Developing Leaders: Ambition and Mindfulness Meditation

By: Ed C. Ryterband

Successful executive development requires significant and sustained ambition. Mindfulness meditation can be an important tool in examining that ambition and making it a fuel that sustains the senior leader’s development. Through mindfulness meditation, leaders can have a clearer picture of themselves and the goals they want to achieve, and they will be better able to focus on effective strategies for achieving those goals.

Ambition is a key ingredient in senior leadership. It drives the desire for roles of significant impact and challenge. It is also, in RHR’s view, a complex feature of those leaders—made up of several characteristics, such as their competitiveness, self-confidence, and the sense of accomplishment they derive in their work.

Ambition, even a great deal of it, can be a good thing. In its most healthy form, it represents a mission to do something for the good of others: provide safe and effective healthcare, quality education, affordable housing. It can also fuel the person’s desire to use their exceptional abilities to produce valued organizational outcomes like business growth, profits, and innovations that matter.

But ambition can also have a dark side. That underbelly can emerge when leaders are ambitious because they are trying to prove something about themselves or overcome self-doubts. It becomes even more of a problem when leaders don’t recognize or understand their motivations.

Mindfulness meditation is a useful way to govern that dark side’s potential impact as part of an executive’s development. All executives can be motivated in part by ambition’s darker forces; many have doubts about themselves and want to overcome them. The process of mindfulness meditation, especially the techniques focused on equanimity (or mental calmness), can help them to be motivated and ambitious, but do it in such a way that they stay balanced for the long haul. 

In meditating on equanimity, four phrases are repeated. Each phrase gives clues to its value in helping an executive stay balanced and ambitious at the same time. Meditating on them usually involves sitting in a quiet place and focusing attention on repeating them. The four phrases:

Things are just as they are.

All things are impermanent.

Feelings arise and pass away.

I am safe in this moment.

  1. Things are just as they are. This phrase tells executives that ambitions should be informed by a clear-eyed picture of themselves and the world in which they hope their ambitions will be realized. It keeps them from wishful thinking and resentments. It can lead them after meditating into a more objective SWOT analysis about their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and the threats to their success.
  2. All things are impermanent. This statement reminds executives that whatever the conditions of the present are, they are going to change. It encourages them to refresh their SWOT analysis, update their picture of the world, and their strengths and limitations in that world. It also encourages them to think about the future that may unfold and impact their ambitions.
  3. Feelings arise and pass away. This phrase encourages executives to keep going, remembering that ambition requires drive and commitment. They will have successes—celebrate them but don’t cling to them. They will have setbacks—acknowledge them and the feelings that come with them, learn from them. Then go on, even though going on may require them to alter their current path or commit to a whole new path they did not foresee.
  4. I am safe in this moment. This statement provides perspective. It helps the executive leader to remember that ambitions exist because he or she chooses to be ambitious; striving does not spell life or death. Ambitions are meaningful when executive leaders are fully committed to them, but they are pursued in a more sustainable way when the leader can remember to have some perspective about their chosen path.

Most sources on meditation recommend meditating in sessions that last for 10–30 minutes. They are most effective when performed daily, at the same time each day. If not daily, they should be done as often as possible. Here is a set of instructions that we have found useful:

Find a comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes. Notice your breathing, your posture. Picture yourself at your job—in the office or wherever. Then, when you’re settled in, say the four phrases to yourself. Repeat them over and over, in sequence. When your mind wanders, and it will, bring it gently back to the four phrases. That’s all there is to do. The effects are subtle and not likely to be immediate, but they will be there if you keep at it.

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