Ambassador Charles A. Ray
In a crisis situation, whether its students rioting in the streets, or dealing with a visiting team of OIG inspectors, the leader who can maintain a calm demeanor inspires confidence, and more often than not, will weather the situation successfully.
A leader who is confident enough personally, and who trusts his or her followers, can stay in the balcony during a crisis; overlooking the ‘total battlefield’ to use a military metaphor, and give direction and guidance as needed. Exercising this kind of leadership allows your subordinates to develop the confidence to do more than they might originally think themselves capable of doing.
How do you go about developing the ability to maintain your composure, even when the walls are crumbling around you? Believe it or not, like any other skill, it can be learned, and perfected through practice.
One of the more effective ways to develop inner calm is through meditation. Not the lotus position, saffron robe, quiet room kind of meditation that is often portrayed in popular media; but the kind of meditation that can be done by anyone, at almost any time, and almost anywhere.
I could explain the historical background of meditation and outline the many benefits, but that will be the subject of a latter essay. For now, let me describe to you the program of mediation that I have used for over thirty years. I try to do a total of an hour of meditation each day – not in one session, but spread out over the day. After so many years of practice, I find that I can achieve a calm meditative state within seconds, but it took practice.
Here are three exercises I find especially useful, and recommend them for anyone who has to perform in a high stress job.
I start my meditation each morning after I finish my shower. Before getting out of the shower, I stand, back to the spigot, and let the warm water massage the base of my neck. Standing with my arms held loosely at my sides, I focus (the key here is focus, not concentrate) on the feel of the water striking my skin. I do this for 1 – 2 minutes, and it helps me start the day calm.
Exercise number two, recommended by Buddhist monk and scholar Rob Nairn, is called focus on the breath. This is one you can do while sitting at your desk, or while riding in a vehicle. Sit with your back straight, hands on your knees, and focus on the air going in and out of your nostrils as you breathe. Don’t worry if your mind wanders, let the other thoughts flit about for a few seconds, then gently pull your focus back to that air going in and out. Do this for about 30-45 seconds, three or four times a day.
Finally there is an exercise I call hearing sound without listening. This too can be done either in your office or when being transported. Sit relaxed, as in the breathing exercise, and focus your mind on the sounds around you. Don’t listen to them, or even try to identify them; just hear them. Do this for a minute or so, eventually stretching it to four or five minutes. You might be surprised at the sounds around you that you normally pay no attention to.
When you can do the breathing and hearing exercise well, try doing both. Don’t force it, or become discouraged if you find it difficult to keep your mind centered and focused on your objective. Like anything it takes practice.
In addition to helping you learn to remain calm regardless of what is going on around you, this kind of meditation will also sharpen your ability to process diverse strands of information inputs without becoming flustered. In short, it will make you a better leader.