‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is...’
T.S. Elliot, from ‘Four Quartets’
As many countries struggle to manage the pandemic and its consequences, mindfulness may be increasingly important for leadership effectiveness and agility.
Mindfulness has demonstrable and clinically proven benefits for individual health and wellbeing. The application of mindfulness to the world of work, and to leadership, is, however, easily over-simplified and over-stretched. Mindfulness training in leadership and organizational change has a growing, but still quite inconclusive evidence base. And yet, the power of mindfulness in our current situations seems – at least intuitively – to be very significant.
In this post I share a few reflections on the possible role of mindfulness in a leadership response to severe instability, and disruption.
Over many decades, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, have been transplanted successfully from Asian civilisations, repackaged, and spread globally in secular form, for mass consumption and corporate applications. Clearly, the power of stillness is embraced by many cultures and religious philosophies and is not just derived from Asia. Stillness is arguably a near universal concept. The boom in mindfulness, meditation and yoga has been part of a broader cultural cross-fertilisation from East to West, and back again.
There are thousands of definitions of mindfulness. What most definitions tend to have in common is that mindfulness is about ‘being present’, which means paying attention fully to what we are doing, and what is happening in the ‘here and now’. Mindfulness requires us to be aware of thoughts and feelings without judgement, and without being overwhelmed or dominated by them.
Calming down by paying attention to our breathing, savouring in-the-moment experience, exercising compassion, recognising what is happening inside ourselves physiologically, and psychologically, are all commonly associated with mindfulness. There is a strong base of evidence that supports the efficacy of mindfulness in developing emotional resilience, self-regulation, and wellbeing. There is considerable evidence linking mindfulness to effective stress management in various work contexts. Systematic literature reviews have so far, however, been far less conclusive on the impact of mindfulness on leadership or organizational effectiveness.
Something I have been thinking about recently is whether mindfulness is helpful when organizations are going through periods of crisis, or immense uncertainty, and change, as many are right now. Clearly, given prolonged uncertainty and change can precipitate unhealthy levels of stress, individuals at all levels are likely to benefit personally from mindfulness practice. Leaders who can manage their stress-levels are arguably more likely to be effective in a crisis.
It is still a little unclear from quantitative, statistical research, if mindfulness in leaders and managers enables change, or if it brings about greater organizational agility. Indeed, such questions may not be appropriate for statistical research methods. Attempts at psychometric and quantitative research done so far in this area certainly does not suggest otherwise.
There is a huge volume of relevant theoretical literature, which draws on lived experience and case material. This material is consistent with the broader notion that being anchored in the here and now, whether or not we choose to refer to this as ‘mindfulness’, is a good way for organizations to manage uncertainty, complexity, and change. This is particularly relevant for the paradoxical kind of situation the world is in.
Careful, ethical, and helpful adaptation of mindfulness, into tools, apps, methods, and teachable practices which help people deal with the - sometimes harsh - realities of working life is helpful. Balanced application of mindfulness to business, treats it as way to stay calm and focused. This can help people to remain present while working towards their goals, and not to be hijacked by emotion when things, inevitably, do not go to plan. This all seems especially salient at the moment.
At the same time, when we face seemingly impossible challenges, or radical changes in our circumstances, it is powerful emotion that stirs us into action. Emotion drives agility and creativity in response to an existential threat. Mindfulness can help us to realize our creative instincts, to harness our energy in a way that is functional. It does not require us to become somehow unemotional, or unresponsive in the face of threats to our careers, or organizations. That could be disastrous.
Mindfulness is not synonymous with inaction. It might however help leaders in an organization to slow themselves down and gain perspective, while they stimulate a concerted system-wide response to unforeseen, unfolding circumstances.
Right now, I would suggest that courage, and an ability to act, despite severe constraints on an ability to plan, or to forecast accurately, is paramount from a leadership perspective. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect deep wells of yogic calm or unquestioning zen-like fortitude from our leaders while they navigate a prolonged crisis, that is claiming lives, and disrupting millions of careers. Indeed, that expectation might create even more performance anxiety. Anyway, that is not what mindfulness implies for most of us.
Mindfulness and meditation are not just palliatives and they are not necessarily about retreating from the world; it is probably closer to the opposite. The fact that they have become associated with something people do on wellbeing ‘retreats’ is slightly unfortunate. As a boy, I was taught by my parents to recite ancient Sanskrit ‘mantras’ in a mindfully meditative manner every morning, or before high pressure situations, like exams. That quietened my racing mind, allowing me to concentrate. The act of prayer can be mindful. It is still something I do whenever, and wherever I feel it necessary.
Engaging with the present moment with a spirit of compassion can help us to keep moving forward, to connect head, heart, and hands in service of a higher purpose. There is a growing body of scientific literature exploring the actual connections between mindfulness, emotion, and creativity in terms of our behaviour and brain functioning. Cognitive neuroscience is beginning to paint a refined picture of how mindfulness supports performance.
In a time of crisis, mindful attention to our innermost feelings might help us identify what we value most, and therefore what we should prioritise. That seems quite fundamental to our ability to deal well with what is in front of us, and with what lies ahead.
What role do you think mindfulness plays in leadership?
See also –
Donaldson-Feilder, E., Lewis, R., & Yarker, J. (2018). What outcomes have mindfulness and meditation interventions for managers and leaders achieved? A systematic review. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28 (1), pp. 11-29. ISSN 1359-432X.
Dunoon, D., & Langer, E. (2011). Mindfulness and leadership: Opening up to possibilities. Integral Leadership Review, 11(5), pp. 1–15.
Lebuda, I. Zabelina, D.L., & Karwowski, M. (2016). Mind full of ideas: A meta-analysis of the mindfulness-creativity link. Personality and Individual Differences, 93(April 2016), pp. 22–26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.09.040
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Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose