Imagine a meeting where everyone was fully attentive to the topic at hand. Nobody is checking their phone under the table, nobody is thinking about their next meeting, nobody is dwelling on some other project or conversation. Imagine how much more efficient and effective that meeting might be if everyone was actually paying attention.
In the current age of busy-ness, where we are constantly dealing with a stream of interruptions and “emergencies”, bouncing through back-to-back meetings, and mentally dealing with multiple competing priorities and deadlines, it is difficult enough to lead ourselves, let alone to lead a team.
The question to ask is what kind of minds do you want your leaders to have at work? Distracted, overwhelmed and fragmented? Or clear, focused and present?
Although research into the impact of mindfulness training on leadership effectiveness is a relatively new research area, it is certainly growing rapidly, and starting to indicate a significant range of benefits. For example in one large study of leaders and their teams, leader mindfulness was positively related to job performance, employee engagement and job satisfaction.
So what makes a mindful leader more effective?
There is no denying that leaders are facing unprecedented levels of complexity. Globalisation, digitalisation, matrix organisations, and pace of change are just a few of the trends contributing to this increasingly complex role of a leader. Mindfulness can ‘enable us to sustain our attention for longer, switch attention more deftly when needed, and reduce unnecessary distraction’, and there is growing research on the attentional benefits of mindfulness. This is a skill that all of us, particularly leaders, desperately need. As Daniel Goleman has rightly pointed out “The leaders single most important job is to manage attention flow.” The ability to skilfully filter through the multitude of competing demands, switching context quickly and at times applying deep, sustained focus, enables leaders to execute on the priorities that drive business outcomes.
Janice Marturano, former General Mills Senior Leader and Founder of the Mindful Institute, explains that “clarity as a leader means seeing clearly how things really are, appreciating that our initial reaction to something might not be the absolute truth. Through clarity we become aware of how our expectations, judgements and reactions might be clouding what is in front of us”. Mindfulness helps leaders to step back from default responses such as bias and stereotypes. This is particularly important as leaders develop and progress into more senior positions. Past mindsets, assumptions and models may not apply as leaders take on more senior responsibilities. So an ability to be able to let go and reframe is vital. Mindfulness develops ‘metacognition’, giving leaders the capacity to notice thoughts and intuitions with perspective, and have the freedom to choose between automatic reactions and informed responses.
Mindful presence leads to people feeling listened to and respected, yet sadly with multiple distractions competing for attention, deep attentive listening is becoming more and more difficult even with the best of intentions. According to Marturano, “leadership presence is a tangible quality, that requires full and complete non judgemental attention to the present moment. Those around a mindful leader see and feel that presence”.
Developing a sustained mindful practice, then applying this to the way you lead is not always an easy road, and it isn’t a silver bullet. However, early evidence suggests it is one approach which helps leaders focus amid growing complexity, see beyond initial bias and judgement, and be powerfully present.