Mindfulness: No longer for hippies, now for CEOs

Mindfulness is not woo woo.

If you’d walked into a corporation 10 years ago to discuss the benefits of mindfulness and meditation for cultural effectiveness, leadership and the bottom line, it’s quite possible security would have discreetly ushered you out of the building.

How would you have reacted if you saw your boss or colleague sitting at their desk with their eyes closed apparently doing nothing? Let’s be honest, you’d probably be at least a little skeptical and thinking they're either out to lunch, or playing hooky and avoiding work.

During my 20 year corporate career, I certainly couldn't have imagined flying on a float plane to a hunting lodge in Northern Quebec to lead a mindfulness retreat for some of Canada's top Founders and CEOs. But this is the type of work we're constantly engaged in and hired to do now.

Fast forward to 2017 and you’ll discover a different reality. 

In today’s 24/7 always-on work environment, many business leaders are dealing with increased levels of employee burn out, work-related stress, poor resiliency, shrinking attention spans and retention issues. And it’s not just employees who struggle. Being in a senior leadership role doesn’t give us a free pass or make us immune to this reality. 

Mindfulness is a potential antidote. 

At it’s core, mindfulness is a discipline that teaches us to retrain our attention and boost concentration power. This helps us focus on tasks requiring sustained attention and in stressful tasks performed under time constraints. The obvious benefit is increased productivity but this is only scratching the surface.

 Intel Engineers Meditating | by IntelFreePress | Image Copyright: Flickr.com

Intel Engineers Meditating | by IntelFreePress | Image Copyright: Flickr.com

It’s not a new concept, it’s been around for thousands of years. It came to popularity in the West with Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, Professor of Medicine at UMASS in 1979. One of the most common definitions of mindfulness happens to be from Jon Kabat-Zinn and is: “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”.

Well known organizations, such as General Mills, Aetna, Intel and Google have long recognized the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Many have their own in-house meditation programs, and conduct in-house research to demonstrate it’s effectiveness. Google trains 2000 engineers each year in mindfulness and meditation, one of their most popular programs, 'Search Inside Yourself' has a wait list stretching 6 months. Intel started their 'Awake@Intel' mindfulness program in 2012 and at least 2000 employees have gone through training.

Now, it's not to say there still isn’t some perception and belief that mindfulness is a kind of mystical woo woo - but because of the incredible growth of published research literature in the last 30 years, that perception is changing. 

So what does practicing mindfulness mean? 

Mindfulness can be done anytime, anyplace.

First, you need to know that mindfulness can be done anytime and anyplace. It’s not about how much time we spend on a cushion, that’s just a part of it.  The beauty of mindfulness is we can do it in multiple ways like sitting, standing, lying down, walking or eating to name a few. It’s highly adaptable to workplace environments and can be implemented in short bursts throughout your day.

It's not about to-dos.

Next, it’s helpful to notice any resistance in your mind about it. For instance you might have recurring thoughts that practising mindfulness means adding yet another thing to your to-do list. A very normal reaction, but in fact, it’s not about to-dos. We can do a mindful practice as we’re walking to a meeting, or as we sit down to do some work at our desk. We can take a conscious breath during an intense discussion. 

it's an invitation to let go of goals and achieve more.

Then there’s the many paradoxes when it comes to mindfulness. For starters, when we take a few minutes or more to meditate or be present, we may experience a sense of spaciousness in our day, which can help us get more done on our to-do list. Another paradox? Mindfulness is an invitation to let go of any goals and lean into our moment-to-moment experiences. Over time our busy minds begin to settle, enabling us to be more present and see more clearly. So ultimately we’re more likely to achieve our goals. 

You want to begin with 1-2 minutes a day.

The #1 thing to know when it comes to practicing mindfulness is to just start - and begin by working with 1-2 minutes of practice a day. 

Our always-on culture combined with the vast amounts of available data and research literature are key reasons why mindfulness meditation is exploding in Canada, the US and Europe. 

Some may argue mindfulness is so mainstream it's become a bit of a fad and is at risk of becoming part of the self help movement. I don’t think this is a big issue (after all it's been around for thirty-five hundred years).

