Mindful Leadership: The Why and How of Sitting Still

As leaders and developing leaders contemplate how to become more effective in their more than busy lives, many are discovering that effectiveness comes not from squeezing more into their day, but in slowing their day down – if only for 10-15 minutes.

Thoughtful leaders are recognizing that their leadership skills, output and impact benefit when they take the time to quiet the mind and simply sit and be still.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, known for studying and describing emotional intelligence in organizations, calls this the leadership paradox in Primal Leadership: “For leaders, the first task in management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself.”

This includes:

  • Connecting with deep values that guide
  • Imbuing actions with meaning
  • Aligning emotions with goals
  • Keeping motivated, focused and on task

Honing the skills of awareness naturally leads to mindfulness — becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around us on several levels. Mindfulness is living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, other people and the context in which we live and work.  In mindfulness, our awareness is heightened; and our abilities are sharpened.

Before you dismiss mindfulness as New Age rhetoric, pay attention to the research. Recent studies in management science, psychology and neuroscience point to the importance of developing mindfulness and experiencing meditation.

Mindfulness meditation has long been practiced by Buddhists and others seeking greater calm and peace of mind. A Buddhist-trained HR executive, Michael Carroll encourages business leaders to take time to sit and be still. Stressed-out executives, he maintains, need a way to reconnect with themselves to become more open and, consequently, more effective.

In his book, The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation, Carroll explores the key principles of mindfulness and how they apply to leading organizations and teams within organizations.

Mindfulness meditation addresses a wide range of topics, including:

  • How to heal toxic workplace cultures where anxiety and stress impede creativity and performance
  • How to cultivate courage and confidence in spite of workplace difficulties and economic recession
  • How to pursue organizational goals without neglecting what’s happening here and now
  • How to lead with wisdom and gentleness, not only with ambition, relentless drive and power
  • How a personal meditation practice develops your innate leadership talents

Many workplaces are adopting, and some even offering classes, in mindfulness meditation.  Recent research highlights its many benefits:

  1. Repaired immune systems
  2. Heightened emotional intelligence
  3. Reduced anxiety and depression
  4. Sustained levels of joy and satisfaction
  5. Greater career resilience
  6. Improved cardiovascular health
  7. Fewer days lost to illness and stress

But practicing meditation requires much…well, practice. It demands vulnerability and heart, rather than ambition and achievement—a tall order for hard-driving, results-oriented executives.

What Is Meditation?

In short, mindfulness meditation is a kind and thoughtful gesture toward ourselves, in which we take time to sit still for 10–15 minutes or longer.

You can meditate in your office, sitting in your chair. Here are some essential guidelines:

  • Sit upright—relaxed, yet alert.
  • Open your eyes and maintain a soft, relaxed, downward gaze.
  • Place hands palms down, resting gently.
  • Tuck in your chin.
  • Breathe normally.
  • Observe your thoughts gently, without judgment.
  • Label your thoughts as “thinking” and dismiss them. Let them go.
  • Return your focus to your being, breathing and bodily sensations.
  • Be still.
  • Experience being you in the moment—in the now.

The Restlessness Experience

At some point in meditation, we experience our mind’s restlessness—a strong desire to be somewhere else, doing other things. You’ll be reminded of matters that need your attention.

When you experience restlessness, you’ll come to realize how you shut down your sense of “here and now”—your own presence in the world as it really exists. It’s easy to become distracted, yet hard to sit and be still with ourselves.

  • This is when we begin to discover how we interact in the world: by shutting off the here and now, distorting our sense of purpose and missing opportunities to appreciate our true environment. The ensuing anxiety prevents us from being open.

Being You

To become a mindful leader, you must understand the distinction between trying to improve yourself versus experiencing who you already are:

  • As a mindful leader, you acknowledge you’re already open (not trying to be more open).
  • You acknowledge the wisdom and kindness you hold within (not trying to be more wise or compassionate).
  • You don’t strive to achieve a better, improved you. Rather, you meditate to get in touch with who you already are and to discover your basic sanity and true qualities, as they already exist within you. You turn off the inner judge and critic.

The Art of Nonachievement

Practice mindfulness meditation with non-achievement in mind. Meditation’s benefits are attained by exercising unseen “leadership muscles” as you sit still.

Ten leadership talents developed through meditation are outlined in Carroll’s book:

Simplicity

Enthusiasm

Poise

Patience

Respect

Awareness

Courage

Skillfulness

Confidence

Humility

These skills develop with practice and can then be applied with a natural ease and familiarity.

As you know from experience, leading others is no small task, requiring a poised, courageous, down-to-earth acknowledgment of reality.

When you slow down, you gain a realistic picture of what’s going on instead of speeding through your day—or worse, speeding through your life.  Meditation and mindfulness are invitations to become more fully human.   Practiced in everyday leadership, they confer the power to have a real impact – on your ability to lead, and on the results you achieve in your organization.

Content for this article provided by Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D.