Can Meditation Make You a Better Leader?

Not too long ago, meditation was considered an oddity, often viewed with suspicion – at times even ridicule. But today, such skepticism has all but evaporated and in its place has emerged a growing appreciation for the health, well-being and intelligence meditation can cultivate especially among leaders and within organizations. Let’s take a few examples:

Aetna, Merck, the University of Pennsylvania––the list goes on––all are exploring how meditation can help their employees thrive in today’s fast paced environment. Today, rather than skepticism, meditation is being met with enthusiasm because research is fast concluding that sitting still for defined periods of time is a very healthy thing to do. But what is “meditation” and what actually happens when someone meditates?

What is Mindfulness-Awareness Meditation?

There are thousands of styles of “meditation” developed over centuries of disciplined practice by millions of meditators. But in order to gain a simple grasp of the topic, we can say there are fundamentally two types of meditation: form and formless.

Form based meditations apply techniques like visualizing, repeating words, performing rituals, and manipulating the body to achieve specific outcomes like overcoming emotional obstacles, reducing stress, cultivating loving kindness and more.

Unlike form based meditation, formless meditation relies on little or no technique nor does it seek to achieve any outcome. Referred to as shikantaza or “just sitting” in the Zen tradition, Jing zuo or “quiet sitting” in Confucianism, Zuowang or “sitting in forgetfulness” in the Taoist tradition and Lhatong or “clear seeing” in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen Tibetan traditions, formless meditation is about recognizing rather than achieving; expressing rather than developing; being authentically who we are rather than trying to become a better version of ourselves.*

Mindfulness-awareness meditation, then, can be considered a “formless meditation” (though technically it often requires the use of minimum technique at first)  where we are working with our mind, body and immediate experience in order to recognize exactly what is going on and express precisely who we are.

Essentially, when we practice mindfulness-awareness meditation we take a posture sitting upright, relaxed and alert, our eyes are open; we breathe normally and sit still.  (See image above.)

When we sit still like this, we notice the simple, sensual vividness of our circumstances: sounds, sights, smells and sensations. And we also notice thinking.

Attending to these two experiences – being alert in the immediate moment and thinking––is central to mindfulness-awareness and requires a simple yet exquisitely demanding gesture:  while sitting still in the meditation posture when we notice our mind wandering off into thinking, we deliberately recognize that we are thinking and then bring our attention back to our immediate experience. Essentially, we sit still and, as often as possible, notice exactly what is going on.

The Ironic Distress of a Wandering Mind

At first glance, sitting still like this for extended periods may appear to some as useless or a waste of time. Yet, despite this seeming peculiarity, this act of just sitting still teaches a vital, visceral lesson from the very start: when we pause and look directly at our minds, we discover that our attention is restlessly wandering. Normally, we allow such wandering, permitting our minds to freely drift from our immediate experience – to speculate, question, rehearse or even worry. And, in many respects, we accept such wandering as our “normal” state of being.

Mindfulness-awareness meditation teaches many things but one of the very first lessons is how this “normal” restless wandering pervades our everyday life. Whether it’s listening to a colleague explain a business plan, offering advice to a friend, or just waiting in line for a cup of coffee, when we pause and mindfully notice, we discover that we routinely wander from such moments and our wandering is often impatient and discursive.

Science has studied this wandering phenomenon and found that about 50 percent of the time, we mentally drift from our daily circumstances and in turn substitute thinking for actual experience, which apparently makes us very anxious. According to the research when our mind wanders from our experience we are highly likely to dwell on thoughts that are more distressing than our actual experience, creating unease, where none is warranted.

And here we are confronted with a profound leadership irony indeed: by permitting our attention to freely wander, out of touch with our actual experience, we are likely to mislead ourselves and others into authoring the very distress we hope to avoid. For mindful leaders, then, leadership begins with a basic tenet: In order to lead others well, we first must stop misleading ourselves and overcoming such self-deception requires that we train our minds to attend openly to our immediate experience and be available to the world we aspire to lead.

Awareness as the Top Leadership Priority

Mindful leadership begins, then, with training our minds in this simple practice of attending to our immediate experience and through sustained commitment to the meditation – typically over many years – the restless wandering of our mind gradually disperses and we discover a delightful irony: all we are doing in meditation is just sitting – vividly synchronized with our immediate experience – whether we notice it or not. Where before our wandering mind gave us the impression that we were reliably living our “normal” lives, now we realize such a perspective to be a narrow window that is, in reality, a confined and partial view of a much larger and accessible perspective – an awareness that is remarkably attuned with our immediate experience. For mindful leaders, becoming intimately familiar with this awareness emerging out of the meditation is our No. 1 leadership priority.

