As a faculty member and Senior True North Fellow for the 1440 Multiversity Leadership Center's flagship True North Leadership program (to be held October 17-22, 2021 at the 1440 campus), Michelle Maldonado guides participants through inner work that helps them lead with authenticity and emotional intelligence. The founder and CEO of Lucenscia, a firm dedicated to human flourishing and mindful business transformation, recently shared her insights and inspiration with 1440.
1440: It's said that everyone is a leader, yet stepping up and into leadership can be scary. How can managers encourage individual contributors to show more leadership?
Michelle Maldonado: The pandemic has created multiple disruptors. As a leader, you're trying to figure out what to do when your world is upside down, while also understanding how you can help others lead themselves and their teams.
It's really important for all of us to get comfortable with the unknown, and to feel vulnerability or afraid. You can model that it's okay to not know all the answers right now. Think about how we traditionally run and operate businesses. We plan and create strategic models and long-term timelines. But now, a lot of those strategic plans have to be short-term because everything is so dynamic. Reassuring people that there is a safety net in the midst of the uncertainty is important.
Often, when the economy or market circumstances shift, there is an opportunity for internal reinvestment. So, another thing we can do is to encourage people to invest in their own development.
1440: What, exactly, is a mindful leader and how do you become one? Why is it important?
The definition I use for mindfulness is borrowed from the Mindful Nation UK report (a 2015 policy document published on behalf of the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group). That definition involves paying attention to the present moment, including the mind, body and surrounding environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.
Mindfulness as a leader weaves in more context. Yes, you're paying attention to what's happening right now. But a leader also has to be aware of what impact current actions have on the future. How do you stay fully in the present moment, knowing that you're planning and preparing for what's next?
It's not just about the organization. If you think about awareness in three concentric circles, the innermost being self, the next being others, and the third being ecosystems and surrounding environments, you see that the self travels through to all of the other circles. Mindful leaders are fully present and aware of our thoughts and what's showing up in our bodies, so that we can be more intentional and skillful in how we interact.
As leaders, if we don't bring more substantive awareness to the internal world, we are not leading with the level of clarity that creates cohesion, coherence and psychological safety in our organizations. All of that, together, helps to create the conditions for belonging and unity at work.
1440: The pandemic has affected people differently. How can leaders stay open to the varying needs of their organizations, communities and families, while also getting the support they need?
Michelle Maldonado: There is a saying that we're all weathering the storm in the same ocean. A lot of people end that by saying that we're all in the same boat, so we sink or swim together. But in reality, not all boats are equipped equally or equitably.
When we think about how to ensure that the needs of work teams, families or other communities are met, we must consider that each person brings a different set of circumstances. The pandemic is also exacerbating a lot of what has always happened in U.S. society. We're facing social and racial issues, health issues, and education issues. None of it is new, but it is all at the surface at the same time. Sometimes, this makes it feel impossible to clearly and concretely plan for the future.
So, what do we do? Varying organizational needs sometimes can feel like they're in conflict with the needs of leaders, employees, even families and communities. If nothing else, the pandemic has really opened the door for us to think about ecosystems. When we make decisions, we have to think about the ripples across those ecosystems. We need to be creative and curious about the support and resources we provide not only for performance-related matters, but also for mental health and well-being along with new ways to create work-life harmony.
If we really think about what "normal" was before, we know that it wasn't healthy for many people and it certainly wasn't equitable. There's no going back. We now have an incredible opportunity to think about ecosystems differently and redefine what support and resources look like.
1440: We are all gifted with 1,440 minutes each day. How are you spending your daily 1,440 minutes differently, as a result of the pandemic?
Michelle Maldonado: I've gotten really intentional about replenishing, nurturing, and resetting my energies. It's good to start there because whatever we have in our own well is what we're pulling from to give to others.
I'm spending a lot more time outside. We have a wonderful national park with a waterfall nearby, and so I frequently hike along that waterfall. If you have some breaks throughout the day, instead of staying at the computer or jumping on a social call, take time to put your face in the sunshine.
I'm also more focused on nutrition and mindful eating. Pre-pandemic, I was just eating before my next call or my next meeting or my next trip to the airport. Now, I'm very intentional about sitting down, eating slowly, tasting the food, noticing the texture and the aromas. I am not on my phone. I am not in front of my computer. I'm not standing up.
1440: How does stress impact our ability to lead well?
Michelle Maldonado: Dr. Kelly McGonigal has this wonderful Ted Talk on stress. Here's what she says the science suggests: The way we think about stress can change the body's response to it.
Dr. McGonigal's research recommends that we reframe our perception of stress and anxiety. Try acknowledging it. Think, "This is not a bad thing. This is simply my body's way of summoning energy for what I'm about to do next." This difference in how you receive and perceive that stress triggers a positive domino effect in the body's physical response.
