“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”— Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen monk and mindfulness meditation master.
Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings in a gentle, non-judgmental way. When we practice mindfulness in our daily lives, our thoughts tune into what we are sensing in the present moment rather than dwelling in the past or imagining the future, thus helping us to become calmer and kinder to ourselves and others.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program in the United States in 1979, defined mindfulness meditation as a “'moment to moment non-judgmental awareness.” The Journal of Business Ethics’ review on spirituality and performance in organizations found an increase in corporate meditation programs since 2010 and the Financial Times stated that a quarter of American employers, like Aetna and Google, were already using stress reduction initiatives in 2016.
The American Psychological Association (APA) mentions the following proven benefits of mindfulness to increase well-being and productivity: reduces rumination on past failures and current challenges; reduces stress and anxiety; improves memory; improves focus and cognitive potential; increases emotional control; reduces reactivity; improves relationship satisfaction and conflict solving; fosters empathy; enhances self-compassion; improves counseling skills; enhances emotional intelligence and social connectedness; and, in general, improves the quality of life. In a study performed by Aetna with Duke University in 2012 on meditation, they found 28 percent reduction in stress levels, 20 percent improvement in sleep quality, 19 percent reduction in pain, and an average of 62 minutes per week of added productivity.
Many successful mindful leadership have experienced that mediation practices can lead to greater innovation and increased productivity. Mark Bertolini, former chairman and CEO of Aetna, found relief from pain in yoga and meditation after a traumatic ski accident. His mindfulness practice gave way to an empathetic and compassionate leadership style that increased the minimum wage, promoted students’ loans reimbursement, and established health and wellness programs that included meditation, yoga, sleep, diet, and nutrition. Soledad O’Brien, chairwoman of Starfish Media, said that meditation was an opportunity to experience a state of deep rest and relaxation, and to feel healthier and happier: “It can be game-changing and sometimes a life-saver in a crazy world.” Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, explained his philosophy for success as an appreciation for health, daily meditation, love and time. Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, said he takes time to meditate each day. "The practice of mindfulness kept me going during the darkest days," he admitted, when recalling his experience near bankruptcy a decade ago.
What is mindful leadership?
“Mindful leadership is about embodying focus, creativity, clarity and compassion in the service of others,” says Janice Marturano, founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership. Executives who manage organizations are usually subject to enormous amounts of stress, and this is where mindfulness can help people stay honest, make tough choices empathically and inspire confidence. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, had practiced meditation for years and said mindfulness changed the way he leads. “Having a beginner’s mind informs my management style. I’m trying to listen deeply… I know that I have to be here in the moment.”
The most important aspects of mindful leadership are related to being curious, empathetic, compassionate, and treating people with respect. Even when giving people bad news or making difficult choices, there is always a space for kindness and compassion. “The reality of business is the reality of business,” says Marturano, “but you can make people feel respected and treat people with compassion.” Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, encouraged his employees to practice transcendental meditation on a regular basis, thus spreading meditation practices in Wall Street. He said, "I did it because it's the greatest gift I could give anyone—it brings about equanimity, creativity and peace."
Stress management is crucial in every business. According to the Harvard Business Review, when leaders are stressed, their anxiety can be felt across the entire organization, causing worry and distress. On the contrary, when leaders are actively engaged in mindfulness practices, the psychological capital—hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience—of the organization rises. Mindful leaders develop better companies because they are present, thoughtful in their organizational choices, and aware of everything going on around them. The main three skills of mindful leaders, therefore, are: metacognition (observing from a neutral position what is happening rather than becoming personally affected), allowing (open to what happens without judgment or criticism), and curiosity (open to learn and gather as much information as possible before making decisions).
Four simple steps to increase self-awareness and become a mindful leader are:
- Pay attention to our breath throughout the day.
- Check ourselves emotionally before entering a room or a meeting.
- Take a walk to pause and re-center (walking meditation).
- Schedule downtime to recharge.
Both anecdotal and empirical evidence proves that regular time dedicated to mindfulness meditation can help us feel better, think better and work better, thus improving wellness and productivity. It is also a straightforward way to create a healthy, emotionally safe work environment. Leaders would do well in remembering that they are always being watched and that their kind presence and compassionate attitude will inspire others beyond words. Become a mindful leader. The organization and the world around you will become kinder and mindful as well.
Written by Paula Arellano Geoffroy forTogether Abroad.