Myths of Mindful Leadership

There are many myths about mindful leadership. Amanda Sinclair (2016) in her book titled “Leading Mindfully” says that the true Buddhist meaning for mindfulness is “awareness” or “being present”.

This can be a misunderstood concept. Some people may think of “mindfulness” as a self absorbed state or a meditative state involving withdrawal from the world. We may also think of mindfulness as superior thinking or too much thinking, being overly calm or passive even, a solo activity. Mindfulness can be presented as an organisational “fix”, the latest fad in organisational guru coaching. In these contexts, mindfulness can mean many things to many people. At worst, “being mindful” is harmless and ineffectual leadership term.

What Is Mindful Leadership?

Mindful leadership is about freeing the self and others to think and act for themselves with a shared purpose involving a set of practises such: as listening to others, supporting others, reducing suffering, working from the whole self: the body, the senses, the heart, the head and the gut. A mindful leader notices changes in a person’s expression, body language, tone of voice, communicates with empathy, can read the mood of a group, actively listens to another person, takes time to reflect on his or her own behaviour or internal states and their impacts. Above all else, mindful leadership is about self awareness and mastery in order to serve others by example. How different is this from our traditional concept of leadership?

How Different From Traditional Leadership?

Bob is a manager and leader of a large insurance firm. Bob has been told he needs to downsize the business to result in 50 key managers being reassigned to new jobs inside and outside the organisation. Bob is prone to jumping into these situations by telling his Executive team what is going to happen and what they have to do to make it happen. Too “busy” to fuss about the details, he is not able to listen to his team’s concerns and issues. He wants an outcome and their job is to deliver. The Executive team had an order to reassign their managers to new positions by the end of the month while maintaining business as usual during that time.

Traditional leaders such as Bob exert their will by displaying authority over others, taking control, and demanding action. Do you know leaders like this? Generally, these leaders do all the talking, are heard above others, are louder than most, do not listen to others and have a reputation for getting their way. Leaders of this ilk inspire confidence through obedience, fear, submission, awe, achievement, conformity, reward and punishment at whatever the cost. There will always be times when a leader needs to be directive and tell people what to do in certain situations. Remember though not all leadership situations call for this “command and control” style of interaction and in some circumstances this style can be counter productive.

Excessive controlling behaviour of the sort exhibited by Bob, if unchecked, can lead to:

  • Stress and burnout
  • Lack of motivation
  • Rule following behaviour
  • Group think
  • Absenteeism
  • Lack of innovation
  • Risk aversion
  • Forced boundaries: “Thou shalt not..”

The outcome for Bob was that his Executive team lost some of their managers to sickness and burn out, routine operations came to a halt as other managers lacked the motivation to work to their targets or moved to new jobs. The culture of risk aversion and doing what they were told led to mistakes being covered up and before long the company was unable to restructure its operations in response to changing circumstances.

What Does a Mindful Leader Look Like?

Mindfulness is about cultivating awareness of self, others and the environment to gain a sense of self mastery for future action. Self mastery enables a leader to be self and other centred at the same time to harness vital energy and motivation. The mindful leader who practises self awareness and “other awareness” is receptive to social and organisational context and the diversity of staff and maintains an awareness of his/her internal states. Such a leader can remain calm and centred during difficult times and inspire others to reach their potential promoting a safe and healthy workplace.

Mindful leaders have mechanisms for staying open to advice and feedback during difficult and challenging times, can slow themselves down and step back to gain a deeper perspective on a situation that is changing rapidly, is able to acknowledge feelings and emotions at the same time as problem solving and moving towards a resolution. At the organisational levels, mindful leaders are able to learn from what went wrong as much as what went right.

The Mindful Leader

  • inspires by taking the time to be with his or her team to share a vision
  • understands the processes required and the efforts of staff to achieve results
  • is aware of the impact of organisational past and present on the future
  • believes that understanding the present: thoughts, feeling and capacities of the current team is the key to effective action
  • is able to develop his or her team towards the future based on awareness of current strengths, capacities and developmental needs

Becky is the CEO of a large environmentally friendly perfume business. Due to the environmental cost of certain products for perfume making, Becky needs to restructure her organisation away from elite products. She would like to redesign her business to provide perfumes more suited to the average working woman. This is a cost cutting exercise and Becky is mindful that there may be an impact on staff. Aware of the creativity of her team she is reluctant to act without their full support.

As a mindful leader, Becky is searching for innovative ways to restructure her business. She is aware she may not have the answers and is keen to gather ideas from throughout her organisation. Drawing on advice for her Executive team, she organises a raffle for individuals or teams to come up with a winning strategy to restructure the organisation within a specific reduced budget. The winning team will receive a bonus and will be able to present the ideas for the restructure to all levels of the business.

The winning team came from Sales and Marketing. They had a promotional idea for a set of products that could be sold during the lunch hour in the workplace to working women. Elite products were to be sold off to the highest bidder in the luxury market. They calculated that revenue gains from selling to the elite market for a year would cover the cost of the new strategy for working women without having to cut staff costs.

What Does Mindful Leadership Do for Your Team?

If mindful leadership is practised daily, the staff benefits can be:

  • Respect for diversity
  • Empowerment of others
  • Motivation
  • Continual learning
  • Tolerance of innovation
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Boundaries that promote healthy interaction
  • Two-way conversations

Here’s Some Ways You Can Practise Mindful Leadership

  • Daily self-reflection
  • Learn relaxation techniques daily and at stressful times
  • Be curious: observe, ask questions- how, what, when…?
  • Practising patience and valuing different strengths of others
  • Be aware of the impact of self and others: mind, body, heart, intuition
  • Take the time to actively listen to others
  • Take time out for yourself
  • Encourage different perspectives
  • Cultivate an ability to step back and observe
  • Practise mindfulness with others to gain consensus, collaboration, new insights
  • Inspire with shared purpose -“we”
  • Lead by example in behaviour and attitude
  • Allow for choice
  • Set healthy boundaries: agreed and understood by all

Ready to be mindful? Share this article with other mindful leaders.

More Articles

Subscribe to the Start Anew eNewsletter