Wouldn’t it be nice if you could make a simple inner shift that improved every aspect of your leadership, while also increasing your happiness? You can. This simple shift is the art and science of mindful leadership.
What is mindful leadership? Mindful leadership is a leadership practice focused on cultivating very high levels of self-awareness, wisdom, and self-mastery, allowing a leader to bring his or her best self to all aspects of leadership and daily life, and to inspire greatness in others. Mindful leadership significantly improves both the “soft” and “hard” skills of emotional intelligence and business acumen.
In this article, we’ll explore why mindful leadership is a must-have for leaders and offer you an introduction to the practice of mindful leadership that will help you to be a more effective, mindful leader without having to add anything to your schedule.
An Overview of Mindful Leadership
The practice of mindful leadership involves integrating mindfulness into every aspect of leadership and daily life, the intentional cultivation of highly-ethical behavior, and the cultivation of highly-refined self-knowledge (wisdom).
At its core, the practice of mindful leadership is a systematic way of developing very high levels of self-awareness.
As nearly all leaders agree, self-awareness is the most important leadership skill for leaders to develop.
Self-awareness is a meta skill that positively affects every other leadership skill.
As a leader’s self-awareness becomes increasingly refined, she or he cultivates a level of self-knowledge (wisdom) that allows her or him to realize high levels of self-mastery.
In addition to the countless personal stories of people developing very refined levels of self-awareness, there is also a growing body of research in neuroscience suggesting that the practice of mindfulness reshapes the brain in ways that allow you to be more self-aware and have more refined self-awareness.
One of the first studies to suggest this was carried out by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar and her colleagues in 2005.
Their research showed that areas of the brain related to self-awareness are measurably thicker in the brains of experienced mindfulness practitioners when compared to controls.
Other studies have shown that experienced practitioners have very refined levels of self-awareness, like this one from neuroscientist Boris Bonermann.
The researchers found that after only 6-9 months of training, mindfulness practitioners performed measurably better in their ability to notice and accurately report their own heartbeat rate than controls who were not trained in mindfulness.
Because the practice of mindful leadership significantly improves self-awareness, the practice also improves every leadership skill affected by self-awareness.
Below is a list of some of the most important results of improved by mindful leadership training, which we’ll expand on later:
- Higher levels of emotional intelligence
- More inspiring, effective leadership presence
- Better decision-making skills
- Better business acumen
- Being more innovative
- Improved strategic thinking
- Better team-building skills
- Freedom from the ego
- Integrity that inspires true greatness in others
Why Mindful Leadership Is A Must-Have Practice for Leaders
Higher Levels of Emotional Intelligence
It is now widely understood that emotional intelligence skills are essentially, by definition, leadership skills.
Different from management skills, leadership skills are about inspiring high levels of performance in team members. And, every competency related to inspiring performance in others falls somewhere under the umbrella of emotional intelligence.
The core competency of emotional intelligence is self-awareness.
Because mindfulness training is essentially synonymous with self-awareness training, mindfulness training is a systematic way of developing emotional intelligence.
Following this logic, it should be clear that mindfulness training is perhaps the best tool there is for developing higher levels of emotional intelligence. And, as you would expect, there is a growing body of research suggesting that this is indeed the case.
The picture below shows some of those studies as listed in the “notes and resources” section of the mindful leadership book, The Mindfulness Edge.
Other than the core competency of self-awareness, I believe that the two most critical emotional intelligence competencies are self-regulation and empathy.
Self-regulation is what allows you to be free from the grip of unpleasant emotions that would otherwise undermine our productivity and your ability to effectively lead team members.
Empathy is, in my opinion, the very essence of the most effective leadership.
When you truly understand the legitimate needs of team members and do whatever you can to help team members meet those needs, you build the influence that is the hallmark of highly-effective, inspiring leadership.
As you might have guessed, self-regulation and empathy are two well-known benefits of mindfulness training with a large body of supporting research suggesting that mindfulness improves both skills.
More Inspiring, Effective Leadership Presence
Another benefit of self-regulation is that it is a key component having a leadership presence that attracts others to you and inspires greatness and those around you.
