Developing psychological flexibility as a leader

Cultivate awareness, develop resilience, and harness personal values for adaptive leadership

Cultivate awareness, develop resilience, and harness personal values for adaptive leadership

Imagine a leader who remains calm and adaptable under pressure, embraces diverse perspectives, and consistently makes decisions aligned with their values and organizational goals.

My previous article discussed psychological flexibility and its role in cultivating calm and adaptive leadership. Today we'll focus on developing psychological flexibility as an individual.

As a brief reminder, psychological flexibility is the ability to adapt and adjust one's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in response to changing circumstances while staying aligned with personal values and goals. Psychological flexibility is crucial because it enables you to navigate challenges and cope with stress.

Psychological flexibility is even more vital for you as a leader as it allows you to create a positive and adaptive work environment, enhance team collaboration, and navigate complex organizational dynamics with resilience and authenticity.

We could think of psychological flexibility as a constellation of interconnected skills and practices (Bond and Hayes, 2006):

Mindfulness: being fully present and aware of one's experiences at any given moment.

Self-as-context: observing oneself from a transcendent and flexible perspective.

Acceptance of internal experiences: acknowledging and allowing thoughts and emotions without judgment or attempts to control them.

Cognitive defusion: distancing oneself from unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.

Values clarification: identifying and committing to your values and guiding principles.

Committed action: taking purposeful steps aligned with one's values.

For practical purposes, we will group these skills and practices into three main categories:

  • self-awareness,

  • curiosity,

  • valued engagement.


Cultivating self-awareness is a valuable practice in its own right. It involves deeply understanding your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, strengths, weaknesses, and values.

It's worth mentioning that we all already possess awareness. It's not a supernatural ability you must develop through years and years of practice. If I ask you whether you're breathing, you'll focus your attention on your inhales and exhales and answer "Yes." You're aware of your breathing. Similarly, if I ask you whether you're thinking about anything, you'll focus your attention on your thoughts and become aware of your thinking.

What most of us struggle with is maintaining awareness, particularly when we most need it. When emotions run high, the more primal parts of our brain take over, and our minds start to spin stories about what we're experiencing instead of paying attention to what is happening.

Regular practice of self-awareness techniques will help you develop a more profound understanding of yourself. And allows you to more clearly see the distinction between what's happening here and now and the alternate reality that your mind is presenting.

Here are some strategies and practices to help increase your self-awareness:


Observe your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in real-time throughout the day. Notice how you respond to different situations, interactions, and challenges. Pay attention to your body language, communication style, and decision-making processes.

By observing your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment, you develop an awareness of your inner experiences and thinking patterns.

A word of caution! You will quickly notice that whenever you try to pay attention, your mind almost instantly gets distracted and drifts away. You could start thinking about what you will eat for dinner or replay an earlier conversation—this is not a failure!

Noticing you got distracted, and bringing your attention back to the object of your attention without judgment, is the whole point of this exercise.

Some folks have compared it to doing bicep curls for your awareness muscles, and this comparison is quite apt. Here's what would constitute a single rep:

  1. focus on your breathing while counting up from 1 to 5 with each exhale; go back to 1 once you reach 5,

  2. notice being distracted when you either don't remember which number is next or when you inadvertently go past the 5,

  3. bring the attention back to breathing.

That's one rep! Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes once a day.

I've just described the essence of mindfulness meditation. If you're new to meditation and want to explore it deeper, try Headspace.


Set aside regular time for introspection and journaling. Write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Reflect on your reactions to various situations and identify patterns or recurring themes. Ask yourself questions about your goals, values, motivations, and behaviors. Consider how your actions align with your intentions and values, and identify areas where you may want to adjust.

If you need help figuring out where to start with journaling, try these prompts.

Emotional awareness

Learn to identify and name your emotions as they arise. Practice labeling your emotions and exploring their underlying causes. This awareness can help you understand your emotional triggers, reactions, and patterns, leading to greater self-understanding. Try The Feeling Wheel, designed by Dr. Gloria Willcox, to help expand your feeling vocabulary.

