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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.

  1. Kasala, E. R., Bodduluru, L. N., Maneti, Y., & Thipparaboina, R. (2014). ‘Effect of meditation on neurophysiological changes in stress mediated depression’, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 20(1), 74–80. Jung, Y. H., Kang, D. H., Jang, J. H., Park, H. Y., Byun, M. S., Kwon, S. J. et al. (2010). ‘The effects of mind–body training on stress reduction, positive affect, and plasma catecholamines’, Neuroscience Letters, 479(2), 138–42.
  2. Newberg, A. B., & Iversen, J. (2003). ‘The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: Neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations’, Medical Hypotheses, 61(2), 282–91. Kasala, E. R., Bodduluru, L. N., Maneti, Y., & Thipparaboina, R. (2014). ‘Effect of meditation on neurophysiological changes in stress mediated depression’, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 20(1), 74–80.
  3. Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al. (2003). ‘Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation’, Psychosomatic Medicine 65(4), 564–70. Kasala, Bodduluru, Maneti & Thipparaboina, op. cit.
  4. Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16(4), 213–25. Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., et al. (2014). ‘Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners’, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 43, 48–73.
  5. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., et al. (2005). ‘Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness’, Neuroreport 16(17), 1893.
  6. Tang, Y. Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. I. (2010). ‘Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649–52.
  7. Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–25.
  8. Tang, Y. Y., Rothbart, M. K., & Posner, M. I. (2012). ‘Neural correlates of establishing, maintaining, and switching brain states’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(6), 330–7.
  9. Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007). ‘Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(43), 17152–6. Tang, Hölzel & Posner, op. cit.
  10. Sedlmeier, P. Eberth, J., Schwarz, M., Zimmermann, D., et al. (2012). ‘The psychological effects of meditation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 138(8), 1139–71.
  11. Wolever, R., Bobinet, K., McCabe, K., MacKenzie, L., Fekete, E., Kusnick, C., & Baime, M. (2012). ‘Effective and viable mind–body stress reduction in the workplace: Two RCTs’, Complementary and Alternative Medicine 12, 87.
  12. Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). ‘Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training’, Consciousness and Cognition 19(2), 597–605.
  13. Moore, Adam, & Malinowski, Peter. ‘Meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility’, Consciousness and Cognition,18, 176–86.
  14. Hassed, Craig. ‘The health benefits of meditation and being mindful’, Monash University, www.yvg.vic.edu.au/file.php?fileID=5502.
  15. Greenberg, Reiner & Meiran (2012), op. cit.
  16. Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., Leysen, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). ‘Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behavior’, Journal of Personality and Individual Differences 44(5), 1235­–45.
  17. Condon, P, Desbordes, G., Miller, W., & DeSteno, D. (2013). ‘Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering’, Journal of Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797613485603.
  18. Davis, Daphne M., & Hayes, Jeffrey A. (2012). ‘What are the benefits of mindfulness?’ American Psychological Association 43(7), July/August.
  19. Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. ‘Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits’, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15256293.
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FAQ
What does leadership development mean?

Leadership development refers to activities that improve the skills, abilities and growth mindset of leaders. Programs dedicated to this vary in complexity, cost and style of teaching. Leadership training is a form of development and is often used to guide and develop leaders and aspiring leaders.

What should be included in a leadership development program?

Leaders are crucial for the long-term success of any organisation. Contrary to what some may believe, however, great leaders aren’t necessarily “born”. They can be created. This is why organisations should put more effort and resources into training leaders. Behaviour change, support and accountability, information and insights that are aligned with the organisation and leaders’ personal goals should be part of leadership development programs to ensure long-lasting growth and success.

What is the importance of leadership development?

Leadership development supports the formation of important leadership skills and the qualities needed to be an effective leader. This includes transformation skills, better decision-making skills, accountability and ultimately, a growth mindset.

What are leadership development needs?

Leadership development needs include open communication, the ability to be heard, motivation, support, transparency and honesty, knowledge-sharing as well as trust across teams.

Who is responsible for leadership development?

Organisations and leaders are responsible for leadership development. Accountability, openness to change, self-awareness, willingness to grow, knowledge and effort are required for it to be effective. Each individual has to take ownership of their leadership development. Learning to lead is a lifelong process and requires the practical application of knowledge and accountability.

Why is it important to develop leadership skills?

Leadership development programs give people important leadership skills and attributes they need to be an effective leader and create a positive work culture that promotes growth, accountability, embraces change and open communication for employees to feel safe which in turns, contributes to greater levels of performance and overall productivity.

What are some important leadership skills?

Top leadership skills include having a growth mindset, active listening, accountability, strategic thinking, empathy, flexibility, the ability to leverage leadership development and create synergy between staff and organisational goals for sustainable growth.

What are the main methods used in leadership development?

Leader development methods vary from formal training, developmental practical assignments, 360-degree feedback, executive coaching, self-directed learning and accountability. These approaches may occur independently but are more effective when combined.

FAQ

What does leadership development mean?

Leadership development refers to activities that improve the skills, abilities and growth mindset of leaders. Programs dedicated to this vary in complexity, cost and style of teaching. Leadership training is a form of development and is often used to guide and develop leaders and aspiring leaders.

What should be included in a leadership development program?

Leaders are crucial for the long-term success of any organisation. Contrary to what some may believe, however, great leaders aren’t necessarily “born”. They can be created. This is why organisations should put more effort and resources into training leaders. Behaviour change, support and accountability, information and insights that are aligned with the organisation and leaders’ personal goals should be part of leadership development programs to ensure long-lasting growth and success.

What is the importance of leadership development?

Leadership development supports the formation of important leadership skills and the qualities needed to be an effective leader. This includes transformation skills, better decision-making skills, accountability and ultimately, a growth mindset.

What are leadership development needs?

Leadership development needs include open communication, the ability to be heard, motivation, support, transparency and honesty, knowledge-sharing as well as trust across teams.

Who is responsible for leadership development?

Organisations and leaders are responsible for leadership development. Accountability, openness to change, self-awareness, willingness to grow, knowledge and effort are required for it to be effective. Each individual has to take ownership of their leadership development. Learning to lead is a lifelong process and requires the practical application of knowledge and accountability.

Why is it important to develop leadership skills?

Leadership development programs give people important leadership skills and attributes they need to be an effective leader and create a positive work culture that promotes growth, accountability, embraces change and open communication for employees to feel safe which in turns, contributes to greater levels of performance and overall productivity.

What are some important leadership skills?

Top leadership skills include having a growth mindset, active listening, accountability, strategic thinking, empathy, flexibility, the ability to leverage leadership development and create synergy between staff and organisational goals for sustainable growth.

What are the main methods used in leadership development?

Leader development methods vary from formal training, developmental practical assignments, 360-degree feedback, executive coaching, self-directed learning and accountability. These approaches may occur independently but are more effective when combined.