Most of us assume a leadership position at some point in our lives—in fact, multiple leadership positions, in our families, with coworkers and among members of our communities. It could be something as simple as being the captain of your high school soccer team or as weighty as running a Fortune 500 company.
Most of us have also considered as we attempted to navigate the challenges of those leadership positions what it means to be a leader. Although the qualities of effective leadership vary slightly from one position to another, there are two things which all leadership positions have in common. First, because leaders can’t accomplish their goals alone, to succeed, they need to communicate with and motivate those they lead. Second, and even more important, they need to know themselves.
What Is Mindfulness?
In the simplest sense, mindfulness is self-awareness and living in the here and now. Psychology Today defines mindfulness in this way:
“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”
There are many paths to mindfulness. Most people achieve it through specific practices, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga or tai chi—but however achieved, its benefits can help you be a better leader. Here are 5 ways mindfulness promotes effective leadership:
- It promotes a positive attitude: in one recent psychological study, 20 people who had never meditated before participated in a 10-day mindfulness meditation retreat. At the end of the retreat, researchers found they had “a decreased negative affect,” “fewer depressive symptoms” and “significantly better working memory capacity” compared to a control group. Effective leaders need to maintain a positive attitude, and mindfulness can help them achieve it.
- It reduces stress: a host of recent studies have demonstrated that mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety. If you’ve ever been in a highly stressful situation, you know that you tend to think less clearly and be more easily distracted. Achieving a mindful state helps leaders think more clearly and focus on the tasks in front of them.
- It increases working memory: in a 2010 study, members of the military participated in an 8-week mindfulness training exercise. Compared to control groups, these soldiers experienced a substantial increase in working memory capacity. With improved memory, people are able to put new facts into a larger context, something leaders can use to solve intractable problems.
- It increases cognitive flexibility and adaptability: in making people more aware of their own emotions, mindfulness helps them become less emotionally reactive. For leaders who practice mindfulness, this means they are less prone to be influenced by negative emotions of the moment, and that they can therefore be more objective in decision making.
- It promotes more effective communications: several studies have shown that mindfulness promotes healthier relationships, in part because people who are mindful are better equipped to communicate their feelings. The ability to communicate effectively is key to success in any leadership position. After all, to achieve key goals, leaders must be able to articulate their vision, persuade those they lead of the value in taking a particular course of action and explain with clarity how best to get from point A to point B. Leaders who have achieved mindfulness are better communicators, and for this reason tend to be more successful.
Achieving a mindful state conveys benefits which extend into every aspect of one’s life. It can make one a more supportive spouse, a more caring parent or a more responsible citizen. Its positive impact on the way its practitioners perform their jobs has been demonstrated in study after study, and it is especially effective for those whose jobs involve a high degree of stress and a multitude of distractions—and this means that mindfulness is among the best ways for business leaders at all levels to become more effective leaders.