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Mindfulness: The Key to Leadership Development

by | Apr 27, 2021

Leadership development is about cultivating our inner strength to stay true under fire, to ask questions we don’t know the answer to, to stay balanced when our world is turning upside down, to stay kind and respectful when the heat of anger and frustration is coursing through our veins, to courageously hold ourselves and others accountable when we want to slip into avoidance and self-justification.

It is about enabling ourselves to connect with others with authentic compassion, to truly understand them, to see their struggles and aspirations, the deepest desires of their hearts,
their greatest potential. And, perhaps above all, it is to stay real, to keep coming back to honesty and humility.

All these aspects of leadership development take time and sustained practice to cultivate. But more than anything, they require self-awareness. And mindfulness is the means by which we become self-aware.

What is Mindfulness?

I define mindfulness as maintaining an open hearted awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and environment in the present moment. It is paying attention in the present moment purposefully, warmheartedly and non-judgementally. It is experiencing and accepting the present moment as it really is — not how we want it to be, think it should be or perceive it to be, but as it really is.

Through meditation and other practices we become more aware of our habitual reactions, expand the gap between stimulus and response, and make wiser choices. We learn to see the innermost motivations for our actions and become more honest with ourselves. We learn to be the observer of our thoughts, rather than identifying with them and getting caught up in the mental stories we create.

In short, we become profoundly self-aware, which is the catalyst for leadership development.

The research illuminating the benefits of mindfulness is growing every year. Not only does it make sense for leadership development, but it’s also the best way to cultivate peace and happiness in our personal lives. As extensive research shows, mindfulness provides the following benefits, all of which have profound impact on our leadership development:

• Increased Happiness: Meditation has been proven to change our brain chemistry by increasing the production of neurotransmitters and hormones associated with positive mood and feelings of relaxation and happiness.i The practice of meditation has also been shown to decrease concentrations of stress hormonesii and boost immune system function.iii
• Increased Brain Power: The practice of mindful meditation changes the structure of no fewer than eight regions of the brain.iv In the cortical regions of the brain, the home of cognition and executive function, researchers have demonstrated that meditation increases in the volume and density of grey matterv (neurons) as well as the density of white mattervi (axons) that connect specific regions of the brain. These findings provide substantial evidence that meditation effectively “rewires” the brain through the process of neuroplasticity.vii
• Increased Self-Awareness and Emotional Regulation: The practice of meditation changes the pattern of electrical activity (neurons firing) observed in the brain.viii Functionally speaking, this observation helps to explain the increases in self-awareness, attention control and emotional regulation that result after even brief periods of mindful meditation training.ix

Taken together these findings provide concrete evidence that mindful meditation training leads not only to subjective improvements in wellbeing, but to changes in the brain at the cellular, structural and functional levels.

Mindful meditation triggers more than a placebo effect. There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the practice of meditation and neuroplastic changes in the brain that lead to improvements in depressive symptoms, feelings of happiness and executive function.

Hundreds of research studies have indicated that mindfulness practice can provide the following additional benefits, benefits you’re missing out on if you “can’t afford time” for mindfulness:

Stress and anxiety reduction: More than 160 studies have shown mindfulness practice to have a positive and substantial effect on factors of wellbeing, including reducing stress, negative mood and anxiety.x One study on mindfulness practice in the workplace found a 36 per cent decrease in stress levels.
Improved cognitive skills: Mindfulness practice leads to significant improvements in critical cognitive skills after only four days of training for 20 minutes a day, including sustained attention, visuospatial processing and working memory, which helps with processing and reasoning.xii It also improves our ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information, as well as increasing our information processing speed.xiii Mindfulness has been proven to create structural and functional changes in the brain such as generation of new brain cells (neurogenesis), particularly in
the memory and executive functioning centres, dementia prevention and reduced activity in the amygdala (responsible for fear generation and “fight or flight” reactions).
Enhanced creativity: Mindfulness practice can reduce “cognitive rigidity,” thus enabling us to respond with greater flexibility to situations in which we might otherwise be blinded by past experience.
Stronger relationships: Mindfulness has been shown to reduce social anxiety, improve our ability to communicate our feelings, increase empathy and decrease emotional reactivity.
Increased compassion: In one study, people who practised mindfulness-based meditation over just eight weeks displayed a 50 per cent increase in compassionate behaviours in real-life settings compared with those who did not meditate.
Spiritual benefits: Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation.
Health benefits: Mindfulness also provides a number of health benefits, including depression prevention, increased immune functioning, pain control, improved sleep patterns, greater ability to curb and overcome addictions and binge eating, and improved heart health.

However, even when we know all of these benefits of mindfulness for leadership development, it can still be difficult to choose. Giving up your indulgence in thoughts can be a little like giving up your favourite chocolate addiction—you can feel less happy initially. But over time you will start enjoying the improved mental and emotional health that the consistent commitment to being present in your current activity or experience gives.

You’ll start to see that the time you devote to mindfulness, both formally and informally, pays dividends in your leadership development efforts that you can’t afford not to have.

Leadership Development and Mindfulness

As a leadership mindfulness coach, my clients are extremely intelligent high achievers. They are trained to analyse the “business case.” This has been one of my favourite elements of teaching mindfulness to business people — the need for disciplined clarity, free of jargon or assumption. And time and time again they have discovered that in practice mindfulness is a vastly superior value proposition for leadership development. It delivers mental acuity, emotional intelligence, wellbeing, inner ease, creativity and connection. Mindfulness is worth it, and it’s sorely needed for leadership development.

I experienced this for myself when, within a few years of starting my journey with mindfulness, I was fortunate to meet two wonderful mentors who taught me the connections between mindfulness and leadership. As mindfulness became my deepest passion, they invited me to teach and make a living from the work. This was at a time when very few organisations offered transformational leadership development programs, let alone mindfulness training.

Back in the late nineties mindfulness was a radical idea, even stigmatised. I took a great risk when I left my own thriving paper merchant business and joined them in the trailblazing venture of teaching mindfulness for leadership development.

But it worked, and far exceeded my expectations. The programs were radically successful. Before any research on mindfulness was available, people connected with the elegant common sense of mindfulness in a leadership development context, and the results were usually life changing.

The key is the integration of mindfulness and leadership. Just being mindful is not enough. Even with serious mindfulness training we can still be poor leaders. But when mindfulness is fully integrated into leadership, exponential progress can be made.

Through mindfulness we develop, both internally and externally, a clear-eyed view of the world. We see reality as it is, not as we want or don’t want it to be. We are present to what is happening in front of us, right now, at this very moment: the breath under our nose, the colours in the room, the texture of our clothes. Right now is real. Everything else is memory of the past or imaginings of the future. Reality is always now. And mindfulness is living and being fully present in the now.

Today you’ll decide how you’ll spend your time. You’ll decide whether your current trajectory leads to fulfilling and rewarding end, or something else. Mindfulness isn’t easy, but it promises peace, contentment and happiness that are worth deeply considering.

If in the past you’ve thought you don’t have time for mindfulness or can’t afford the commitment, think again, and consider that you are already paying for the effects of mindlessness.

Mindfulness opens a new world of possibilities for your physical health, emotional well-being and leadership development. Choose to make time for yourself and your best and brightest future. Making this choice important because you are worth it and you can make a difference.

The practice itself is an affirmation of your value to yourself, a clear message that you matter, that your state of mind matters, and that an open heart matters. Choosing mindfulness shows you believe you can make a more positive difference in this world when you are mindful and grounded, and that you want to do so.

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