By Susan Robertson – August 9, 2017

Every day we face a myriad of choices. Some are routine; others have life-altering impacts. My father, who recently passed away after 91 rich, vibrant years, faced such a choice five years ago.

power of choice

Should he have surgery to prolong his life or forgo surgery with a 2-year life expectancy? He opted out of the surgery, choosing to live fully with the time he had left. Fortunately for us, he lived another five years.

As leaders, most of us don’t face such life and death decisions every day. But, we do face choices that impact how we live, love, and lead. Each choice we make, however small, moves us forward along our desired path. And yet, too often we don’t take the time to fully grasp the more strategic implications of each decision. We fix the immediate issue facing us, but don’t take the few moments needed to assess impacts on other people, or even future decisions.

We react, respond, choose and decide all day, every day. Some are simple choices such as what to wear, how to eat right, or when to work out. But many are more difficult:

  • What direction should I lead this project?
  • How should I give difficult feedback to a colleague?
  • What is the best way to resolving team dynamics and silo issues?

Effective leaders understand that we positively influence the outcomes of our choices when we constantly remain aware whether we are:

Reacting, a response based on habits, beliefs, emotions and patterns developed from our life experience. Less active thinking is involved, and long-term consequences less considered. It’s a choice of behavior, but not usually a conscious one.


Responding, which is an active, very conscious choice to place the decision into your broader, higher-level context and fully consider impacts beyond the immediate challenge. Sometimes it requires a “stepping back” from the moment to raise our awareness of the context, which can be emotional.

Reacting in the Moment

Last month, while in Ireland, my husband Barry and I were in a minor car accident. Barry had been driving and didn’t realize how tired he was. Without warning, he slipped into a very brief micro-sleep and the car went off the road. When I called out, I was impressed that Barry turned the car in the right direction. In the United States, we drive on one side of the road, in Ireland they drive on the opposite side. He reacted, based on two weeks of habit of driving on the opposite side, and turned the car outwards away from the berm. In this moment, we needed the power of reaction.

When Barry stopped the car, we were stuck on top of a stony berm at a 35-degree slant. Had he not turned correctly, we would have rolled over several times landing upside-down in a ditch. Although a bit shaken, we could get out safely.

Responding to the Moment

At this moment, we had another choice. We could have chosen fear or anger, reacting by yelling at each other or blaming one another. We could have become fearful because we didn’t buy the extra auto insurance and we weren’t sure if the car was severely damaged.

We chose gratitude. We were grateful this didn’t occur earlier while driving along the curvy roads next to steep cliffs. We were grateful to those who stopped and helped us. We were grateful for each other. And, thank goodness, the car had no real damage.

Choosing How to Respond: Mindfulness and Awareness

As managers and leaders, we use mindful moments to choose constructive emotional responses, like gratitude over anger. Managers and leaders often derail because they emotionally react rather than respond to tough choices. When conflicts occur, when we deliver difficult messages, make difficult decisions, when someone disagrees, we must not react. We must take that brief moment to dig deep and respond. The ability to take that brief moment requires the practice of self-awareness, self-management, and discipline. These skills are developed from the ability to be self-reflective and mindful.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.”

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

We want the power of reaction in urgent situations like driving off the road. We want the power of response when dealing with every-day sticky situations, like deciding whether to forego surgery late in life. How do we improve our ability to be self-reflective and mindful in those sticky moments, so that we respond instead of react?

Developing Mindfulness and Choice

Self-awareness, self-reflection, and mindfulness are practices that support the power of choice and response. These practices reset our brain’s nervous system to make it less reactive and avoid emotional hijacking. We develop the capacity to handle increasingly difficult situations by responding rather than reacting.

“Companies see mindfulness training as a competitive advantage. Aetna, the nation’s third largest health insurer, partnered with Duke University to study meditation and yoga. Researchers found these practices decreased stress levels by 28%, improved sleep quality (20%), reduced pain (19%), and improved productivity 62 minutes per employee per week.”

Bill George. Huffington Post, July 27, 2015.

To become mindful means to quietly pay attention. When I coach executives, I say, “take a balcony perspective.” This means you pay attention first, then decide your action. This makes you a better leader because you have broader perspective.

Here is a simple mindfulness meditation tip:

  • Breathe Deeply. I like to teach people how to breathe at a rate of 2 breaths per minute. Inhale for 10 seconds, hold for 10 seconds, exhale for 10 seconds. Do this once a day for 3 minutes.
  • In-The-Moment Deep Breathing: This helps you to stop, reflect on your normal reaction, release the emotions of your initial reaction, and choose another course.

When we do these simple practices for just 3 minutes per day we reset our nervous system and lower our trigger points. We develop a new habit of stop, reflect, and choose. This allows you to become more thoughtful as a leader, and more present in your choices. Becoming more responsive rather than reactive enriches your life and improves your leadership.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Charles R. Swindoll