Which of these leaders do you think has more influence over their team?
John has a singular focus on goals. He also has a reputation for being unpredictable – his team members never know what might trigger an intense reaction from him. John is so busy that he often interrupts meetings to respond to messages and notifications. His team works long hours because John believes that’s key to accomplishing big things. If a new person joins the team, he assumes that they’ll direct their questions to other team members. John’s philosophy is that everyone on his team is an adult, and there’s value in letting people figure things out for themselves.
Even though Taylor has a high-profile, demanding role in the organization, she believes that getting to know her team members as people sets the foundation for a good working relationship. When a new team member starts, Taylor sets up a meeting to get to know the person as an individual and a professional. She pauses all notifications and asks lots of questions. She shares her vision for how the new person will fit into the team and expresses gratitude that they’ve joined the organization. Whether employees are brand-new or veteran team members, they all report feeling better after interacting with Taylor.
Taylor is practicing mindful leadership—and that approach gives her a tangible advantage over John. Sure, he gets results, but it’s through brute force. He’s mindless and distracted in his interactions and his people probably dread interacting with him.
Mindful leadership is a leadership style in which managers learn how to consciously cultivate their ability to be present, open-minded, and compassionate when interacting with their team members—and they show the same care and consideration to themselves. It’s about shutting down the mind’s “busy mode” to notice and respond to what’s happening in the moment instead of defaulting to reactive patterns. (In this way, it’s similar to situational leadership.)
Taylor won’t have to waste precious time and energy motivating through fear because her people are self-motivated. She’ll be able to handle problems faster because her team members aren’t afraid to raise issues with her. Her team will be more effective because she actively solicits ideas and feedback from the people who work for her.
3 advantages of the mindful leadership approach
Mindful leadership may sound like a “fluffy” term, but it’s quite the opposite. It takes a lot of focus and hard work to develop a skill set around mindfulness. Yet, the efforts and practice pay off. In the thousands of hours I’ve spent coaching executives and leaders, I’ve seen that leveraging mindfulness in the workplace brings leaders significant advantages.
Advantage 1: The mindful leader has the most power in the room
They may not always be the loudest voice but they are the ones paying the closest attention. They keep their inner commentary and reactions at bay. They get present and study what’s going on in the room. They don’t get caught in pettiness or politics. They rise above and see the bigger picture, noticing solutions that others simply can’t perceive. They speak up in moments that matter and, when they do, their voice is respected.
Advantage 2: The mindful leader creates high-performing, cohesive teams
The mindful leader’s approach to individual and team interactions cultivates a sense of psychological safety and loyalty. The people around the mindful leader want to show up and do their best because they feel cared for, appreciated, and seen for their unique strengths and efforts. They know the mindful leader truly cares about them, which motivates them to continually bring their best to the work.
Advantage 3: The mindful leader experiences stressful times in a more peaceful, healthy way
The mindful leader realizes they can actively foster inner peace and well-being as they walk through challenges and focus on business results. Because of the self-mastery they have nurtured, mindful leaders know how to navigate difficulties in a more calm and responsive way.
The connection between leadership and mindfulness
Many leaders feel they don’t have time to work on being mindful because their workload is too big and they have too many demands to deliver on. The irony is that if they were willing to spend a few minutes being mindful each day, they could become better equipped to navigate their professional responsibilities and relationships with greater well-being. That can also create a ripple effect that inspires their direct reports to create better results for themselves, too.
As Janice Marturano, founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership and author of Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership says, “Our journey to develop the qualities of mindful leadership calls us to be present in this moment, to be ‘still in the midst of activity.’ … As we begin to cultivate a practice to develop the qualities of mindful leadership, we begin to recognize the folly of believing that if we could just move faster, we would eventually catch up.”
The 5 Cs: traits of the mindful leader
People who practice mindful leadership tend to have these specific common characteristics:
To be with whatever is happening in a responsive and resilient way. In the midst of challenging situations, the mindful leader stays calm and brings an inner strength knowing that somehow, some way, things are going to work out and there will be a path forward.
