If you’ve begun exploring or practicing mindful leadership, you’ve probably realized that the practice is among the most important things you can do to improve your leadership effectiveness and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
You may be hungry for practical guidance on how to start and grow your practice of mindful leadership.
Here are 11 mindful leadership exercises and activities to help you develop your mindful leadership practice:
- Know yourself, master yourself
- Listen first, speak later
- Turn downtime into ultra-productive time
- Slow down to speed up
- See opportunities where others see problems
- Do less to get more done
- Cultivate kindness and compassion
- Let go of your ego
- Make meetings mindful
- Stillness in community
- Deepening relationships with mindful communication
Mindful Leadership Exercises
Know Yourself, Master Yourself
The core of the practice of mindful leadership is this systematic training of self-awareness. Self-awareness is the meta skill that affects every aspect of leadership and indeed every aspect of life.
I discussed the many benefits of such self-awareness in this article called Why Mindful Leadership Is Essential for Leadership Effectiveness.
At a high level, though, when a leader has high levels of self-awareness she develops a detailed and profound understanding and knowledge about herself, which is the key to self-mastery.
The more deeply you understand your own personality, your decision-making patterns, your habitual ways of reacting to situations, your emotional patterns, and all the other conditioning that is been programmed into you throughout your life, the freer you become from all that programming.
This freedom from your programming allows you to be very agile, which is essential in the modern business world in which the pace of change is becoming increasingly rapid.
This freedom from programming also allows you to minimize the negative effects of any of your programming that is not optimal, and more quickly improve so that you can make a more positive impact and the people and the organization you serve.
Cultivating high levels of refined self-awareness can be done at any time, as we will discuss below. However, you can see yourself most clearly when you take time to stop moving and be still.
This does not necessarily mean that you need to take 30 minutes out of your day to practice mindfulness while sitting still in some special place dedicated to formal practice.
Eventually, I highly recommend that practitioners devote at least 15 minutes of mindfulness practice while sitting still in a place that has been designated for formal practice. However, that may not be desirable or practical for people just starting out.
Instead, I recommend looking for the opportunities that naturally arise to be still during your day and transforming them into opportunities to practice. As your practice grows deeper, you will naturally want to change your schedule in ways that give you more time to fully devote yourself to training self-awareness and cultivate wisdom.
For now, you could start by simply making a list of all the times that you are sitting or standing still during the day and waiting for something, such as waiting at a red light, sitting in waiting for a meeting to begin, standing in line at a restaurant, coffee shop, or other store, or even sitting on the toilet. And, as we’ll discuss below, you can also incorporate some simple moments of stillness in the transition between different activities.
Once you have your list, you just need to find some ways to remind yourself to practice mindfulness during these moments.
What I recommend, is to think about whatever it is that you habitually do while you’re sitting or standing and waiting and put a message somewhere in between you and whatever you do, a message that reminds you to practice mindfulness.
For instance, most people immediately bring out their smart phone the moment that they are not engaged in activity and are sitting or standing and waiting.
You could simply put a sticky note on the screen of your phone with a note that reads “Practicing mindfulness instead could change your life. 😊”
During any of these moments of sitting or standing and waiting that you remember to practice, the practice is very simple. You can simply note silently in your mind whatever posture you currently have.
For instance, “Standing here waiting,” or “Sitting here in the car.”
This simple mental noting breaks you from the habitual identification with thought and immediately shifts you to an objective third person awareness of yourself.
Once you have this mindful self-awareness, you can take a moment to check in and notice what the muscles in your body feel like, what emotional state of the body is, and even any thoughts that might be passing through the mind.
The practice is simply to be curious about, an open to, whatever is arising in your consciousness.
To help you string a few moments of this awareness together, I recommend using the breath as a timer. So, the only goal is to notice what it is like to sit there or stand there for the duration of one in-breath and one out-breath.
Listen First, Speak Later
The most successful leaders over the long term tend to be very good listeners.
By doing more listening and less talking, leaders are able to empower team members, get ideas from frontline people that they otherwise would never know about, and help team members to feel cared for, heard, and understood.
