Developing Mindful Leaders: Awareness, Training and Daily Practice

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Imagine a leader who begins a meeting by asking participants to take two minutes of silence to leave negativity and frustration behind and focus all their attention on the task at hand.

Imagine a leader who can calmly balance requests and demands from executives, customers, team members and vendors, addressing each individual she talks to as if he or she is the only person who needs something from her.

Imagine a leader who doesn’t scramble from task to task but stays present from moment to moment and from conversation to conversation.

You don’t have to imagine these leaders; you can train them using mindful leadership development.

What Is Mindful Leadership?

Rachel Cooke, founder and CEO of consultancy Lead Above Noise, defines mindful leadership as “a leadership approach grounded in attention, presence and curiosity.” Leaders often focus on actions, and mindfulness helps them pause those actions to “gain a deeper understanding of the current state”: what’s going well, what their teams need from them and where opportunities exist. “It’s being present, asking questions, listening, reflecting and having dialogue versus immediately attempting to solve a problem,” Cooke adds.

Jacqueline Carter is a partner and the North America director at The Potential Project, as well as co-author of “The Mind of the Leader” and “One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness.” She echoes Cooke’s focus on presence, saying that mindfulness is about being present, and mindful leadership “is about applying that presence toward how you lead yourself and others.”

“This type of [leader] is OK with living with the unknown and even better with the ‘what if,’” says Kimberly Cutchall, senior partner at Talent Plus, Inc. This comfort with uncertainty stems in part from “a certain sense of internal quiet in order to truly listen, absorb and properly evaluate the best path forward.”

Mindfulness doesn’t only help the leader who practices it; organizations can also reap the benefits.

Cutchall believes that mindful leadership is especially important in the modern age, where “the need for now has replaced the respect for pause.” While effective leaders can, sometimes, make fast decisions, they must also be able to give careful consideration to all of the people and processes involved in a situation.

Mindful leadership could also be described as intentional leadership, says Priya Jindal, a transition coach and founder of Nextpat, a training business aimed at expats. It “involves taking time to think through your actions and how they might impact those around you, what that means for your goals, and what alternatives might be available with their respective consequences.”

Essentially, says David Cherner, co-founder and president of training company YOL, mindful leadership “is about alignment. Are the things that we believe in really how we’re showing up?” Zanette Johnson, Ph.D., director of learning at YOL, agrees, saying that mindful leaders “focus on aligning their authentic leadership style with the emerging leadership styles for the future … and then navigating that change with transparency and steadiness, mindfulness and embodiment.”

The Benefits of Mindful Leadership

Leadership is a stressful job, and psychologist and executive coach Melissa Smith, Ph.D., MBA, says that mindfulness alleviates stress and nurtures resilience and hope. It also reduces the likelihood of burnout and “leads to less reliance on ineffective or destructive forms of coping, such as addictive behaviors.”

Mindfulness doesn’t only help the leader who practices it; organizations can also reap the benefits. Jindal says that mindful leaders encourage diversity and inclusion, creativity, and buy-in and loyalty from employees. Similarly, Elea Carey, a startup adviser and executive coach at Bee Partners, says that mindful leaders know that they don’t know everything, and this attitude “leaves an entire universe of opportunities” for themselves and their organization. That openness helps “organizations quickly adapt to market changes and stay competitive,” says Diane Wilbur, CEO of Soft Skills Training Group LLC.

Chris Cavalieri, a leadership coach, certified Dare to Lead™ facilitator, and change and culture consultant, says that mindful leadership enables leaders “to know when their amygdala has been hijacked” so that they can avoid communicating or making decisions until they are in a better emotional state. In other words, as Sandra Mohr, MS, MA, Ed.D., dean of academic resources and administration for the New England College of Optometry says, mindful leaders help create a workplace supports better decision-making and reduces risk.

“Leaders and their people are under more pressure, feeling more overwhelmed and are more distracted than ever,” says Carter. As a result, there’s never been more of a need for mindful leadership.

Developing Mindful Leaders

Mindfulness is a teachable skill, says Carter, and the core skills to teach are focus and awareness. “With focus and awareness, leaders can make better decisions about where to place their attention moment to moment, enabling them to be more agile, creative and effective in their leadership.”

Mindfulness is a teachable skill, and the core skills to teach are focus and awareness.

Self-awareness, not just awareness of others, is also key, and Johnson says YOL’s program encourages participants to “engage in self-reflection and how much time they’re actually spending in a certain state. Because ultimately, that’s what’s going to bear the greatest fruit: … people’s own ability to be aware of when they’re in the right state for the task at hand.”

Of course, many leaders, especially as they climb the ranks, have few opportunities to receive leadership feedback, notes Terry Traut, CEO of training company Entelechy. “Mindful leaders develop the ability to deliberately look for the impacts they have on others and then deliberately choose among alternate actions to increase their effectiveness,” he says. “We need to teach leaders how to ask questions, how to solicit input, how to listen and how to use the information they receive.”

Using self- and other assessments (Wilbur recommends a 360 assessment) can also be a good starting place to help leaders become more mindful. To that end, says Cutchall, it’s also important to nurture an environment that encourages employees to understand themselves deeply. In such a culture, “you see more openness around new topics and areas of respectful disagreement. You hear and see more and diverse voices at the table for creative and strategic conversations. The lines of hierarchical management are not seen, but, rather, the juxtaposition of various roles and levels within the organization are encouraged and celebrated.”

Jindal notes that mindfulness is a practice, so “residential training or longer workshops where leaders can practice the techniques to center themselves” are the best way to train it. Workshops should include “scenarios that might trigger a reactive response” and enable leaders to practice alternative responses. For mindfulness novices, she recommends slowly introducing mindfulness concepts over a longer period of time.

Cooke recommends a mix of instruction, practice, feedback and peer-to-peer coaching, and Mohr says that there is no one-size-fits-all model for mindful leadership training. The best way to develop mindfulness habits is practice, she says, echoing Jindal when she adds that “a one-time learning event is not likely to produce long-term results that will change behaviors in the workplace.”

YOL uses a unique approach to help organizations develop mindful leaders. It began as a retreat company and now offers corporate training that “combines thematic activities with mindfulness-based service engagement or volunteering,” according to Cherner. They offer training to both executives and emerging leaders, as well as teams.

Self-directed learning can also be an effective way to learn mindfulness skills, says Smith, and it can also fit better in a busy leader’s schedule. Find online courses “that include both didactic and experiential components,” and encourage the use of apps and master classes.

Ultimately, says Johnson, the most important part of mindful leadership “is actually the practice of mindfulness. And oftentimes, when people think about mindfulness, they think of meditation and time on the meditation cushion. And while that’s valuable and necessary for some people, mindfulness is something that can be practiced on the cushion, but it’s really practiced for use in everyday life.”

Similarly, Carey says, encourage leaders to adopt a daily mindfulness practice that works for them — anything from running or swimming to playing an instrument or journaling — and to reflect at the end of each day will help them develop the mindfulness that helps them attend to and care for each person who works for them. “That is the hallmark of a truly successful person,” she adds.

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