I think we can all agree that given the choice, we would much rather follow somebody who is calm and collected during a crisis than somebody who is frantic and has completely lost control of his or her emotions.
In addition to helping you develop the self-regulation that improves your leadership presence, mindful leadership training also helps you to be more present with people when you are interacting with them.
In fact, the foundational practice of mindfulness is learning to recognize when you have become distracted by thinking and allow your awareness to open to include what else is happening right now.
Although being present with people may seem like a very minor detail, I believe that such presence is perhaps the most powerful way to demonstrate that you truly care about a person.
You’ve almost certainly had conversations with people, probably very recently, in which the person you were speaking with seems distracted and is either lost in thought, looking around, or, even worse, interacting with a device like a computer or a smart phone.
You know how that feels. It feels as though the person you are speaking with does not care about you. They may want to care about you, but they are clearly not demonstrating care in that moment.
Conversely, hopefully you have had an experience in which you were interacting with someone who you hold in high regard, and when that person was interacting with you she or he made you feel as though you were the most important person that she was going to interact with all day.
You know how that feels, too. It feels incredible. You feel truly cared for, and you’re very likely to do your best to help that person, not because you have to, but because you want to.
Better Decision-Making Skills
Another benefit of self-regulation is that it helps to improve decision-making skills.
It is now widely understood that being caught in an unpleasant emotion – often referred to by emotional intelligence experts like Daniel Goleman as an “amygdala hijack” – has a significant, negative impact on your ability to make good decisions.
The more powerful the emotion, and the more caught you are in that emotion, the worse your decisions will be.
Because mindfulness is so effective at helping you to regulate emotion and develop the ability to become free from the grip of unpleasant emotions, mindful leadership training can help you to significantly improve your ability to make sound decisions, even during demanding situations.
Better Business Acumen
Business acumen is generally defined as the ability to handle a business situation in a way that leads to a positive outcome.
From a purely financial perspective, business acumen is your ability to have a positive impact and the profit and loss statement (P&L).
Over the long term, it has become crystal clear to me that the leadership skills (people skills / emotional intelligence skills) have the greatest impact on the P&L.
Senior leaders can develop an incredible strategy, but if team members are cared for by their leaders, even the best strategy will never be executed properly, if it all.
That being said, leaders are often put under tremendous pressure to have a positive impact on the P&L in the short term.
The practice of mindful leadership, and the self-awareness that it develops, is the surprising bridge between the leadership skills of inspiring greatness in others, and making an immediate and direct impact on the P&L.
Nearly every leader knows what they need to do to have a positive impact on the P&L, but very few actually have a consistent, positive impact on the bottom line.
Extensive research conducted by the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute has made it clear that the gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it is created by a common psychological phenomenon called a cognitive bias.
A cognitive bias causes a person to take a sub optimal, often irrational, course of action.
There are various cognitive biases that result in courses of action that have a direct impact on the P&L.
The research conducted by the Perth leadership Institute has identified five cognitive biases that correlated very strongly with gross margins, and five cognitive biases that are correlated very strongly with expenses.
Almost everyone is affected adversely to varying degrees by most, if not all, of the 10 cognitive biases that impact gross margins and expenses. Theses cognitive biases have been programmed into you based on your genetics and your life experiences up to the present moment.
The good news is that you do not have to be controlled by your cognitive biases.
The more refined your self-awareness is the greater freedom you have from the control of those cognitive biases.
By systematically training self-awareness, you can systematically train yourself to be less constrained by cognitive biases, and thereby have a significantly better impact on the P&L.
Because the cognitive biases that negatively affect the P&L are usually completely unconscious for most people, even a slight improvement in self-awareness can make an immediate impact on financial performance.
For instance, in the business acumen training that we offer to leaders, we always begin by having participants complete the assessment created by the Perth leadership Institute that measures the degree to which they are affected by the 10 cognitive biases that have the most direct impact on the P&L.
After completing the assessment, we help participants see which cognitive biases are affecting them most.
As soon as they become aware of these subtle aspects of their personality, they often make a significant, positive impact on the P&L within days or weeks of taking the assessment.
Soon after taking the assessment and being made aware of their cognitive biases, we have had leaders report back that they made a decision that they would not have made prior to taking the assessment that saved their organization tens of thousands of dollars.
