Meditation as a Pathway for Exceptional Leadership

By Natalie Michael, CHRP

This month I met with two executives who had meditation on their minds.

John is a new executive coaching client who was just promoted to a CEO role.  He believed that meditation was a key ingredient for his success because his primary goal was to stay calm and centered despite fluctuations in the balance sheet.  The Board was putting a lot of pressure on him to grow the business fast so investors could sell the company and cash out.

John felt the pressure, experiencing some sleepless nights, and he didn’t want this to continue.  As part of his coaching plan he wanted to be held accountable to 10 minutes of meditation per day, something he hoped would help him at work and with his relationship with his wife (an avid meditator).

Mark, a CFO, also discussed meditation. He recently read the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, a book mentioned in the late Steve Jobs’ autobiography written by Walter Isaacson.  In Isaacson’s book, Jobs credited his early training in Zen meditation as instrumental to his success when running Apple—this inspired Mark to give it a try.

A Peaceful Business Revolution
These conversations are not happening in isolation.  A peaceful revolution is occurring in business—with meditation is being practiced at McKinsey & Co, Harvard Law School, INSEAD, global banks, Wharton, and Google, Lululemon, among other top businesses and institutions.

The ability for a leader to find their center, de-stress, regulate emotions and to source authentic wisdom is what meditation delivers—and what leaders and companies want.

That said, the classic image of a monk atop a mountain sitting in lotus position, needs some modernization. Meditation takes a lot of different forms in today’s social-media driven, hyper-busy world.

Being Mindful of the Art of Being
Many people include a range of mindfulness activities in the meditation bucket: including activities such as sitting still on a cushion and focusing on breath, yoga, eating that is completely focused on the sensations of the present moment, running, being in nature, and pretty much anything else that has them slow down and savour the moment.

However, according to Osho, a world renowned meditation teacher, meditation can fundamentally be described as the art of being.  It is finding space to be in the moment – not doing, concentrating, or thinking for just a few minutes.  This being state and staying centered takes enormous practice.

To meditate effectively or to be mindful for that matter, a person must find their center, a place within that is silent, observing their thoughts as they come and go.  This place is not an escape, but rather a new way of experiencing life—a way that is often described as a place with more clarity, vision, and awareness and the ability to see things from a new perspective.

From my experience, the awareness, watchfulness, and calm that comes from meditation helps me to connect with my central core – that part of me that cannot be disturbed by challenging circumstances and emotionally charged situations.  It’s a way to reset, and let go of stress.

Meditation and Exceptional Leadership
If meditation sounds far out, its proponents insist it produces very tangible workplace benefits and is closely linked with exceptional leadership.  There is growing research from the fields of adult development, neuro-science, psychology, and business suggesting that meditation and exceptional leadership often go hand in hand.

Suzanne Cook Greater, PHD, is internationally known as the leading expert on how adults develop and self-actualize, and she is one of the biggest inspirations to my own career.  I had the pleasure of taking a workshop from her on adult development and the opportunity to read her PHD thesis from Harvard, Postautonomous Ego Development (1999), a landmark study in the characteristics and assessment of highly developed and influential individuals and leaders.

Through her research, Greater shows that a person’s level of personal maturity and self-awareness are positively correlated to the quality of their relationships, and their approach to leadership.   Her 40 years of research provides evidence that top level leaders have qualities that we often associate with spiritual leaders.  That is, they are mindful, insightful, holistic, connected, and calm.  Meditation is a tool they often use to gain this level of self-awareness and being state.

Other researchers such as Ken Wilbur, the founder of Integral Theory, and Robert Kegan author of the Evolving Self and Immunity to Change have drawn similar conclusions from their original research.

Mastering Synergist Leadership
The recent book Leadership Agility:  Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs claims that approximately 1 per cent of leaders operate at this exceptional level – a level they call Synergist Leadership.

Synergist Leaders are mindful, meaning they have the ability to be present in the direct experience of the moment.  This present moment awareness facilitates connection and relationships with others, especially during challenging conversations or circumstances.   They are also adaptable, and able to adjust their style depending on what the situation and person they are interacting with requires, and they are able to create relationships that are truly based on mutual interests, often requiring empathetic responses and a holistic orientation.   In some of their videos promoting the book, the authors advocate for meditation as a valuable tool for leaders.  Ultimately, how can you be effective at managing and leading others if you are not able to manage yourself?

Breaking Reactive Behavioural Patterns
Although there are many pathways to becoming more mature, self aware, and effective as a leader, meditation is one of the primary pathways for doing so.   When leaders meditate they become the “watcher” of their own thought patterns and habits, which in turn, increases their self-awareness, and allows them to break reactive behavioural patterns, one of the most important ingredients for exceptional leadership.

Meditation has also been shown to calm the flight or fight response that gets triggered by external circumstances, ultimately calming the body and mind.  This is important for leadership because when the body is stressed or tense it is more difficult for new insights to enter, and it dampens creativity and innovation. Is it any wonder Steve Jobs was such a fan?

Activate Whole-Brain Thinking to Heal
There is also recent scientific evidence that demonstrates that meditation is associated with hemispheric synchronization in the brain, and that it may be one way to activate whole-brain activity and improve problem solving.  That is, it helps individuals to synthesize the experience of feeling awareness with rational thought.

Lastly, there are many books and anecdotal stories about the power of meditation to heal past wounds.   Through meditation people can connect with themselves and see how pain from the past still may be impacting them in the present. It can help them to find their authentic voice and values without the interference of their inner critic or past conditioning which may still linger but not serve them.

As a leader, it is difficult to be principled, values based, and authentic without this level of emotional maturity and awareness.

Innovative Companies Promote Meditation
If meditation can offer greater perspective, clarity, intuition, self awareness, and emotional regulation, why is not a staple component of leadership programs?  Well, it seems that it is for innovative companies.

Google is recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the world and they have been offering meditation and mindfulness programs for about four years.  Their signature program is a seven week course cleverly titled, “Search Inside Yourself.”  There are three components to it which all fit well with the business agenda:  train your attention, develop self-knowledge and self-mastery, and create useful mental habits.

You might expect that the tech crowd would mock it, but according to a recent article in the LA Times, there is a 500 employee waiting list.   Due to the program’s success Google has since created meditation spaces around its campuses.

Also, The Drucker School of Management now teaches meditation in a course called “The Executive Mind” taught by professor Jeremy Hunter.  This program is a little different from a typical MBA class.  Instead of spreadsheets and strategy, there is a brass singing bowl and leather-wrapped mallet.

Hunter says, “Stress reduction is important, but the real value of meditation comes in the ability to step out of whatever reaction you’re having—which is usually habitual or automatic—so you can do something different.” When this happens there are benefits individuals, for teams, customer relationships, and companies.

Locally, Lululemon has a yoga studio at their company headquarters and pays for employees to take yoga classes which have a meditative component and build mindfulness. Of course, this benefit is on brand, yet it is also personally and strategically valuable to the business.

Meditating on Business Futures
As an HR professional pondering the future of our industry I can’t help but think that meditation and mindfulness practices will be as common in the near future as coaching has become in today’s business world.

Imagine all the different ways 10 minutes of meditation could benefit organizations:  a tool for overcoming resistance to change, team building and bonding, stress reduction and claims management, personal effectiveness and leadership.

If you are not yet being mindful in your own life and interactions, I challenge you to take five minutes a day to look inward.  Not only is it good for your health, it may put you at the forefront of  “innovative” practices in human resources.

Natalie Michael, CHRP is a succession management consultant and executive coach with The Karmichael Group in Vancouver.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2013)


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