I'm not suggesting that we don't acknowledge what's happening in our country and the world, or that what shows up in our micro-ecosystems and organizations isn't real. What I am suggesting is that in acknowledging what is present, we also can infuse the present moment with opportunity.
We bring the stress that we're carrying into work, even when we're not aware. It can exhaust us. It can cloud our judgement, and it clouds our ability to see challenges as opportunities for our organizations and teams. And all of that can impact not only morale, but also culture, climate and performance.
1440: Looking back at the leadership challenges of 2020, what would you encourage leaders to let go of? Or do more of?
Michelle Maldonado: The pandemic has allowed social conditions to come to the surface all at once. What we've seen in the U.S., since the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbrey and Breonna Taylor, is that what's in society is in work, as well. What happens in the personal happens in the professional.
As leaders, one of the best things we can do is to stop otherizing or "breaking," which is a term used by john a. powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. Breaking is how we put people in categories. There's us and there's them. We do this outside and inside of work, and if we step back and look, we know that this debilitates society and debilitates organizations.
When people feel like they belong, when there is psychological safety, there's so much that can happen—innovation and connection and higher-level performance and resilience and engagement. This is the first step to creating cultures of belonging and unity. If we fuse this with compassion, which is a must-have inside and outside of the workplace, it is very powerful.
Extending compassion to ourselves and to others allows us to do what powell calls "bridging." Bridging is creating that belonging and unity to help people to feel safe, to take risks, to raise new ideas. When people feel comfortable inside of their environments, you start to see a real shift.
1440: As we move beyond diversity to racial equity in the workplace, how do you guide leaders working to build racially equitable cultures?
Michelle Maldonado: First, an anecdote to explain my perceptions around this. I'm a former corporate/technology lawyer. In my first semester of law school, we took a two-credit course in ethics. Then, we barely talked about ethics again. That's how I feel we often treat things like diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. We treat them as stand-alone, siloed topics.
Diversity alone doesn't solve the problem. That's why we're now talking about what is beyond equality. We're looking more at equity. But this goes beyond even that. This is about belonging and unity.
When you think about diversity and inclusion, these are tactics to produce an end result. The end result we want is an organization, a community, a nation of people who feel like they belong. And, we want unity. We can't just focus on belonging and community. We have communities everywhere, but there's not always unity among them.
I also think we need an integrated approach to leadership training—not simply labeling separate diversity and inclusion training. Even in titling these efforts, we marginalize them by making them separate and apart from what leaders do. Teach leaders what we expect from them. Show them how to lead for everyone. This integrated, interdependent, interconnected weaving into the fabric of operations and leadership is important if we are going to make sustainable systemic change.
1440: Leaders need to keep growing, too. How can they better themselves and prepare for the future?
Michelle Maldonado: Personal-professional development is important, but today's leaders also need to expand beyond being tactical and process-oriented.
Before the pandemic, there were already predictions that by 2025 a certain percentage of jobs would be lost to technology. Initial indications show that the net loss is lower than the net gain, but there will still need to be reskilling and role repurposing. Much of that will require fine-tuned people skills, emotional intelligence and compassion.
So yes, think about how your role will transform over the next few years. But also, expand your practical skills in parallel with your people skills. Everyone has worked with that one person who left scorched earth behind them. Maybe they were a big revenue producer or got the big deals done, but nobody wanted to work with them. That kind of behavior is not sustainable, and it's not good for organizations or the ecosystem. Leaders can proactively train themselves to be more emotionally intelligent.
1440: What can remote leadership look like?
Michelle Maldonado: This is a tough one, because part of leading is making that human connection. It's that in-person act of stopping by somebody's office, checking in on them, taking a walk, having a cup of coffee in the break room. You can still call someone or have a video chat, but because everybody is on virtual platforms, there is some fatigue.
It's also hard because everybody has very full plates. We need to be creative in our quest to make people feel supported and connected, without creating more exhaustion. One of the things we can ask people is, "How are you doing, really?" Another important one, is "What can I do, as a leader of this team, to help support you?" A lot of people are afraid to ask those questions, because they're afraid of criticism or they're afraid of being vulnerable. But I think that the best way, in these times, is to simply ask the question.
1440: What are you looking forward to next at 1440 Multiversity?
Michelle Maldonado: If health and travel conditions permit, I hope that we can resume the True North Leadership program in the fall. It's one of my favorite collaborations, because it is so life-changing and transformative for leaders across industries. I have a Disrupting Workplace Bias workshop at the 1440 Leadership Center that I look forward to hosting, as well.
I think those two opportunities, together, are great reflections of how 1440 is trying to help cultivate leadership wealth for everyone, across industries.