Although the training and development of self-awareness will likely be a lifelong endeavor for most of us, mindful leadership training can help you to significantly increase your freedom from the control of cognitive biases almost immediately, thereby allowing you to have a significantly better impact on the P&L with the next decision we make.
For example, Andrew Hafenbrack, a neuroscientist at the prestigious European business school INSEAD, along with his colleagues, conducted a study in which two groups of people were asked to make a decision that was likely to be adversely affected by a well-known cognitive bias called the sunk-cost bias.
The sunk-cost bias refers to the tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made even if it is not wise to do so.
One group was guided through 15 minutes of mindfulness practice prior to being faced with the decision. The other group was not.
In the group did no mindfulness training, 50% of the participants fell prey to get the sunk cost bias.
Incredibly, though, only 22% of the participants who practiced mindfulness prior to making the decision fell prey to the cognitive bias.
If just 15 minutes of mindfulness training can have such an incredible impact on one’s ability to be free from cognitive biases, imagine what consistent daily training would do for you.
Being More Innovative
The practice of mindful leadership helps boost a leader’s ability to innovate, as well as the team’s ability to innovate, in several key ways.
Mindful leadership can help you to be freer from the cognitive bias that most inhibits innovation, to be more open to failure, and to reduce the fear of failure in team members.
Freedom from the Status Quo Bias
According to the extensive research conducted by the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, mentioned above, there is a cognitive bias that kills innovation. It’s called the status quo bias.
As its name implies, this bias results in people avoiding doing things that challenge the status quo.
The research shows that roughly 90% of leaders are naturally wired to be affected adversely by the status quo bias. It seems that most people are wired to value fitting in with the group over doing things that challenge the majority view of the group.
As you would likely guess, the status quo bias kills innovation because innovation is, essentially, a solution that disrupts the status quo.
People who are affected very little by the status quo bias, or not all, are the exact opposite. They tend to thrive on challenging the status quo.
This, of course, is great for innovation. However, it’s not so good for getting along with others.
People who are affected very little by the status quo bias, or not all, often need to work hard to cultivate the people skills necessary for effective leadership.
Thus, mindful leadership is helpful for both types of people.
For people who are not affected by the status quo bias, the practice helps to develop the essential emotional intelligence skills required to lead well.
For people who are affected by the status quo bias, mindfulness helps develop greater freedom from the effects of the bias, which can dramatically improve a leader’s ability to innovate.
Openness to Failure
Many people tend to think of innovation is something that happens in a vacuum.
They envision a person who sits around thinking of the next great idea, and then “bam” it just comes to them.
While this does happen from time to time (Steve Jobs at Apple is a perfect example) this is by far the exception and not the rule.
Generally speaking, innovation is something that happens as the result of building a minimum viable solution and testing that solution with people who will actually use it.
This is followed by getting feedback from actual users on the solution and then going back and making changes as necessary to ensure that the solution is adding the most value possible for the end user.
This is why one of the key principles for innovation at Google, arguably one of the most innovative companies in the world, is to “Launch early and iterate often”
This iterative approach requires an openness, and even a willingness to fail.
In fact, another common attribute of innovative teams is that they are not only are tolerant of failure, they actually expect it and even demand it.
The faster you can fail, the more quickly you can get to the solution that’s going to add significant value for the user.
The practice of mindfulness can help improve your tolerance for failure in a couple ways.
First, a benefit of the practice is greater freedom from fear. The practice of mindfulness allows you to have less fear in general, and to recover from fear more quickly when it does arise.
By having greater freedom from fear in general, you are less likely to be adversely affected by the fear of failure.
When you are not adversely affected by the fear of failure, you are much more likely to try things that could end up iterating into an innovative solution that adds tremendous value for the end user of the solution.
Second, the practice of mindfulness is, by nature of its difficulty, the practice of failure.
If you’ve been practicing for more than 5 minutes, you already know that the ability to remain mindfully self-aware is incredibly elusive.
You habitually revert back to identifying with your thoughts, often to the point of being distracted by them, over and over and over again.
If you are going to engage in mindfulness training seriously, you have to be open to the fact that you will fail many, many, more times than you will “succeed.”
