Is Mindfulness For You?


A quick search on Google will point you to the exponential growth in research on mindfulness practices and their benefits (in 1984 there were 3 research studies while in 2013 there were 549) especially in the area of stress reduction. Integrating mindfulness to the workplace has also become increasingly mainstream ( and

So how relevant is mindfulness to a leader? Should you try it?

If you are committed to your growth as a leader (and as an individual), and you want to change a certain behavior in yourself, then a mindfulness practice is the most effective tool for observing your triggers before you react to anything. Mindfulness is the best instrument for sharpening the awareness of your thoughts (many and fleeting) and then choosing whether to follow those thoughts or let them pass by.

Most of the time, we follow our thoughts before we awake to what we are doing. Ever eaten a cookie even though you are not hungry? Ever gave your team member advice even though they didn’t ask for it? Ah, therein lies the few seconds of pause that mindfulness practices train the brain to take before your mouth, hands or body does anything. For a leader who is committed to increasing his/her self-awareness as well as social awareness, a mindfulness practice is a godsend.

Getting beyond the BS of Leadership Literature


In this article, Jeffrey Pfeffer makes the case for what could be summarized as Situational Leadership or Adaptive Leadership versus the deluge of trait-based and personality centric leadership behavior that many people elevate.

While I agree that the trait-based view of leadership behavior (for e.g. “The 7 Traits of a Good Leader”) is oversimplified and fundamentally doesn’t provide access to being a leader, before one can adapt artfully and skillfully to situations, one must have certain leadership foundations. You can’t have a house that adapts to changing weather without first building a strong foundation. You can’t talk about how to DO leadership without first BEING one. At present, the abundance of leadership literature and training programs are focused on the DOING rather than the BEING of a leader. It is a pursuit that creates “shallow” leaders, so to speak.

So how do you “be a leader”? How do you show up as a person who, based on research in neuroscience and psycho-sociology, is someone people would follow and be inspired by? That’s the foundation I am pointing to. To build this foundation, you essentially have to work on yourself, starting from the inquiry into how you wound up with your strengths and weaknesses and whether there are ways to loosen their grip so that new strengths or ways of being can be discovered. This foundation also involves uncovering one’s inauthentic ways of being, in particular the automatic desire to always look good and avoid looking bad. Another foundational pillar is the commitment to a cause or purpose that is larger than yourself ¾ a commitment so strong that it fuels and sustains you in moments of difficulty and struggle. Another foundation is the willingness to ask yourself what you can do rather than defaulting to a victim mindset whenever obstacles show up. If you can stand on these foundations, you are NATURALLY BEING a leader. That means that in moments of change or crisis, you don’t have to remember the leadership traits that are required because you are already expressing leadership naturally¾it is in you, so to speak. Then whatever tactics or techniques you wish to adopt to DO (vision, mission, how to motivate your team, performance management etc.) your job as a leader is the next step.


What more is there to say?


For years, I have avoided the writing of a regular blog even though as a former magazine editor and writer, writing comes relatively easy to me. I say “relatively” because the perfectionist in me causes much agonizing over choosing the “right words” ¾ you know, the kind that inspires the reader to make positive changes. So while the writing may come easily, the self-editing causes much suffering…

I also avoided writing a regular blog because, like you, I too am of the view that there is already too much information out there about leadership. Too many books, too many magazines, too many blogs. Just too much noise. What else could I possibly add that would make a difference?

Then I saw an evolution in Mari Smith’s (the Facebook maven) blog. She had gone from writing original content to curating the information that others are providing. Curating useful and relevant information for your readers is no doubt a service in an era when everyone seems to be struck by weapons of mass distraction.

As such, dear reader, I shall try on being your curator of leadership literature, sifting through gems and bull**** alike, sharing with you what works and what doesn’t in the world of coaching and leadership. I hope you will find this journey a meaningful one.

