Mindfulness is the height of fashion in leadership development circles. At a recent conference in the field, we saw a missionary-type fervor among some trainers who claimed that mindfulness could fix every ill in the organizational world.
It’s easy to succumb to enthusiastic hyperbole; one HR director we spoke to was characteristically delighted to be introducing a two-hour workshop to her board of directors to help them become more resilient, more focused, and more open to challenge.
But hopes like these are justified more by wishing than by any reliable evidence. There is in fact very little data in relation to the impact of mindfulness training on leadership development. Despite plenty of anecdotal support from leaders who have tried mindfulness, the current enthusiasm for it derives mainly from research conducted in clinical contexts that don’t much resemble modern organizations.
From the perspective of leadership development, there are three urgent questions that need to be answered if the enthusiasm (and the usefulness of mindfulness in a leadership context) isn’t to dissipate.
We need to know:
As we explained in our previous article, to begin to answer these questions we designed a Mindful Leader program involving fortnightly workshops, three of which were face to face and one of which was a shorter virtual meeting. In all, the research studied 57 senior business leaders in two cohorts. Participants learned why mindfulness might be relevant to their leadership practice, how to practice it, and how to apply their learning to their individual leadership challenges.
Each participant “buddied up” with another leader in the program and they were all assigned daily home practice of mindfulness meditation and other exercises for every day that the course ran. We tracked whether and how they practiced, as well as the impact the program had on a variety of leadership capacities. We sought to understand exactly how their attendance was helping them with their real work issues — if at all.
So, does mindfulness training develop leaders?
Yes and no.
Yes, because our study suggests that mindfulness training produces an improvement in three capacities that are key for successful leadership in the 21st century: resilience, the capacity for collaboration, and the ability to lead in complex conditions.
No, because development depends on the level of practice that the leader does. Simply attending one or more workshops might help strengthen resilience by sharing some useful tools and techniques, but other improvements require practice. The more practice, the better. In our study, the leaders who practiced for at least 10 minutes every day progressed significantly more than others who did not.
Digging deeper into the mechanisms underlying those changes allowed us to develop a theory of mindful leadership. This, we believe, offers an insight into why practice is so important. It also points to what the ingredients of a mindful leadership training program should be.
The leaders in our program identified a hierarchy of effects. At its base, and underlying all the positive impacts reported, were three meta-capacities that the leaders developed through participating in the program. They are fundamental and worth emphasizing throughout any mindfulness program:
The leaders in our program told us that, taken together, these three meta-capacities opened up a vital space in the previously automated flow of their experience. One leader summed up what this meant: “I now have moments of choice that I didn’t have before.”
The leaders in our study became less reactive and more responsive, which in turn affected many other skills, such as regulating their emotions, empathizing with others, focusing more readily on issues at hand, adapting to the situations they found themselves in, and taking broader perspectives into account.
This, we believe, is why mindfulness training can impact the important leadership capacities of resilience, collaboration, and leading in complex conditions.
Mindfulness interventions, as long as they are combined with practice, can indeed develop leadership, and we now know why. But there remains the question about what we learned about how to design those interventions. People seeking to introduce mindfulness into leadership development should be realistic, but there are real benefits to be had. We offer the following tips for anyone designing a mindfulness program:
Mindfulness training is not a silver bullet. But when combined with at least 10 minutes of formal daily practice that is supported over a sustained period, it can lead to really valuable change.
Then you can say that mindfulness works.
Megan Reitz is Associate Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. She is the author of Dialogue in Organizations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Michael Chaskalson is one of the pioneers of the application of mindfulness in leadership and in the workplace. He is the author of The Mindful Workplace (Wiley, 2011) and Mindfulness in Eight Weeks (Harper Thorsons, 2014). He is a Professor of Practice at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.
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