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 that our future CEOs or scientists will need to master handstands and pirouettes, fly with ease on trapezes, or effortlessly float in mid-air. But they will need to gracefully adapt: “command and control,” “supply and demand,” “profit and loss” are fast transforming into a globally distributed, mobile “Facebook generation” of self-organizing innovative networks and 21st-century business is looking for leaders who are agile enough to lead them.
But how are our emerging business leaders learning to master such agility? Dancers attend ballet academies and acrobats have gymnasiums where they relentlessly practice and perfect their art. And, not surprising, it’s in the halls of our corporate and educational institutions where we find our leaders engaging an emerging field of agility training: young leaders learning to sit still for extended periods of time on meditation cushions.
Let’s consider a few examples:
- The Drucker School of Management and Wharton Business School both offer courses in mindfulness meditation.
- Virginia Tech is sponsoring “contemplative practices for a technological society,” a conference for engineers who integrate contemplative disciplines into their work.
- Google offers courses in meditation and yoga
Aetna, Merck, General Mills–the list goes on–all are exploring how meditation can help their leaders and employees agilely thrive in today’s fast-paced business environment. And the benefits are widely publicized: sustained attention span, improved multi-tasking abilities, strengthened immune system, increased emotional intelligence, improved listening skills…And there is science behind such claims. Research is fast concluding that sitting still for defined periods of time is a very healthy thing to do.
But what really happens when we meditate? How can such a simple act of sitting still actually cultivate agile, talented leaders?
What is mindfulness awareness meditation?
For those not familiar with the practice of mindfulness awareness meditation, let’s take a moment to describe what the act entails.
When we practice mindfulness awareness meditation, we take a posture sitting upright, relaxed, and alert.
￼When we sit still like this, we notice the simple vividness of our immediate experience: sounds, sights, smells, and sensations. And we also notice that we are thinking: talking to ourselves, commenting on this and that, thinking about any number of things. Attending to these two experiences–being alert in the immediate moment and thinking–is central to mindfulness and requires a simple yet exquisitely demanding gesture: placing our attention gently on our breathing.
Needless to say, attending to our breathing in such a way, especially for extended periods of time, is a tremendously boring thing to do, and this is where cultivating our leadership agility comes in.
When we examine this simple and often monotonous act of sitting still, at first glance there appears to be little going on. But by doing the practice consistently, we begin to notice over time that we are exercising some subtle yet powerful “leadership muscles” that have gone flabby, so to speak.
For example, during meditation when we notice that we are thinking, we are encouraged to deliberately recognize that we are thinking so by saying to ourselves “thinking” and in the process we effortlessly “let go”–release our grip on our internal dialogue and gently bring our attention to our breath. We “let go” of our inner story lines and guide our attention to the simple yet vivid experience of just breathing.
This gesture of “letting go” of our internal gossip, while simple, is also a highly concentrated gesture of leadership agility. Like ballet dancers rehearsing a demi-plié or an acrobat practicing a handstand pirouette over and over again, here in mindfulness awareness meditation we, too, are exercising core muscles of basic human wisdom and agility.
Too often as leaders we tend to hold on, hold in, and hold back. Whether it’s “holding onto” our jobs, our prestige, our paychecks; “holding back” our views, concerns and suggestions; or “holding in” our frustrations, inspirations and ideas–at work our bias toward “holding” can have a singularly blinding effect on how we skillfully engage challenges. Letting go, on the other hand, of our fixed mindsets, discursiveness, opinions, emotional habits and much more, can provide vital perspective in effectively leading a team, an enterprise, or a life.
And what happens when we exercise this muscle of “letting go” in conducting daily business? We become agile.
For example, lawyers who practice mindfulness meditation speak to an ability to more readily drop adversarial mindsets, better comprehend the intent of a challenge, and self-regulate emotions during conflict. As Professor Leonard Riskin observes in his seminal study of practicing attorneys:
Mindfulness can play a role in helping the lawyers… observe — without attachment — the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that typically make up and support (contrasting) mindsets. Consequently, the lawyer can adopt an attitude of curiosity, consider other options and make a discerning decision. Mindfulness can help the lawyer simply notice the manifestations of the feelings of being threatened…and decide to let them go and maybe learn from them.
This lawyerly agility that Professor Riskin is observing here free from fixed mindsets is the very same agileness that thousands of business leaders are discovering through mindfulness awareness meditation: a poised yet flexible confidence that is ready to learn, reassess, and adapt in the face of novel problems, dissonant voices, and unforeseen opportunities.
Of course, there is more to being an agile leader than simply letting go, and mindfulness awareness meditation exercises many other subtle yet highly concentrated “leadership muscles.” And by exercising such flexibility of mind, leaders prepare themselves to confidently take the business stage in the emerging 21st century, maybe executing more like Cirque du Soleil master artists than we may have imagined.
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–Michael Carroll, author of Fearless at Work, worked on Wall Street and in the publishing industry for over two decades, holding executive positions at Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. Founding director of AAW Associates, Carroll consults with major corporations on bringing mindfulness into the workplace. He is a longtime student of Buddhist meditation and an authorized teacher in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. Carroll has taught mindfulness meditation at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia University, Kripalu, and the Cape Cod Institute.
For more information please visit awakeatwork.net and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.
[Image: Flickr user Justin Hogue]