Q: As an executive at my company, I’m looking at ways to better my leadership skills in the new year. What is a good area of focus?
A: An area to focus on is mindfulness. Businesses now operate in what is referred to as the Attention Economy, where continued success hinges on our ability to focus upon strategies and relationships. Leaders who concentrate their awareness on the situation at hand are also shown to demonstrate more steady, thoughtful, flexible and creative influence.
Mindful leadership programs typically include two forms of practice. Formal mindfulness practice is much like bringing your awareness to the gym for a good workout, only the exercise is guided meditation. This usually includes anchoring attention to one’s breathing, sensations in the body or thoughts as they appear. When the mind becomes distracted, the simple instruction is to refocus firmly but also compassionately. Informal practice includes carrying this same level of attention back into everyday leadership experiences: a meeting that has been derailed or a strategy session that has hit a creative impasse.
Mindful leadership has a particularly strong impact on principled decisionmaking. In one study, I surveyed over 200 leaders throughout the U.S. to determine whether there is a correlation between their level of mindfulness and the degree to which they are ethically engaged in their organization. The results are surprising: Even slight improvements in a leader’s level of awareness can lead to big leaps in their ability to accept responsibility and see greater complexity in ethical dilemmas. In this way, mindful leaders are able to catch themselves the very moment that the values they espouse are inconsistent with their actions.
But what should executives like you be mindful of? Three persistent forms of self-talk tend to distract leaders from seeing things the way they actually are, and typically operate outside of our awareness: anxieties, assumptions and attachments. These manifest as inner voices, including the cynic, the people-pleaser, the victim, the perfectionist or the impostor. Mindful leaders greet these forms of self-talk like guests at their doorstep, before letting go and returning to what really matters.
William Brendel is president and CEO of the Center for Ethical Organizations at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.