If you have travelled on the Hong Kong MTR subway or London’s Tube system, you would be familiar with this reminder to watch your step as you exit the train – “Mind the Gap”. It always makes me smile because it also serves as a fitting metaphor, a figurative reminder, for us to be aware of the space that exists between what happens and how we choose to respond.
The gap represents the space between stimulus and response. Using this space well can turn conditioned, reflexive responses into constructive, reflective ones. It can also help you see both the love-based and fear-based worlds clearly, helping you choose which one would best fit the leadership situation.
The recognition that there is a space or gap between what happens and what we do about it lies at the core of the human capacity to chose. Viktor Frankl, the famous holocaust survivor, writes poignantly and powerfully about this in his extraordinary memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. Although the space between stimulus and response has since been written about extensively, Frankl’s account of using this human facility in the most bleak, desperate conditions imaginable is unmatched. The implicit message in Frankl’s book is that if you can “mind the gap” in a concentration camp when your very existence is constantly threatened, you can do it anywhere.
Balanced Leadership makes us conscious of the drive to pull in what we love and push away what could harm us. They are the most fundamental parts of being human. When you take a moment to be aware of which drive is activating you, and consider what it might be like if the other drive was called upon, you have found the gap. Not only have you placed yourself in the gap, you have expanded it to increase your ability to use it as a strong leader.
To make the best use of the space, it requires us at leaders to first recognize that it exists. This is where mindfulness comes in. By cultivating awareness of the present moment, without judgement, we can find and hold the space necessary to make sound decisions. The more we inhabit this space, the more habitual it becomes. In neuroscientific terms, we are literally rewiring our brains, replacing old modes of responding that no longer serve us, with new ones that do. Mindfulness, in this sense, is the means by which we locate and “occupy” that critical gap between what happens and what we do about it.
In Balanced Leadership, we become better leaders when we recognize and function in both the fear-based and love-based worlds. Put another way, when we fail to recognize the two worlds and their different operating systems, we’re less likely to make informed, emotionally responsive decisions. We also deny ourselves and those we work with the clarity of purpose and direction that makes successful organizations thrive. Minding the gap can help us become more balanced in our leadership practice.
The advice given on the subways in Hong Kong and London is to help passengers be aware of the critical space between the train and the platform. The advice here is also to be aware of that space, not to avoid it, but to use it to help inform your response. Try minding the gap and see how it affects your leadership decisions.
This is the second in a series of blogs on the role mindfulness plays in Balanced Leadership.