Mindful Leadership

Mark Sagor

Mike TysonDid you hear the story about the fellow who was walking through the Broadway theater district in New York and was accosted by a frantic stage manager? The stage manager told him that he needed to find a replacement for an actor that had suddenly come down with a case of laryngitis. The curtain was going up in 10 minutes and the stage manager was desperate. He would pay the man $500 to replace the actor. There was only one line to learn: “Hark, I hear the cannon’s roar.” The man agreed and was rushed into the theater and set about memorizing his single line of dialogue while the crew dressed him in his costume. As he was walking on to the stage to speak his single he heard the sound of a very loud explosion. Startled, he said: “What the hell was that?”

In today’s world of exploding informational resources, accelerating change and fierce global competition leaders who are able to remain calm and focused while under pressure have a winning edge. We admire most those leaders who can see, hear and think with clarity when the stakes are highest and deliver their finest work when the pressure is most intense. They demonstrate the ability to be clear-headed when others are frantic.

In his new book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Phil Jackson (who has won more championships than any coach in the history of professional sports) credits much of his success to his practice of mindfulness. Of course he is also a master of X’s and 0’s (i.e strategic and tactical analysis) but so are many other NBA coaches who have never won a single championship, let alone 11.

Mindfulness is now being taught and practiced in an increasing number of organizations to improve leadership effectiveness and performance. Mindfulness training goes beyond traditional leadership development programs which focus more on skills like strategic-thinking, problem-solving, giving feedback, leading change, building teams etc. Mindfulness is not so much a specific skill as it is a state of being like being energetic, alert, positive, curious, open-minded and self-confident.

Mindfulness training is directed toward helping leaders to maintain their optimal psychological equilibrium in the face of intense pressure and frequent distraction. One pioneer in this area is Janice Marturano who developed a mindful leadership curriculum at General Mills, one of the largest food companies in the world. The several hundred graduates of this program report many positive changes including enhanced performance in the areas of listening, patience, decision-making, and focus.

The cornerstone of mindfulness training is developing a practice of purposeful pauses. For many people this practice is meditation. There is a growing body of neuroscience research which documents the ability of these practices to change the way the brain operates. People learn how to think in a more reflective and less reactive manner.

One of the General Mill’s mindful leadership graduates talked about attending a meeting where a major change in corporate direction was announced that would result in having to make substantial, and time-consuming changes to a project she thought was complete. She reported that before mindfulness training this kind of event would have made her so upset that she would have to be “scraped off the ceiling.” Instead, she discovered she had developed a capacity to respond in a more skillful way and avoid the wasted energy of a knee jerk negative reaction.

Leaders who spend less time being scraped off the ceiling are better positioned to orchestrate high performance teams. Just ask Phil Jackson.