I am a long-time mindfulness practitioner, and, as an executive coach, I also view mindfulness as being at the heart of leadership development. So one of my favorite topics to speak and write about is how mindfulness affects us and can in turn influence our leadership effectiveness. It also means that I make a point to read and listen to what other people have to say about mindfulness, especially in a workplace context. There are certain misunderstandings that I see repeated often, and I want to add some clarity around these ideas.

“Practicing mindfulness means pausing for a few breaths each day.”  

There is a reason why the intentional cultivation of mindfulness is called a “practice.” It’s because mindfulness is a skill and, like any skill, we need to practice in order to improve and maintain that skill. But it’s not just that practicing improves the skill; we need to practice to even develop the skill in the first place. We are all born as inherently mindful beings, tuned in to everything that is happening right now. As we grow, we lose the ability to have a purely mindful mind. My previous post cites neuroscience research that demonstrates that without practice in mindfulness, we are unable to be purely mindful, even if we try. But once we access that skill, the more we practice the stronger our ability to be mindful, even outside of our practice. As a friend of mine says, there is no such thing as “drive-by mindfulness;” you need to spend time with it.

“Mindfulness means considering different ways of thinking and behaving.”

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search For Meaning, is credited with saying: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is a very important concept, and we need to distinguish that making a conscious choice to do something differently is a cognitive, thinking process. Mindfulness doesn’t ask us to change anything about our thoughts and actions. Mindfulness asks us to relate to our thoughts and our experience differently by simply noticing them and, in doing so, releasing the attachment to them. When we practice mindfulness, we are creating the space itself. As Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell say in The Mindful Manifesto, “When we stop giving energy to our old patterns, and instead just notice them, we may find they start to settle of their own accord, like muddy water becomes clear when we stop stirring it.”

“Mindfulness is about improving myself.”

I was out to dinner with a friend a few months ago, a highly-motivated, very capable, well-educated entrepreneur. He spoke enthusiastically about his new practice and concluded by saying, “I love mindfulness because it’s going to take me to new levels of business excellence.” He looked puzzled when I said in response, “But mindfulness is not about striving or achieving.” Mindfulness is not about improving yourself; it is about becoming clearer on and deepening around the person you already are. At the Mindful Leadership Summit in November, Michael Carroll, executive coach and author of The Mindful Leader, explained this beautifully. He said leaders must “exhaust their penchant for achievement.” He went on to say that when we sit in silence for our mindfulness practice, we learn to “be comfortable in our own skin,” and we find our “center of ease.“ My take on his insight is that when we operate from this place, where we are grounded in ourselves first, we embody the archetype of the authentic leader. We are more open to and less threatened by other perspectives, and more willing to connect and resonate with others. When we embrace, as Michael said, the “wisdom of achieving nothing,” we find that we can access even greater power as leaders.

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