What Is a Mindful Leader and How To Become One
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
What is Mindfulness
There is a lot of buzz words these days around "Mindfulness" and "Mindful Leadership". But what is it actually? More importantly, how can we become mindful leaders? The answer is, we must first become mindful people!
So, some of you may be new to the whole mindfulness thing. Others, are more familiar. Let's get everyone on the same page. There a lot of definitions out there, especially in the west, but I like a simple one pioneered by John Kabat-Zinn. He says mindfulness is, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. By focusing on the breath, the idea is to cultivate attention on the body and mind as it is moment to moment, and so help with pain, both physical and emotional. When you are mindful and in the present moment (letting the moment be the moment) you are really here for your life experiencing it not as you hoped it would be, not as you expected it to be, but for exactly what is here, as it unfolds, meeting each moment with equanimity. From here, emerges a beautiful state of joy. Seems simple enough right? There are tremendous physical and psychological benefits to a sustained (even short-term) meditation practice. This is something I focus in greatly in my meditation and mindfulness coaching. Although that isn't the focus of this article, I'd still like to refer you to more information about it here.
So How Does Mindfulness Meditation Help?
Think of all the challenges in our world today. Rapidly changing technology, complex economic restraints on our organizations, information overload, and everchanging work environments and expectations. I often hear from leaders (even high performing ones) that there is something 'missing' from there lives. Although they are getting the job done, meeting quarterly goals, growing company revenue and profits, they feel drained, a little hollow and empty. In my experience, what they are missing is space.
I don't mean physical space (although that does help). I am talking about really relaxed and peaceful time to get yourself together and appreciate the joy, harmony and majesty in life. If we can't take the time to slow down, how can we look at ourselves more deeply? How can we build self-awareness and self-regulation? How can we foster deeper connections with those around us and those that we lead? Mindful leadersip (or mindfulness in general) helps us do just that.
Research shows that mindfulness helps leaders with executive functioning, visuo-spatial processing, working memory and attention. In addition researchers have found that it helps with:
Improved decision-making skills: Mindful leaders are better equipped to weigh the options and consciously choose what’s best for the individual, team, and organization as a whole. This also leads to more confident leadership.
More creativity: Thinking outside the box is hard when you’re not even aware that the box exists. Mindfulness helps employees and leaders think beyond the easiest route and come up with ideas and strategies for the greater good, even if it’s not what is typically done.
Reduced unconscious bias: Everyone has thoughts, opinions, and biases that are a product of upbringing, social norms, and history. That bias is actually a shortcut created by the brain for quick decision making. But mindfulness encourages leaders to understand why they feel a certain way, and to avoid making decisions based on personal bias.
What Exactly is a Mindful Leader?
I like to think that a minful leader is able to cultivate mindfulnes both on and off the meditation cushion. Part of this is being more present, clear, focused, empathetic, relaxed, creative and joyous for yourself and for others. All of these things help contribute to leadership presence, which is the able to hold firm, grounded and confident space for yourself and those around you and maintaining an environment of safety.
As an example, have you ever been around someone who was cearly intelligent, grounded, confident but also in a place of authority? In addition, they made you feel like YOU were the more important one? This, in my opinion, is an example of leadership presence. On the other end of the spectrum, is someone who is aggressive, angry, bossy and generates a feeling of unsafety, fear and inadequecy. The former leader, creates what organizatinoal psychologist Amy Edmundson calls Psychological Safety.
Being fully in the present moment helps us maintain our composure and hold that space for ourselves and others. When we are able to fully experience our bodies and our senses are taking in more information around us, we can feel far more peace and joy. So, for those who are able to do this, it has a ripple effect on our families, friends, colleagues, teams, organizations, the community we live in, the people we lead and, of course, the world as a whole.
