How to Bring Mindfulness to Your Company’s Leadership
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:
- Does mindfulness training actually “develop” leadership?
- If it does, how does it do so? What are the mechanisms that make it effective?
- And how do we design interventions that actually work?
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.