Meeting the Dalai Lama in Birmingham


Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Birmingham, AL, in October 2014, and I was commissioned by Storm magazine in Singapore to write about it. Here’s a link to the story: The Science of Peace.

It was an immense honor to attend the 40-minute press conference and soak in the Dalai Lama’s joyful presence, clear thinking and unmatched humility.

Time to write a new story, Birmingham

(This post was originally published on Sept 9, 2014, in, a community blog created by David Sher of Buzz12Advertising.)

Have you seen the billboard or heard the saying, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” According to Luis Ubinas, former president of the Ford Foundation, 40 years ago cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle were broke, had drastic unemployment and residents were leaving. They were considered dying cities. Since then, these cities have rewritten their stories and rebounded.  They are comeback towns.

But before our minds fly to the idea that Birmingham is different from these cities, or that changes that occurred in those cities cannot be replicated here, I invite us to stay open to the whisper of possibility and to live each day in Birmingham beyond business as usual.

Because beyond just showing up and existing day after day is our ability to choose and create a future we really want and will dare to make happen.

How to write a new story

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business there. One sends back a telegram saying, “Situation Hopeless Stop No One Wears Shoes”. The other writes back triumphantly, “Glorious Business Opportunity Stop They Have No Shoes”. Each scout comes to the same scene with his own perspective; each returns telling a different tale.  All of life is a story we tell.

As a leadership coach, I often witness the power of story in people’s lives: something happens, we interpret and make it mean something–usually something negative about ourselves like “I’m not good enough”, “We can’t/won’t succeed”, “Things will never change”, and so on. That story then becomes a context we are stuck with, a disempowering lens through which every event is seen. Unconsciously, this story or conclusion runs us. It’s our blind spot until someone points it out to us. I wish I could say that having stories only happens to some people, but it occurs to anyone who is human.

So how do we write a new, more empowering story? It starts with asking these questions:

What do we want, or what do we want to change?

What do we want to let go of?

What do we want to avoid?

What do we want to keep and enhance?

Singapore’s story

For the sake of simplicity, take the country of Singapore as an example for applying these questions. A small island state with no natural resources, Singapore was a British Colony that became an independent republic in 1965. In about 50 years, it transformed itself from a swamp to one of the richest countries in the world.

One of the goals Singapore aimed for was to be a hub for foreign multinationals to base their Asian headquarters. They wanted to change the world’s perception of it as a Third World country with no natural resources, to one that had a sophisticated and highly educated workforce.

She wanted to avoid racial tensions and disharmony in her multicultural people through social policies like having people from different ethnic groups live in the same residential areas. And one of the things that Singapore wanted to keep and enhance was the diversity of food that each ethnic group brought to the table. It is no surprise that this country is known as a food paradise.

How to change the story of Birmingham

So, the question is, what does Birmingham want, or what does Birmingham want to change? It starts with a conversation. As Peter Block, a consultant who is making a positive difference to inner city life in Cincinnati, Ohio, says, “If you want to change the world–or the culture–all you have to do is change the conversation. In the beginning was the word–that was how the Bible started… The value of our coming together can be measured by whether or not we are able to have a conversation we have not had before. A conversation is an action.” (

Breakdowns are inevitable

Create a goal or a possibility, put it out in the world, and it’s inevitable brethren–breakdowns and the idea that there shouldn’t be any–arrive at our doorstep. Perhaps our plan for the community didn’t get approved, or we couldn’t find funding for a project, or some politician puts his self-interest before the community’s and throws a wrench in our ideas–breakdowns of some sort are unavoidable.

And they often carry with them some hint of failure and invite the disempowering interpretation of “what’s wrong with me/them/us” or “what was I thinking”. Our identity or who we consider ourselves to be have become the focus rather than the breakdown itself. When a goal is thwarted, we may feel frustrated but the danger is when we become resigned–resigned that things will never change for the better, so why bother?

