Leadership and three types of mindfulness: benefits, limitations and brain science
Mindfulness is just one type of meditation. It is generally used in three forms, which I’ll outline here, and can be useful for all of us and can offer benefits to those in positions of leadership. I would argue that we are all in positions of leadership to varying degrees, whether we’re a leader for our children, in our home, for our family, our community, in our voluntary work and in our paid work.
Some people have dismissed mindfulness as a fad or a trend. It’s true there has been considerable hype with some poor research published about it. I’m not a mindfulness expert – this article is intended to demystify how it works, and what it can and can’t do for you.
Dr Amishi Jha at the University of Miami has researched the brain, attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training. She has found that where we direct our attention biases the processing of the rest of the brain. She notes that different networks in the brain cannot be activated at the same time.
In short, there is no such thing as multitasking: if you are focusing, your mind cannot be wandering and vice versa. She has looked at high stress and how mindfulness might reduce the impact of stress on the ability to retain information and focus. She has found that practising mindfulness seems to improve resilience to stress in those on active service in the military and their spouses, in workplace contexts and in students.
1. Improve your focus
The type of mindfulness that can help you improve your focus and reduce your mind wandering is quite simple:
- Sit in a quiet space with no distractions you bring your attention to your breathing and keep it there.
- When you notice that your mind has wandered you simply bring your attention back to your breathing. This works and strengthens the focus ‘muscle’.
- Regular practice of even just 10 minutes a day has been shown to increase your ability to maintain concentration and improve test scores, for example.
This increased effectiveness is great but it won’t improve your leadership abilities.
There are two areas of the brain that are key to the next type of mindfulness – the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex deals with what’s known as ‘executive function’, differentiating among conflicting thoughts, good and bad, better and best, same and different, consequences of actions, and social control: suppressing urges that could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes.
The amygdala, on the other hand, allows an instantaneous, unthinking reaction in the face of a threat; an evolutionary survival response that has us fight, take flight or freeze. High stress, poor mood and threat mean our brain won’t function the way we want it to in precisely the circumstances when we most want it to (unless you’re being attacked by a bear): the amygdala will hijack the prefrontal cortex unless we step in to stop it. In a work situation, this can be career damaging – co-workers tend to remember these negative incidents, feel demoralised and negative towards people who behave like this.
2. Develop better control over thoughts, emotions and reactions
When you are triggered by someone or something, you suddenly ‘snap’. The type of mindfulness that can help us strengthen our ability to prevent this hijack in moments of stress involves using concentration to create a ‘platform’ in the mind where you notice thoughts and feelings without being swept away by them or being attached to them.
- You start with type one (above) and then move into noticing what you notice as thoughts come up: ‘Oh yes there’s that thought again’, and then just letting it go - like noticing clouds in the sky that float past.
- This type of mindfulness shifts the brain’s energy from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex where you can choose how to react.
- It strengthens your ability to resist getting caught up in feelings and see them as just thoughts and emotions. It can help you change habits. With practice, you become more adaptable and present to people.
This can support your leadership – as a leader people are looking to you to see what appropriate response they should have.
3. Stress reduction: understanding your stress
The third type of mindfulness that I’m going to cover is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This is an eight-week programme, popularised and developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn; it is used in hospitals and as part of cognitive behaviour therapy and pain therapy. It has undergone rigorous clinical trials. Jon Kabat-Zinn says: ‘Between stimulus and response there's a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom’.
- This includes type one and two above and includes a mental ‘body scan’ where you notice the sensations you are feeling in your body.
- Leading on from noticing and letting go of any passing thoughts, you are invited to pick one of the thoughts and focus on it mindfully. This supports you to become more aware of your habitual reactions and responses and consider alternative responses: you create your own ‘learning plan’. Many people support this by working with a coach.
MBSR has been shown to change brain function in highly stressed employees over several weeks.
Mindfulness can support leaders in their work and life but there are many key leadership skills that it doesn’t help with, such as:
- Relationship management: conflict, teamwork, inspiring others.
- Organisational awareness and systems management.
- Skill building.