The sun is shining, it is warm and people are out having fun. We forget the long winter and are soaked in a feeling of goodness. Life is good. It is wonderful to be alive. Gratitude is the core of this experience. If you can pause, soak up that gratitude and generate clear associated thoughts, this experience will blossom and glow.
Last week I joined 180 senior women of influence and stayed to share in the panel discussions and presentations. The topic was Resilience and its relationship to influence. The event was excellent. The speakers shared inspiring insights and stories of women engaging creatively with leadership and applying resilience to secure influence.
While more time was spent looking at the heartening development of women in influence and the opportunities to grow both resilience and influence, some were captured by resentment. It was tangible how fast the mood could swing from enthusiasm, hope and success to one of resentment.
Nearly 100 years ago Ambrose Bierce said “the present is that part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope”. While our bodies can only exist in the present, our minds can time travel. The way our thoughts gravitate into the future or the past, trigger a flood of related emotion. We barely stop to consider this consequence of thinking. The price is suffering.
Suffering can be drastically reduced through a few simple insights:
- The future is the realm of hope or fear
When we cast our minds into the future we depart reality for fantasy. When we feel confident and inspired, the future is indeed full of hope. We imagine opportunities and solutions. We are filled with excitement and enthusiasm. We can envision a better way. We are inspired. We draw people into our vision and muster the energy and commitment to execute. Execution has to happen in the present.
The skilled leader holds the vision in mind and heart while staying furiously focused on executing in the present. If we spend too much energy in the future we are ineffective dreamers. Too much energy in the present and we can lose the purpose.
The human mind, when directed to the future, has a tendency to scan for risks. We ask what can go wrong. Before we know it we are encased in a flood of worries about what might happen or what could go wrong. While distracted by these worries, fear floods into the body, triggering heightened threat processing and floods of anxiety. Altered threat processing is the foundation of anxiety disorders and much mental illness.
Leadership skill demands clarity on this insight. Leaders must force their thinking into the future, cultivating optimism and hope. If worry emerges, take action right now. Worry and fear will destroy your effectiveness and feed anxiety into your people.
2. The past is the domain of disappointment, anger or gratitude
When we cast our minds into the past once again we depart reality for what we think we have remembered. When confident, loved and secure about our actions, the remembered past is likely to be a zone of contentment, gratitude and serenity. We know it is past, has contributed to where we are right now but cannot be changed.
Skillful leaders understand how to tell good stories. They can go into the past and create a story of learning, growth and success. They are quick to say thank you and to celebrate what has been. With gratitude and acceptance of the past, we can liberate our energy to return to the present with renewed focus. This is the power of gratitude. Each time you remember with gratitude, your memory is updated to a more positive spin on the past.
Once again, the human mind is wired to ruminate on things that might not have gone well. One comment or one error by self or other can rapidly become a focus of rumination. Think of rumination as a process of bringing up past experience and thinking it over and over like a cow chewing cud. The target of rumination is almost always disappointment in our actions or anger at others. These are very dangerous traps for leadership and life.
If we focus our rumination on something we have done bad, we become self critical. Disappointment, sadness and regret pour into our emotional body. Depression can be described as the repeated expression of “everything bad always happens to me” in dozens of variations. Rumination on our past misfortune sucks away energy and leaves one spinning in these self destructive loops.
On the flip side, the mind can switch to the actions of others. We become critical and place blame on another. Anger, resentment and frustration flood into our bodies and we seek redress, revenge and grievances. This was the “switch” that infected the conference. One moment the energy was hopeful and creative. The next we were caught up in expressing the frustration and anger that women have been “held back.”
While we ruminate on the awful actions of others we are unaware of how our voice and face change to become bitter and hard. Not only have we disabled ourselves, but we have a toxic effect on those we are trying to lead.
If leaders can see the mental switching that allows gratitude to crumble down the slippery slope of disappointment and anger, they can hold the high road. Take the best of the past and park it with gratitude. Then come back to execution in the present.
3. The present is the source of influence, joy and wellbeing
Influence is sourced in resilience. When we are calm, focused and connected with the activity and people in the present moment we are at our best. When in flow, brain scanning shows the thinking mind is quiet. To enter this state we have to generate a calm, relaxed state. We must balance delicately between gratitude for the previous moment and hope for the next. We engage positively and focus on the flow of now.
Flow is a very high energy experience. There is no value in wasting thoughts or emotions about what is past or what might come. All resources are needed right now. This is the moment in which excellence, influence and power arise.
To achieve this, we have to train like an athlete, learning to master our body and physical energy, to guide and learn from emotion, and to hear and direct our thoughts.
The more you can function in the present, the more successful you will be and the more gratitude will flow naturally into your life.