Why we need mindful leaders
Most leadership books and training programs focus on how leaders can achieve more—do more, better, faster, with spectacular results. We’ve become obsessed with continuous improvement at increasing speed, with resulting rising stress levels to leaders and their followers and deteriorating relationships. Mindfulness as both a leadership practice and workplace culture holds the promise to bring back balance and better health.
Ray Williams is President of Ray Williams Associates, a firm based in Vancouver, providing executive coaching and professional speaking services. He is the author of Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Transform Chaotic Workplaces, The Leadership Edge, Breaking Bad Habits, the novel Dragon Tamer, co-author of Systemic Change: Touchstones For the Future School, and Ready, Aim, Influence. He has been interviewed by or written for such publications as The Washington Post, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The National Post, The Financial Post, Entrepreneur, MacLeans, and Salon.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
Most contemporary management and leadership literature is a predictive recasting of 19thand 20th century institutional thinking-multitasking, bigger, better, faster; planning, analysis, and problem-solving. Work on steroids.
While it is true that the effectiveness of leaders is determined by the results they achieve, those results are an outcome of the impact the leaders have on others. Behavior is driven by thinking and emotions. Thinking and emotions can be a result of mindfulness or mindlessness.
Neuroscience research clearly established that we act, decide and choose as a result of inner forces, often unconscious, and the brain’s reactive and protective mechanisms often rule us. Research also points to the existence of emotions being contagious and viral in the workplaces, often initiated by the emotional states of leaders.
There’s a price to pay for our breakneck speed to continuously improve, and produce.
In an article in Forbes magazine, professors Cyril Bouquet and Ben Bryant, citing the disastrous collision of two Boeing 747’s in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 583 people, was a case of poor attention management. They argue that two kinds of attention disorders exacerbate the difficulties companies face in economic downturns-fixation and relaxation. In the case of fixation, the leaders are too preoccupied with a few central signals or information; they ignore everything else. With respect to relaxation, Bouquet and Bryant contend that excessive relaxation follows sustained periods of high concentration. The authors argue that mindfulness can lessen the attention problems of fixation and relaxation.
The demands of leadership can produce what is known as “power stress,” a side effect of being in a position of power and influence that often leaves even the best leaders physically and emotionally drained. As a result, leaders can easily find themselves moving from an “approach” orientation to their work-emotionally open, engaged, and innovative to an “avoidance” orientation that is characterized by aversion, irritability, aggression, fear, and close-mindedness.
If leaders believe they don’t have the time to work through all aspects of a problem they are inclined to be narrow in perspective and take cognitive shortcuts and become more impulsive and reactive. Their actions, in effect, become “mindless” and automatic.
Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist and author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, contends that a corporate culture of cognitive shortcuts results in oversimplification, curtailed curiosity, reliance on ingrained beliefs, and the development of perceptional blind spots. He argues that mindfulness practices enable individuals to jettison judgment and develop more flexible feelings toward what before may have been mental events they tried to avoid, or towards which they had intense adverse reactions.
David Rock, writing in Psychology Today argues that “busy people who run our companies and institutions …tend to spend little time thinking about themselves and other people, but a lot of time thinking about strategy, data and systems. As a result the circuits involved in thinking about oneself and other people, the medial prefrontal cortex, tend to be not too well developed.” Rock says “speaking to an executive about mindfulness can be a bit like speaking to a classical musician about jazz.”
In the East, mindfulness developed in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions as a component of yoga and meditation practice, and was designed to free the mind of unwholesome habits. In the West mindfulness is an element of many Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and North American aboriginal practices designed for spiritual growth.
Over the past decade, researchers and mental health professionals have been discovering that both ancient and modern mindfulness practices hold great promise for ameliorating virtually every kind of psychological suffering–from everyday worry, dissatisfaction, and neurotic habits to more serious problems with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and related conditions. The exploration and practice of mindfulness have grown on a global scale. Used now in settings ranging from preschools to prisons, mindfulness, once only studied by scientists and religious practitioners, is making its way into the mainstream.
So what exactly is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Other definitions are: “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,” and “it includes a quality of compassion, acceptance, and loving-kindness.”
The three foundational elements of mindfulness-objectivity, openness, and observation-create a tripod that stabilizes the mind’s attentional lens. This enables the mind to become conscious of the mind itself and thus become liberated from the common ways in which it is imprisoned by its own preoccupations. This is why, through mindfulness practice, we can transform self-created suffering into personal liberation. As we engage in mindful awareness practices, we have the potential to develop long-term personality traits from intentionally created mindful states. Research has suggested that these mindfulness traits include the capacity to suspend judgments, to act in awareness of our moment-to-moment experience, to achieve emotional equilibrium or equanimity, to describe our internal world with language.
Mindfulness meditation comes in 2 distinct forms: formal meditation: when you intentionally take time out of your day to embark on a meditative practice; and informal meditation, when you go into a focused and meditative state of mind as you go about your daily activities.
There are 7 key elements to mindfulness:
- Paying attention: Focusing 100% of your attention on whatever you are doing
- Non-judging: taking the role of an impartial observer to whatever your current experience is, and not judging whether things are good or bad.
- Patience: cultivating the understanding that things must develop in their own time.
- Being in the present moment. Being aware of how things are right now in the present moment, not as they were in the past, or how they might be in the future.
- Non-reactivity. Our brains are built to have you react automatically, without thinking. Mindfulness encourages you to respond to your experience rather than react to your thoughts. Mindfulness is a deliberate and intentional choice.
