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Keren Tsuk of Wisdom To Lead: How To Develop Mindfulness During Stressful Or Uncertain Times

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Dare to be in a state of uncertainty — and not know the answers

As individuals and as leaders, we need to learn to live with the unknown and with uncertainty. We are living in a hectic reality that is continuously changing and we can’t always see the full picture. We need to learn to trust ourselves and the process. For example, say you are a manager who needs to figure out with your team a new product, service or just a challenge you have with one of your clients. Start the meeting by allowing time for the solution to emerge and unfold. Invite your team members to share their experiences and their viewpoints. Create space for the unknown, and, if you can, tell them that they don’t need to find a solution by the end of the meeting. In a paradoxical way, there is a bigger chance that the solution will emerge even more quickly when we give it enough time and we create the space.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Keren Tsuk, PhD.

Keren Tsuk, PhD is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and thought leader in 21st century leadership. As founder of the consulting firm Wisdom To Lead, she specializes in the development of senior management teams and corporate leadership. Tsuk guides companies and senior management teams to reach their full potential using various techniques in the field of mindfulness. She is also the author of Mindfully Wise Leadership: The Secret of Today’s Leaders.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I was raised in a home where my father, a scientist, managed large institutions, and my mom, a spiritual woman, worked in education. I always searched to blend these two aspects of life in my work: the material world and the spiritual world. Then, when I was a child, we relocated to South Africa for a few years, and this taught me how to adapt to change and increased my curiosity for people and cultures. In my youth I was active in Scouts, and I loved the activities with all my heart. From all of these experiences, I witnessed and learned how to lead and impact others.

What is also important to my journey is that I was raised in Israel. It is a country of contradictions, a country in survival mode, in conflicts with its neighbors. At the same time, it’s also a cosmopolitan country made up of various identities, known as a start-up nation at the cutting edge of technology and innovation. When I reached eighteen, I served in the Army as part of my mandatory service to my country. I was a combat sniper instructor, which is a masculine role. I found that taking on this work strengthened and nourished my leadership abilities and provided me with qualities such as toughness, focus, determination, and structure. Later on, when I went to university, I decided to study to become an organizational consultant.

Along my journey, I understood that I was meant to lend my skills to bring on meaningful changes in organizations and within leaders. However, during my journey, I also began to understand that I needed to transform and connect to the other side within me, to the side of me that brough support, empathy, compassion, and being vulnerable to my work. I understood that I must evolve and engage in inner work, increasing my consciousness and my self-awareness to be in service to leaders who wanted to evolve and develop their own organizations.

In my PhD, the core question I wanted to answer was how leaders could combine two aspects of life: the material world and consciousness. How can leaders enable financially-successful organizations and still engage their employees from a place of intrinsic motivation, meaningfulness, and self-transcendence? And, from this place, how can leaders enable employees to be creative so that the organization can bring cutting-edge innovation into the mix?

In my research, I have found that mindfulness is a crucial element for successful leadership. So, based on my academic background, professional and personal experiences, I developed my Mindfulness Based Leadership course, retreat and lectures.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

About five years ago, a colleague started a mindfulness course at Tel Aviv University. Another colleague suggested that I should attend the course and collect examples for a book I had planned to write. I immediately told myself no; I have nothing to learn there at all. And here’s what’s important: we all have an automatic response that we lean back on. I call this our inner automaton. My automaton wanted to push away from the opportunity, claiming that I already knew everything about the subject. Even so, I decided to push back and attend, and I assisted my colleague in collecting and writing the material. I just went to be there, to learn and help. During the course’s last session, I met a visiting professor from Hong Kong who had developed a Masters’ program in leadership that included a thirty-hour mindfulness course; he invited me to teach there. This opportunity opened a whole new window in my career and a new world of work.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

To create a fantastic workplace, leaders have to start by seeing their employees as whole human beings. Create a sense of community so that people will feel seen and connected to each other beyond functional work. When people feel seen and when they feel that leaders care for them — and not in a cynical, output-oriented way — they will want to be part of the company and will be engaged.

In addition, leaders have to embrace Triple Bottom Line principles: profit, people, and planet. Work with the environment and with people in mind, and strive for a profit-to-employee ratio connecting employees’ personal goals with the organization’s financial goals. Search for ways you can enable your employees to flourish and grow in parallel to the organization’s goals. Don’t try to fit employees into organizational needs; rather, try to find alignment in parallel growth.