As a business coach, I am often asked by executives to help them cultivate mindful leadership abilities and typically, each executive is eager to set goals and improve performance. But inevitably I have to slow them down and suggest a different approach.

“You know your job well and are good at doing things,” I typically remark. “You wouldn’t be where you are in your career if you weren’t good at getting stuff done. So, we are not as concerned with what you DO for a living––you are already good at that. Rather, we are really interested in what you SEE for a living.”

And it is here–– from how well we see the workplace–-that we can confidently engage our No. 1 leadership priority. “What are the top three business demands that your colleagues face?” “What unspoken messages are you receiving from your team members?” “How do your vendors describe your enterprise to others in the marketplace?” “What are people afraid of in your organization? What inspires them?” These and dozens of other vital questions are not about “doing” anything at all. What is required is to be “in touch” directly with the pulse of the organization – attuned and resonant with the work, the challenges and the people. What is required is to see clearly – to discern, recognize, and understand.    

For mindful leaders, cultivating this wisdom of seeing clearly is at the very heart of the meditation practice which trains us to step out from behind the curtain of our discursive minds and touch reality directly – getting a full, authentic measure of our experience beyond self-deception and impulsiveness.  From this perspective, doing our jobs “correctly” – indeed living our lives “correctly” – is the easy part. Many of us know how to balance our checkbook, fix a computer or perform open heart surgery. The hard part is being skillful when engaging the many provocative, striking and complex circumstances that unfold at work and in life in general: discerning what is hidden, appreciating a gesture of affection, grasping the intention of a paradox, accepting an unexpected invitation, celebrating a mixed triumph, learning from an alarming emergency – the list is endless – all requiring that we as leaders see clearly first in order to lead others intelligently.

Rediscovering Our Leadership Confidence Through “Boredom”

While seeing clearly is a mindful leader’s first priority, it is not a one shot deal, and becoming confidently familiar with this wisdom arising out of mindfulness-awareness meditation requires sustained discipline and a familiarity with being bored.

Few of us would think that “boredom” has anything to do with leading organizations. But in the case of mindful leadership, practicing meditation reveals a form of boredom that is not about tedious apathy but instead is how we become comfortable in our own skin. By making great yet simple effort of just sitting still, we discover a natural, almost effortless, confidence in our awareness of seeing clearly – comfortable with ourselves and with the world around us.

Because when we are willing to be truly bored – with no need for entertainment or distraction; no desire to be anyone or anywhere other than ourselves right here right now – we naturally  relax with the simple composure of just being alive: very direct, very clear, very human and utterly effortless. Such boring composure is remarkably powerful because it unfolds off the meditation cushion back on the job and in everyday life as a profound psychological well-being––a confidence as ourselves in our own skin.

Agility: The Core Leadership Competency for the 21st Century

Such composed confidence in being who we are while intelligently attuned with the ever changing and often dissonant leadership circumstances we face is the agile poise of a mindful leader: mentally alert, emotionally confident, socially attuned and commercially astute. And not surprisingly, such agile poise is widely considered a core competency for leading in the 21st century:

Overall, we see an emerging consensus among scholars regarding what defines effective leadership. Successful leaders are agile, versatile, flexible, and adaptive. They demonstrate nimble behaviors when responding to the complex, paradoxical, and ever changing situations that confront today’s leaders. (Zacccaro, 2001).

As an executive coach, I am routinely inspired by business leaders who bring this special breed of agility to today’s business challenges because the old model of “command and control leadership” simply doesn’t scale to today’s self-organizing networks and distributed technologies. Today, work is about resilient coalitions and leaders who are agile enough to lead them.

And this is where the practice of mindfulness-awareness comes in. Because more and more leaders are discovering that being a skillful, successful and authentic leader is first and foremost about personally nurturing a healthy mind. For it is from this personal sense of well-being that a leader can inspire the best in others and in turn offer the very best to a world facing the daunting challenges of the emerging 21st century.

*Note:  The style of formless meditation referred to throughout the essay comes from the Kagyu-Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
Questions for Discussion
  1. When you reflect on your experience of how leaders conduct themselves in the workplace, how would you describe their behavior? What does such behavior inspire in you and others? What does such behavior discourage within you and others?
  2. What role do emotions play in the workplace? How would you describe your emotional presence at work?
  3. How would you describe you experience of well-being at work? What can be done to encourage more health and well-being in the workplace?

