January is a good time to pause, step back, and take stock of where you are professionally and personally. It is an opportunity to consider whether you want to make any changes and if so what, when and how. Making the right changes can effectively kickstart a new path to greater success.  

In my experience, effective leaders understand the importance of taking time to pause, invest in themselves, and develop inner resources to tackle the challenges they face. In supporting them to do this, I have found that what works best is a holistic approach centered on developing mindfulness and resilience.  

Here are the key elements, which I believe can benefit all leaders and managers.  

Creating mental space   

Incorporating new learning into our life usually requires us to change some aspect of what we currently do, which effectively means changing at least one of our existing habits. These are repeated behaviours or thoughts that get so hardwired into the neurocircuitry of our brain that we do them without thinking. They are triggered by a stimulus – a cue, a situation or an event – to which we respond in the same way every time.   

The key to breaking a habit is recognising the trigger before we automatically respond to it. For this we have to identify the trigger and create time to think clearly before responding to it. I offer people a simple device to help them do this, which I call the Pause Tool. This has three simple steps:  

1. Pause: as if pressing an internal pause button.  

2. Focus: on something concrete.  

3. Breathe: slowly and deeply into your abdomen.  

The sequence actually has a calming physiological effect, which helps you think more clearly, be more present, and respond mindfully in the moment.   

Choosing a response  

Mindful responses are possibly the most empowering communication tool we have, precisely because they are not knee-jerk. To get the outcomes we want, we must be able to see what really matters and choose how we respond accordingly.  

As we pause, focus and breathe, we can ask ourselves: “What is the most effective thing I can say / do right now?”  

Experience shows that if we can do this consistently, we will get consistently better results.   

Developing resilience  

Facing and overcoming personal and professional challenges requires resilience. This is a quality that we can develop. In fellow coach Carol Pemberton’s book on the subject (2015), she defines it as our “capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings and behaviours... so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser and more able.” 

So resilience is about being supple, agile yet grounded – like a Slinky toy – in all the dimensions of our lives.  

Resilient people have what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset, rather than a fixed concept of how things should be. They see life through a lens of optimism and mistakes as a source of learning from which to move forward. They seek meaning and purpose in their life, and are tolerant of the values and beliefs of others. They are physically fit, with a high level of emotional awareness.  

As you begin 2017, perhaps you can ask yourself: does this description apply to me, and what areas can I develop? Who do I know who embodies any or all of these qualities and what can I learn from them?  

Learning from mistakes  

Learning from mistakes is a particular aspect of resilience that I would single out as one of the most important qualities a leader can develop. It is the courage to risk failure, and to gain strength and wisdom from setbacks.   

Even with exceptional self-management (and daily practice of the pause tool!), none of us is infallible. Mistakes are normal and offer us an opportunity to learn. Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori educational approach, said: “It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose, which it truly has.”  

Experiencing mistakes and failure and learning from them makes us stronger and more compassionate towards the mistakes and failures of others. Not admitting error or constantly exercising undue caution limits personal and professional change. They are also uninspiring leadership qualities!  

Setting our intention for 2017  

As the new year begins, which of these elements feels most relevant to you? Practising any or all of them is sure to give you and your performance a boost.  

  •  Sally-Anne is an experienced, accredited executive coach and mindfulness practitioner - and a former Royal Navy Commander.