Mindful leaders are effective leaders

walking buddha

In June, the Director of the National Centre for Strategic Leadership, Nigel Girling, will be running a free webinar raising awareness about and talking through some approaches to mindful leadership. The following post was provided by the organizers of the webinar.

We live in a world of unprecedented pressure to be productive, complete tasks and stay in constant contact. For leaders, this can lead to a working environment that is fragmented by thousands of distractions and disparate demands. Attention spans are, unsurprisingly, becoming shorter as leaders struggle to find their way through this minefield.

It might all sound a bit hippy and New Age, but mindfulness might be just what leaders need at this point.

Many cultures have embraced this kind of thinking for centuries, but applying it to leadership and business, especially in the West, is rather more recent. There are five major aspects of effective leadership than can be developed through mindfulness.


In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, it’s essential that leaders remain aware of how they are perceived by others. Being conscious of your own emotional and mental state, and of your behavior, is key to ensuring that you are the leader you want and need to be at all times.

The ability to see and experience yourself as others will is crucial in understanding the impact you have. It begins by being alert, listening to yourself, and observing the way you think, feel, speak and behave.

Presence in the moment

The modern leader needs to be able to experience situations clearly and without prejudice or emotional baggage. With so much complexity in every context, the ability to remain focused on the reality of a situation and the core purpose of any action is of significant benefit.
This is part of the wider topic of ‘critical thinking’. It could be as simple as paying attention to what is actually happening. People who multi-task often spend much of their time thinking about the thing they need to do next, or worrying about problems… mindfulness asks that you think about what is happening right now.


Leaders are starting to recognize that their ability to withstand major trauma, bounce back from setbacks, and cope with pressure, all without becoming stressed, is a key factor influencing their capacity for providing engaging and confident leadership.

Stress is often the natural enemy of rational and considered behavior, and mindfulness can help a leader to treat setbacks and failures as learning experiences that can be analyzed to guide future action.


Some traditional management thinking would have you believe that it is necessary to be tough and hard, demanding results and driving performance. In the 21st century, talented staff want a leader who is human and who understands that work-life balance is not just some wishy-washy fad, but a source of renewed commitment, engagement and enthusiasm.

The effective modern leader knows that their job is to enable their people to bring the best version of themselves to work, not just to squeeze them dry and discard them when they fall apart.

Gordon Gekko was a fictional character, just like Sir Alan Sugar or the Dragons. Leaders who really behaved that way would almost certainly find their best people jumping ship, and those that stayed being stressed, unwell and underperforming.

Calmness and rational thinking

In recent years, some excellent work has been done on developing our understanding of neuroscience, and the role of emotion in thinking patterns. Organizations like HeartMath have demonstrated the way emotional responses affect the ability to remain rational, and have shown just how important calmness is in sending out the right messages through deliberate, conscious behavior and unbiased decision-making.

In summary, mindfulness isn’t about finger-cymbals and chanting (not that there’s anything wrong with either of these), nor do you have to sit cross-legged in front of your guru… it’s just a hefty dollop of common-sense, applied to an area that is often rather short of it.

To find out how to harness the power of mindfulness to achieve these essential features of effective leadership, join the webinar.

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Mindfulness can improve leadership in times of instability

Cheryl Rezek, The Guardian: What does the ancient eastern practice of mindfulness, often associated with orange-clothed chanting monks, have to do with the fast-paced, performance-driven style of western leadership? In tough times, it could act as an influential asset in the public service’s fight for survival.

Mindfulness is about paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, a moment in time. It is about focusing attention on the present in a way that allows that moment to be experienced and observed closely. It involves developing the skills to allow yourself to engage actively with whatever is happening at the time, as well …

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Meditating your way to more effective leadership

Michael Carroll, Fast Company: Why sitting still and listening to your own thoughts for a few minutes a day may be the best business move you can make.

We all know what human agility looks like. Attend any performance of Cirque du Soleil or the New York City Ballet and we can witness remarkable performers executing flawlessly: muscular, refined, and utterly disciplined. And while we may assume that such creative elegance is unique to the performing arts, today’s business climate is fast making the very same agility the defining skill for leading today’s global enterprises.

Now, of course, this is not to say …

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Meditation finds an ommm in the office

Wallace Immen, the Globe and Mail: Not long ago, a CEO who openly practised meditation in the office might be considered weird, and a manager who urged employees to train their minds to be more self-aware on the job would be suspect.