Personality assessments

Although many personality assessments need a more sound scientific basis, reputable ones, such as the Big Five Personality traits, can help you gain insights into your personality traits, preferences, and tendencies. And can serve as a starting point for self-reflection.

Remember, cultivating self-awareness is a practice. It requires patience, curiosity, and a willingness to explore the depths of your being. You might discover things about yourself you won't like—be gentle with yourself. And give it time.


Once you awaken your awareness, the next skill to develop is seeking alternate perspectives with openness and curiosity.

When your mind offers an explanation that paints the events in a less than favorable light—say your boss is not responding to your email, and you begin to worry and picture her being upset and disappointed in you—think of a different, more positive, and equally likely explanation.

What if she's in the middle of an important meeting and can't respond to you right now? A million other explanations could also be true, but our brains jump to the worst-case scenario because evolution negatively biases us.

Here are some strategies to foster openness and curiosity:

Cultivate open-mindedness

Recognize and value diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. Actively seek opportunities to engage with people who hold different opinions, beliefs, and cultural backgrounds.

When you hear something that challenges your current worldview and sense an automatic "this is bullshit" reaction arising inside you, ask yourself, "What am I not seeing that can potentially make that new information make sense?"

Practice active listening. Pay full attention to others when they speak without interrupting or judging. Seek to understand their viewpoint before formulating your response.

Engage in empathetic listening to truly comprehend their thoughts and emotions. Ask follow-up questions to deepen your understanding, not to challenge their perspective.

Foster curiosity

Challenge your assumptions and biases. Be open to the possibility of different interpretations and explanations.

Ask "what" questions to deepen your understanding of complex issues. Cultivate a growth mindset that values learning and personal development. Engage in ongoing learning activities like reading books, attending workshops, or taking courses to expand your knowledge and broaden your perspectives.

Seek feedback

Seek feedback from trusted individuals, such as colleagues, friends, or your coach. Their perspectives can provide valuable insights into your hidden biases, strengths, and areas for growth. Be open to receiving feedback and use it as an opportunity for learning. I recommend "Thanks for the Feedback" by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen for a deeper exploration of this topic.

Create a feedback-friendly environment. Encourage open and honest feedback within your team or organization. Emphasize that feedback is valued and welcomed.

Learn from and reframe your experiences

Take time to reflect on both your successes and failures. Analyze what contributed to those outcomes, your decisions, and your actions' impact.

But pay attention to whether you attribute failure to events outside your control. For example, if you were hoping to take your kids to the zoo, but it suddenly and unexpectedly started raining, there's no version of you in which you could have predicted the future.


Valued engagement refers to actively and wholeheartedly participating in activities that align with your values and bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

You can cultivate valued engagement as a leader by intentionally aligning your actions with your values. This benefits your well-being and satisfaction and creates an environment where your team members can find purpose and meaning in their work.

Here are some strategies to cultivate valued engagement as a leader:

Clarify your values

Identify and clarify your personal and professional values. Reflect on what truly matters and what you want to prioritize in your work and leadership role. Understanding your values provides a foundation for making choices that align with your authentic self.

Align your work

Seek opportunities to align your work and tasks with your core values. Identify projects or initiatives that resonate with your values and find ways to incorporate them into your role. This alignment will bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment, making it easier to engage fully.

If you've never thought about your values systematically, I invite you to sign up for my free 5-day program, Discover Your Values. You'll receive daily prompts and guidance in your email, which will guide you through the steps of the process. At the end of the program, you will have identified your top 3 core values and created a set of guiding principles to help you align your actions with your values.

Delegate and empower

Delegate tasks that don't align with your strengths or values, allowing you to focus on areas where you can make the most significant impact. Empower team members by giving them meaningful responsibilities and opportunities to contribute according to their values and strengths.



  1. Bond, F. W., Hayes, S. C., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2006). Psychological Flexibility, ACT, and Organizational Behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26(1-2), 25–54.