Also, by making it a practice to listen first and speak last, leaders can avoid the problem of limiting the ideas and feedback that team members express in conversations and meetings.
When a leader speaks first, she or he immediately steers the direction of a conversation or a meeting. If a team member thinks they know what the leader wants or where that leader is leaning, that team member is much less likely to offer an opposing view.
Often, those opposing views are extremely helpful in helping a leader to see all sides of an issue. In fact, a very powerful leadership practice during a meeting is too require a certain number of people to express faults in the leader’s idea, to help make sure that nothing is being overlooked (this also helps the leader develop thicker skin).
The ability to listen well is a fundamental skill developed by the practice of mindful leadership.
One of the key elements of the practice of mindfulness is to develop the ability to listen inwardly to your own inner dialogue.
Instead of always operating as though you are the voice inside of your head, you take time practice listening to that voice.
This can be done during any moment of the day but is most easily accomplished during periods of stillness. You simply stop note your posture, and as you become mindfully self-aware, you can ask yourself, “Is there any thinking now?” And then simply listen Inwardly.
The more time you spend listening to your inner voice instead of being that inner voice, the freer you become from your habitual identification with your thoughts.
When there is some freedom from this identification with your thinking, you are much better able to listen to others because you are not attached to your own viewpoint, you are not caught up in thinking about what you’re going to say when you should be listening, and you can fully attend to the important act of listening.
Turn Downtime into Ultra-Productive Time
If you were to make a list of all the moments of your day that are normally thought of his down time, or wastes of time, the list would be long.
I estimate that the average person spends about two hours of the day doing things that would fall on this list, like walking from place to place, sitting or standing while waiting for something, commuting, going to the bathroom, washing the hands, brushing the teeth, preparing and eating food, getting dressed, taking a shower, and so on.
With the practice of mindfulness, these activities can be transformed into arguably the most productive moments of the day.
They can be transformed into opportunities to train self-awareness which, as mentioned above, is a meta skill that has enormous impacts on every aspect of leadership and every aspect of life.
It is very unlikely that you will magically be able to transform every moment of the day that you currently consider as such “down time,” so I recommend starting with some small steps.
The first step is to make a list of all the activities that you do on a typical day that are normally considered as nonproductive.
You can use the list above as a starting point. Once you have such a list, I recommend that you pick one activity to start with for the first week and commit to practicing mindfulness every single time you engage in that activity.
You might even like to have some type of a reminder like a sticky note that helps you remember to practice during that particular activity period.
For week 2, you would continue with whatever activity you were doing during the first week, and then add a second activity.
Each week, you would continue with the previous week’s activities, and then add one more.
After only a few months you will have 12 or 15 different activities every day that can serve as anchors for your practice of mindful leadership, and as opportunities to transform what used to be viewed as unproductive time into some of the most productive time of the day.
There is an interesting and ironic twist to this idea of turning down time into ultra-productive time. For the time to be truly productive in terms of developing high levels of very refined self-awareness, you must let go of any effort to produce anything or achieve anything.
The moment you identify with an urge to get somewhere, change something, achieve something, or get rid of something, you are no longer being mindfully self-aware.
During any moment that you have elected to include as part of your mindfulness training, the practice is to simply notice exactly the way things are, without trying to change anything or achieve anything.
For instance, let’s take washing the hands in the bathroom at work as an example.
Generally speaking, people tend to rush through this activity, completely attached to the outcome of having clean hands, which means they are not being mindfully self-aware during the activity of washing the hands.
As a result, washing their hands is just another moment of adding anxiety to the day, so it is not just nonproductive time, it is actually counterproductive.
Conversely, if this is a mindfulness practice, while washing their hands, you recognize if there is an urge to get it over with and you see this desire for an outcome objectively.
The moment this is seen, you are no longer identified with it. You have immediately become mindfully self-aware.
When this happens, you can wash the hands just to enjoy washing the hands.
You can simply be curious about what it is like to wash the hands, noticing the posture of your body, what the water feels like, what the soap feels like, what the muscles in your body feel like, and maybe even the thoughts arising in the mind.
