The Relevance of Mindfulness in Leadership
The growing interest in Mindfulness comes at a time when traditional thinking about leadership development is being questioned. In light of the many failures of leadership across all sectors over recent decades (economic, social, environmental, political, technological, military) the tried and trusted approaches have been revealed to be no longer fit for purpose. A new approach is urgently needed.
This paper explores how recent research into Mindfulness, and in particular the neuro-scientific findings, can offer a fresh perspective on developing leaders capable of effectively responding to the problems facing humanity.
‘The pursuit of mindful leadership will help you achieve clarity about what is important to you and a deeper understanding of the world around you. Mindfulness will help you clear away the trivia and needless worries about unimportant things, nurture passion for your work and compassion for others, and develop the ability to empower the people in your organization.’
Future trends in leadership development
Much of the focus of leadership development in recent years has been on things that are visible – leadership competencies, skills and behaviours. These are all important aspects of leadership at a time when the pace, scale and depth of change is faster, bigger and deeper than ever before. But the global problems we are witnessing show they are not enough.
It is clear that the environment for leadership has changed – it is more complex, volatile and unpredictable. Therefore new leadership skills are required. A literature review on this subject summarises them as:
These new skill sets point to a need to increase our ability to be aware and pay attention: to letting go of fixed positions and certainties; to increased flexibility of thought, word and behaviour; to greater depth and range of emotional intelligence and a realisation that we are always in relationship with everyone and everything around us, including ourselves.
Additionally it is now becoming clear that we have failed to distinguish between two different types of development – vertical and horizontal. Horizontal development is the development of new skills, abilities and behaviours and is, essentially, technical. Vertical development, in contrast, is about the stages that people progress through as they make sense of their world.
‘Horizontal development is like pouring water into an empty glass and the vessel fills up. Vertical development aims to expand the glass.’
This growing interest in vertical leadership progression indicates a welcome change to the way leaders are developed and has manifested in what are seen by traditionalists to be new and radical initiatives such as ‘NeuroLeadership’ and ‘Conscious Leadership’. They can be summarised as creating:
‘The capacity to step outside of oneself, observe, see oneself in context, and have the power to choose what one wants to be and do next.’
However, radical does not necessarily mean extreme – it can be defined as paying attention to the roots; and the roots of these approaches can be found in Buddhist Mindfulness practices. An appreciation of these along with some understanding of recent neuro-scientific research shows their relevance to helping leaders develop the new skill sets.
Many definitions of Mindfulness abound, however I will use two that I consider are particularly relevant to leadership
‘A state of consciousness, one characterised by attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity.’
‘Present moment awareness.’
Why is this important for leadership development? There are two themes that are prevalent in much of the literature about leadership – ability to learn from the past and ability to plan for the future. However, little is said about the need to pay attention to the ability to think in the present, the capacity to see what is actually going on now in contrast to what is planned for or expected.
Additionally, a frequently unrecognised dimension of leadership is what is described as ‘negative capability’ – patience and the ability to tolerate frustration and anxiety.
‘I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
In numerous studies those who regularly practise mindfulness – the ability to maintain awareness and attention to the present moment and experience – have reported many benefits that I contend are relevant to the practice of leadership. They include:
- Enhanced focus & improved decision making
- Increased awareness of self and others
- Higher levels of resilience
- Strengthened cognitive effectiveness
- Improved performance
- Better ability to handle stress
- Improved well-being
- More creativity
- What does science have to say about how this is possible?
Neuro-plasticity – the self-forming brain
“The sustainability of leadership effectiveness is directly a function of a person’s ability to adapt and activate neural plasticity.’
Until recently it was widely held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed state sometime around early adulthood. However, research over the last 25 years has revealed that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to our feelings, thoughts and experiences. This is known as ‘neuro-plasticity’ and reflected in what is now known as Hebbs Rule: ‘neurons that fire together wire together’.
The good news for leaders is that with application and practice we are able to ‘re-wire’ our brains to support our growth and well being in support of developing the new mindful leadership skills that are required. To use a computer analogy the ‘software’ – our thoughts and feelings – shape the ‘hardware’, the brain itself.
The bad news is that unless we take responsibility and focus on consciously re-wiring our brains the ‘software’ can change the ‘hardware’ for the worse as the neural pathways become entrenched. The more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring.
In essence, if we find ourselves stuck in, for example, a highly autocratic style of leadership not only are we unlikely to be motivating and inspiring our followers, we are actively entrenching the behaviours into our neural pathways making it more likely we’ll continue to lead in this way.
Benefits of Mindfulness for Leadership Development
- Enhanced focus, improved decision making, strengthened cognitive effectiveness
- Increased awareness of self and others
- Higher levels of resilience, better ability to handle stress and improved well-being
It is important that future leadership development is focused on creating leaders who are capable of leading in a world that has been described as increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Many recent scientific studies have shown that practicing Mindfulness practice can provide both a solid foundation for leadership development as well as an on-going process that if incorporated into their daily routine will enable leaders to respond to modern day leadership challenges. The key word however is practice.