For example, if you see that an employee has already fulfilled themselves in their current job and wants to grow toward the next challenge, explore this. Explore whether there is alignment between his path and the organization needs. Then, custom-tailor a new job description for your employee so that they might want to stay and flourish. This approach creates a workplace that engages talented people and enables them and the organization to thrive, be creative, and innovate.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron teaches us how to handle uncertainty and adversity. When I read the book, it gave me a wider perspective on challenging situations and how to handle them. Each and every one of us go through tough times, especially today under pandemic conditions which are transforming the world. We are experiencing uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. It looks like the uncertainty is here to stay. This is why being present and being able to navigate in uncertain and challenging times is a crucial skill that we need to embrace and nourish.

In the beginning of her book, Chodron shares a difficult experience she went through when her husband divorced her and her life felt apart. She felt a lot of anger and fear. However, this turning point brought her closer to her mission in life, as she encountered Buddhism and went on a path to become a teacher. At the end, she was thankful for the experience, and that is a major theme of the book — the idea that life is all beginnings and endings. Moreover, she talks about becoming familiar with fear, and looking it right in the eye so that we can really come to terms with what we feel that we cannot address. This resonated with me so much; this is what being mindful truly means. Being mindful is to feel our various emotions without disconnecting from them, and choosing freely how to react instead of being managed by our own feelings and emotions. So, if I feel fearful right now, I will accept that part of me feels scared right now but I won’t let this fear paralyze me. Acknowledging fear allows us to keep on going toward our goals.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of an experience in a nonjudgmental way and not be managed by it. As Victor Frankel defined it, mindfulness is the space between stimulation and response. As we broaden that space, we can choose our behavior freely. The state of being mindful is the ability to be aware of our feelings and emotions and give them space and expression, as opposed to becoming alienated, fragmented, and even detached in a moment of challenge.

For example, if I am being triggered by a colleague shouting at me, instead of shouting back, I would connect to my own feelings of discomfort. I would become mindful of my emotions such as anger, frustration, or whatever arises. Taking a deep breath, I would acknowledge those unpleasant feelings and decide how to react from a place of awareness. My ability to move between these two realms and choose my behavior, this is moving into mindfulness.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

In chapter 3 of my book, I go into these benefits in a lot more detail, but here are the major benefits of shifting toward a mindful way of life.

Increased focus. Mindfulness meditation affects people’s ability to focus and not be distracted, which increases our quality of attention and memory and decreases repetitive thoughts.

Awareness. Mindfulness practitioners have a higher level of awareness and fewer depressive symptoms or bad moods, and are less affected by mind-wandering.

Stress reduction. Mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety, and have much lower levels of depression.

Emotional regulation. Regular meditation reduces emotional reactivity and alters people’s ability to use emotional regulation strategies in a way that allows them to experience emotions selectively.

Better relationships. A mindful person may experience a higher level of satisfaction in a relationship because of his or her ability to communicate and respond well to pressures created in the relationship.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Step 1: Meditate

When we practice meditation, it changes our brain for the better. Meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the advanced part of the brain that is connected to self-regulation, focusing, and planning for the future. As we practice meditating and staying with any discomfort that arises, it actually helps us to cope better with uncertainty and uncomfortable situations in real life. We can practice this by being present with unpleasant postures or thoughts during meditation, without trying to change them. Sometimes, during meditation practice, when we do this, our feelings transform. For example, in one of the Mindfulness Based Leadership courses I facilitated, one of the participants shared that during meditation she felt a really strong, painful physical sensation. Instead of trying to move her body in an automatic way, she acknowledged the feeling and it transformed to a different sensation entirely.

Step 2: Give place to and speak your feelings

Usually when we are stressed, we act upon stressful emotions. This means that our emotions manage us. However, by connecting to those feelings and giving them space to exist, we can acknowledge what we are feeling right now. This means that we might actually talk our emotions. For an example, if you feel anger arising in your body in an interaction with your child, instead of shouting and getting angry you can say, “I am really feeling angry right now. I think it’s better to have a break and continue this conversation later.” In this way, you connect to the complete experience of your emotions, but you aren’t creating a barrier between yourself and your child.

Step 3: Spend time in nature or outdoors

I’ve learned that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Practice being in the moment and not in your wandering mind — take a break and go to a walk in nature. Go to a park next to your office or home and feel the wind in your hair, smell the flowers and the trees. Practice being in the here and now, enjoying the moment.

Step 4: Change your automaton

Each and every one of us has automatic behaviors that don’t serve us anymore. Mindfulness allows us to see our implicit and automatic patterns of thinking and behavior, as well as the results they create. By identifying these patterns, we can decide to change course. Acknowledge what triggers you — and reflect upon it. See what doesn’t serve you anymore. For example, if your automaton self listens to the radio and watches television, and most of the information you receive increases your stress, shift and do something that fills you with energy, like jogging, walking your dog, or seeing a good friend. Through mindfulness, we can recognize at any moment how we feel and if we don’t feel well, we can choose to change and react differently.