Thus, the practice of mindfulness can gradually increase your tolerance and even your willingness to seek out failure.
Removal of Fear
Because the practice of mindful leadership develops emotional intelligence competencies as well as the qualities of kindness and compassion and generosity, a mindful leader is much more likely to create a team culture where people are not afraid to take calculated risks and try new things.
By removing fear from the workplace, mindful leaders can increase the team’s capacity for innovation tremendously.
Improved Strategic Thinking
You have likely noticed that when you’re caught up in the day-to-day minutiae it’s very hard to think at the strategic level.
Leaders often intentionally square away time, by taking retreats or carving out moments in the day to step away from day-to-day activities, so that they can gain the highly prized “30,000-foot view,” as it is often called.
Personally, I travel quite frequently to present keynote speeches and training on mindful leadership. I find that, almost comically, I tend to do some of my best strategic thinking when I am literally at 30,000 feet on an airplane just looking out of the window.
I’ve also noticed the same effect after just a few moments of formal mindfulness training.
I am not alone. This effect of being able to think more strategically is commonly reported by leaders who practice mindful leadership.
They often report that mindfulness training allows them to let go of all the thinking tied to the minute details of day-to-day operations and open the mind up to think at more strategic levels.
My friend, Janice Marturano, one of the leaders in the field of mindful leadership, measured this precisely after guiding 80 leaders from 12 organizations through her Cultivating Leadership Presence through Mindfulness© retreat.
Nearly 70% of the participants reported that the training made a positive difference in their ability to think strategically.
Better Team Building Skills
One of the more direct examples of how having high levels of self-awareness helps you to be more effective as a leader is in terms of understanding your own strengths and weaknesses.
This ability to understand your strengths and where you have room for growth is important both in terms of understanding how you can continue to develop as a leader as well as building the most effective teams.
In order to have a highly effective team, you must have a very clear and objective view of where your strengths lie and where you are not as strong.
One of your primary jobs as a leader is to find people who are very strong where you are weak so that the team as a whole has few or no weaknesses.
As we will discuss further below, mindful leadership training is the systematic development of objective self-awareness.
With consistent practice, your ability to see yourself with complete objectivity and clarity grows increasingly stronger.
Freedom from the Ego
Perhaps the most important benefit of practicing mindful leadership is that it gradually increases your freedom from the control of your ego.
Although being free from the ego may not be so easily seen as a having a tangible impact on organizational outcomes as the benefits mentioned above, I believe that this is the most important factor of leadership development.
The freer you become from the control of the ego the easier it is for you to plan an act in ways that benefit the entire team or organization without being biased by your own short-term self-interest. This is absolutely essential for leaders.
A successful leader must be able to put her short-term self-interest aside for the benefit of the team organization.
This is not to say that you don’t take care of your own legitimate needs for well-being.
Rather, you move away from always prioritizing your needs first and more towards having a balanced approach to meeting your needs and the needs of the organization and, when necessary in the short term, putting your own needs aside for a brief time and sacrificing yourself for the benefit of others.
Being free from the ego is also the secret to being free from anxiety and realizing unconditional happiness.
If you really look closely at the source of your suffering, you can see that it is all based and the false sense of “me” that you have called the ego.
The bigger the ego is, and the more identified you are with it, the more you suffer.
This is something you can easily observe and other people. Somebody who is really identified with his ego takes everything personally, even comments that have nothing to do with them.
Conversely, somebody who is not so identified with her ego always appears to be laid back and doesn’t take things so personally.
Although this is a much deeper topic which I will write about in another article soon, for now I think it is important to simply realize that the freer you are from your ego the less anxiety you experience and the happier you are.
And a leader who is free from anxiety and happy, all other things being equal, is going to be much more effective then leader who is constantly caught in anxiety.
Integrity that Inspires True Greatness In Others
Unless you are an incredibly rare, and perhaps perfect human being, you’ve probably noticed that there is often a gap between who you would like to be, and who you actually are.
A simple definition of integrity is having no gap between who you want to be (or who you state you are) and who you actually are.
The less often there is a gap between who you aspire to be and who you actually are, the more others will perceive you as a person of integrity and the more you will see yourself as a person of integrity.