Discussion Summary

As one of our commentors remarked”…can we reliably know…” the impact that mindfulness has on a leader? An important question and getting an answer is an emerging field of study, fast becoming popular among scholars, researchers and academics:

  • Richard Boyatzis’ and Annie McKee’s work in “Resonant Leadership” reviews how  mindfulness can cultivate self-aware leaders who communicate more artfully with diverse constituencies, promoting creative atmosphere, shared insight and more.
  • Jeremy Hunter’s research points to leaders who readily step past fixed mindsets and in turn observe, assess, and adapt more agilely due to mindfulness training.
  • Daniel Goleman’s and Richard Boyatzis’ work on “Social Intelligence” indicates that the mere act of training the mind’s attention can unleash an entire set of socially intelligent leadership abilities.

While more research will inevitably be conducted to “substantiate” the benefits and “ROI” of mindfulness for organizations and its leaders, it is important to note that tens of thousands of leaders for dozens of generations stretching back thousands of years have already applied mindfulness to the challenge of human leadership. Whether it’s running an institution of higher education like the famed Indian Nalanda University, leading the UN (see U Thant), promoting non-violence (see Thich Nhat Hanh) or  leading a country (see Dalai Lama), mindful leadership has a rich history of inspired impact on human society. Needless to say, it would be fitting indeed for scholars and researchers to keep in mind this history of mindful leadership as they seek to better understand its role in modern day organizations.

A quick review of the tradition will reveal a wide variety of applications in such areas as government and civil service, medicine and the healing arts, trade and commerce, and even in the military and martial arts.  And, while mindful leadership, for the most part, has an inspired history of non-violence and ethical decency, there are troubling exceptions.

By studying the tradition of mindful leadership, however, we will inevitably find some common leadership lessons mastered by past leaders and handed down to future generations. For example:

  • Simplify – be careful not to be obsessed with “getting it right”, grasping success and avoiding failure. Such a pursuit tends to amplify what we seek to avoid. Instead, take as uncomplicated a view as possible in order to avoid being blind sighted by preconceived notions.
  • Respect – when we learn to respect our minds in meditation we inevitably learn to respect others in the very same fashion. For mindful leaders, the unique styles, skills and struggles others bring to the job are not just viewed through the lens of effectiveness but more importantly they are valued as our humanity.
  • Patience – don’t rush because we may be rushing past the very thing we are looking for. While urgency is essential in leadership, patience requires that we drop our sense of inconvenience and willingly open to circumstances on their terms not ours.

There are many other leadership lessons to be gleaned from the tradition of mindful leadership under the topics of, for example, the six paramitas, Bushido-Zen, edicts of Ashoka, and more. But when we examine these many, diverse traditions one most basic and valuable lesson seems to form the foundation of mindful leadership. And in a sense, all the practices and advice handed down through hundreds of generations seem to share this single guiding principle:

More often than not, seeking success for ourselves proves pointless and shallow, whereas seeking success and inspiration for others almost always delivers prosperity and well-being right into our hands.

The practice of mindfulness awareness is about making this principle come alive in our workplace, where we step past a narrow vision of success and instead recognize leadership as our natural instinct to inspire the very best in others. Such an approach to leadership requires courage because we are expected to put others first – to sacrifice our personal sense of comfort, our need for security, success, fame or wealth – and instead put the well-being of our customers, employees, patients, colleagues, vendors – in fact, according to the tradition of mindful leadership, the entire world – ahead of our own needs. Such an approach to livelihood may sound absurd or even self-defeating. But in the end, the practice of mindfulness awareness reveals that protecting our personal territory is pointless and futile while contributing to and inspiring our world is not. And choosing to live in such a fearless manner is the path of the mindful leader.

Two New Big Questions:      

1. What does it mean to become an “awakened human being” and how would such a discovery impact human society? There are several Buddhist teachers who might offer answers to this question:

Ponlop, Rinpoche

Tsognyi, Rinpoche

Roshi, Bernie Glassman

Shugen Sensei

Pema Chodron

Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche

2. What is the role of “compassion” in the workplace?

4 Responses

  1. spacecalculus says:

    The nature of conflict.

  2. ISAS Forum says:

    As a recently retired executive, I experienced in my career a variety of leadership skills and styles.  Much of te time I was impressed with how little self-awareness many leaders actually posess – and yet self-awareness is absolutely critical to effective, long-term, creative and inspirational leadership.  I also recently participated in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the center founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn and found that training to be incredibly valuable – something I wish I had learned at the beginning of my career!

    This is an excellent topic and I hope the article continues the progress in bringing meditative techniques into the workplace and modern life in general.  We are so frazzled and distracted that it has indeed become much more difficult to find the quiet space in which you can really begin to “know thyself.”