The practice is not to go looking for these things, but just to be open and curious about what the experience of washing the hands is actually like.
This apparently simple shift is actually an incredibly powerful paradigm shift.
You still end up with clean hands, and probably in about the same amount of time as it would normally take.
However, instead of this time spent washing the hands being at best nonproductive time, and most likely counterproductive time if it creates anxiety for you, this time spent washing the hands is miraculously transformed into an opportunity to relax, to let go of a little bit of the anxiety that has built up throughout the day, and at the same time train the most important skill that you can possibly train for leadership effectiveness.
Slow Down to Speed Up
There are so many workplace cultures that have fallen prey to the myth that taking breaks is a sign of weakness, and that breaks leads to lower productivity.
The leaders of these cultures believe these myths despite the abundance of research suggesting that the exact opposite is true and despite what I believe is simple common sense.
Have you ever talked to somebody who trained for a marathon in did well in the race?
I guarantee you that person did not run a marathon every day for 3 months prior to running the race. She or he had training runs of many different lengths, and only a few of them were even close to the length of a marathon.
Also, she or he incorporated long periods of rest in between each training run to let the body heal.
I think it is painfully obvious (pun intended) why people who train for marathons take such long rests in between training runs, so I’m not going to the labor this point.
However, it does beg the question: Why don’t we view the work day with this same common sense?
If you really want to move fast when things matter, it is absolutely essential to have periods of rest.
Taking breaks is essential for avoiding bad decisions that end up costing you alot more valuable time and money than you would have saved by not taking breaks.
Also, breaks help prevent the inevitable burnout that occurs when you push yourself too far for too long, which results in getting sick more often and needing to take time off just to heal.
As mentioned above, an essential component of mindful leadership practice is to take time to be still.
By incorporating very short periods of stillness in between activities, you can incorporate some short, simple breaks that help you to avoid the problems mentioned above, while also helping you to develop the self-awareness that is so essential for success and leadership and in life.
Anytime you are about to transition from one activity to another, you can incorporate the simple practice of mindfulness while standing or sitting still for just 2 or 3 breaths.
For instance, if you’re about to get up from your desk to go talk to a colleague, when you stand up you can simply pause and mentally note in your mind, “Standing here in the office.”
As soon as you note that in your mind, you are free from identification with thoughts, and you have become mindfully self-aware.
For the duration of 2 or 3 full breaths, you can simply notice what it is like to stand there and breathe.
See Opportunities Where Others See Problems
One of the essential and distinctive moves we make when practicing mindful leadership is to turn towards things that arise within us that are uncomfortable or unpleasant instead of repressing them, trying to get away from them, or fueling them by obsessing about them.
For example, if you encounter a frustrating situation and you notice the emotion of anger arising, you don’t ignore the anger, nor do you allow yourself to obsess about the perceived cause of the anger by endlessly thinking about that perceived cause.
Rather, turn towards the anger with the spirit of curiosity, acknowledging that it is there and actively investigating what anger is actually like.
This results in a degree of freedom that occurs immediately, the moment you see and feel the anger with third person objectivity.
Also, each time that you do this, you improve your self-awareness and your ability to be free from the things that arise within you that most people don’t want to deal with.
After only a few instances of practicing in this way, you may notice that you actually start looking forward to the rising of challenging thought patterns and emotions, because you know that these are actually opportunities to train yourself for self-mastery.
You can then easily extend this spirit of openness and inquiry regarding unpleasant aspects of your inner world toward the unpleasant uncomfortable aspects of the outer world.
You start to see challenging situations as wonderful opportunities to learn and grow and deepen your mindfulness practice and your ability to lead effectively.
When you are willing to turn toward and investigate with curiosity even the most challenging internal and external aspects of work life and home life, you are able to see opportunities that people who do not approach these situations in the same way simply will not see.
So, the practice is to cultivate the habit of acknowledging your internal reactions to anything that you find unpleasant or challenging and investigating your reaction with openness and curiosity.
An additional step that you may find helpful, once you have realized some space around the internal reaction that you are experiencing, is to ask the question, “What can I learn from this situation, and how can it help me to better serve team members, my organization, and me?