The practice of mindful leadership plays an essential role in allowing you to have such integrity.
Whenever you are mindfully self-aware, you see whatever internal reaction arises within you with third-person objectivity. As a result, there is gap created between stimulus, the internal reaction, and the external reaction or response.
When you see your internal reaction with this type of third-person objectivity, you are completely free from having to act on it.
If the internal reaction is one that is not in alignment with who you aspire to be, i.e. your core values, then you can simply not act on it and instead choose to do something that is in alignment with your core values.
Thus, mindfulness allows you to live with integrity in a given moment and increases the likelihood that you will live with integrity in future moments as well.
Living with high levels of integrity is essential for living a fulfilling life, and it is also a key component of inspiring team members.
Leaders of high character, who live with integrity, can inspire followers much more readily than other leaders.
And living with high levels of integrity is not just good for your team. It’s good for the world.
The world is replete with smart, talented people. What the world needs more than ever, especially during times of division, is more wise people of great character who demonstrate that taking the high road is always the more inspiring and effective path.
An Introduction to The Practice of Mindful Leadership
One of the side effects of mindfulness becoming so popular is that it is also become fairly watered down, in some cases almost to the point of being meaningless. People often conflate mindfulness with terms such as “being in the moment.”
While being more present is certainly an effect of mindfulness training, mindfulness goes much deeper than that, and is also much more practical.
When you are being mindful, you experience a subtle inner shift.
Rather than being identified with your thinking as people almost always are, you have an objective, third-person view of your thinking.
It’s almost as though you are observing your thinking on a heads-up display or listening to your thinking as though it were a recording of someone else speaking.
Mindfulness training involves various practices that help you to develop the ability to have this type of objective self-awareness whenever you would like to have it.
Many people think they have high levels of self-awareness and may not think that there is any need to engage in some type of training to improve their self-awareness.
Ironically, however, some research suggests that the more self-aware a person thinks he or she is, the less self-aware she or he actually is.
I believe that the most practical and simple way to begin practicing is to approach mindfulness training with a high-level goal of simply changing your default mode of being.
For most people, whenever they are not engaged in intentionally thinking or planning, or in some activity that demands their full attention, their default mode is being identified with thought and distracted by it.
At a high level, mindfulness training is about changing your default mode of being by finding as many opportunities as you can to let go of your identification with thinking and have objective self-awareness.
You already experience this type of mindful self-awareness numerous times throughout the day quite on accident.
For instance, whenever you thought of something to say, recognized that it was not skillful, and decided not to say it, that is a perfect example of seeing and or hearing your thinking with complete objectivity.
You can experience mindful self-awareness right now with just some simple guidance.
Just silently ask yourself in the mind, “Is there any thinking in the mind right now?”
As soon as you look at your mind, you are already free from identification with thought, and free from your ego.
You see your thinking objectively or hear it objectively. The moment this happens, you will notice that you are also aware of what else is arising in consciousness.
You might notice what it feels like to sit.
You might notice what your body feels like.
You might notice what you are seeing or hearing with greater clarity than you did a moment ago.
You might notice that you’re breathing, which you probably weren’t even aware of a moment ago.
So, once you have become free from identification with thought by asking a simple question like “What’s happening now?” or “What am I noticing right now?” or “s there any thinking in the mind right now?” all you need to do is notice what is arising in consciousness.
Regardless of that thoughts, or feelings, or sensations are rising, you simply notice that they are happening and that you are aware that they are happening.
This is where the practice tends to get difficult for most people.
Most people often find that within seconds of waking up and becoming free from identification with thinking, they get sucked right back in and are once again identified with thinking and/or distracted by it.
Although this may seem very frustrating if you are trying to practice mindfulness, this is actually the very practice itself.
The real trick is to create as many reminders as you can to make the shift from being identified with thinking to having mindful self-awareness.
When you approach the practice in this way you see that everything that you do as a leader, and indeed every activity of the day, can be included as part of your training.
If you would like more detailed guidance on how to practice mindful leadership, complete with many examples of mindful leadership activities and exercises, please check out this article, called Mindful Leadership Exercises & Activities.
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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.