In my last post, I introduced mindfulness and the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace. In this article, I will explain how mindfulness is related to developing new leadership capabilities.

When we are practicing mindfulness, we are being aware of the current experience, without intervention or interpretation. However, much of the time, rather than practicing being present, instead we are recalling what happened previously, projecting ourselves into future scenarios, and making assessments of our surroundings, such as the motives and feelings of others. Norman Farb at the University of Toronto refers to this as a narrative mindset.

Although people who practice mindfulness can realize many benefits, it’s not that narrative mind is “bad,” and mindful mind is “good.” Marcus Raichle at Washington University in St. Louis explains that narrative mind is a series of rules that each of us develops and needs in order to maintain continuity of our experiences through time.

For example, when you hear a fire alarm, you know instantly to leave the building. Or in Western cultures, when someone extends a hand upon meeting, you extend your hand in return to shake. In both instances, you don’t think, you just act. In fact, Raichle says such mental shortcuts are necessary because the brain cannot take in and process all of the information available to us each moment. Raichle also found that when we are not engaged in a specific task that requires focused attention, our brain actually defaults to a narrative mode. So if you find it challenging to be mindful, there is a scientific reason—it is not your default state!

These mental rules, also called “mental models,” also mean that each of us has a filter that influences how we see the world, others, and even ourselves, and how we behave. Since this is our “default” mode, we may not even be aware that we are viewing the world through this filter, or responding automatically according to our rules. When we practice mindfulness, we are developing the ability to view our thoughts, feelings, and actions in a neutral way, almost as if we are able to see ourselves as a third party would. We train ourselves to see our own filter and to see the world more as it actually is, without interpretation. And then we do not have to be blindly governed by our mental rules—we open ourselves to the possibilities of new viewpoints, and to seeing the world differently.

When I work with clients to develop new leadership capabilities, the first step in the process is to give them self-observation exercises so they can gather data about themselves in the situations where they would like to effect new behaviors. I had a client who wanted to be more confident in meetings with his CEO. He jotted down notes about the thoughts and feelings going through his mind in those moments when he was not as assertive as he wanted to be. For example: “Even though I have double-checked my data, I’m worried that I have made a mistake, and I don’t want to risk looking bad in front of the CEO.”

Once the client had created a window to his mental processes, he could see and understand the assumptions he was making. With clarity on his old perspective, he chose to challenge his assumptions and replace them with a new perspective: “I have done my due diligence, so the chance of mistakes is minimal. But even if I made a mistake, it will not be the end of the world.” Going into meetings with this new perspective allowed him to be more assertive and confident about speaking up.

Simply put, awareness is the first step of change. And when people practice mindfulness, they are strengthening their ability to be aware. So if you want to develop your leadership abilities, or any new capabilities, first you must be able to observe yourself, to be mindful. Neuroscience shows us that while our default state is not mindful, we are able to develop this ability. And the more we practice being mindful, the better we get at it.