The point when something doesn’t go according to plan is the fork in the road. Do we become resigned and give up, or do we recommit and make a stand for a possibility that we don’t yet know how to achieve, a possibility that is not referenced against who we were or what had been done in the past?

Our words have the power to shape our world

The circumstances and conditions will never be perfect, but they are the raw stuff from which possibilities arise. As we stand in the future, what stories can we write? As we set our imagination free from the baggage of the past, let us be transformed by the realization that “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. The world does not speak. Only we do.”* We are the ones who have the power to shape the world with our words. We are the ones who can make things happen.

* Richard Rorty in “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”

Duanna Pang-Dokland is a Singaporean who has lived in Birmingham for the past 10 years. A leadership coach with her own practice, Igniting Possibility Coaching, she works with organizational directors and managers in America and Singapore to take the strain out of leadership and inspire their teams to better performance. She is a TEDxBirmingham Patron and a Past President of the International Coach Federation, North & Central Alabama Chapter.


Power Decreases Empathy

(This post was originally published on LinkedIn. Go to the LinkedIn post here.)

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Narcissism as a solution? Say it isn’t so

A few days ago, I came across something rather provocative in a human resources ezine. It was a Q & A with the question: are leaders more successful when they have narcissistic or humble qualities? What stopped me in my tracks was the part of the answer that stated that leaders can use their narcissistic tendencies to climb the corporate ladder and then, with some self-awareness, use humility to stay there. Surely, they jest.

Given that we humans are creatures of habit, how do the writers propose that narcissism be transformed into humility, especially when corporate ladder climbing is not an instantaneous process. It takes years if not decades to trudge up the ladder, and by the time one reaches the top, narcissistic tendencies would have been hardwired into one’s brains. To suggest that all it takes to flip the switch from narcissism to humility is “some” self-awareness is unrealistic and almost ludicrous.

Power decreases empathy
Furthermore, recent research in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University by Hogeveen, Inzlicht and Obhi unveiled something you might have always suspected: that power changes the level of empathy one has for others, and that there is a tendency for the powerful to neglect the powerless. These neuroscientists concur that, “anecdotes abound about the worker on the shop floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the junior sales associate whose regional manager never remembers her name and seems to look straight through her in meetings”.

It is worth noting that causality is not addressed in this research, i.e., what causes the low level of empathy in powerful people? Also, did they have a low level of empathy to begin with?

The good news
In an NPR (National Public Radio) program about this research, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist from UC Berkeley, pointed out that powerful people can teach themselves to be more compassionate. And from my leadership coaching work with leaders and executives, I see that it is indeed possible. However, it starts with a huge dose of self-awareness (not just “some”), and it works best if someone objective like a coach or mentor is able to point out the leader’s blind spots in a supportive, nonjudgmental manner, while being fully committed to their growth and well-being.

But why commit to being more compassionate at all? Is it just the stuff of “soft skills”? Does having managers with high EQ (Emotional Intelligence, which consists of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management) impact the bottom-line? What do you think?

Who signs up for coaching — here’s an inside look

ICF infographic Mar 2014


Skydiving was on my bucket list and I finally did it last month! The fear of the initial drop out of the plane is obvious on this video. I made it through that by keeping my eyes shut :-). The flying part was exhilarating! Insight learned: If I only focused on the fear, I wouldn’t have done it. Because I thought more about the fun and meaningful part, I could go through the experience. How about you? What’s your take on going through a frightful experience…?


My in-laws were visiting us from Norway and they had a good laugh watching this video. So, go ahead, you have my permission to laugh at me! ;-p


Happiness Can Lead To Profitability

“You can download the free audio version of the Tribal Leadership book online. It’s sponsored by Zappos,” said John King, the presenter and co-author of the book.

“How generous,” I thought.

And that was the first time I had heard of Zappos. It was the 2008 International Coach Federation’s conference in Los Angeles and King had shown us a video clip of the Zappos office, depicting their unique corporate culture and the essence of a tribe that thrives.

