Using mindfulness for leadership and change - Leadership Development Blog | The Mindful Leader

Leaders are challengers of the status quo. They see what is and what can be, then bridge the gap between them. Therefore, by definition, leadership and change go together.

However, change—both personally and organisationally—is difficult.

Let’s examine a few reasons why transformation is difficult, and how mindfulness enables us to break through those boundaries to become better at leadership and change.

Leadership and Change Require Discomfort

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.

Leadership and change are only made possible by pushing through discomfort.

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,

“On 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 for leadership and change, 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 for leadership and change, 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.

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.

Although it’s not a simple, clean process, transformation is the territory of true leadership and change.