Learn to juggle, learn to lead
By Charlotte Crystal
Business is a juggling act. There are details, decisions, deductions and deadlines. All must stay aloft.
To keep all these balls in the air, managers must be able to clear their minds of distracting thoughts. Most business schools supply their students with a basic business tool kit — skills in accounting, marketing and finance — but U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce goes further. It
offers an elective class in “Mindful Leadership” that teaches the bottom-line value of personal insight, compassion and clear-headed thought.
Taught by Marga Odahowski, director of studies at the International Residential College, the course is made possible through the generosity of Jeffrey Walker, a 1977 graduate of McIntire, managing partner of J.P. Morgan Partners, a $13 billion, private investment fund, and currently the president of the McIntire School of Commerce Foundation board of trustees.
Together, Walker and Odahowski have developed the Mindful Leadership course, which was offered for the third time this fall to commerce and College students. The syllabus describes the course’s goals:
“Throughout our careers and in life we are called to lead. Many of us have little formal education in the skills of attention, concentration, listening and empathy that are necessary in the development of authentic leadership. Our world is full of distractions; we are pulled in many directions. Let’s begin a conversation in higher education where mindfulness and compassion are in the forefront of our deepest understanding of what it means to be a leader of profits or nonprofits in today’s world.”
Other top business schools, such as those at Harvard University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Richmond offer similar interdisciplinary leadership programs, Walker said.
Inside Monroe Hall’s Room 110 on a recent afternoon, to introduce a discussion on the need for focus, a positive attitude and teamwork, Walker taught students in the Mindful Leadership course to juggle.
About 20 students donned name tags, gathered in a large circle and paired off to learn to juggle one, two, and then, if possible, three beanbag balls. “The first thing about juggling you need to know is it’s supposed to be fun,” Walker said as students frowned in concentration.
“Throw up one ball and then drop it,” Walker instructed. “Your partner will pick it up. You have to throw it up to eye level, but not too high or you start to lose control. Then take two balls. Do two loops. Don’t let go of one ’til the other one is at eye level.” One set of students attempted to juggle as their instructors continued.
“Focus on the toss, not the catch,” Odahowski said.
The sound of laughter, advice and balls hitting the floor filled the room. Students had five minutes to work on their technique before switching partners.
“Alrighty, we’re done,” Walker announced after 10 minutes.
What did the students learn from the exercise?
“There’s always pressure when you’re learning something new,” one student said.
“I was impatient and wanted to do it right away,” another student said.
“I had to learn to trust my partner,” a third added.
Walker used the students’ impressions as a lead-in to his PowerPoint presentation, which tied the lessons from the juggling exercise to business situations.
He talked about the importance of making mistakes. “We write off 30 percent of our venture capital investments,” Walker said of his investment group. “If we were afraid of writing things off, we would never make a deal. Make a mistake. It’s OK. That’s how you learn.”
He mentioned the need to clear the mind to focus on one thing at a time and to listen closely when someone is speaking.
“People think they can multitask. But if you focus on one thing at a time, you will do all of the tasks better,” Walker said.
He also discussed the benefits of visualizing success.
“You’ve got to give people an idea of what your goal is going to look like,” he said. “The business plan that people give us and that we back is never what they do. We often have to rethink things six months down the road. There’s a lot of trial and error. But it’s a path, a guide.”
Like anything else, such as learning to be an effective business leader, learning how to juggle takes practice, Walker said. “But over time, it will become natural.”