- Beginner’s mind: having the willingness to observe the world as if it was your first time doing so. This creates an openness that is essential to being mindful.
- Trust: having trust in yourself, your intuition, and your abilities.
- Non-striving: the state of not doing anything, just simply accepting that things are happening in the moment just as they are supposed to. For people from the Western countries like the United States, this seems to be one of the more difficult components.
- Acceptance: completely accepting the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs that you have, and understanding that they are simply those things only.
- Open-heartedness. Mindfulness is not just about the head or brain, it’s about the heart and spirit as well. To be open-hearted is to bring a quality of kindness, compassion, warmth and friendliness to our experience.
- Non-attachment: avoidance of attaching meaning to thoughts and feelings, or connecting a given thought to a feeling. Instead, let a thought or feeling come in and pass without connecting it to anything, observing them exactly as they are.
What are the benefits and impacts of mindfulness on leaders and the workplace?
In tough economic times, there’s often a knee-jerk reactive argument for panic, pessimism, and “getting tough” most of which generate a culture of fear. Mindfulness practiced extensively in organizations, can be a powerful antidote to fear and aggression tendencies.
Buddhist trained HR executive, Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation applies the key principles of mindfulness and how they could apply to leaders of organizations. He argues that mindfulness in leaders and their organizations can:
- Heal toxic workplace cultures where anxiety and stress impede creativity and performance;
- Cultivate courage and confidence in spite of workplace difficulties in economic downturns;
- Pursue organizational goals without neglecting the here and now;
- Lead with wisdom and gentleness, not only with ambition, relentless drive and power;
- Develop innate leadership talents.
Since 2001, through the work of neuroscientist Richard Davidson and others, we’ve learned that left prefrontal cortex activity, associated with higher states of personal growth, meaning, and purpose, is measured at extraordinarily high levels with people who practice mindful meditation regularly.
Research shows mindfulness leads to significant changes in the brain-more cognitive flexibility, creativity, and innovativeness, higher levels of well-being, better emotional regulation, and more empathy, as reflected in increased levels of alpha and beta brain wave activity.
The National Institute of Health is currently financing more than 50 studies testing the potential health benefits of mindfulness techniques. A University of Pennsylvania study in which mindfulness meditation training was provided to a high-stress U.S. military group preparing for deployment to Iraq has demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training and improvements in mood and working memory.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and MIT reported from their study of mindfulness that mindfulness practitioners were far more able to “turn down the volume” on distracting information and focus their attention better than non-mindfulness practitioners.
Mindfulness improves attention, memory problem solving, enhances the experience of empathy and other positive emotions, lowers stress, and is effective in the treatment of varied medical and mental health conditions such as ADHD, PSD, chronic pain, cancer, addiction, and depression.
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy delivered in a group format is as effective as antidepressant medication in treating depression.
According to a study published in the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology, the positive effects of mindfulness begin at the cellular level, altering levels of telomerase immune cells.
A study from the University of California Berkeley, published in the journal Emotion, studied the mind-body connection of professional dancers in comparison with accomplished mindfulness meditators and found that the latter were more in sync with their bodies.
A study by Kirk Brown at the University of Rochester found that people high on a mindfulness scale were more aware of their unconscious processes and had more cognitive control and greater ability to shape what they do and what they say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale.
We need leaders in our organizations who practice mindfulness as a lifestyle skill and leadership competency.
Daniel Goleman, an acknowledged expert on emotional intelligence in leadership and organizations, writes in his book, Primal Leadership, “the first tasks of management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself.” If leaders are constantly in the doing phase, without taking time for self-reflection and mindfulness, this knowing of oneself presents a serious challenge.
Richard Boyatzis, professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and author of Resonant Leadership argues that good leaders attain resonance with those around them through self-awareness and relationship management, all clearly connected to mindfulness.
To become mindful leaders and tap into that power, they must:
- Let go of their belief in themselves as technical and problem solving geniuses and embrace the notion of becoming mindful partners. This requires building an awareness of and becoming more open to nuance and subtlety.
- Be open to the concept of an unknown future. What we plan for today may not work tomorrow. To succeed in an unknown future, leaders must acknowledge mistakes quickly when things are not turning out as they predicted; be flexible enough to make changes quickly without defending their territory or ego;
- Become skilled at leading through intuitive reflection rather than logical analysis;
- Become more open and accepting of the world and others, and their differing points of view, rather than trying to reshape the world in the leader’s own image.
- Become more mindful of what is going on in terms of their own thoughts, emotions and body and what is going in context. External mindfulness is being able to sense situations, being aware of the signals and cues in different contexts, and paying attention to them. Internal mindfulness is being aware of one’s body, emotions and thoughts and requires the ability and attitude to monitor one’s inner reality.
And mindfulness can have a tremendous impact on workplace culture.
Many workplaces such as Raytheon, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, NortelNetowrks, Comcast, Yahoo, Google, eBay, and Apple now offer employees classes in mindful meditation and senior executives such as Bill Ford Jr., Michael Stephen, Robert Shapiro, and Michael Rennie practice regular mindful mediation as part of their regimen.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) offers a Mindfulness Center at their facilities where employees can take year-round retreats and workshops. GMCR returned roughly 3,400% in the stock market in the last decade, making it one of the best-performing stocks during that period.
Our modern world has become unbalanced, with an excessive focus on doing and speed and multitasking, with little time for just “being” and reflection. Mindfulness can restore that balance to leaders and workplaces.