    The one caveat that you did not mention – when people begin to explore their inner life particularly through formless meditation, they may not always like what they find.  I think this may prove to be true of many leaders who believe in a more autocratic style.  And, as our MBSR instructor was careful to point out, some of what one finds lurking in the depths of the unconcious may have been put there for a reason.  I would think it important to stress that meditative practice should be learned in a setting that is sensitive to the potential for referral to mental health professionals.

  3. wondering14 says:

    Like meditation itself, this article is hard to wrestle. I read it twice and am still fuzzy. It is written for inattentive (unmindful) leaders who don’t know what goes on around them because they have tunnel-vision, tunnel-action and can’t see panoramically. In today’s bubbly world they need help in noticing what swirls about. Of the article’s five example questions of what the leader should know, four deal directly with people. How to read people, how to pull out what is unspoken and put that into the leader’s ken seems most important.

    Getting good data previously unnoticed can be achieved by seeing, seeing from a quiet, attentive, eyes open, sensorially aware yet thinking state, one so tranquil that it can be called a meditative state. Yes, good data is a first step to aid a leader’s readiness. Then this data, much of which may be subjective, must be interpreted, which is not addressed in the article. All this sounds impossible to tackle and stay on top of, but I accept the author’s experience that it can be done. The meditator, I suppose, like students of yoga, cannot do it well without a guru, a teacher, a business consultant, who provides continual training so the leader can ultimately become a competent meditator, needing over the years less and less coaching.


    The article brings to mind a number of questions. 1) I think all schools mentioned are American. I wonder if Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian schools are joining the American (and probably European) swell of leadership instruction in meditation. 2) Can reliably know what the leaders who have taken this instruction think of adding meditation to their toolbox of management skills, 3) How many continue meditating for years with a coach, and 4) Do leaders who have taken this meditation instruction send their sub-leaders to meditation school.

    Seeing one sub-heading of the article, “Ironic Distress of a Wandering Mind”, I immediately thought of business leaders having Attention Deficit Disorder. Surely not the case nor what the author intends. I thought that most people knew that their mind wanders and may take away, or add to one’s job. If a leader stands in a line for a cup of coffee, I would hope his mind strays from coffee, to his work challenges, for example. 5) I wonder if imagination, creativity, also sometimes associated with successful leaders, requires a wandering mind, a climbing out of the sandbox. Steve Jobs was a meditator, a creative person. But maybe also a good portion of his success came from more than creativity, perhaps he got practical, human, business insights from meditation in the way that the author suggests.

  4. Michael Carroll says:


    Thank you for your comments and here’s is a brief response to two insights/questions offered in the discussion:  

    “…when people begin to explore their inner life particularly through formless meditation, they may not always like what they find….” 

    This is a key point that has not always been well emphasized in the “mindfulness marketplace”: working with our minds through mindfulness awareness meditation is hard work. Hard work not just because we learn to discipline our wandering minds, cultivate precision in holding our attention, discern how to remain alert to all emerging circumstances etc. but  most importantly the practice is challenging because we have to learn to be utterly honest with ourselves. Such honesty requires that we make friends with who we are – warts and all – in a most fundamental and sustainable way. Such friendship toward ourselves (or what is traditionally referred to as “Maitri” or loving kindness) takes time and many hours of practice but it ultimately reveals a tenderness at the core of our humanity. Needless to say, such tenderness can hurt deeply but it also appreciates life at it deepest level as well.  In the end, through the practice we discover that such tenderness toward ourselves makes us profoundly available to our world in a way that is remarkably skillful and helpful to others.   

    “…Can we reliably know what the leaders who have taken this instruction think of adding meditation to their toolbox of management skills?…”

    There are two ways to “reliably know” how leaders are actually applying mindfulness awareness to the challenge of leading organizations and teams. The first is through research and while this is a new field of study, there are an increasing number of studies documenting the impact of mindfulness on leadership (see Institute for Mindful Leadership and Jeremy Hunter of the Drucker School of Management)

    The second is listening to leaders who are actually applying mindfulness awareness and working with them as they experiment with the skills and perspectives that naturally unfold from the practice. For me, as a former corporate director and now an executive coach, seeing firsthand how the practice impacts the workplace is primary, so “reliably knowing” is a practical matter rather than a matter of “research”. In that sense, seeing how leaders apply mindfulness awareness in organizational settings is a “phenomenological issue”, requiring the practitioner to be “in and of the system”. A leader’s heightened self awareness and openness arising out of mindfulness awareness then is inseparable from its organizational impact and this approach to understanding a mindful leader’s influence is best explored through a form of “systems thinking” like Peter Senge’s notion of leadership.