Can Meditation Make You a Better Leader?

meditation postures
When we sit still like this, we notice the simple, sensual vividness of our circumstances: sounds, sights, smells, sensations and thinking.
image: Getty
June 17, 2013

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 researchwhen 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.    Related Questions Can You Learn to Control Your Mind? Which Is Better for Us, Daydreaming or Thought Experiments?

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 (Zaccaro, 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?