Can mindfulness make you a better leader?

Being a leader in today’s world can be particularly challenging. I worked with an executive recently who talked about the difficulties of juggling day-to-day priorities, keeping an eye on the strategy, attracting and retaining good people and the constant pressure of maintaining a creative edge in her industry.

There has been a lot of talk about mindfulness in the context of leadership and how it can improve personal effectiveness and interactions with others. Mindfulness is defined as a way of “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the moment and non-judgementally.” [1] It’s about standing back and observing our thoughts, emotions and bodies in a way that helps us experience things differently and gain perspective.

How can this help with leadership? One study reported in the Harvard Business Review [2] indicates 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.” Other research shows that mindfulness practice can help leaders benefit by making them more adaptable to change, able to create more cohesive teams, and better at managing stress. 

Many mindfulness techniques are very simple to use; an example follows in the paragraph below. But before I get to that, there is one key message. To gain the most benefit, it is important to practise mindfulness regularly. It’s like going to the gym – attending a few sessions with a personal trainer gets you started but the real benefit comes when the regular habit is created and exercise becomes part of your routine.

The first thought that may come to mind with many leaders is that they are just too busy to fit mindfulness into their day. However, consider a short, daily mindfulness activity that takes 10 minutes. The executive I talked about at the beginning of this article works, on average, 60 hours a week. For her, mindfulness practice 10 minutes a day, would take around 1% of her time. And this 1% investment could make the other hours much more productive and contribute to better health and well-being.

Here is a simple, easy-to-remember mindfulness technique to help you clear your mind and refocus: It can be helpful to set a timer, e.g. on your phone, for the length of time you want to meditate. I use 10 minutes for this exercise; however, you can make it longer or shorter.

1. Find a comfortable position, ideally one where you can keep your upper body upright.

2. Close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths.

3. Bring awareness to your body and do a mental scan from head to toe, letting go of any tension. Imagine the muscles becoming heavier and relaxing.

4. Take three more deep breaths.

5. Breathe normally, and simply focus on the breath. Notice how it is entering and leaving your body. If thoughts arise, don’t follow them, and don’t judge them. Let thoughts go as easily as they come. View them from a distance, with detachment and let them drift away.

6. Keep bringing your awareness back to your breathing, noticing the experience of the breath, until the time is up.

Can mindfulness practice make a better leader? Evidence says yes. Taking time out with the intention to bring greater awareness to what is going on, in the present moment, without judgement can help bring more perspective, clarify thinking and enhance flexibility.


[1] Jon Kabat-Zinn – Founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
[2] Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson,“How to Bring Mindfulness to Your Company’s Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, Dec 01, 2016.

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