Step 5: Dare to be in a state of uncertainty — and not know the answers

As individuals and as leaders, we need to learn to live with the unknown and with uncertainty. We are living in a hectic reality that is continuously changing and we can’t always see the full picture. We need to learn to trust ourselves and the process. For example, say you are a manager who needs to figure out with your team a new product, service or just a challenge you have with one of your clients. Start the meeting by allowing time for the solution to emerge and unfold. Invite your team members to share their experiences and their viewpoints. Create space for the unknown, and, if you can, tell them that they don’t need to find a solution by the end of the meeting. In a paradoxical way, there is a bigger chance that the solution will emerge even more quickly when we give it enough time and we create the space.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Step 1: Listen

In order not to feel unpleasant feelings ourselves, we often wait for others to stop talking and we offer them our advice and what we think of as “solutions.” This way we feel in control, and avoid being present with someone else’s unpleasant feelings. However, that is not what people need when they are suffering and anxious. When people are experiencing anxiety and stress, they need us to listen to them. Let them share what they are going through, be present with them, and enable them to have a safe space to share.

Step 2: Let them feel that they are seen

Listen deeply to others’ emotional experiences and reflect these back to them. Once they feel seen and safe, they can start working with their emotions, instead of being paralyzed by them.

Step 3: Ask them how can you be there for them

After listening fully from presence, you can ask them how they want you to be there for them. Listen to what they are asking. Maybe they will only want your presence for venting, or maybe they will want you to acknowledge their pain. Maybe they will need your help in an active way. Be open-minded and curious as to what they need from you in this moment.

Step 4: Practice meditation together or invite them to join a meditation group

When we practice meditation with other people, it helps to contain stress and anxiety, and be present with the uncomfortable feelings.

Step 5: Be compassionate

Empathize with their feelings. Silently, make connections between your own experiences of emotions and theirs so that you can build a greater understanding of what they are feeling.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

  • Use a calendar or app to start meditating, even 5 minutes a day as a routine. Create a steady slot on your calendar whenever it’s convenient for you. It can be early in the morning, or late at the evening — or any time in between. Find a calm place to practice. Apps like Headspace, and Calm are a good place to start.
  • Make nature a priority. You don’t need to go far, it can be close to your work or home.
  • Practice journaling. Take three pieces of paper, sit down, and write intuitively what’s on your mind, without stopping. If you don’t know what to write, simply write, “I don’t know what to write.” This kind of free writing enables us to clear our minds and make space for new insights to emerge and creativity to flow. If you have time, do it every day for ten minutes or so.
  • Reflect on your automatic behaviors that don’t serve you anymore, and try to change small things one at a time until you can change this behavior permanently and embrace a new one.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Everyone dies at the end, but not every one lives.”

This quote has been attributed to many different leaders in the past, from the warrior William Wallace to the spoken word poet Prince Ea, but it is an idea that ought to matter to all of us.

As a young woman, I was disconnected from my own feelings and emotions, and I led mainly from my head rather than my heart. I was afraid to feel unpleasant feelings and to be vulnerable. However, I got to a point in life at which I understood that I was not really experiencing my life fully. I didn’t allow anything, bad or good, to affect me, and I closed my heart to protect myself.

As I see it now, all of the traits that are crucial for a fulfilled life nowadays reside in our heart. Traits such as compassion, passion, creativity are needed so that we might live a passionate and meaningful life. This is why I love this quote so much. A lot of us are sleepwalking through our lives, and we miss life this way. Life is short and we need to utilize every moment to be present as much as we can, and act out of awareness. We have to dare to lead, as Brené Brown advises us, with an open heart. Living this way brings risks, but it also presents an opportunity to experience emotion freely, connect to our passion, and live a fulfilled and meaningful life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would start a mindful leadership community in order to increase self-awareness among business leaders, to connect, evolve together and to create better workplaces that are in service of their employees, customers and communities. As I wrote in my book, I want to ensure that organizations can become a platform for humanity’s development, and allow their employees to develop and grow and to fulfill themselves. The jobs that leaders create can serve employees, customers, and the environment, from a win-win paradigm of profit for all.

I believe with all my heart that this is the change we, as humanity, need to go through. We must move from a place of alienation, exploitation, and separation to a state of unity, service, attentiveness, and harmony among people, between people and the environment, and among organizational activities so that optimal work will be done to enable prosperity and growth.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

LinkedIn: Keren Tsuk https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerentsuk/

Website: www.wisdomtolead.co

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Wisdom2Lead

Mind Your Leadership podcast: https://wisdomtolead.co/mind-your-leadership-podcast/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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