How mindfulness can drive successful leadership

    Santiago G. Ponce

This article dives into relevant scientific publications regarding the impact of mindfulness on leadership, intending to clarify significant aspects of this topic. We will focus not only on showing the lights of mindfulness but also the shadows projected by a misunderstanding or misconception of this concept and its practice. Based on theoretical and empirical research, we will highlight what we consider as critical dimensions as well as the behaviors involved in the process of leading with mindfulness and its effects from an individual and collective viewpoint. Finally, we will describe the importance of the ethical framework in which the leader, as well as the organization, grounded the mindfulness practice.

For business leaders, mindfulness is a strategy to improve person and company-wide performance and productivity (Reb et al. 2015; Bruce 2014). However, considering it only as a means to achieve a specific end could lead to tension and conflict between the leader and the rest of the organization.

A large number of studies have found beneficial effects of mindfulness for, among others, individual health, psychological well-being, and functioning (Reb et al. 2015; Eberth and Sedlmeier 2012; Chiesa and Serretti 2010). From an organizational perspective, empirical research on the effects of leader mindfulness offers evidence for positive consequences for employees, including employee job performance, job satisfaction, reduced emotional exhaustion, and improved need satisfaction (Reb et al. 2015; Reb et al. 2014).

Shapiro (2009) defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through intentionally attending in an open, caring, and discerning way”(Reb et al. 2015; Shapiro 2009). This understanding challenges some popularized and minimalistic approaches to this practice. Mindfulness is rooted in contemplative traditions spanning a whole set of dimensions that leads the practitioner to behave in harmony with himself and with others.  In contrast, those minimalistic approaches neglect the importance of the latter. Purser & Loy (2013) defined this as “McMindfulness,” whereas its application could lead to adverse outcomes (Reb et al. 2015; Purser and Loy 2013).

Having clarified the risk of a minimalistic approach, in the following lines, we will shed some light on the connection between leadership and mindfulness, primarily based on the research conducted by Reb et al. (2015), who focuses on three main topics.

First, distinguishing between several dimensions of mindfulness, such as presence, intention, and witnessing awareness. In this sense, the authors avoid falling into shallow and misleading meanings of mindfulness. Second, the authors make a distinction between the construct of mindfulness and mindfulness as a practice. Third, making a distinction between intrapersonal (i.e., within the mindful/mindless individual) and interpersonal (i.e., beyond the individual and concerning others and/or the organization) effects of mindfulness. (Reb et al. 2015)

We firmly believe that leadership is a choice, not a rank, meaning that no matter your position in the organizational structure, you can energize and empower the people around you. Now, the question that you might be asking yourself is, how? Well, the mindfulness dimensions act as catalysts to develop positive leadership behaviors. Throughout them, leaders acting as role models invite and stimulate others to follow them and eventually shaping a more positive, productive, and innovative environment.

The first dimension to consider is the present-moment attention, framed into the distinction between two levels. On the one hand, the leader self-connectedness (Intrapersonal) and, on the other hand, leaders‘ connection to the bigger whole (interpersonal). In a nutshell, present-moment attention refers to being in the here and now. It can be contrasted with states in which focus seems to be away from the present moment, such as absent-mindedness, daydreaming, worrying about the future, or ruminating about the past. Present-moment attention can be considered a self-regulatory skill of attention regulation (Reb et al. 2015). Being more in the present moment could be associated with intrapersonal benefits related to leader functioning, such as a reduction in multi-tasking, which tends to reduce efficiency and effectiveness, and improved performance (Reb et al. 2015; Beal et al. 2005; Dalal et al. 2014)

Though, we also need to be pragmatic and contemplate planning and past experiences as leaders’ functional elements. Therefore, as suggested by Reb et al. (2015), a leader needs to find a balance between past, present, and future orientation. Other studies also suggest that working on “auto-pilot” or using routine behaviors, rather than mindfully, on specific tasks could save mental resources for times when they are needed (Dalal et al. 2014; Levinthal and Rerup 2006)

So far, we’ve highlighted the intrapersonal benefits of present-moment attention, but what about the interpersonal benefits? Ultimately, leaders want to ignite the spark of aspects such as engagement, collaboration, skills development, and team spirit to promote a healthy and encouraging culture that allows organizations to cope with the demands of the ever faster changing environment. Kahn (1992) proposes that leaders’ psychological presence at work, defined as being attentive, connected, integrated, and focused, could increase employee work engagement. (Reb et al. 2015; Kahn 1992)

Furthermore, leaders high in presence and awareness dimensions of mindfulness are likely to be influential over their followers. Present-moment attention can have positive interpersonal effects to the extent that leaders use this improved understanding to better support their employees in achieving goals, such as performing well on their assigned work tasks or helping their co-workers. (Reb et al. 2015)

In contrast, absent-minded leaders will have lower quality relationships, which eventually lead to lower performance and well-being (Reb et al. 2015; Reb et al. 2014). How many times we have experienced situations where during presentations or meetings, people around us were simultaneously working on other topics or checking their smartphones. Instead, being fully present would allow a leader to notice factors about the employee that an absent-minded (or distracted) leader would not (e.g., signs of stress) (Reb et al. 2015; Atkins and Parker 2012).

In a nutshell, we posit that present-moment attention can enable leaders to better communicate their genuine care and respect to their subordinates (Reb et al. 2015).

