Mindfulness in Leadership

December 3. 2013
by Christy Cassisa

"Leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others, and motivating them towards shared goals. Hence, they become more effective in leadership roles." -William W. George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic, author of four best-selling books.

In the past few years, we have seen a veritable explosion of research into the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.  Many researchers have been surprised by the depth and breadth of positive changes seen in people who’ve learned and practiced these skills.  The data are showing that those who practice meditation experience improvements not only in measures of health, such as stress levels, blood pressure and chronic pain, but also in aspects of job performance, such as focus, emotional regulation, creativity and working memory capacity. And additional studies show links to improved overall life satisfaction through increased social connectedness, decreased anxiety and depression and increased empathy and compassion.

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now, in this moment, and exploring that awareness with a non-judgmental attitude.  While it is a practice rooted in ancient traditions, it is not inherently religious or spiritual.  Meditation is one aspect of mindfulness where the most benefit is felt because meditation trains the mind to pay attention.   Much like learning any skill, learning to pay attention to NOW is something that takes effort and practice, even though you may not actually be doing anything.  Meditation hones the skills of attention and non-judgment so that you not only know what is occurring in the moment, but you also learn to hold a curious attention on it, rather than analyzing or attaching meaning to it.   Mindfulness as simple awareness is also something that can be practiced any time- while brushing your teeth, playing with a child, or while examining complex options at work.  And its benefits have far reaching effects throughout work and life.

Businesses of all types have embraced the fact that the wellbeing of their employees improves the health of the company.  At least one quarter of large US companies have launched stress reduction programs of some sort, and many of those are also incorporating mindfulness and meditation trainings.  Many well-known names such as Google, Aetna, Twitter, Facebook, Genentech, General Mills, AOL Time Warner and Target have brought mindfulness and meditation to their people.  These practices are being hailed as the next great thing in the efforts to improve the performance, health and overall wellbeing of employees and leadership alike.

"Cultivating the perceptual, emotional, and interpersonal aspects of human beings—all key elements of mindfulness practice— strengthens capacities we need to live and work effectively." -Jeremy Hunter, PhD, Professor Peter F. Drucker School of Management

Executives and leaders can particularly benefit from practicing mindfulness. Although the health and work performance improvements alone would likely convince most skeptics, management-related benefits are becoming increasingly apparent as well.  Leaders at work influence not only their own careers, but also the direction of the entire organization, and with it the livelihoods and wellbeing of all of their employees.  The consequences of a poor decision made by an executive in auto-pilot, reactive mode, are felt more broadly than most as effects spread throughout the organizational strategy and culture.  Even the products produced and services provided bear the imprint of choices made at the top.   

For executives, learning to do nothing to achieve more is counter-intuitive. But what is often found once we begin to look is that the very drive that has brought us success thus far may blind us to the next steps to progress further.  Mindfulness allows the mind to begin to recognize the patterns and habits, the stories and tape-loops that run a constant commentary on the happenings of the day.  Once that awareness is developed, the commentary can be challenged and resulting behaviors can be shifted, towards presence and clarity. 

Mindfulness helps improve strategizing, the decision-making process and the resulting decisions because the brain is able to be present and focused on what is actually on the table, and therefore the leader is able to listen more fully and respond more appropriately.  Rather than reactive interpretations or pre-conceived expectations, perspectives are widened and calmed.  Much like “mental hygiene”, mindfulness clears out the clutter and stories so that the workday can be managed with more wisdom and intention.  Enhanced emotional resiliency and self-awareness also arise as a natural byproduct of mindfulness practices, and these in turn lead to more effective and inspirational leaders.

We are pleased to be partnering with Rady School of Management, Center for Executive Development in offering our first Mindful Leadership course.  This course is highly experiential and is aimed at introducing mindfulness and exploring how it can be integrated into leadership roles and organizational culture.  It will be conducted in 2 half-days, one week apart, to allow for daily practice and follow-up discussions.  Participants will learn about the scientific foundations of mindfulness, why meditation is such a powerful technique and will begin practicing mindfulness exercises.  The class will provide a unique supportive structure to discuss experiences and build a framework for bringing this new awareness to work, leadership and life.  We hope to meet you there!

For more information about our workplace mindfulness programs, contact via email at mindfulness@ucsd.edu.

A Few Mindful Leadership Articles

Developing Mindful Leaders- Harvard Business Review, Dec 2011

The Mind Business- Financial Times Magazine, Aug 2012

Mindfulness Helps You Become a Better Leader –Harvard Business Review Oct 2012

Lead by Achieving Nothing.  Seriously. - Forbes, Nov 2012

Is Mindfulness Good for Business? - Mindful, April 2013

Meditate for More Profitable Decisions- Insead, Sept 2013