Fatal Distraction: The Next Next Thing

“The art of managing and leading comes down to a simple thing . . . determining and facing reality about people, situations, products, and then acting decisively and quickly on that reality. Not hoping, not waiting for the next plan.” ~ Jack Welch

Bookstore business racks are replete with literature promoting the latest leadership approaches and management fads.  Apart from the narrative and analytical samples that distinguish the hierarchical from the more transformational models, a representative portion of therapeutic and holistic health studies recommend a paradigm of leadership called mindfulness.

According to the Journal of the American Psychological Association (APA) “mindfulness” refers to a psychological state of concentration that promotes moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment (July/August, 2012). Endorsed by multi-national corporations and numerous influential personalities such as Rupert Murdoch, Opra Winfrey, Tim Ryan, Jeff Weiner, Mark Bertolini, and Bill George, mindfulness is hyped as one of the “Top 10” contemporary global trends. In fact, although the spiritual and emotional efficacy of the fashionable buzzword has actually been noted by mystics, philosophers, and faith-based personalities for millennia, JWT Worldwide, one of the world’s largest marketing communications brands, dubbed 2014 as “The Year of Mindfulness.”

The current fascination with mindfulness may be traced to a growing anxiety and resentment of technology’s desensitizing tendencies. According to the National Science Foundation a normal individual’s brain produces between 35,000-50,000 thoughts each day. Desiring control, more authentic awareness, and personal engagement with such an array of uncertainties, proponents of mindfulness suggest that leaders should cultivate the ability to validate contextual interpretations on direct experience. Rather than rely on ambiguous management reports and/or computer-generated analytic elucidations mindful leaders avoid reclusive-based management styles by seeking clarification, validation, and intuitive support through firsthand channels of observation and intimate feedback loops. In so doing, such leaders are in a better position to mindfully heed the well-known adage by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-556) to “pay strict attention to actions in the present moment.”

A recent diet cola commercial distributed by PepsiCo, the second largest food/beverage company in the world, wonderfully illustrates the vulnerability of mindfulness to unanticipated distractions. According to the $60 billion corporation that owns 22 separate brands, each achieving in excess of $1 billion in annual retail sales, Pepsi NEXT is their most significant promotional launch in years. In fact, the company believes that the full cola taste of their new diet drink is so extraordinary that it can distract even the most mindful of consumers.

PepsiCo’s 31-second TV commercial begins with a young mother attentively videotaping her infant son sitting on their family room carpet. The intimacy is suddenly disrupted when her husband arrives with two cartons of Pepsi Next under his arm. “I’ve discovered the most impressive thing in my entire life,” he proudly announces! “Pepsi Next has real cola taste with 60% less calories!”

The husband’s jubilant endorsement prompts his wife to jump to her feet and refocus her concentration. Instead of videotaping her infant son the camera’s lens is now fixed on the cartons of Pepsi Next!  “Are you getting this, honey?” the husband asks. “It’s going viral!”  In the background, however, the forgotten infant begins to do a number of increasingly extraordinary stunts. Unfortunately, although he leaps to his feet, begins to strum a guitar, walk on his hands, and dances, the child is understandably irritated that his parents have been distracted by the cola’s advent. The advertising message is brilliantly clear: Pepsi Next is so amazing that nothing else can compare!

Like the family room, the contemporary boardroom is plagued by fatal distractions. At work, business leaders, office staffs, and employees commonly suffer from e-mail apnea as a result of simultaneous engagement with diverse realities. At play, Starbuck customers collectively fuse their social enjoyment of mid-day Java predilections with newsprint, noise canceling headphones, visual, digital, and instant multi-media messaging on their ubiquitous Smart Phones.  As a result, the incessant intrusion of so many stimuli impedes humanity’s ability for mindfulness by relentlessly shifting our attention from one task to another, increasing the amount of time necessary to complete primary objectives by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time.” In the end, the lure of the NEXT NEXT has successfully distracted the family, office, and society itself from mindfully concentrating on current realities.

While many attribute the practice of mindfulness to the Buddhist meditation technique of “vipassana” (to see things as they really are) its origins should not be limited to one particular technique, religious tradition, or geographic area. Similar to other religious texts, the New Testament encourages its adherents to be “sober,” “vigilant,” and “mindful” of an adversary (devil) that “seeks to devour” the inattentive like a “roaring lion” (I Peter 5:8).