Creating Mindful Leaders
There is a lot of time and work that goes into building and sustaining a mindfulness meditation practice. That being said, at the centre of the work is single-focused attention. As mentioned before, the world we live in constantly competes for our attention. How can we really be with others if we can't really be with ourselves? There are some basic practices we can begin to follow which help to build focus and hone attention. In addition, this improves your ability to be aware of what's going on in your body and mind at any given moment, you can utilize all of your capabilities. When I work with my clients we often discuss two concepts which really help bring home the power of mindfulness. Firstly, when we are not present (focused on many things, stressed, angry, etc.) we "React and Contract". That means, we are letting our thoughts and emotions lead us as opposed to letting them go and relaxing into the moment. This also creates physical and mental tension in the mind and body, thus creating a poor experience of the world. With mindfulness, we learn to "Respond and Expand" which is the ability to observe what is happening, build awareness around it and regulate our thoughts, emotions and our behavior. This is especially useful when things are challenging or tense but also helps us move out of negative emotional states faster, and experience happiness, joy and peace more often.
The Two Qualities of a Great Leader:
Don't misunderstand me. Performance in leadership is crucial for success in the role. That being said, however, great leaders are not defined by the numbers but the people. They captivate, inspire, motivate, encourage, grow and allow us to believe in a vision bigger than ourselves. The qualities can be distilled into just two capacities of leadership excellence. The leaders we admire have a strong command of these capacities and create an environment conducive to growth and high performance.
1. A leader's ability to connect—to self, to others, to the team, to the organization, to the community and to the world. Connecting to self is how we build self-awarness and align our lives in accordance with our values, ethics and intuition. It serves as grounding in the midst of uncertainty, a compass in the eye of a storm. How deeply we are able to connect authentically with others is the difference between an organizational environment that nourishes psychological safety and trust and one that is insular, closed off, uncomfortable and disengaging. Connecting with the community and the world is a result of susained practice. As we "Respond and Expand" our hearts (empathy) grows and we can appreciate and hold compassion for many more people than just ourselves and those that matter most to us. Midfulness helps us both see and feel the big picture as we learn to let go of the minute details and stressors and get in touch with more harmony, joy and peace. That wider connection is how great organizations give meaning to their existence and inspire their employees.
2. A leader's skillfull ability to create or manage change. In Buddhism we talk a lot about "skillfull means". These are the actions that follow from a clear heart and mind, fully open to the present moment. Leading by command and control but by collaborating and listening with open curiosity and a willingness, at times, to live within ambiguity until a decision becomes clear. It’s also this capacity that fuels a leader’s willingness to take a courageous stand, lead the organization or industry into new arenas, and accept failures as experiments from which to learn.
Starting a Mindfulness Practice
So, understanding the benefits of practice, how that contributes to greater leadership and what makes mindful leaders different is the easy part. Actually practicing is the real first step towards becoming a better leader. I think the key to starting a practice is just that; start! Allocate a realistic amount of time every day to practice focusing on your breath. I have included in this article a few guided meditations like this 15 minute guided meditation and this 30 minute guided meditation to help you start your practice. Just remember, your mind WILL wonder. That's okay. Just notice when it does and compassionately bring it back to your breathing either in the nose our through the belly. Below are some more detailed written instructions. Meditation is simpler (and harder) than most people think. Read these steps, make sure you’re somewhere where you can relax into this process, set a timer, and give it a shot:
1) Take a seat
Find place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you.
2) Set a time limit
If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as five or 10 minutes.
3) Notice your body
You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, you can sit loosely cross-legged, you can kneel—all are fine. Just make sure you are stable and in a position you can stay in for a while.
4) Feel your breath
Follow the sensation of your breath as it goes in and as it goes out.
5) Notice when your mind has wandered
Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. When you get around to noticing that your mind has wandered—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—simply return your attention to the breath.
6) Be kind to your wandering mind
Don’t judge yourself or obsess over the content of the thoughts you find yourself lost in. Just come back.
7) Close with kindness
When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
That’s it! That’s the practice. You focus your attention, your mind wanders, you bring it back, and you try to do it as kindly as possible (as many times as you need to).