Breathe. Meditate. Lead. Ten Ways Mindfulness Practice Can Make Us Better Leaders

True story. It was 6AM. There were about 12 of us who had been meditating for an hour when I had an epiphany. It’s really hard to empty your mind when your stomach is completely empty and loudly declaring its discontent! This was about five years ago when, burned out and on a dare by my best friend, I decided to go to India to spend ten days at an ashram to learn how to meditate.

The actual course was 21 days but as a self-proclaimed over-achiever I figured I could nail it in ten. Like anything else up to this point in my highly productive, efficient, and fast-paced life, I had specific goals in mind for the ten days at the ashram. First, learn how to empty my mind. Second, attain a permanent stress-free state. Third (and this was my Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was to achieve enlightenment.  So, you can imagine my frustration on Day Nine as my stomach was growling with hunger and I had still not learned how to empty my mind.

Fast forward five years, and I find myself fascinated by what neuroscience is discovering about the benefits of meditation… something discovered thousands of years ago by the Buddhists. My goal here is to share the benefits of mindfulness I have personally experienced – more as a student and practitioner of the topic, rather than an expert. Here are ten ways mindfulness can help us be better leaders of ourselves and others.

First, a brief definition of mindfulness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is simple awareness of the present moment. The Chinese calligraphy character for mindfulness (the graphic in this article) is literally translated as “present heart.” It is the practice of paying careful attention to what is happening in the now, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, a thought, or an emotion. It is observation without attachment or judgment.

Here are ten ways a leadership practice in mindfulness has helped me and can help you too.

1. Stress Reduction – I meditate 20 minutes in the morning each day. The deep breaths and getting away from the hustle and bustle of life to just sit helps me be calm and intentional about my day. The mind and body are deeply connected and stillness of the body aids in stillness of the mind. Researchers report in a study that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. According to this NY Times article, meditation has also been shown to reduce gray matter in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain commonly associated with stress, anxiety, and emotional processing.

2. Self-Awareness – The act of slowing down and observing my breath, observing my thoughts, and observing my feelings is a huge factor in increasing self-awareness. It has allowed me to be an objective observer to what is happening inside of me rather than an unwitting participant in the drama that can sweep me. Just the other day, as I observed myself giving my 13-year old instructions to be productive and stop watching TV, I had an epiphany. I am a bit of a control freak! It made me laugh out loud, because I would never think of myself as a control freak. Upon gleefully sharing this new epiphany with my daughter, she turned around, rolled her eyes and said, “A bit of a control freak?” It’s funny how others know many things about us that we hide from ourselves. Nothing like feedback from a 13-year old to shatter illusions of your own grandeur!

3. Greater Empathy for Self – My mindfulness practice has allowed me to have greater compassion and empathy for myself most days (well, the days I don’t try on swimsuits anyway!).  There would be days I would have a wonderfully deep and relaxing meditation and other days my mind would be full of chatter and I would be kicking and blaming myself. Then I had a flash of insight. Kicking, blaming, and judging myself was not leading to a greater state of calmness. Acceptance of “what is” helps us to develop a genuine curiosity to know ourselves without judging ourselves. We allow ourselves to see some of the things we would normally dislike about ourselves more readily. And it is often those things that are hidden from our view that derail us. Ironically, that acceptance is the first real step to choosing to make any change.

4. Manage Our Energy – Greater self-awareness of our own thoughts, emotions, and feelings allows us to manage our energy as leaders. As leaders, we have our own Energy Footprint and our energy is highly contagious. Neuroscience research has shown us that emotional contagion and limbic resonance are real biological processes that happen where we impact others around us through our own energy and attitude in any given situation. So, as a leader, what is the attitude we want in our people? We need to manage our own “Energy Footprint” first.

5. Become A Better Listener – Observing my breath and my thoughts has made me a better listener. I am more aware of how I am listening to others. I find myself listening to “How I am Listening” to a person I don’t particularly like.  It is quite comical observing the thought balloons and judgments that arise. Who needs HBO when you can watch all the drama in your head? As we become aware of the judgmental thoughts and commentary that is in our heads as we listen to others, the filters through which we experience others hold less sway. We are able to better understand others from where they are coming from rather than through the interpretations and stories we have about them. Truly understanding ourselves and others are the key tenets to emotional intelligence, shown to be a key driver of success and well-being in life.