But that’s changed. A slew of books published this year promote meditation for self-awareness as an aid to decision-making and leadership.

Managers are promoting mental-awareness techniques to help employees cut stress and improve communication. And executives are finding meditation helps them stay cool under fire.

Last fall, Kira Leskew found herself screaming on the phone to a supplier who’d failed to …

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Kindness is not weakness

Baby's hand holding onto an adult's finger.

Recently I received a few questions about the relationship between lovingkindness and “toughness.”

1. When practicing lovingkindness, how do you respond if people around you warm to you, but misconstrue your kindness and friendliness, and then become disappointed that you don’t want a “relationship” with them?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I suppose the short answer is “kindly.”

It’s great if people are noticing you becoming friendlier and are responding. But these things can be complicated, especially when people have strong emotional needs (because they’re lonely, for example) or where friendliness is being interpreted as an overture to romantic involvement.

And sometimes we may need to look at the signals we’re giving out. Are we just being friendly, or is there an element of flirtatiousness? It’s hard to say from the inside, sometimes, because we’re often not aware of all our motivations and habits. It may take a lot of internal scrutiny and perhaps feedback from friends before we can sort that out.

Also see:

But assuming that you’re just being friendly, we just need to be kind and clear and to set appropriate boundaries. So you could thank the other person for their interest and say, kindly, that unfortunately you don’t have time in your social calendar to have coffee with them, or that you’re not interested in dating at the moment, or whatever seems appropriate for the circumstances.

Some people are not good at taking rejection, so the other person may be hurt or angry or become more persistent, so you may have to be very firm. But it’s still best to be gracious.

2. When practicing lovingkindness but still having to be part of the world work-wise, how do you reconcile others’ expectations that you must be “tough” to negotiate deals etc, that kind, gentle people are “pushovers” and should be taken advantage of, or treated with toughness?

There does seem to be a common assumption that if you’re friendly you can’t also be tough or firm, but that’s of course not the case. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Recently I had to lay someone off because of a financial crunch at work, which was a tough decision to make. But it needed to be done. I tried to do it as kindly as possible, and to give as much background information as possible so that she’d understand why I was doing what I was doing. The response was quite amazing: my former co-worker, when she heard about the financial difficulties we were going though said, “That’s terrible. What can I do to help?” This is not a testament to my communication skills and is more to do with the other person’s own kindness, but it shows that even a lay-off can be an affair free of bitterness.

Some business-people are tough to the point of being positively inhuman, because they are unable to empathize with others. One study reckoned that one in 25 business leaders may be psychopaths. In the long-term, business leaders like that are hugely destructive. They can make life hell for the people they work for. They can destroy trust with their own customers. They can bring their own companies down (Enron, anyone?). They can destroy entire economies.

There’s even a case for saying that corporations, which typically take returns to shareholders as the only meaningful benchmark of success, disregarding the welfare of their workers, clients, and the world generally, have psychopathic tendencies.

On the other hand, studies have shown that effective leaders are empathetic. One study showed that the most effective managers “consistently used the following four competencies: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.”

Being empathetic and kind is one set of skills. Being clear and tough is another. Having just one set of these skills makes you ineffective. But it’s possible to have both.

3. This all kind of rolls up to how much is it my responsibility to change my own behaviours based on what I perceive others expect of me? I know some people who do this unconsciously, and others who don’t do it at all a they have no consciousness of others perceptions. But once you are aware, how much is it my responsibility to change myself, and how much should I be “true to myself” and expect others to change around me – even knowing it may not get the response I seek?

If we confuse being kind with “getting people to like us” then we won’t be true to ourselves, and we’ll suffer. Being kind simply means recognizing that other people wish to be happy and don’t want to suffer. Being unkind means wanting others to suffer or not to experience happiness. Now we can be kind and still take actions that lead to other people being unhappy (you might need to lay someone off, and they probably won’t be happy about it) but it’s not our aim to make the other person unhappy, so we’re not being unkind. We recognize that the decisions we’re making are likely to evoke unhappiness, and so we try to take that into account in our speech and in other actions we take.

And being kind doesn’t mean negating your own well-being. If other people have expectations of you, you need to ask whether those expectations are right and reasonable. Your question’s rather abstract, so I’ve no idea what kind of expectations people have of you, or in what way they might want you to change. If they want you to fit in with some well-established and effective way of doing things, then yes, I think it’s reasonable for you to change to accommodate that. If they expect you to lose your sense of right and wrong, then you need to take a stand.

