Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Being Present and Mindful

Vernon in snow with moon and stars shilouette
(Photo: Justin Vernon)

I stumbled across the Leadership Freak's blog post "A Realistic Approach to Being Present." In the blog, Dan Rockwell sparked a long series of thoughts. 

There’s a few good things in there for sure, but I really want to hit on the idea of being present and being mindful.

In times of stress, and I think we can all agree we’re in a time of abnormal stress right now, no matter our personal situation, it can be tough to be present. There are all the normal distractions, and there are more added to them right now…worry over the future, questions like when can I go to the office again, what will I do if an employee, friend, or loved one catches COVID-19, how will I do my job this season with all the changing guidelines and targets, and more… even figuring out how to work virtually, with or without kids and a family, is a huge distraction. In the midst of all this it’s really, really easy to start tuning things out, and sometimes even important things get pushed aside in our unconscious efforts to regain some level of mental calm.

Paul Gleason once said that mindfulness was the most important character trait for a leader to have. Think about that… one of the most revered fire people in the business said mindfulness was the most important trait a leader could have. He defined mindfulness in that interview as: “That ability to take in your surroundings and sort out the important stuff, to be aware, to be vigilant. Then take all that information, put it together, and see if it makes sense to you. Another part of that mindfulness concept is the ability to relate to all types of people and see what they can contribute.”

Ted Putnam was on board too. Remember him? He’s the one that refused to sign the South Canyon/Storm King fire report because he felt it ignored the human component of what happened. Another well-respected fire leader. He said: “I feel the single best way to improve firefighting awareness, thinking and decision making is for firefighters to learn mindfulness meditation. … we need mindfulness to unclog mental habits so we become more aware, better thinkers.” 

Another definition of mindfulness that I appreciate is the one given at Mindful.org: “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” (emphasis mine) So mindfulness and being present are kind of tied together, right? And being present helps us to cope with seemingly overwhelming situations? That’s good to know.

I know we’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness recently, and over the years as well. My first exposure to the idea was in 2005, at a Human Factors conference in Missoula, MT, listening to Ted Putnam speak on the topic. Recently it’s become a buzzword and hot topic in the USFS. But it wasn’t until the last year or so that I started to think about it more seriously. Over the winter I read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn and wrote a discussion guide for it as part of the 2020 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program’s Professional Reading List. There are other good books on the topic as well. I started Fully Present by Susan Smalley and Dianna Winston a few weeks ago, and it’s good so far.

About a week into the stay at home orders, I started a daily mindfulness meditation practice, taking ten minutes or so a day to try and get better at being mindful. 40-ish days in, and I think it’s working… at the very least I feel I’m more aware of what’s distracting me, which is half the battle.

So why am I writing this now? I think it’s a good time to point out that leadership, at all levels, is a nuanced and sometimes complex thing. Yeah, at its core, some parts are simple, but the deeper you dive the more there is that you can work on. And the longer I do this, I think it’s critically important that leaders especially, but all of us really, be present and mindful, and view it as a life skill and leadership tool. It’s been useful to me, and if it’s helping me, then it can probably help others as well.

Now more than ever, with some folks entering fire season already approaching burnout, we need to do what we can to help ourselves and those around us if we want to succeed, professionally and personally. If mindfulness is a tool that will help us be successful, why shouldn’t we try it?

Mindfulness isn’t the topic most folks want to reach for when promoting leadership at their level. I get that. When I recently polled one of my groups to see what leadership books they’d want to read as a team, not single person picked the mindfulness book from the list. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I feel that if we discount mindfulness as a tool for making ourselves better leaders, better people, we’re really doing a disservice to those we lead, and those we follow. So I challenge all of you, as we go through what could be one of the most mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging fire seasons we’ll see in our careers, to spend some time thinking about being present and mindful. If you’re a reader, pick up a book on the topic. If you’re not, maybe try an audio book, or look up some podcasts or TED-style talks on the subject. If you’re curious about the practice, there are quite a few apps out there to try… find one that works for you and commit to a week of giving it a try.

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

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