As the popularity of mindfulness has continued to grow, more and more leaders have become interested in how mindfulness training can improve their effectiveness and, ultimately, improve business outcomes.
So, does mindful leadership work? Yes. Mindful leadership works very well in terms of helping leaders achieve long-term, sustainable profit and growth because the practice is a meta skill that improves business acumen, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to create and communicate a clear and compelling vision.
Most, if not all, leaders agree that effective leadership can be boiled down to a few key components. Effective leaders create and communicate a compelling vision of the future, they make good decisions, and they are able to inspire team members to transform the vision into reality.
In this article, you’ll learn how mindful leadership impacts each of the essential leadership skills listed above, supported by scientific research. You’ll also learn the counterintuitive secret to ensuring that you get results from practicing mindful leadership.
How Mindful Leadership Has an Immediate Impact on the Bottom Line
A leader’s impact on the profit and loss statement (P&L) is based on the decisions she or he makes, and how she or he influence the culture of the organization.
The workplace culture a leader creates will likely have a greater impact on the P&L over the long-term than the decisions made by the individual leader.
However, in the short term, a leader’s business acumen and decision-making ability will likely have a more significant impact on the P&L than does the leader’s influence on the workplace culture.
The practice of mindful leadership can immediately improve decision-making skills and thereby improve that leader’s business acumen.
Better Decisions in General
It is now widely understood that people make worse decisions when they are caught in an unpleasant emotion like anxiety or anger, as researchers found in this study (as have many other researchers in other studies).
Generally speaking, the more an unpleasant emotion has taken over the functioning of the brain (the more the amygdala is running the show instead of the prefrontal cortex) the worse the decision will be.
Thus, a simple way to improve the consistency of good decisions being made by a leader is to help the leader better regulate emotion.
In addition to the tremendous number of anecdotal reports from leaders stating that mindfulness training improved their ability to better deal with unpleasant emotions, emotional regulation is one of the most well-documented benefits of practicing mindfulness (as noted in this study).
Improved Business Acumen
There should be no doubt that by improving emotion regulation skills, mindful leadership can improve decision making in general, but what about decisions that have most direct impact on the P&L?
To be more specific, can mindfulness improve a leader’s impact on gross margins and expenses?
According to extensive research conducted by the Perth Leadership Institute, it turns out there are two well-known cognitive biases, called the status quo bias and the illusion of control bias, that cause leaders to consistently make decisions that adversely affect gross margins and expenses.
The status quo bias causes leaders to shy away from challenging the status quo. As you probably guessed, this kills innovation.
An innovation is a solution that disrupts the status quo, and thereby adds more value for the end user than other solutions that aren’t as differentiated.
Because the status quo bias causes leaders to unconsciously avoid innovating, this bias causes a severe negative impact on gross margins, which are heavily dependent on how differentiated and valuable a solution is for the end user.
The illusion of control bias is the belief that the more resources a leader applies to a solution, the better the outcome will be.
As you probably guessed, the illusion of control bias causes leaders to have a negative impact on expenses. The more the leader is affected by the illusion of control bias, the more costs will spiral out of control.
Mindfulness practitioners have known for many years that the practice gradually unwinds conditioned ways of thinking deciding and acting. In other words, mindfulness gradually reduces the degree to which one is affected by cognitive biases like the illusion of control bias and the status quo bias.
In addition to the very large number of anecdotal examples of people reporting greater freedom from their conditioned, habitual ways of doing things, there is now a growing body of research in behavioral science and neuroscience suggesting that mindfulness significantly increases a leader’s mental agility.
A recent study conducted at INSEAD, the highly-respected European business school, suggests that mindfulness training can significantly decrease the degree to which a leader is affected by a cognitive bias.
Even more impressive, the research showed that only 15 minutes of mindfulness training was needed to see a significant reduction in the likelihood of participants being affected by the well-known cognitive bias called the sunk cost bias.
Why Mindful Leadership Is the Foundation for Inspiring Greatness in Others
As mentioned above, over the long term, a leader’s impact on workplace culture is the primary indicator of how successful the leader will be.