The fun, creative, laid back environment we witnessed reminded me of the Internet start-up culture that captured young adults’ imagination during the dot com years. But unlike those start-ups that evaporated into oblivion, Zappos has survived and flourished over the last decade, resulting in Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos for $1.2 billion in 2009.

How did an online shoe retailer go from being on the verge of closure to being a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon? How did it dominate the $2 billion online shoe market when there are still people who haven’t bought a single pair of shoes online?

In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO, answers these questions in a no-holds-barred manner. Even though Hsieh states upfront that it is “not meant to be a complete autobiography”, readers are treated to Hsieh’s first entrepreneurial inklings as a child, his college years at Harvard, his first job at Oracle, and his first major business success at LinkExchange.

As an Asian, I was tickled by Hsieh’s “three categories of accomplishments that mattered to Asian parents” and his ingenious way of dealing with having to learn three musical instruments.

As a business coach, there are two significant business lessons from Zappos’ experience that I hope more entrepreneurs and businesses would heed.

The first one is Zappos’ clarity about their business’s potential market share – the $2 billion online slice of the $40 billion shoe retail market. This clarity seems to have driven several of their decisions, especially those crucial ones about whether to close the business or soldier on.

In Hsieh’s words, “In business, one of the most important decisions for an entrepreneur or a CEO to make is what business to be in. It doesn’t matter how flawlessly a business is executed if it’s the wrong business or if it’s too small a market”.

Many entrepreneurs, on the other hand, start and struggle in businesses because they lack this clarity. Instead they believe, to their detriment, the adage “If you build it, they’ll come”.

Another intriguing lesson learned is Hsieh’s experience at LinkExchange that centers around culture: “How did we go from an “all-for-one, one-for-all” team environment to one that was now all about politics, positioning and rumors?”

Even though Hsieh could not pinpoint the precise causes of this dysfunctional culture, what came out of it was his resolve to design a culture at Zappos that was the opposite, where their goal is for their employees to “think of their work not as a job or career, but as a calling”.

And Hsieh fills the book with details of how Zappos’ fun yet sustainable culture was built, from their 10 Core Values, their Culture Book to the strategy of Brand, Culture, Pipeline.

As a business coach, I’ve always believed in the power of a company’s culture to sustain its growth. It is one of the core pillars of any successful business and a significant competitive advantage. So it’s heartening to read about a culture’s evolution in Delivering Happiness, to see a “tribe’s” journey, and the many facets that go into generating a connectedness and sense of belonging in the context of a business.

Hsieh states that his purpose in writing Delivering Happiness is to help people avoid making many of the same mistakes that he has made, and for the book to “to serve as encouragement to established businesses as well as entrepreneurs who want to defy conventional wisdom and create their own paths to success”.

If you are one such entrepreneur, Delivering Happiness is the book for you.


A few of my favorite quotes from the book

  • “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path” – Morpheus, The Matrix
  • “The Zappos Mission: To live and deliver WOW.”
  • “Zappos is about delivering happiness to the world.”
  • “We are all human at the core, and it can be easy to lose sight of that in a world ruled by business, politics, and social status.”
  • “No matter what your past has been, you have a spotless future.” – Author unknown
  • “It’s more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long difficult words but rather short easy words like “What about lunch?” – Winnie-the-Pooh


* P.S. A free advanced copy of the Delivering Happiness book was sent to us by Zappos to review.

“It is still a beautiful world”…

In 2004, i visited my friend Georgia in Perth, Australia, where she ran “Herb Circle” a store filled with books and lots of heart-centered gifts. i bought this little book, titled “Desiderata, a survival guide for life”, in part as remembrance of Georgia and our unforgettable experiences in Perth. It contains the poem by Max Ehrmann, written in 1972, that is enhanced by a series of beautiful, resonant photos.

In today’s current climate of uncertainty, this poem reminds us of the big picture of life. Hope you like it.

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”