Do Less to Get More Done
You probably know someone who every time you ask them how they’re doing, they say how incredibly busy they are.
It has been my experience, that these people tend to be some of the least productive people I know.
So many people, think that being productive means doing a lot of stuff. But when we truly reflect, I think we all know that that is simply not the case.
There are people that can produce amazing results in an hour that would take other people or even a team of people days to accomplish.
Productivity has nothing to do with how much time we spend on something or how hard we appear to be working. Productivity, by definition, refers to production. This means that only the result matters.
What I have noticed in almost every highly productive person I’ve ever met, is that they don’t necessarily do a lot of things, but what they do actually moves the needle.
And, in most cases, they are able to realize which activities most move the needle because they create time to do nothing, as well as time to simply think.
One of the easiest ways to have an immediate impact on your productivity, is to look at all the things you are spending time doing that don’t produce a whole lot of results.
According to the well-known Pareto principle, you will likely find that roughly 20% of your activities are producing 80% of your results, and that roughly 80% of what you were doing is only producing 20% of your results.
Thus, by eliminating as much of the 80% as you can, or delegating it to somebody else, you can create a tremendous increase in your productivity.
An essential element of getting clarity on what matters and what doesn’t is to take time to have open spaces on your calendar during which you can take time to do nothing but practice mindfulness while sitting or walking, as well as time to simply think.
Warren Buffett is arguably the greatest investor of all time, one of the best business thinkers of all time, and a very effective leader. His very small executive team at Berkshire Hathaway is able to achieve unprecedented results that most other companies can’t achieve even with scores of executives and employees.
Have you ever heard about Warren Buffett’s calendar? Often, there is only one thing on it for the entire day.
You may look at his calendar for Wednesday, and you see nothing but “Get a haircut.” He spends the rest of the day learning and thinking.
I’m not saying that your calendar needs to be that empty, at least in the short term.
However, if you’d like to be as productive as Warren Buffet, I highly recommend that you start moving in the direction of doing fewer things, and really focusing on the things that matter.
Cultivate Kindness and Compassion
Sadly, many people in our society still see kindness and compassion as signs of weakness.
Nothing could be further from truth.
Of course, being kind and compassionate is a joyful way to life and is simply the right way to respond to almost every situation.
Moreover, it is not difficult to make a very compelling business case for leaders being kind and compassionate.
Kindness and compassion are essential elements of building influence. When we are consistently kind to people and do what we can to contribute to their well-being, those people are much more likely to go the extra mile, often without even being asked to do so.
Influence is really the essence of effective leadership. In fact, the well-known leadership author, John Maxwell, literally defines leadership as influence.
The degree to which we can influence the behaviors of others in positive ways is the degree to which we will be effective as leaders.
If you’re practicing mindfulness correctly, kindness and compassion will gradually arise with increasing frequency.
However, I believe that leading with kindness and compassion is so important that I recommend taking some time each day to intentionally cultivate those qualities.
This can be as simple as making it a habit to always think “I wish this person happiness” before you begin interaction with a person.
You could take it a step further by taking a few minutes every day to generate a feeling of kindness, and then visualize sending that feeling of kindness to 3-5 people.
Let Go of Your Ego
You have almost certainly worked for a leader at some point, or seen a leader at some point, who is very identified with his or her ego, and is very self-centered.
Have you ever seen such a leader who is effective for more than a short time? Probably not. I haven’t.
Self-centered leaders don’t build influence because they don’t take of others.
Even worse, they often destroy motivation and create toxic workplace cultures because their lack of self-awareness keeps them from seeing how their actions and words affect the people around them.
And, if this is pointed out to them by someone else, they either make excuses, blame others, or simply don’t care.
We all have egos. Egos are an inevitable part of our development as humans. You don’t need to completely get rid of the ego to be effective as a leader.
However, the less often the ego is driving your actions and words, the better.
Being free from the ego is not as difficult as you might think. In fact, the practice mindful leadership is essentially, at its core, the practice of being free from the ego.
You are cultivating a new habit of being mindfully self-aware.