More and more leaders are coming to this understanding, realizing that workplace culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that remains in the modern business environment.
There is no single product that is going to make or break a company. Any product company creates can be easily copied within months by anyone in the world.
Any marketing strategy a company creates can easily be copied within days or weeks.
However, if your workplace culture is toxic, it takes a minimum of 3 to 5 years to turn that workplace culture into a successful one.
In a toxic workplace culture innovation is crushed, strategies are not executed well, if it all, customer service (both internal and external) is poor, and the company is doomed to failure sooner or later.
Conversely, in a workplace culture where team members are thriving, innovation thrives, customer service is extraordinary, strategies are executed with enthusiasm, the company attracts top talent, and unnecessary costs resulting from turnover are dramatically reduced.
There’s no question that having a workplace culture in which employees thrive is great for the bottom line.
The point here is that if you have such a culture it will take your competitors years to be able to create one that can compete with yours.
Senior leaders often have the most significant impact on workplace culture.
That impact is almost entirely a product of the leader’s emotional intelligence.
Nearly every skill that can be attributed to properly taking care of team members and inspiring them to do great things falls within the general scope of the general competency of emotional intelligence.
One of the most fundamental benefits of the practice of mindful leadership is the systematic cultivation and improvement of emotional intelligence skills.
The core competency of emotional intelligence, the skill that influences every other competency in the scope of emotional intelligence, is self-awareness.
Mindfulness training is essentially nothing other than the systematic training of self-awareness.
The core practice of mindfulness is to let go of habitual identification with thought by being aware of thinking and having a third person objective view of the body, mind, and all of the contents of the mind.
The heart of the practice is to shift to this third person objective view of the self as often as you can remember to do so.
As mentioned in this article on mindful leadership, there’s a growing body of neuroscience suggesting that mindfulness training quickly and significantly changes both the function and the structure of the brain in ways that make you more self-aware and allow you to have highly-refined levels of self-awareness.
How Mindful Leadership Facilitates the Creation and Communication of a Compelling Vision
Optimism is a critical element of creating a vision of the future that draws people to an organization and inspires them to go the extra mile to make that vision a reality.
I don’t know of anyone who would be inspired by a vision of the future that is extremely pessimistic.
Why would you want to be part of creating something that’s worse than what exists now?
However, to reduce the matter to just optimism or pessimism is to oversimplify things.
The true strength of mindfulness is developing very objective realism.
The practice enables you to see things as they actually are.
This enables you to have a realistic starting point for going wherever it is that you want to go. However, this increase the object objectivity somehow results in greater optimism in mindfulness practitioners.
This is often reported anecdotally by people who practice mindfulness, and there is interesting research supporting the idea that mindfulness does indeed help us to be more of an optimistic, such as this study, among others.
The most compelling vision of the future is not only optimistic, it is also a vision that is shared by other team members.
Mindfulness training helps you to shift away from being attached to your own viewpoint and be more open to listening to others and identifying what’s most important to them.
Thus, mindfulness training can help you understand how to present a vision of the future in a way that will most inspire team members.
The Counterintuitive Secret to Success with Mindful Leadership Training
Clearly, this article is intended to make a sound business case for the fact that mindful leadership works. However, I would be doing you a disservice if I did not offer this very important disclaimer.
While it is perfectly fine to begin mindfulness training with the goal of improving business outcomes, and even use the goal of improving business outcomes as motivation to practice in any given moment and/or to practice more often.
However, in any moment that you are actually practicing, it is absolutely essential that you let go of any effort to achieve anything. The heart of the practice is to simply recognize things, both internal and external, exactly as they are.
If you engage in a moment of practice while attached to the desire to achieve something, mindfulness will not work.
However, if your practice is simply being with things as they are, there is no question that mindful leadership will help you to achieve better business outcomes and live a more fulfilling life.
Mindful leadership will work.
Did you enjoy this article?
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Matt Tenney is the Chief People Officer of The Generous Group, and the co-author of the mindful leadership book The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule.
He is frequently invited to provide keynotes and training on leadership by Fortune 500 companies and other recognized brands.