Another dimension embedded in mindfulness is intention. In this case, we won’t run an exhaustive analysis; we instead prefer to highlight the content of leaders’ intentions. In other words, one thing is to embrace mindfulness as a philosophy and a practice, fostering positive behaviors contributing to the individual and collective well-being. In contrast, using mindfulness as a mere tool to achieve specific goals could result in pretty much the opposite of what mindfulness means.

Finally, when it comes to mindfulness dimensions, we point out the importance of witnessing awareness. This dimension has been referred to by various names, including cognitive defusion, non-reactivity, non-judgment, decentering, re-perceiving, metacognition, witnessing, or in other words, awareness. In essence, it points out the importance of recognizing experiences as separate from the self. In this sense, the person and the experience are “defused” and thus exert less control over behavior. This dimension of mindfulness has been emphasized particularly in clinical approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, because of its potential to address mental health problems such as (relapse of) depression (Reb et al. 2015; Fletcher and Hayes 2005; Ruths et al. 2013)

Three benefits arise from exercising this dimension. First, defusion may lead to a clearer, less-biased, less restrictive view of the environment and the self, as the person de-identifies with what is going on inside and out. This may provide substantial benefits for making more informed choices. Second, the reduced identification may lead to less ego involvement and ego defensiveness of the leader, which could result in actions that are targeted more at organizational goals rather than protecting or advancing the leader’s ego. Third, being able to “just notice” things without jumping to premature judgments and conclusions may be very valuable in interpersonal interactions with employees. In essence, a witnessing stance may allow leaders to create a sense of (safe) space for employees to articulate their ideas, concerns, and feedback. As a result, relationships with employees may improve as may employee productivity. (Reb et al. 2015)

From the described so far, we can suggest that mindfulness and its practice, bear clear potential to contribute to making leaders more resourceful. Thus, resources are deployed towards the completion of specific objectives. Following this reasoning, we could claim that mindfulness practice is beneficial for the organization as a whole. However, to evaluate whether the effect of mindfulness in interpersonal relationships is favorable, a consideration of leader values and goals is also required, and perhaps even more critical than an account of resources.

The expressed above leads us to the following conclusions.

First, mindfulness and its practice, need to be grounded in an ethical framework, which depends not only on the personal values of the individual but also in the organization’s pre-existent cultural environment, as determinant factors of the success of this endeavor.

Second, we believe that mindfulness and mindfulness practice, have tremendous potential for not only understanding the processes of leadership and leadership development but also improving leadership in practice.

 Third, the mindfulness dimensions of witnessing awareness, or defusion, or re-perceiving, holds particular promise in going beyond being a resource to changing the fundamental way in which leaders relate to themselves, others, and the external environment. (Reb et al. 2015)

In case you’re interested in knowing more about the practice of Mindfulness and its benefits, check out the following link  https://inlpcenter.org/mindfulness-certification-training-for-individuals-and-coaches

Publication Bibliography

Atkins, Paul W. B.; Parker, Sharon K. (2012): Understanding individual compassion in organizations: The role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. In Academy of Management Review 37 (4), pp. 524–546.

Beal, Daniel J.; Weiss, Howard M.; Barros, Eduardo; MacDermid, Shelley M. (2005): An episodic process model of affective influences on performance. In Journal of Applied psychology 90 (6), p. 1054.

Bruce, J. (2014): Become a mindful leader: Slow down to move faster: Forbes.

Chiesa, Alberto; Serretti, Alessandro (2010): A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. In Psychological medicine 40 (8), pp. 1239–1252.

Dalal, Reeshad S.; Bhave, Devasheesh P.; Fiset, John (2014): Within-person variability in job performance: A theoretical review and research agenda. In Journal of Management 40 (5), pp. 1396–1436.

Eberth, Juliane; Sedlmeier, Peter (2012): The effects of mindfulness meditation: a meta-analysis. In Mindfulness 3 (3), pp. 174–189.

Fletcher, Lindsay; Hayes, Steven C. (2005): Relational frame theory, acceptance and commitment therapy, and a functional analytic definition of mindfulness. In Journal of rational-emotive and cognitive-behavior therapy 23 (4), pp. 315–336.

Kahn, William A. (1992): To be fully there: Psychological presence at work. In human relations 45 (4), pp. 321–349.

Levinthal, Daniel; Rerup, Claus (2006): Crossing an apparent chasm: Bridging mindful and less-mindful perspectives on organizational learning. In Organization science 17 (4), pp. 502–513.

Purser, Ron; Loy, David (2013): Beyond mcmindfulness. In Huffington post 1 (7), p. 13.

Reb, Jochen; Narayanan, Jayanth; Chaturvedi, Sankalp (2014): Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance. In Mindfulness 5 (1), pp. 36–45.

Reb, Jochen; Sim, Samantha; Chintakananda, Kraivin; Bhave, Devasheesh P. (2015): Leading with mindfulness: Exploring the relation of mindfulness with leadership behaviors, styles, and development. In Mindfulness in organizations: Foundations, research, and applications, pp. 256–284.

Ruths, Florian A.; Zoysa, Nicole de; Frearson, Sonya J.; Hutton, Jane; Williams, J. Mark G.; Walsh, James (2013): Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for mental health professionals—a pilot study. In Mindfulness 4 (4), pp. 289–295.

Shapiro, Shauna L. (2009): The integration of mindfulness and psychology. In Journal of clinical psychology 65 (6), pp. 555–560.