The power of contemplative practices

Mindfulness training in the workplace is more than a fad and here to stay. It’s being hailed as contributing to the success of companies like Google, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, and Apple. Yet many business people are asking us what is mindfulness exactly and how does it make you a better leader?

Taming Our “Monkey Mind”

The moments when you as a leader are at your best, powerfully focused with clarity, creativity, and courage, begin with your being totally present and giving your full attention to the moment and to the person in front of you. If you get distracted or give only partial attention, that moment fizzles.

Yet most of the time, our attention is not in the present moment. It’s continuously being bombarded by outer demands and distractions, inner thoughts and emotions, by the stresses of overwork and hyper-connection, by an unceasing mind flow of concerns and worries. The Buddhists call it our “monkey mind” — as unsettled, restless, capricious, and uncontrollable as a monkey.

Mindfulness means awareness

Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of your attention on your emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment, which can be trained by meditational practices derived from Buddhist Anapanasati, most commonly practiced with attention centered on the breath, without any effort to change the breathing.

With mindfulness awareness practice, you learn how to be in the present moment, free of distraction and without judgment. It’s like training a muscle – training attention back to the present moment.

Regular introspective practice allows our brain to fully relax and reduces our tendency to lead on autopilot. We reclaim all of the mental and emotional territory we lose to distractions outside the present moment, which gives us more choice and control in how we respond and react in the present moment.

There are also numerous other well-documented benefits to mindfulness, including heightened immune function, as well as improving attention and sensory processing; and physically altering parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, emotional regulation, and perspective-taking — critical cognitive skills for leaders attempting to maintain their equilibrium under constant pressure.

Attention: At the heart of higher cognitive and emotional skills

This is where any curriculum for training emotional intelligence has to begin — with attention training. It’s a mental fitness workout that creates a quality of mind that is calm and clear at the same time.

With regular practice, your trained attention gives way to a high-resolution perception into your own cognitive and emotive processes. You become able to observe your thought stream and process of emotion with new clarity — from a more objective, nonjudgmental, third-person perspective. Your self-knowledge from this vantage point helps form the foundation for the emotional intelligence skills of a great leader.

Bill George in his Harvard Business Review article, Mindfulness Helps You Become a Better Leader, describes it this way:

The practice of mindful leadership gives you tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it. It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations. When you are being mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.

Similarly, Harvard University professor, Ellen Langer, an expert in mindfulness research, has found that mindfulness helps leaders reframe any potential crisis.

Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. [It] helps you realize that there are no positive or negative outcomes. There’s A,B,C,D, and more, each with it’s challenges and opportunities…You can be mindful, you can be mindless. You can win, you can lose.

Two Habits That Will Skyrocket Your Leadership Presence

Developing these two mindfulness habits will raise the bar hugely on your leadership presence and effectiveness.

First, imagine that all your thoughts are totally transparent to those around you. If they were, Langer says, you’d bring much more awareness to each thought. You’d be more inclined to perceive people and their actions with a fresh perspective, rather than stay mindlessly stuck in negative assumptions and judgments.

Second, whenever you meet anybody, make your habitual, instinctive first thought: “I wish for this person to be happy.” This comes from the Tibetan Buddhist approach to cultivating an attitude of loving kindness, or compassion, toward other people. Ideally, it’s a process that starts with you doing this first toward yourself. Then for the people you love. Then for people you just know. And finally, for everyone. Neuroscientists studying compassion at places like Stanford, Yale, and Berkeley have been testing methodologies for increasing compassion and say this has the effect of priming the circuitry responsible for compassion within the brain, so you’re more inclined to act that way when the opportunity arises.

Take the Challenge

We like to take it higher with a challenge to us all to cast a wider net and enlarge our capacity as leaders — Let’s all care about everybody, and the world at large.