To see oneself and others with love and kindness rather than with judgment. A mindful leader knows that they are a work in progress with plenty of imperfections and opportunities to improve. The leader is gracious and compassionate to others as they are also working on their own growth. A mindful leader seeks to find the best in others while also encouraging them to step further into their potential.
An understanding of the interconnectedness of all individuals on the team and of all the small thoughts, emotions, and actions that culminate as a result. A mindful leader recognizes that each person is needed, has essential skills and strengths to offer, and plays a vital role in bringing about success.
The ability to hold an open mind and a willingness to release judgment. A mindful leader seeks to understand what is going on rather than jumping immediately to conclusions. The mindful leader asks powerful questions to see new angles and possibilities, and is willing to stay open to a wide range of ideas no matter how different and divergent they seem. A mindful leader makes space for the creativity and perspectives of each person on the team.
The ability to harness inner power and awareness to bring energy to work to create remarkable, excellent results in the business environment. A mindful leader is not woo-woo, floating on a cloud somewhere. A mindful leader knows how to get the job done with the highest quality and care possible. Rather than working from reactivity, fear, or the stress of nasty competition, a mindful leader fosters a sense of calm and confidence in the people on the team so they bring a level of excellence to the work at hand.
How do you practice mindful leadership?
Mindful leaders know that they are always a work in progress. They know that maintaining this approach to leadership requires daily care and practice, which is conscious cultivation on their part.
But before we get into tactics, let me address one of the main points of resistance I often hear from my coaching clients. I know you are used to (or should I say, addicted to) being in constant action from morning to night. You think taking time for this inner work might waste your time and hinder your work results. Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.
The best-performing executives I’ve coached are the ones who do consistent, daily inner work. To have the mindful leader advantage, you must balance your personal equation of being and doing. By actively cultivating your being, you will make your doing more impactful.
I’m going to offer you a variety of simple mindful practices. Pick the one that seems most interesting or helpful to you and give it a try. I know I’ve gotten you excited and pumped – but beware: don’t do too much at one or you’ll sabotage yourself. The key to cultivating mindful leadership muscles is to build them steadily and gradually.
Practice 1: Observe thyself
Yep, take a closer look, my friend. I know it may feel uncomfortable but if we want to grow, we must become more self-aware. Get curious and self-compassionate. Put your self-judgments aside and realize that you, that all of us, have opportunities for growth. For two minutes a day for this entire week, tune in. How are you feeling emotionally? What have you been thinking about? This mindfulness assessment from Harvard Business Review can help you assess your current level of awareness.
Practice 2: Breathe, leader, breathe
Most of us are so stressed and tense we lose sight of our breath. Make it a practice every day for a week to take five deep breaths before each call or meeting. (Yes, put up that post-it note by your computer screen as a reminder.) Bring all your attention and focus to your breath and let the breath fill your entire body. Doing this simple practice is going to help you feel better physically and it will also help your brain to calm down so you can enter the meeting from a place of greater awareness.
Practice 3: Wake up your senses
Each day, take two minutes and pay attention to the world around you using a sense of your choice (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing). Doing so helps you to come out of your busy, thinking mind into the present moment. What’s going on around you? Use your senses to notice the colors in the room, the symphony of sounds where you are, the smell of the coffee in your cup, or the feeling of your feet on the ground.
Practice 4: Bring mindfulness to a meeting (Yes, imagine that!)
Pick one meeting a day where you are going to purposefully be as present as you can for as long as you can. Rather than being stuck in your mind trying to figure out an issue or judging people on your team, instead, use your senses to become as present and aware as you can. For the first three to five minutes of the meeting, challenge yourself to look around the room (in-person or virtual) and really see each person. What is the energy of the other person? Look at their face, their eyes, their body language. What do you notice? Listen with deep curiosity to what is being said. Seek to understand their point of view. Once you master five minutes of being present, build up your mindful muscle so you can get to a point where you bring your full presence to an entire meeting. This could look like five minutes the first week, seven minutes the next week, 15 minutes the next, etc.
These practices aren’t going to make you a mindful leader overnight. My hope is that you will begin to taste some of the benefits of mindfulness and it will cause you to want to explore being a mindful human and leader in greater depth. Remember, presence takes practice.