal assistant, whom she reduced to tears on a regular basis, called me to ask me what magic I had used to change her. She had gone to the office the day after the feedback session and the executive hugged her and apologized for all the pain she had caused. And the culture of polarizing fear and cross-divisional communication breakdowns began to disappear to the benefit of the entire global division of the bank. No magic: only powerful feedback had caused this shift in self-awareness.

A Vietnamese general manager of a biotech company in Silicon Valley told me that reliability was his most important value. When he first entered the hotel room for his feedback session, he checked to see if the door to the adjacent room was locked and looked out the window. When asked why he did this, he said it was to check for possible escape routes. When he heard the comments, he was surprised that most of the people he addressed said he was not to be trusted. It was suggested to him that he was no longer in the war. This huge blind spot and its ramifications for his leadership disappeared when he became aware of how the conditioning of his past had been determining his behavior in the present.

Of course, these are extreme examples of feedback and a learning organization is one in which giving and receiving feedback is encouraged on a regular basis from the top down to generate learning and growth.

The leader sets the tone for a feedback-rich culture and it is the leader’s job to minimize fear. Co-creation and collaboration across the organization only happens when you can trust that it is okay to admit mistakes, as well as take unpopular positions, critique ideas, policies and strategies of others, especially senior leaders. This requires the leader to be aware of his or her own defensiveness, insecurity and so forth and welcome feedback rather than repress and punish. A leader who is self-aware and employs that awareness effectively in the service of his organization tends to be compassionate, empathetic, humble, authentic and can laugh at himself. This endears him to people and inspires them to do their best.

A high degree of self-awareness in leaders can make a big difference in organizational culture and performance.