Why mindfulness will make you a better leader

If you haven’t heard the buzz in Business around mindfulness, then you’re either well behind the times (in which case you have an opportunity) or you’re living in a place that’s not caught up with the mainstream (in which case you have an opportunity).

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What is mindfulness?

  • The process of actively noticing new things (Ellen Langer)

  • Constantly looking for the new (Alison Beard)

  • Non-judgemental, present-moment awareness (Christina Congleton, Britta K Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar)

  • Being present and aware, moment by moment, regardless of circumstances (Maria Gonzalez)

  • Mindfulness isn’t doing a meditation and then you’re done you can tick it off the list for the day. Mindfulness is the way of being in the meditation all day (Juliane Pfeifer)

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I like to think of mindfulness as the journey to internal literacy - learning to listen to, understand and choose to follow our own internal dialogue, whether it be physical, emotional sensations and of course knowing ourselves more fully also requires an appreciation for the environment around us.

I’m not one for stats, so I’m not going to tell you mindfulness reduces anxiety by 36% or improves mood in 32% of study participants. There are many studies out there that can speak to their unique study groups, and it can be pretty hard to slap a definitive number on things, BUT… There are common threads, common patterns that we see repeated again and again in practitioners who work mindfully:

  • Reduced anxiety and mental stress

  • Improved cognitive flexibility

  • Increased relationship satisfaction

  • Sleeping better

  • Reduced implicit (age and race) bias

Mindfulness helps us to see that instead of binary or win/lose decisions, what we have is many options in a given situation and each path leads to a different outcome - so make a decision, learn along the path and then make another. With mindful work, mistakes become friends not enemies. It’s conscious experimentation.

Take Ellen Langer’s work with symphony musicians

We did a study with symphony musicians, who, it turns out, are bored to death.  They’re playing the same pieces over and over again, and yet it’s a high-status job that they can’t easily walk away from.  Some were told to replicate a previous performance they’d liked - that is, to play pretty mindlessly.  Others were told to make their individual performance new in subtle ways - to play mindfully. Remember: This wasn’t jazz, so the changes were very subtle indeed.  But when we played recordings of the symphonies for people who knew nothing about the study, they overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces. So here we had a group performance where everybody was doing their own thing, and it was better.

This isn’t hippie talk and it isn’t irrelevant or somehow separate from the way you approach your business - as you’ll see by the coverage the topic is getting in publications like HBR. There’s real ties to where the world is headed with distributed decision making at scale, leading through values not policy and motivation through autonomy mastery and purpose. We need to do the work on ourselves so that we can do the work on our organisations.

“There’s this view that if you let everyone do their own thing, chaos will reign. When people are doing their own thing in a rebellious way, yes, it might. But if everyone is working in the same context and is fully present, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a superior coordinated performance.”

Here’s a few super simple ways you can get started building new habits:

  1. Notice your breath first: When you wake up, before you get up and going with the day, take 2 minutes to simply notice the quality of your breath. Observe the inhale, exhale, where it’s smooth, fast or slow. Do you spend more time on the inhale? Where in your body can you feel the sensation of your breath? Deep exhales and breathing into the back body help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, diminish the activity of the amygdala, calm the body into recovery mode and helps you start from peace. (More on the anatomy of mindfulness later)

  2. Micro-meditations during your day: You can repeat the exercise during the day - try a micro meditation before meetings or any time you feel frustrated. Take a moment to pause, count a couple breaths and really notice where in your body you’re breathing, focus on gently prolonging the exhale over say 20 breaths

  3. No devices for the first hour: Spend a day with no technology in the first hour from when you wake. Follow it up with movement and then get your day started without the clutter of the Facebook feed or overnight emails from the international office.

  4. Imagine your thoughts are transparent: If everyone could see what we were thinking, we’d be less likely to judge out loud and more likely to seek understanding of another person’s perspective. Imagining transparency can help us to remain conscious and connected throughout the work day.

There’s some great apps out there that can help too - Headspace and Smiling Mind are awesome, and there’s a wealth of podcasts so take the time to find a style that works for you!

Enjoy the moment’s silence, pause and GO.

- D.