Most significant is the ancient Greek word chosen by Saint Peter and other early Christian mystics to express their understanding of sobriety. The word “nepsis” literally denotes a “denial of drink.” By extension, the term can easily be used to describe a “mindfulness” that, according to numerous early Christian patristic writers, is comprised of interminable prayer, contemplation, attentiveness, inner purity, and humble openness to the Divine, all of which are requirements for the cultivation of genuine discernment (George Morelli, 2006, 2009).  Consequently, if a leader honestly desires to avoid the sharp teeth of the NEXT, apart from resisting the inebriating swill of the passions, he/she should strive to develop attentive sobriety towards their current circumstances.

Apart from its use in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the alleviation of a variety of mental and physical conditions, the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-556) is, yet, another application of the “neptic-based” tradition of mindfulness still advanced by Christians today. Best known for founding the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order), Saint Ignatius contends that intensive openness and focused attention on God’s presence (nepsis) is about being contemplative in action. As such, one of the few rules of prayer that Ignatius required his Jesuit adherents to practice included daily self-examination and honest contextual reflection.

Conjoining Buddhist, Christian, and clinical behavioral research, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, encourages contemporary business leaders to “face reality as it is, not as it was,” nor as they “wish it were.” Redolent of Ignatius and Welch, former CEO of Herman Miller, Max DuPree, suggests that the first responsibility of a leader “is to define reality . . . the last is to say thank you . . . in between, the leader is a servant.”  Remarkably, the research data of business author Jim Collins (Good to Great, 2005) affirms the advice of both Welch and DuPree that, indeed, the “confrontation of the brutal facts of the current reality” is what ultimately makes a company, Church, and local faith-based entitiy “great!”

From what has been discussed, it is evident that one of most important requirements of capable leadership is the management of attention. To be effective, however, leaders must first discern where to focus their primary concentration. Unlike the consumers of Pepsi Next, they must develop the ability to filter out distractions by paying careful attention to the promise and accountabilities of their present reality. While many may unfortunately interpret this to mean a choice of one distinct concentration over another, recent neurological research supports the thesis that contextual focus may actually be more vibrant when understood as the balanced calibration of four (4) interrelated domains: (a) spiritual, (b) emotional, (c) cognitive, and (d) somatic. To help leaders cultivate such a comprehensive understanding of mindfulness, OINOS coaches use the following visual tool called the Cycle of Concentration.

 CYCLE OF CONCENTRATION

(CLICK HERE)

Spiritual Domain

As there is a vast difference between faith-based and meditative practices of mindfulness, authentic spiritual concentration should be understood as comprising more than metacognitive awareness. Whereas, humanistic-based techniques such as yoga, tai chi and qigong are capable of sharpening the mind and empowering individuals with a greater sense of physical self-control, objectivity, and psychological wellbeing, the cultivation of neptic-based mindfulness, inclusive of an authentic and humble openness to God, is capable of spawning greater possibilities. As such, leaders would do well to understand that the cultivation of the spiritual domains of their personalities entails much more than the advance of a “you are/get what you think” self-regulating motivational posture.

According to Saint Augustine (354 – 430 C.E.), the human heart remains unsettled until it finds “rest” in the Divine. His exhortation speaks volumes to our complex world with its interminable onslaught of fatal distractions. Like Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and other influential faith-based leaders, Augustine settled on the notion that mindfulness separated from God is never adequate. True mindfulness entails much more than cognitive enlargement. It includes a noetic concentration on God whereby the heart and mind of an individual is enlightened by spiritual experience as well as temporal knowledge. Only by engaging reality in such a holistic fashion can a leader hope to experience genuine “rest” and, thereby, truly “see.”

Paradoxically, many leaders live in denial of such spiritual realities . . . choosing to sip the drink of distraction rather than courageously expose themselves and their convergent reflections to fatigue, failure and/or fault. As a result, they ignore or simply neglect to handle societal shifts, threatening economic reports, emerging technologies, and changing constituent/client expectations, hoping that such issues will somehow miraculously disappear on their own. Authentic leadership, however, is never coquettish but always demands clarity, honesty, competence, vigilance and decisive action. By integrating the discipline of prayerful spiritual reflection (nepsis) into their daily routines, leaders may begin to develop the capacity for such comprehensive discernments and thereby dynamically influence the quality and significance of their service to society.

Emotional Domain

Apart from helping them finely calibrate their capacity for spiritual discernment, the Cycle of Concentration can significantly improve a leader’s emotional balance by helping them assess/develop a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. In recent years, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has actually included mindfulness exercises to successfully treat a number of emotional problems, including interpersonal conflicts, depression, substance abuse, eating, anxiety and other self-defeating disorders. Some experts believe that mindfulness is able to achieve such results, in part, by helping individuals confidently accept their experiences rather than avoid or react to them with reluctant aversion.

