Last month, I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit outside of Washington, DC. I saw many ideas presented on the concept of the mindful leader, how to be a mindful leader, and what is gained from being a mindful leader. If mindful leadership is getting more attention, we need to settle on common definitions or we will confuse and alienate people who might otherwise be open to mindfulness and the benefits it offers. Here are three things that must be universally agreed upon.

1) We must define “mindfulness” consistently. Jon Kabat-Zinn, widely credited with bringing mindfulness to the Western mainstream in the 1970s, defines it as, “paying attention in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Other mindfulness practitioners generally define mindfulness similarly. When one speaker at the conference spoke about a mindfulness practice, the speaker encouraged attendees to “have a daily practice of taking twenty minutes to reflect and be introspective…through prayer, journaling, going for a walk.” While I agree with the idea that it is important to take a pause from our busy lives, none of the things mentioned are mindfulness practices. In fact, prayer, journaling, and being introspective are thinking activities that may reflect on the past or the future. Mindfulness is not thinking, it is simply noticing, and it is focused in the present moment. When defining mindfulness, we need to make sure that the meaning and explanation of “mindfulness” is clear and self-consistent.

2) We must explain how to develop the skill of “mindfulness.” It used to be that many people endorsing mindfulness would shy away from recommending a regular mindfulness practice. But neuroscience is changing this attitude, and I noticed this shift at the conference. In a previous blog post, I explained that neuroscience shows us that to be truly present, we have to work against our inherent brain wiring. However, we can develop the ability to be mindful and present quickly, and we can strengthen this ability with mindfulness practice. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, said, “In 20 to 30 years, mental exercise will be talked about in the same way as physical exercise is today,” and he said research showing the impact of mindfulness on the brain supports this movement. If you want to develop the ability to be mindful, you must commit to a regular mindfulness practice.

3) We must be clear about the benefits of being mindful. The name of the conference was the Mindful Leadership Summit – but unfortunately, there was no one, agreed view of what qualities a mindful leader possesses. A different conference speaker polled 20 academics prior to the conference and asked what a “mindful leader” was.  The answers were things like authentic, collaborative, empathetic. I appreciate that the speaker made an effort to come up with a description, but it also illustrates that universal definitions are needed in the first place. The other issue is that there is no clear connection between the definition of mindfulness – being present – and these qualities. When I give talks on mindfulness in the workplace, I speak to the evidence-based, directly traceable benefits of mindfulness that are highly relevant to leaders, such as improved focus and attention, and the ability to better handle challenging, stressful circumstances. If we want to talk about a mindful leader, we need to come up with a consistent definition and connect these qualities more directly to mindfulness.

Mindfulness has a great number of benefits that translate to a workplace setting. If we are not clear on what it means to be mindful and the value it brings, then we risk mindfulness being dismissed as confusing or insubstantial. If we are able to clearly define the concept and benefits of being a mindful leader, we will enable more widespread mindful leadership.

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