The Tao of Association Leadership: Part Two

goldtaopart2 October 20, 1017 By: Stephen Gold

Association leaders can work to promote and sustain mindfulness into the daily routine. Here’s how one association began an initiative to stem workplace anxiety and build trust.

There’s a saying among practitioners of mindfulness: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

As I explained in a previous article, we can’t shield employees from pain—like the membership, governance, and human resources challenges that associations will inevitably face—but we can help staff to adjust their expectations and provide tools for managing external chaos and internal demons.

Association leaders should do this not just out of compassion for our colleagues, but also because giving people tools to handle workplace pressures will increase their odds of success as well as the capacity for trust and collaboration in the office.

To that end, in January 2016 I introduced mindfulness into my harried association of 40 employees: the Manufacturers Alliance of Productivity and Innovation (MAPI). Fortunately, there was no need to re-create the wheel. At the Mindful Leadership Summit, I purchased several books which provided practical workplace tools for such an office initiative.


A book by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman, The 15 Commitments to Conscious Leadership offers employees a litmus test of self-awareness—to stop and ask at any given moment if you are “above the line” or “below the line.” Above the line means you are aware of what is triggering you: you are present enough to listen fully to someone else, and you are genuinely interested in learning even if it means discovering your own shortcomings. Below the line means you are not present, and thus unaware of your behavior. You display defensiveness, and when talking with someone, you only focus on what you’re going to say next.

Another book by Rasmus Hougaard, One Second Ahead, tackles many of our biggest workplace challenges head-on and starts with this rule: Avoid multitasking at work and focus on what you choose, not what your device chooses. The corollary rule is knowing that you will get distracted so that you choose your distractions mindfully.

With these rules in mind, an employee can plot his or her success in a four-box diagram, in which the X-axis expresses your degree of awareness and the Y-axis expresses your degree of focus. When you’re in the “mindless” quadrant, you’re giving 80 percent effort and getting 20 percent outcome. When you’re in the “mindful” quadrant, the percentages reverse.

Meditation helps build new neural pathways to improve our ability to focus and be aware of the present moment.

After compiling information on creating a more conscious organization, I built MAPI’s mindfulness initiative around a handful of components, hiring an outside consultant to help us navigate some of the challenges. It’s important to note that I did not make practicing awareness mandatory for employees. I did, however, encourage my management team to demonstrate support by participating as much as possible. Here’s how the program worked:

Mindfulness messages at staff meetings. I start each monthly staff meeting with a five- to 10-minute mindfulness message, always opening with the question: Are you presently above or below the line? My talks at this meeting come from a variety of sources. I’ve discussed the health risks of remaining within flight-or-fight mode for prolonged periods of time. I’ve shown a hip-hop video that encourages people to break their smartphone addictions. And I’ve shared a video excerpting David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address “This Is Water.” In a recent lesson, I explained the evolution of the two hemispheres of the human brain, in which the left side evolved to devise stories to interpret the world and, unfortunately, is wrong as often as it is right.

Biannual three-hour staff workshops. We schedule half-day workshops twice a year to provide a more in-depth understanding of aspects of mindfulness, such as stress management for work-life balance, nonviolent communications, and conscious leadership. In these workshops, staff have the opportunity to work in small groups to practice tools and processes, such as reflective listening.

Monthly one-hour mindfulness discussions. An abbreviated version of the half-day workshops, we offer staff an opportunity to meet for one-hour discussions around tools to improve one’s mindfulness in an office environment. For example, at one meeting we discussed the acronym RAIN as a means of building awareness. Employees who exhibit RAIN recognize, accept, investigate, and nourish their emotions and feelings.

Weekly “practicing awareness” training. Roughly one-third of our staff regularly meets with me weekly for 20-minute meditations. Another third participate when they are able. Meditation is the key to building awareness. Our minds meander off into past and future with manic consistently. Meditation helps build new neural pathways to improve our ability to focus and be aware of the present moment. As part of the training, I provide a guided meditation focusing on the breath and elements of the body, or I find one of an appropriate length online and play it over a Bluetooth speaker. The Insight Meditation Community of Washington’s site has a variety of podcasts to get you started on a meditation exercise.

Has MAPI’s mindfulness journey worked? After 18 months, so many staff still participating suggests they find value in it. Ultimately, as an association leader, I measure success at the individual level. It’s like the story of the woman who walks along the beach tossing stranded starfish back into the ocean. When a witness suggests that saving the thousands of stranded starfish is a hopeless pursuit, the woman picks one up, tosses into the ocean, and replies, “Well, I saved that one.”

Stephen Gold

Stephen Gold is president and CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, in Rosslyn, Virginia.