When we’re “being true to ourselves” we’re always being selective. In my opinion, we’re most true to ourselves when we’re true to the wisest and kindest parts of ourselves, rather than to the most rigid, grasping, or harsh parts. There’s inevitably conflict between these two sides. Pick a side.

But it’s a complex thing, this being human. Complex and difficult. There is a need for give and take, for compromise, for making concessions. But there’s also a need to be firm to your core values. If people don’t respect that, then sometimes the kindest thing you can do — for yourself — is to get the hell out of Dodge.

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Mindfulness helps you become a better leader

Bill George, Harvard Business Review: Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I have sensed from many leaders that they want to do a better job of leading in accordance with their personal values. The crisis exposed the fallacies of measuring success in monetary terms and left many leaders with a deep feeling of unease that they were being pulled away from what I call their True North.

As markets rose and bonus pools grew, it was all too easy to celebrate the rising tide of wealth without examining the process that created it. Too many leaders placed self-interest ahead of their organizations’ interests …

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Business Insight: To lead, don’t be afraid to pause

Dawn House, The Salt Lake Tribune: Kevin Cashman, a business coach and author of “The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward,” says economic and personal crashes can be tied to addiction for constant action.

Why is it important to step back?

In our 24/7 globally connected culture with a deluge of information and so much coming at us at once, the loss of pause potential is epidemic.

If leaders do not step back to stop momentum, gain perspective, to transcend the immediacies of life and to accelerate their leadership, we will continue to crash economically, personally and collectively.

Pause is the antidote to …

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Entrepreneurs’ secret anti-stress weapon

Jessica Stillman, Inc.: A new study shows even small amounts of meditation relieve stress and boost health. No wonder many business bigwigs turn to it.

Science and religion are often at odds, but at least occasionally there is convergence. Buddhist monks and devoted yogis have long contended that meditation reduces stress. A recent study agrees, even if the practice is stripped of any particular spiritual belief.

The randomized, controlled study was carried about by a team including a Duke university psychologist and an Aetna executive among others and was recently published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The research assigned 239 employees to either weekly …

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Sit. Breathe. Be a Better Leader.

Tatiana Serafin: Harley Murphy, who heads the Ireland operations of BNY Mellon, used to lie awake at night unable to sleep because of an avalanche of problems facing his division during the banking crisis. “I’d go to the office each day feeling exhausted and was beginning to feel miserable,” says Murphy. He found it difficult to think clearly and make confident decisions. He looked for ways to get back on track and then, as part of a leadership training session, took a meditation class. After 30 minutes, he began to relax and focus. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Murphy.

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons meditates…

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“The Mindful Leader” by Michael Carroll

The Mindful Leader by Michael Carroll

In The Mindful Leader, author Michael Carroll’s premise is that the best leaders aren’t those who take charge and make things happen. They’re the ones who are willing to be fully human and inspire the best in others. Sunada reviews this book that shows us how to pursue excellence at work and do so with decency, dignity, and authenticity.

Pick up a typical book on business leadership and what do you get? Advice on how to motivate others to do more, do it faster, and win in a zero-sum game. But on the first page of The Mindful Leader, it’s suggested that we sit quietly and do nothing for a while.

Outrageous? Not at all!

Michael Carroll takes a decidedly unconventional, but thoroughly refreshing perspective on the subject. He explains as follows:

“When we lead a career that is sharply focused on being more successful, more admired, or just more comfortable, we can deceive ourselves into neglecting the world around us. We end up managing our lives like projects rather than actually living them. Consequently, for mindful leaders, cultivating this ability to be at work and throughout our lives is not just a nice idea or an interesting thing to do. Rather, by learning to be at work we discover how to stop kidding ourselves and … to open respectfully and realistically to our workplace as it unfolds in the present moment.”

If this strikes you as too soft and “touchy-feely” for the take-no-prisoners business world, I urge you to read on. He isn’t advocating becoming a nice, well-liked person who gets left behind in the cut-throat race to the finish. Carroll would argue that being a genuine human being and an effective leader are not contradictory. In fact, there’s a synergy between these two realms that’s greater than the sum of their parts.

In the introduction, Carroll talks about the concept of the bodhisattva-warrior. A bodhisattva is a highly advanced spiritual being whose sole purpose in life is to help others. A bodhisattva-warrior is a courageous figure who uses his power and ingenuity to overcome the forces of arrogance, aggression, and greed in the world. This book is in effect a training manual for modern-day bodhisattva-warriors. It’s not a job for sissies.

