Soft Skills for Hard Business

Audrey Tang’s The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness: How to use soft skills to get hard results

Book Review by Alison Jones

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There was a time when you could stick ‘Mindfulness’ on the cover of pretty any book — especially a colouring book — and watch it soar to the top spot. But hot trends cool quickly these days, and now this feels like a slightly dated phrase. Plus, as Tang herself points out, nobody really knows what it means anyway. I wish she had created a new word for what she’s doing, which is actually quite powerful: she’s showing leaders how to tap into their humanness to improve their wellbeing and performance. And of course, by extension, the wellbeing and performance of everyone in their organisation.

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The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness

The book is in three parts: Practical Applications, Personal Applications, and Mindful Growth. There’s a natural progression here: if you’re not convinced by this fluffy mindfulness business, Tang seems to be saying, let’s start with some down-and-dirty practical applications. If your people are having problems solving problems, if relationships are intractably tricky, or if their innovation is underwhelming, here are some evidence-based techniques to try. The focus drills deeper as the section progresses — I found the section on ‘emotional agility’ particularly interesting — and the hope is perhaps that as the sceptical leader sees the benefits of this mindfulness malarkey in action, he or she might be persuaded to try it on themselves.

In the last chapter — ‘Beyond Mindfulness’ — the book unashamedly embraces its spiritual roots with the inclusion of the 10 ‘practical Buddhism’ teachings of Seet Chee Kim, Tang’s grandfather.

For me this is the great strength of the book, a masterful balancing between the transcendent and the day-to-day realities of the workplace. Tang manages the tone beautifully, with a business-like approach that allows her to smuggle in profound truths (‘Criticism is just the opinion of someone else.’) The book is structured within an inch of its life, presumably to appeal to busy leaders who read primarily in subheadings, bullet points and summary boxes.

But this structure (along with some abysmal copy-editing) is perhaps the book’s weakness: on occasion it feels more like a collection of disparate, even unrelated, ideas and exercises rather than reaching any great depth and flow. I’m not convinced either that transcribing meditations is an effective use of page space: better I think to have pointed readers at the audio downloads and perhaps provided transcriptions online. But getting that balance right — bringing those soft skills to those focused on hard results — is a big ask, and Tang does a good job.

Since this is all about balance, I’ll end with a quote from Tang on the balance that eludes nearly all leaders — between work and life. There’s no such thing as one right balance, she concludes, but:

‘Mindful practice can help you identify your priorities. It reminds you to be ever-present to notice when they change and it enables you to attend to those many roles and choices in your life as fully as you can to get as much out of them as you can. If ‘balance’ doesn’t quite exist, mindfulness will at least help you find fulfilment.’

The irony for books like this is that so often those who really need them won’t touch them, but by promising those ‘hard results’ Tang may well reach and convince a broader audience.

The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness is available from Blackwell’s here.

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Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations with something to say. Formerly Director of Innovation Strategy with Palgrave Macmillan, she hosts The Extraordinary Business Book Clubpodcast, regularly speaks and blogs on publishing, business and writing, sits on the board of the IPG, and is the author of This Book Means Business (2018).

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