Conversely, leaders who are mindlessly governed by their emotions ignore and/or remain satisfied with negative and status quo realities. Uncomfortable with uncertainty, they are unwilling to move beyond accepted norms and behaviors because of the loss of control such choices represent. While a healthy amount of passionate devotion to convention is beneficial, extreme levels of sentiment can adversely influence a leader’s thinking and behavior. Mindful leaders refrain from impulsively acting according to their feelings, understanding that unbridled emotions tend to distort facts, magnify excuses, and skew perceptions. Consequently, by continually calibrating their limbic resonance with emotional concentration, leaders can successfully develop the advantage of greater self-awareness leading to more accurate decisions concerning their current realities.

Somatic Domain

In addition to developing spiritual and emotional fitness, reliable research supports the view that mindfulness improves somatic health by relieving stress, treating heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties. Since the late 1970’s, there have been more than 1000 publications documenting medical and psychological research that demonstrate the robust validity of the aforementioned applications. Prominent mainstream health groups like the National Institute of Health, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the American College of Cardiology all recommend mindfulness to both patients and caregivers.

The practice of somatic mindfulness has additionally shown to actually alter the structure and neural patterns in the brain, thereby, strengthening regions associated with heightened sensory processing and empathetic responses. Individuals who regularly practice mindfulness training are quite literally reforming the structure of their brains to achieve desired outcomes. Consequently, apart from strengthening the immune system and increasing openness to experience, the practice of mindfulness provides a stable basis for physiological responses to stress and negative emotions.

While not a replacement for traditional medical treatment, the celebrated Mayo Clinic advocates that mindfulness can benefit overall health by providing a sense of calm, peace and balance to a patient’s physiological condition. While the conclusions of their studies remain preliminary, the clinic’s scientists have, nonetheless, shown that mindfulness reduces cortisol and blood pressure and greatly improves the immune system. As a result, heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion improves, and blood vessels dilate sending oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. Furthermore, research indicates that meditation improves the mind’s ability to concentrate and to process information.

Cognitive Domain

Numerous clinical studies report the positive effects of mindfulness on the domain of cognition. Studying the effects of mindfulness, researchers from the University of North Carolina (Charlotte, 2010) indicate that participants show a significant improvement in their critical thinking skills, testing significantly higher in cognitive tests than control groups, after only four days of training. Brain imaging studies confirm the university’s test-score findings that the structural as well as functional aspects of the mind can, indeed, be “modified” by practicing mindfulness to improve cognitive processing and the ability to sustain attentive vigilance.

Finally, in addition to helping people become less reactive, the APA has concluded that mindfulness develops greater cognitive flexibility. One study (Siegel, 2007) found that people who practice intense concentration appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way. Even more intriguing, is discovery that in just eight weeks, the practice of mindfulness can actually change the size of the brain’s amygdala and, consequently, reduced dilemma-related stress.

Essentially, the spiritual (neptic) and emotional (psychological) domains of concentration refine a leader’s interpersonal intelligence.  Attention to the somatic (health) and cognitive (rational) fields, on the other hand, substantially improves a leader’s ability to more fully discern the condition of their operating reality (context) and, thereby, innovate, devise strategy, and successfully inspire. Apart from their respective positive features, each of the four integrated domains that comprised the Cycle of Concentration has its own particular cataleptic “beverages” that should be avoided. Cultivated with the guidance of a knowledgeable life or business coach, the four domains of concentration provide an effective framework for leaders interested in warding off the fatal lure of the NEXT NEXT.

“Willie’s Dilemma” is the name of a prevalent water fountain sculpture customarily positioned in public floral gardens. Normally crafted of cast stone, the motif normally features a frustrated little boy determinedly trying to reach drinking water spouting into the basin atop the column’s pedestal. The child is obviously too short to reach the bubbling water and must therefore climb up to get it. To do so, however, the lad must choose to put down the ice cream cone he is currently holding. Hence “Willie’s Dilemma”… he can’t decide what he wants most!

Pepsi Next is a visual illustration of Willie’s Dilemma. As nearly every stress-related tension in life is a matter of discerning what is most important in the moment, its resolution is mindfulness. For Willie, it is the quandary between an ice cream cone and a drink of refreshing water. For parents it is the value of their progenies over the perceived importance of their professions and possessions. For leaders, it is the choice they must make between what was, is and can be. Only by cultivating the ability to manage concentration can a capable leader hope to resist the fatal attraction of the “NEXT NEXT THING” bubbling atop the water fountains of modernity.

The truth is that the NEW is not always better. Nor is a nostalgic return to the “PAST” a panacea for current problems. In the end, the coveted NEXT is actually the mindful practice of the NOW! This is the secret of successful leadership – the honest and complete engagement with reality.

 

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).

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