Mindfulness is the deliberate act of observing our thoughts with kindness and curiosity. That’s it. No need for religious or philosophical notions; no need for the bells and smells of ritual, or the supernatural. It really is that simple.
In the last 30 years this simple technique has gained popularity and traction in multiple professions and contexts. Landmark events in this story are the adoption of mindfulness by the NHS to deal with depression and recommendations by the UK government that education, health and business need to adopt mindfulness. For the last nine years I’ve been programme director of the University of Aberdeen’s MSc Studies in Mindfulness. Graduates from our programme have explored how mindfulness can be applied and enhance professions in areas such as healthcare, education, sport, creativity, community work and business.
In the latter context research has shown that mindfulness can enhance attention, control, concentration, relationships, emotional intelligence, resilience, decision making, productivity, effectiveness, time management, creativity and cognitive performance. Studies have also shown that mindfulness can reduce absenteeism, anxiety and mitigate the negative impact of stress. No wonder mindfulness has been adopted by a host of organisations including Apple, Google, IKEA, General Motors, and Proctor and Gamble.
In our Business Breakfast I will focus on the potential of mindfulness as a means to enhance leadership. If we practice mindfulness we are effectively developing a mental muscle. Taking the analogy of the gym, when practicing mindfulness we are training or working out with our mind to watch mental activity without preference. This allows us to see what is arising in our thoughts without diving in or being hijacked by what are often habitual patterns. It creates a space between us and our thoughts. It allows us to see that we don’t have to identify with our thoughts or follow established routines or thinking. The aim is that, when we do this repeatedly, just as when we exercise in the gym, the skills, ‘muscles’ and states of mind we practice with begin to colonise our minds. In other words, we become more mindful in our everyday life. The state of mindfulness within the practice becomes a trait within our life at work and elsewhere. We begin to become less reactive and more responsive.
Mindfulness can develop three areas that can be of benefit: focus, awareness and presence. When we focus we begin to listen to understand, rather than to retort. We can also discern how our own mental bias colours our interactions with others. When we develop awareness of our thoughts, speech and behaviour we can gain a degree of control over destructive emotions, develop a less judgemental awareness, be less inclined to adopt ‘expert mind’ and create enhanced conditions for novel and innovative ideas to emerge. When we live in the moment we begin to realise that a lot of our thoughts are driven by anxiety (future) or guilt (past). Living in the moment allows us to approach situations, challenges and decisions with clarity and discernment.
Ellen Langer sums up well the need to mindful leadership: “There is no best way to do anything independent of context, so the leader cannot have privileged information. When leaders keep everyone in their place with the illusion of know-ability and possession of this privileged knowledge the benefit to them is that we "obey" and leaders feel superior. The cost is that they create lemmings. Their mindlessness promotes our own mindlessness which costs us our wellbeing and health. Net result, the leader, the led, and the company all lose. It's nice to imagine a company where everyone is mindful. But it will take some time to achieve the ideal even if possible. Meanwhile, we need leaders whose major, perhaps only task is to promote mindfulness in those around them. By learning how to exploit the power of uncertainty maybe all of us will wake up.”
In our Business Breakfast I will offer a brief review of research into how mindfulness can enhance leadership and indicate resources and avenues for participants to explore. And of course, I will also guide participants in a short mindfulness practice.