6. Strongly Engage Others – When we recognize our judgments and stories about others and develop the capacity to make a choice in those judgments, we are able to connect more meaningfully and authentically with others. We are able to be more engaging leaders, to truly understand what motivates others.  We are able to influence others more powerfully because we listen and connect better.

7. Creating Distance Between Thought and Action – Mindfulness gives you the power of the “Pregnant Pause”. In our high-action culture, we often act when no action is required, or we act without reflection, just because we are on auto-pilot. The practice of mindfulness makes us aware of the state of being we are in, helps us pause to decide whether action is needed and what is the right action needed. For example, in times of stress our emotions can hijack our actions. The pause can help us choose to adjust our state of being, to calm ourselves down, so that the right action can arise from the right place. As a leader, how many times have you acted in haste to only regret it later?

8. Tap Into Intuition – To me, intuition is a sense of knowing that we all have. Many of us call it our gut. Some of us know it as our inner voice. In the biography by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical analysis… intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.” Even Albert Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Mindfulness, or paying attention to the present, allows us to listen to the small inner voice that is often drowned out by our thoughts, emotions, constant action, worries about the past or the future. For example, intuition has helped me many times in making the right decision in accepting jobs. At one point in my career, I had the opportunity to run a $500 million business vs. running a $100 million business. The obvious rational choice would have been the former, but my inner voice, the very sense of excitement I felt in my body, caused me to take the latter. That choice based on intuition led to great learning, growth and future promotions. Intuition is often felt in the body if we take the time to listen to it.

9. Embrace and Adapt to Change – Change is constant and as leaders our job is to artfully adapt to it. It’s hard to adapt because we have attachments to how things are “supposed to be.” I’m supposed to get my boss’ job. We must win that contract. Nothing wrong with having a desire for the promotion and winning contracts, and we absolutely must strive for these in our lives. However, when we strive for these without being attached to a specific outcome, we are more open to possibilities and opportunities that are in front of us, and we act with less fear and with greater presence. At one point in my career, I was asked to take an assignment in sales, moving me away from my up-to-then marketing career path. I thought I must have really offended someone high up in Management!  At that point my “attachment” was to get promoted to a higher level in marketing. I took the assignment (kicking and screaming I might add) and it was one of the best career moves I have made. Mindfulness practice allows us to give up attachment to what we want something to be, while observing it as it is. From this observation we can then be much more adaptive to change.

10. Greater Clarity and Focus – Many studies have shown that meditation can improve our ability to focus and concentrate on any task at hand. A study by Harvard and MIT neuroscientists found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves called alpha rhythms. “These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper. “Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.” I didn’t need the study to tell me that! After all, I was able to write this rather long discourse on the benefits of mindfulness in just two sessions!

So give mindfulness and meditation a try. Here is a link to some useful resources on how to do mindfulness meditations, and some links to guided meditations. Many others can be found on YouTube and the idea is to work with what works for you.

In closing, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I still haven’t quite figured out how to empty my mind. The good news is I am not quite so attached to that outcome. “The real meditation practice never comes to an end, it’s your life and how you carry yourself in each moment,” as Jon Kabat Zinn says in his lecture at Google. I wish you a mindful day today and welcome connecting with you if you are interested in learning about how to use mindfulness practice to lead more effectively.

If this resonated with you please comment, subscribe and share with others.

Additional Resources

Stress Proof Your Brain – Rick Hanson - Meditation I recommend to clients

Mindful Living Resources – Free Tools

My favorite quotes on meditation:

“We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.” – Pema Chödrön from When Things Fall Apart

“Meditation is warm-up exercise for the mind, so that you can jog through the rest of the day without getting agitated or spraining your patience.” - Eknath Easwaran from Conquest of Mind.

 

This article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach & speaker. She works with women leaders to help them be successful, deeply engaged, fulfilled, and out of that create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, engagement, growth and meaning in the world. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, Home Depot and others who deeply care about growing their female leadership talent. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here.