Michael Carroll has the background to know what he’s talking about. In his 25-year career, he held executive positions in major corporations like Shearson Lehman/American Express, Simon & Schuster, and Walt Disney. During that time, he also studied Tibetan Buddhism in the Shambala lineage, graduated from Buddhist seminary, and is now a senior teacher. Drawing on his training in these two worlds, he now consults to businesses on how to be respectfully in the moment while confidently pursuing one’s work objectives. (Note that I also wrote a review of his related previous book, Awake at Work.)

The heart of the book lays out the Ten Talents of the Mindful Leader: Simplicity, Poise, Respect, Courage, Confidence, Enthusiasm, Patience, Awareness, Skillfulness, and Humility. He discusses each talent by introducing a common business challenge, and then shows how mindfulness naturally expresses a quality perfectly suited to countering the situation. He discusses how to cultivate this quality through meditation or conscious reflection, and how to bring it out into our work world.

Title: The Mindful Leader
Author: Michael Carroll
Publisher: Shambhala Publications
ISBN: 978-1-59030-620-8
Available from: Amazon.com and Shambhala.

One chapter at a time, he shows how we can heal “toxic” workplaces, cultivate courage in the face of risky situations, pursue long-term goals without sacrificing what’s here and now, and lead with wisdom and grace instead of ambition and power. Every chapter is filled with real world anecdotes and parables from the Buddhist tradition that bring his points colorfully to life.

It’s the section that follows, Bringing Our Full Being to Work, that I appreciated the most. Here, Carroll draws out a higher level of integrative skills that I think are the mark of a true leader. It’s where all the previous ten talents meld into a holistic vision of masterful leadership. These skills are Synchronizing, Engaging the Whole, Inspiring Health and Well-being, and Authenticity.

I particularly enjoyed his story of a capsized ferry disaster in ancient China, which is an illustration of Engaging the Whole. I’ll let the story speak for itself.

… all the villagers dropped what they were doing and raced down to the ferry … except for the blacksmith. … He ran in the opposite direction. People stopped and grumbled, ‘Now we know who to depend on when things go wrong. Look at that cowardly blacksmith scurrying away when he is most needed.’

As people rushed to the capsized ferry, they struggled valiantly to save those in the water, but they were too late. Those who had fallen into the river had been pulled downstream by the strong current, and the villagers could see people struggling in the rapids as they were swept out of sight and around the bend. No one could see the blacksmith, however, just past the curve of the river extending a bamboo pole to those in need, pulling them to shore one by one.

Unlike the well-intentioned villagers, the blacksmith ‘engaged the whole’: his behaviors were as much an expression of the circumstances as they were a reaction to them. He knew that ‘results’ – saving the drowning passengers – were inherently defined by the river, terrain, and timing, not by his personal need to help. Going downstream rather than rushing in panic to the scene of the disaster was a choice that followed the contours of his world: because he was synchronized, he was skillfully in tune with the facts, and his presence was, in many respects, an expression of the situation’s intelligence.

Let me mention a couple things you WON’T find in this book. First, it doesn’t teach you how to meditate. There is a section on meditation and reflection, but it’s clear the intent is to provide just enough guidance to engage with the reflection exercises. It won’t help you start a full-fledged meditation practice, which is really beyond the scope of this book. You’re better off using the chapter as a reference and seeking instruction elsewhere.

Second, you’ve probably figured out by now that this book isn’t about management methods and competencies. You won’t find anything that you can bring to your office on Monday and get cracking on. What it does is invite you to pause and reflect. It gives you lots of food for thought about what it means to be more fully and authentically human. And it encourages us to cultivate the basic attitudes and mental skills that form the ground upon which great leaders naturally emerge.

There’s one other important point from the book I’d like to emphasize. Although the subject is leadership in a business context, I think the principles can apply to anyone. Leadership isn’t something that only CEOs do. Each and every one of us can be a leader in whatever we do – whether we’re teaching children, designing software, or driving taxis.

As Carroll says:

… all human beings instinctively want to offer their best to others and in turn inspire others to do the same, and this can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

In that regard, I hope this book is read by a much wider audience than just business people. If everyone followed these principles and engaged with the world in this way, our planet would be a very different place indeed.

Here’s a YouTube video of Michael Carroll speaking at a “Meet the Author” event at Northeastern University in Boston MA.

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