As a mindfulness and leadership coach, I don’t think the leaders I’ve worked with have had much of an idea of what they were taking on when they said yes to authentic, mindful leadership development. They did not realise that the familiar ground they were standing on would be shaken deeply.
We like the word transformation, but the process of transformation is a whole lot grittier than the advertising. As one of my favourite awareness teachers once put it, “Most of us are not prepared to sign up for transformation, we just want to become a caterpillar with wings. But that is not a butterfly.”
Leadership Development Requires Change, and Change is Hard
Being able to see and embrace our whole humanness, including our fragility and darkness, is critical in leadership development. However, it’s no easy feat because of a phenomenon dubbed by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan “immunity to change.”
Kegan believes desire and motivation aren’t enough to change—even when it’s literally a matter of life or death. This is because of internal mechanisms that make us highly resistant to change. One landmark study demonstrated the power of these internal mechanisms. It found that even after suffering a stroke or developing coronary heart disease, only one in seven patients will change their smoking, exercise or dietary habits.i
We resist change, Kegan says, because our minds act as a sort of immune system, trying to protect us from the psychological trauma and danger that sudden and drastic changes can bring. Unfortunately, this same system meant to protect us from negative changes can also prevent us from making significant positive changes.
Change can trigger our defence mechanisms, thus sabotaging our efforts before we’ve even begun. Despite our best conscious efforts, there are deep subconscious forces at play in our leadership development journey.
One of our strongest sources of resistance to change, according to Kegan’s research, is our firmly entrenched self-identity. For example, when heart disease patients stop taking prescription drugs, one reason they cite is because it makes them feel old.
One patient told Kegan that the reason he stopped taking his prescriptions was because “I’m fifty-eight years old and am in the prime of my life. I’m not an old man with one foot in the grave.” Taking a daily pill threatened his identity as a healthy and younger man.
Mindfulness: The Key to Change in Leadership Development
Mindfulness is the single greatest antidote to identity-based resistance because the practice teaches and enables us to let go of our self-identity and truly know ourselves. As we do so our self-awareness grows as we observe the changes throughout our lives and in our leadership development.
Through mindfulness, we no longer identify ourselves in rigid and inflexible ways; we merely observe different phases and states as they come and go. We no longer feel the need to cling to transient, impermanent states and intangible thoughts in order to find security. We develop a flexibility and malleability that can come in no other way. We find a peace that transcends all thoughts, concepts, identities and conditions.
Let’s examine a few reasons transformation is difficult, and how mindfulness enables us to break through those boundaries.
Discomfort = Progress
When we take on a behavioural change, we are challenging deeply-held habits. Many of those habits (especially the dysfunctional ones) developed as a means to shut down difficult feelings.
As a simple example, overeating is usually associated with numbing feelings of anxiety. If we stop overeating, we are left to face and deal with the anxiety head-on. If we cannot tolerate the anxiety, we head back to the fridge to indulge in something that will numb it or distract us from it.
In other words, when we embrace a healthy behaviour change we are certain to bump into mild to extreme discomfort and often uncover deeper issues that are driving the dysfunctional behaviour.
Mindfulness brings us face-to-face with discomforts we’ve numbed ourselves to in the past. It invites us to face them directly and work through them instead of burying them deeper and deeper within.
Changing Deeply Ingrained Habits Takes Time
When psychologist Jeremy Dean started researching how long it takes for us to form or change a habit, he encountered the same magic number over and over: 21 days. Yet there was no concrete data to back up this widely held belief.
So in an effort to better understand the subject he explored the science and empirical data, which he published in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick.
In his book, Dean explains that in one study carried out at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an everyday behaviour they wanted to turn into a habit, such as “eating a piece of fruit with lunch” and “running for 15 minutes after dinner.” For 84 days each subject logged into a website and reported whether or not they’d carried out the behaviour, as well as how automatic the behaviour had felt.
It turns out that generally it takes much longer than 21 days to form a habit. Dean writes,
“[O]n average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took sixty-six days until a habit was formed. As you might imagine, there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do.
“People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about twenty days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit.
“The exercise habit proved most tricky, with ‘fifty sit-ups after morning coffee’ still not a habit after eighty-four days for one participant. ‘Walking for ten minutes after breakfast,’ though, was turned into a habit after fifty days for another participant.”
The results also showed that the early repetitions of an activity are most beneficial for establishing a habit, and that gains gradually dwindle over time. As Dean explains,
“It’s like trying to run up a hill that starts out steep and gradually levels off. At the start you’re making great progress upwards, but the closer you get to the peak, the smaller the gains in altitude with each step.”
This is why mindfulness practice, in order to be most beneficial, must be sustained over time. We can’t be present occasionally and expect to experience significant and long-lasting change.
The formal practice of meditation is profoundly useful in this regard, as it allows us to be present continuously for long periods of time. And as we experience that, we’re able to integrate it into our daily lives, including our leadership development.
These and other challenges demonstrate that changing how you habitually view yourself and your world isn’t easy. The truths you’ll face about yourself through becoming mindful will be uncomfortable—at times, deeply so. And truly integrating mindfulness practice into your daily life will take time and real effort.
Thankfully, the more we practice mindfulness, the easier it is for us to change. As one study concluded, “When engaged in cognitively demanding challenges, meditation is an effective means to ‘de-automate’ behavior. We are less likely to respond with an impulsive/habitual response.”ii In another study, researchers concluded that, “Mindful meditation will make you less mentally rigid and habit prone therefore more open to change.”iii
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 meditation and neuroplastic changes in the brain that lead to improvements in depressive symptoms, feelings of happiness and executive function.
Obviously, these effects have profound impact on leadership development.
True Leadership Development is Deep Transformation
Although it’s not a simple, clean process, transformation is the territory of true leadership development. The process of reinvention calls for a spirit of adventure. A transformational leader is willing to stay young, a beginner, an adventurer inside and out. But these types of leaders are also ordinary people.
The work of true transformational leadership development is just that: work. It takes no special talent or skill. It does take an uncommon determination to face our fears, reactivity, avoidance patterns and insecurities and to keep going. It takes strength.
If you’re looking to mindfulness as a quick way to occasionally de-stress, you’ll be disappointed and you’ll quickly abandon it for another just as ineffective quick-fix leadership development technique.
But if you’re the type of leader who cares about real transformation in your leadership development, the type that is willing to pay the price to become the best, happiest, most-fulfilled version of yourself, mindfulness is for you. Integrate mindfulness into your leadership development, and I promise you will be amazed by the results.
- Wenk-Sormaz, H. (2005). ‘Meditation can reduce habitual responding’, Alternative Therapy Health Medicine, 11(2), 42–58, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15819448.
- Greenberg, J., Reiner, K., & Meiran, N. (2012). ‘ “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity’, PLOS ONE 7(5), e36206. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036206.