What a mindfulness practice can teach you about leadership

There are numerous studies that have shown that engaging in mindfulness practices offers psychologic, physiologic and cognitive benefits.

More recent research proves there are tangible results of mindfulness that can lead to greater leadership effectiveness. Over the last decade, corporate mindfulness training has enjoyed greater acceptance as employees have derived benefits from a mindfulness practice that translate to greater productivity.

 If repeating mantras from the top of a mountain feels way out of your comfort zone, there are many other mindfulness practices in which you can engage, even if your organization doesn’t offer specialized training.

Meditation, tai chi, journaling and yoga are just a few options available to try, and a simple Google search will reveal a host of free resources and apps to help you get started. You can even practice mindfulness when walking, eating or listening to others.

I recently worked with Patrick, a client whose experience confirmed the benefits of mindfulness. He had recently recommitted himself to a yoga practice, an early year resolution that fell by the wayside in favor of the demands of leading a growing tech company.

“The more stressful and fragmented my days became, he told me, the more I knew that I had to get back on the mat. I was not making clear decisions. I was overwhelmed with customer demands and how we were responding to them. Worse, I was losing sight of the fun of what we are trying to do with our business and what we were learning, even from our mistakes.”

The average yoga mat is a 24-by-68 piece of real estate, but I learned from my client that it’s one of the most influential sources of leadership training you can experience. But, getting back to his practice wasn’t easy. Patrick complained about how much ground he’d lost after months of neglecting it.

“You spend most of a yoga class working on your breathing, while upside down or contorting your body into positions you didn’t think possible, he said. It’s tough at first, especially if you’re naturally competitive, or a former jock like me. I was used to being a high achiever and in this class I wasn’t. Worse, it seemed that the progress I’d made when first starting out had been lost and I was back to the beginning.”

“My first challenge was tamping down my habit of comparing myself to everyone in the class, and then beating myself up because I couldn’t do what they could do, he confessed. It’s funny, after a while I got used to being the worse student in the class and learned to work towards incremental improvements in my own abilities.”

Yoga mats, I learned, are the great leveler.

Heart of leadership

Patrick’s recommitment to mindfulness allowed him to achieve the four major goals that science says are at the heart of benefitting from any practice. These were goals that had a direct impact on his leadership style and the outcomes he enjoyed:

  1. Developing "present moment" attention: This is the capacity to stay centered in the current moment without letting your mind wander to worries about the past or to future events. In a leadership capacity, achieving this goal allowed Patrick to develop a sharper focus on what was important at the moment and helped him minimize his tendency to multi-task, which often led to subpar work outcomes, and more strategic objectives receiving less attention than they required.
  2. Intentionality: An important goal for Patrick was setting his intention for his yoga practice, but that spilled over into how he behaved as a leader. Demonstrating intentionality required careful consideration of his practice goals, which aligned with the requirement he had as a leader to define goals for himself, the business and his team. Intentionality helped to build and refine Patrick’s goal-setting muscles.
  3. Self-compassion: We all have a natural tendency to engage in self-criticism, especially when we compare ourselves to a standard that we’re not achieving. Patrick struggled most with this goal. Being overly self-critical was a tendency that compromised his mindfulness practice, for sure, but it also eroded his resilience when it came to leadership setbacks. Learning to grace himself and others with compassion contributed to Patrick building persistence and helping his team do the same. Thus, failures became opportunities to learn, grow and rebound.  
  4. Witnessing: This goal, sometimes called “awareness," relates to developing the capacity to observe what is happening without passing judgement. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you’ve no doubt struggled with this, as a myriad of thoughts raced through your mind when the objective was to clear it. Students of meditation are taught to observe those random thoughts and then to let them go, rather than obsess over them. Gaining mastery with witnessing allowed Patrick to minimize the instances in which he rushed to premature judgements and conclusions, especially when dealing with difficult situations. More importantly, he used this newfound ability to create a safe space where his team felt free to share their ideas, feedback or concerns with him, rather than keeping them under wraps until a small issue became a crisis.

True leadership is about more than leveraging a technical or business skill set. It’s about more than charisma or ego. At the heart of true leadership is developing personal mastery and self-awareness. Committing to a mindfulness practice may make all the difference in your leadership success.

There’s a lot to learn on a yoga mat.

 

Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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