This means, by definition, that in any moment you are being mindful you are not identified with the ego, the “self.”
You can observe the various aspects of the ego – thoughts, emotions, the body – with third-person objectivity.
Over time, the practice of mindfulness decreases the degree to which you identify with the ego.
You are able to let go of the ego – to be free from following its impulses, conditioned ways of acting and speaking, and conditioned thought and emotional patterns – and to better act and speak in ways that consider equally the well-being of team members, the organization, and your own well-being.
As often as you can remember to, take a moment to turn your awareness toward what you feel as being “you,” such as your thoughts, emotions, body, or the sense of being inside your head looking out.
All it takes is a second or two and you’ll notice a little less self-centeredness, and a bit more space around whatever is arising.
Once you’re free like this, you can remain free from identification with the ego by simply being curious about what’s happening now.
Mindful Leadership Group Activities to Grow More Mindful Leaders
Make Meetings More Mindful
A simple way to make meetings more productive is to have a few moments of stillness before the meeting begins.
It doesn’t have to be called mindfulness. It can just be a moment of being still in doing nothing.
You could start with just 60 seconds of this.
You simply ask people to put their devices down, sit with good posture, close their eyes, and just notice what it feels like to sit in the chair, and what they’re noticing in their own bodies.
You could frame it by saying, “We’re going to start the meeting today by taking a 60-second mini vacation.”
Just 60 seconds of such mindfulness training can dramatically shift the level of awareness in people, making them better able to listen, better able to attend to what’s happening in the meeting, and to be more emotionally intelligent.
Stillness in Community
I recommend that you don’t make formal mindfulness training a mandatory activity for team members.
If you’re going to offer some type of group practice, it should be optional.
If you and other team members practice well and consistently, others will be attracted to the practice by the changes they see in you, and more people will ask about how they can practice to.
That being said, an easy mindful leadership activity for any size group is to take time to sit still in mindfulness together.
This can be as simple as having a 10-minute period at the start of the day, over lunch, at the end of the day, or any combination thereof, during which people sit together while being guided through the practice of mindfulness while sitting still.
The guidance can be from an experienced practitioner internal to the team, or a recording of a practice that resonates with you and the team.
By practicing as a group, team members know they have permission to sit and do nothing while at work and know that they’re actually being supported in doing so. This can help remove any fear that practicing mindfulness while sitting for a few minutes at work might be perceived as sleeping or some other form of “slacking off.”
Deepening Relationships with Mindful Communication
Another mindful leadership activity that can be done with a group is to take time to practice mindful communication while having team members talk about things that are important to them.
This can be done after a period of sitting still together or, if you have people that want to participate in this activity who aren’t interested in the sitting still practice, this can be done as a team-building activity completely separate from any other mindfulness training.
This activity involves the following steps:
- Create some questions that people can ask of each other that get them talking about things they care about. For instance, “What is the personal goal you’re most excited about right now?”
- Have team members pair up randomly and decide who will person “A” and person “B.”
- Person A asks person B the question. Person B has 5 minutes to talk.
- While person B responds, person makes the effort to give person B her or his full attention. Person A does not say anything but may nod or make other signs of listening well, and practices reflective listening. When person B stops talking, person A summarizes what they heard and names the emotion they heard or sensed person B was feeling. For example, “It sounds like you’re really excited about running the 10k, and you’re also a little anxious.” They then allow person B to clarify or expand.
- Person A continues to just listen until person B pauses again. Person A reflects again. This continues until person B states they have nothing further they want to say about the topic, or when 5 minutes is up, whichever comes first.
- The people switch roles.
- If time permits, people can find new partners and ask a different question of each other.
This simple exercise frees two birds with one key.
First, participants are practicing the essential skill of mindful listening, which can help them to become much better communicators.
Second, because team members are talking about things that are important to them, the relationships between team members is deepened.
I recommend having team members do this at least once per month.
In large organizations, this should also be done with teams from different departments. This can help minimize, or even remove, the silos that tend to build up around separate departments.
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Matt Tenney is the Chief People Officer of The Generous Group, and the co-author of the 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.