The other week I heard someone say “He had the presence of mind to…”. Who said it, who they were talking about and what that person did is not important. The phrase “presence of mind” got me thinking.
You’ve probably said this phrase yourself, usually when someone does something unexpected that staves off a potential disaster. My guess is, if you are in a leadership position, it has been said of you more times than your peers. That’s how you ended up in leadership. You had the presence of mind to be effective more times than most.
Being present of mind is a critical leadership trait. When things go awry, our team looks to us for guidance or solutions. To provide this, we need to have the presence of mind to see what is happening and come up with a creative solution or, at least, a path to a solution.
This brings me to my musings and my point. When I heard the phrase, I thought “what exactly does it mean, presence of mind?” and that lead me down a philosophical path that I feel compelled to share with all of you.
According to Dictionary.com, presence is the state or fact of being present, as with others or in a place. I think this definition is incomplete. I think it should ready presence is the state or fact of being present, as with others or in a place and time. How many times have you been in a meeting with someone and they seem distracted? Their thinking about other things so while they may be physically present, they aren’t mentally there. I know when this happens to me, I’m usually in one of two places. I’m either somewhere in the past, thinking about something that has already occurred, or I’m somewhere in the future, fretting over what might happen. Occasionally I find myself vacillating between the two, thinking about what has happened and then projecting ahead worrying about what might happen. We can’t truly be “present” unless we are focused on the here and now.
Focusing on the here and now isn’t always easy. We have a lot of distractions. When I was running larger companies, I had to deal with supply problems, personnel issues, sales issues, admin issues, etc. Everything that makes running a business fun and exciting. The very problems I needed to be present to handle made it difficult to focus on as I worried over the implications and ramifications of the problems that came up. Back then, I didn’t have a good technique for being “present” and this resulted in becoming distracted and problems dragging on.
Today, I have learned to be more present. There are a number of techniques I’ve learned. When I started working with my coach, she taught me a ritual before group meetings. She had all of us close our eyes, breathing intentionally, while focusing on our breath. Some people circle a hand over their head as if gathering all the parts of themselves from all the distractions and bringing them together, then lowering the hand to their chests. Once we feel totally present, we declare, out loud, I am present now. While this may seem silly to some, I found I was much less distracted and able to be more focused after the little ritual.
Another new habit for me is meditation. I start each morning, after my coffee of course, with 30 minutes of meditation. Meditation has the benefit of allowing me to practice being present and getting rid of distractions. Like any skill that you practice, the more you do it, the better you become.
Of course, some days are better than others and this, too, is beneficial. When I practiced other skills, like golf, hockey, martial arts, playing an instrument, etc., it was always about improving. This meant if I had a bad practice, I would fret over it. Meditation is about doing. There is no good or bad, there just is doing or not doing. Some days I can get in a great meditative state and be completely present. Some days, things pop into my head. Ideas for the future, regrets from the past, whatever. On those days I just relax and let thoughts go. Sometimes they stay, sometimes they float away. Sometimes great realizations explode into my consciousness that provide amazing insights or I conceive of solutions to problems that have plagued me. Most of the time, I just relax.
What I have found is when I become faced with a stressful situation, I’m better able to be present and not worry about the implications. I see what is really facing me, and I can develop an action plan that handles the situation without a great deal of stress or anxiety. In other words, I have “the presence of mind” to see the right thing and do it.
What do you do to stay truly present?