Share

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mikaela Nyström October 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I love this article – it is SO TRUE!!! Thank You!!

Reply

Sachin Sharma October 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Good Article. Lots of useful information. Just one question – “What’s the purpose of empty mind, i.e. What is achieved by doing that?” Wouldn’t it be rather easier to choose “Better Problems” to focus on in life! Would love to hear your thoughts.

Reply

Henna October 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Hi Sachin -

Thanks for your comments and a very good thought-provoking question. As I mentioned in the article, I don’t consider myself an expert – just a student of mindfulness. So from a student’s perspective here’s what came to my mind when I thought about your question. Mindfulness is about training the mind, not trying to keep it in an empty state all the time. I have seen several benefits for myself to train my mind:

- When I become mindful of my thoughts and start to observe them objectively, I realize that I am not my thoughts. I am the one observing my thoughts. Our thoughts trigger emotions and chemical reactions in our body. When we can learn to control our thoughts we can gain greater mastery over our actions and reactions to events and people.

- Training our minds can actually help us focus better in solving problems

- Our mind, just like our body is healthiest when periods of activity (i.e. problem solving) are combined with periods of rest (i.e. meditation). Athletes know that the period of rest is equally as important as the period of activity.

Good question! Wishing you well and I hope you try it for yourself!

Henna

Reply

Becky Blalock January 31, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Henna: I just love this article. I have been trying to learn more about meditation and how practice it. I have not been able to empty my brain either. I do feel more focused and calm when I begin my day in this way. I look forward to discussing this subject with you the next time we meet. Becky

Reply

Henna January 31, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Hi Becky – I’m glad you found it useful. Would love to discuss the topic with you. Mindfulness has made a huge difference for me personally. If more leaders can make this a daily practice, I am convinced our workplaces would be more engaged, innovative, inspired and successful.

Reply

Stefanie Miller February 2, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Henna and I began discussing Mindfulness, and its benefits, almost nine months ago when Henna became my Executive Coach. I must admit, that while we talked about it, I did not readily engage in trying it. I had all the excuses: not enough time, it was too hard to empty my mind (and why try?), between work and home with a husband and three young kids, quiet time just was not realistic, and on and on… We were about three months into our relationship when it hit me how impactful all of the other work we were doing, both professionally and personally, was to my development. What was my own made-up barrier to trying Meditation?
I decided all my excuses were just that, excuses, and decided that I wanted to explore the benefits of meditation. I am happy to say that I have been practicing meditation for six months now and spend about 15 minutes, three to four times a week trying to empty my mind. Henna does a nice job of capturing the benefits in her blog. For me, it helps me to find calm in a world of stress; to focus on the person/ meeting/issue exclusively, which has led to increased relationships with others and an intuitive ability to work through problems, and to stay calm and balanced during times of disagreement (both at work and at home).
When I feel stress or the inability to objectively view a situation arise, I look for the chance to meditate and within 15 minutes, my view shifts to a place of stress to peacefulness. My only regret is that I did not start 20 years ago!

Stefanie Miller
Group Vice President
The Coca-Cola Company

Reply

Henna February 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

Hi Stefanie –

Thanks so much for sharing you insights about the benefits of mindfulness from the perspective of a busy senior executive and mom. I am hoping your first-hand experience will help others who read this to take a first step to try it. Can you share with them how long you had to “stick with it” (days or weeks) before you started to see the initial benefits of it?

Henna

Reply

Amy November 29, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Thanks for the article. Mindfulness meditation has helped me a lot since I started it almost a year ago now. I can’t completely empty my mind yet, but I can already sense its benefits. In fact, I can identify a few of the points you raised above, such as greater empathy towards self and others, ability to listen to others, and let go of expectations and the way the mind wants things to be.

Overall a nice read!

Reply

Prashant January 15, 2014 at 9:11 am

Ma’am can you please give the name and location of the ashram in India where you came to meditate. I live in India and am very interested in mindfulness meditation but have not been able to find a retreat or even somebody who teaches mindfulness. Please do reply.

PS I REALLY love your blog

Reply

Henna Inam January 15, 2014 at 9:55 am

Thank you for your kind comments. I attended a program by Oneness University near Chennai.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 7 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: