I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit last month, and I appreciated the different perspectives on why and how practicing mindfulness helps leaders in the workplace. Janice Marturano, one of the speakers and founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, said that she tells leaders that they cannot lead today without (1) cultivating more capabilities of their minds, and (2) opening their hearts. Both of these directly result from practicing mindfulness.
On the first point, when we practice mindfulness, we practice bringing our attention back to the present moment. Judson Brewer at Yale University calls this “brain training.” With this practice, we develop greater focus and more self-awareness. A study at the University of Washington found that in a simulated stressful, multi-tasking work environment, those trained in mindfulness were better able to concentrate on the task at hand, showed improved memory for the tasks they performed, and reported less negative emotion after task completion. Another study, at the University of Toronto, showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were better able to disengage from upsetting images and focus on a cognitive task. In a stressful work environment, this translates to an ability to remain calm and problem-solve.
And Daniel Goleman, an author best-known for his work correlating emotional intelligence with workplace success, says in a Harvard Business Review article, “A primary task of leadership is to focus attention.” He says further, “Focusing inward and focusing constructively on others helps leaders cultivate the primary elements of emotional intelligence. What it takes is not talent so much as diligence – a willingness to exercise the attention circuits of the brain just as we exercise our analytic skills and other systems of the body.” More and more, developing greater focus and attention is being recognized as an essential leadership skill.
On the second point, the impact of kindness in the workplace is also being given more shape and credence. When we practice mindfulness, we practice non-judgment and compassion for ourselves and others – and cultivate kindness. An article in the HBR Blog cites a number of studies that demonstrate the impact of workplace kindness, including a study at the Harvard Business School that shows that leaders who project warmth are more effective than those who lead with toughness and skill. And Annie McKee, co-author with Daniel Goleman of Resonant Leadership, says, quite simply: “Being happy at work matters.” Her research, and the work of others, shows that happy people are better workers. One of her conclusions is, “Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder – and smarter.”
At the Mindful Leadership Summit, Tom Gardner, the co-founder and CEO of The Motley Fool, illustrated this with a great analogy. He first cited Gallup research on workplace engagement that shows that 50% of employees are “not engaged” and 20% are “actively disengaged.” He asked audience members to picture themselves as the leader of a boat with ten rowers. Five rowers are holding their oars and doing nothing, two rowers want to hit other rowers with their paddles – and only three rowers are actually paddling. Imagine how much further your boat would go if all ten rowers were actually paddling.
Sharon Salzberg, author and teacher of mindfulness practices and another speaker at the conference, mentioned Phil Jackson, who has the New York Knicks practicing mindfulness and previously brought mindfulness to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. In his tenure as head coach of the Bulls and the Lakers, Jackson won six championships with the Bulls and five with the Lakers, more than any other head coach in NBA history. Sharon said Phil Jackson doesn’t see his players as basketball players but instead sees them first as “whole people” who happen to play basketball. His track record is a great example of how personal connection is instrumental to successful leadership.
When we practice mindfulness, we develop the ability to be focused, attentive, and kind. The view of leadership is changing to recognize that these are essential qualities to support individual performance and, in turn, workplace effectiveness.
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