The Mindful Leader

Mindfulness as a leadership concept is becoming trendy. I worry when something this foundational becomes au courant, since topics that are trendy often get the inch-deep, mile-wide flavor-of-the-month treatment. The concept of mindfulness is centuries old. It is one of those few meta-skills that impact all other leadership capacities. And for most of us, it is a lifetime’s work.

Many consider Jon Kabat-Zinn the modern father of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn adapted basic yoga and body awareness practice to pain management, writing about it in 1990 in his groundbreaking book,”Full Catastrophe Living” (Random House). Kabat-Zinn used Eastern principles to introduce the idea of developing a disciplined mind, capable of purposeful awareness for extended periods.

Another important researcher who may not enjoy so much celebrity is Ellen J. Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who was writing about the psychology of success in the early 1970s. In her groundbreaking book, “Mindfulness” (Da Capo Lifelong Books, recently republished in a 25th anniversary edition), Langer looks at a disciplined mind through another filter, the personal and business cost of mindless habits of thinking and behaving. While written in the context of her work on adult development, “Mindfulness” should be on every leader’s bookshelf. Her approach focuses on the practical cost of self-limiting, habitual behaviors that stifle creativity and perspective as well as productivity.

Last week, my Georgetown faculty colleague Scott Eblin published his book that takes on mindfulness through the eyes of a business leader. Scott is the author of “The Next Level,” an excellent series on the changing skills and attitudes needed as a manager rises into and through the executive ranks. His new book, “Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative” (Wiley, 2014), connects the dots between groundbreaking practitioners like Kabat-Zinn and Langer, and the realities of leading in the 21st century. When their original work was published, neither of those foundational authors had to contend with the impact of ubiquitous smartphones, the expectations of email or the right-now 24-hour global reach of social media.

Eblin has a long background in marketing and in human resources in the banking and energy sectors. His own coaching and leadership development consultancy puts him square on the firing line of stress and overcommitment in the way only a services firm with a bestselling author for CEO can. His approach to a topic many see as esoteric is both grounded and practical. However, be warned: Mindfulness in any form will, by definition, ask you to let go of patterns of thinking and reacting to your environment in ways that seem radical and even frightening, so the important benefits of a more mindful leadership style are not easily won.

In both my Vistage Peer Advisory groups and in my general coaching work, one of the most common themes we examine is an inability to keep up without putting in 60, 70 or even 80 hours a week. The habitual answer is always to work harder and put in more hours. A mindful approach asks a leader to look at different strategies that appear impractical and even woo-woo. In my experience, with rare exceptions, the kinds of changes Eblin teaches are most often the only way out from under the constant and unforgiving stone of Sisyphus.

Eblin works with the same four-domain model I have written about here — and takes a very practical approach, providing “killer apps” in each of the four domains (spiritual, physical, emotional and mental). He asks us to make a leap that was pioneered by Kabot-Zinn and Langer, a change in mindset leading to greater effectiveness (as opposed to our usual default struggle for more efficiency).

Like all mindful approaches, from outside it can appear New Age and squishy. But if you have ever known that rare leader who manages to be calm, to lead a more balanced life, to be less vulnerable to the frenetic pace at which we operate on a day-to-day basis but who somehow seems to deliver, you have had a glimpse of how your own mindful approach to leadership can be powerful and, in some cases, life-saving.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, November 3, 2014.