Why Mindfulness Matters in Leadership

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Meditation, especially what is called “mindfulness meditation,” has become mainstream. But despite its growth in popularity, some misconceptions still linger. Many people think it requires sitting in special, often difficult, postures; chanting in foreign languages; or establishing a completely clear mind. In truth, mindfulness meditation is a simple practice that doesn’t require any of the above. Moreover, it has important implications in the world of business.

As Bill George of Harvard Business School said in an HBR article back in 2012, “The practice of mindful leadership … teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations.”

The key value of mindfulness meditation for senior leaders is that it can help manage stress. Three sources of stress are most often cited by people in executive roles.

  1. You must deliver against the demands of the current job. Few senior executives feel like their compensation/recognition for a job well done is earned easily. There are always new projects and the high expectations for success that come with them.
  2. You must be ready for additional responsibility. Many executives, however ambitious for the next rung, report how different it is once they get there and often say (privately) that they feel they may be in over their heads.
  3. Your work/life balance is a challenge to maintain. Being a senior executive can be very demanding. While productivity aids can make it more efficient (e.g., smartphones, calendar reminders, support staff, regular meetings), these are all external devices outside of the executive that support the work getting done more efficiently. But these tools raise new expectations for even greater productivity and attention to work versus the rest of life.

Are there internal support tools, inside of executives—like a frame of mind that can be cultivated with practice—that can help them be more effective in the face of all these sources of stress? Such tools do exist and can help individuals manage these stresses so that they (1) collaborate with colleagues effectively, (2) make better decisions with a clear and open mind, and (3) have more energy left at the end of the day. There is a large body of evidence that mindfulness does these things and more: it encourages balance and peace of mind at work and at home, even a sense of connection to loved ones and oneself. No silver bullets exist, but a regular mindfulness meditation practice can affect each of these domains.

The notion is simple. Rather than changing the external conditions of our lives, jobs, etc., mindfulness helps us find peace and agility within those conditions. It reduces the resistance (anxiety, frustration, resentments) in our mental circuits, allowing stress to flow through (and out) more efficiently. This helps to keep our thinking and decision-making processes functioning well, reduces rumination and emotional reactivity, boosts focus and working memory, and can even improve relationships at work and at home.

The practice of mindfulness can take many forms. At its simplest, it may just be a daily 10-minute session of sitting quietly, paying attention to the sensations of your breathing, patiently returning to those sensations each time the mind wanders (and it will!). At a higher level, a mindfulness practice can be customized, often with the help of a teacher, around one’s individual goals—for example, increasing comfort with a specific emotion, or more effectively managing a particular work or life situation.

Mindfulness is not like a pill that you swallow for immediate but temporary relief.

Its effects are best measured over weeks and months. But if practiced consistently, the benefits can be significant and lasting.

 

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