But it does make it more important when choosing a mindfulness advisor or consultant, that they have a deep daily personal practice and check their bio to make sure they're qualified or certified. 

Mindfulness can be introduced in simple ways to begin with, but becoming a mindful leader isn't always easy. If you're looking for a silver bullet, mindfulness and meditation may not be for you. It takes time to cultivate self knowledge, attentional awareness and new mental habits.

Many people are now using this ancient practice to improve leadership skills. Not only does training in mindfulness help increase happiness and reduce stress, but it also promotes clear and creative thinking.

Here's four benefits of mindfulness for leaders. 

#1: FOCUS

What is it? Our attention is a powerful weapon. Mindfulness is about retraining our attention to focus for longer periods of time.  We become aware of when our mind is wandering and redirect our attention back to whatever we're engaged in, like a brainstorm, presentation, or an email we’re writing. In time we’re able to more easily let go of distractions as well as ideas which may not be serving the organization any longer. 

How does it impact leadership? Greater focus enables CEOs to make skillful, thoughtful and faster decisions and adapt proactively.  A few examples; our ability to create and learn new things is dependent on our ability to focus. Letting go of distractions and baggage increases the potential for innovation and engaging for impact. It also enables us to clear our mind, focus on what really matters and see more clearly.

#2: EMOTIONAL REGULATION

What is it? This is our ability manage and respond to emotion. We all experience times when our emotions control our actions. Mindfulness gives us a space between our emotions and our fight-flight-freeze reactions, however brief and increases our ability to respond more skillfully.One of the ways we achieve this, is by dropping in on ourselves, paying attention to our breath and body sensations. In time, this helps us become more aware of our own (and others) perceptions, filters, judgements, thoughts, and patterns.

How does it impact leadership? Top performing CEOs need a black belt in emotion management. Over time an increase in self awareness and emotional intelligence can lead to a reduction in conflicts that don't serve us well, ability to utilize empathy to drive stronger relationships and more skillfully overcome adversity. We become less reactive and more responsive (note, reactivity isn't always something that manifests outward).

#3: RESILIENCE 

What is it? When you're moving a mile a minute, it takes its toll. Resilience is our ability to bounce back from stressors. We build resilience by paying attention to something, noticing when we get distracted and coming back to our intended focus. When you practice this over and over, eventually you strengthen equanimity (which is the ability to let things be and get out of your own way). This leads to a number of benefits including the ability to pivot faster, adapt to changing priorities and be ready for whatever is coming at you in your day.

How does it impact leadership? We spend less time pushing water uphill, trying to change things we can’t and focus more of our time and energy in places where it matters. We bounce back from adversity faster and begin to see stressors and challenges less as a threat and more of a springboard for positive change.

#4: CREATIVITY

What do we mean? Mindfulness is about having a kind, curious, open attitude to your present moment experiences, whatever they are. There’s a settling of our busy minds over time, which increases our ability to see more clearly and notice all kinds of ideas that we might ordinarily dismiss or miss. Research confirms this and has found meditation helps us be more creative, deepen our insight and see things in new ways. 

How does it impact leadership? One of the reasons Steve Jobs was a meditator was because of the profound impact it had on his intuition, creativity and innovation. We cultivate what’s called a beginner’s mind, which increases our skill in seeing things with a fresh pair of eyes and innovative thinking.

One final thing.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you’re into mindfulness and meditation or not.

What matters is that it's on your radar.

Because meditation is likely to be the next big counterculture movement that will help organizations create resilient leaders and employees who know how to reinvent, overcome and thrive.

Why not take a moment right now to check in on yourself, notice what's hear and breathe.

Then drop a comment or two in the box below and let's connect.

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Kate Kerr is Chief Attention Officer & Founder of Wake Up Kate Inc., a consultancy dedicated to delivering mindfulness-based skills to the corporate, education and healthcare sectors. If you want to leverage mindfulness on your leadership journey or within your organization, get in touch, sign up for our free monthly newsletter: www.wakeupkate.com/blog or follow Kate @wakeupkate_inc