Is mindfulness the route to effective leadership?

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Mindfulness is everywhere. At least everywhere, it seems, in the news and it is even to be found on the Governments’ agenda. Whether it is yet flourishing inside organisations and around Board Room tables where critical decision making occurs remains debatable however.

This year the FT has described mindfulness as a ‘quiet revolution…gripping the City of London’, claiming that ‘fast-paced financiers are turning to “mindfulness”’. They go on to describe the increasing demand for this topic saying ‘The CFA Institute for investment professionals is considering launching a meditation programme. KPMG, Goldman Sachs and Unilever – and the Bank of England – have presented mindfulness in wellbeing seminars and encourage staff to use meditation apps such as Headspace’. In March 2015 The All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness will publish its report.

Interest in mindfulness is perhaps growing in part as a response to the bombardment of evidence of organisational incompetence, pitiful awareness levels and sloppy decision making we receive on an almost daily basis. One just needs to look at the debacle at Tesco, the banking sector decisions on investment and executive reward and devastating events such as the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust to know that things need to change.

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to whatever arises from moment to moment, in yourself, others and the world around you. In the Board Room it might translate into a deeper sense of self awareness, an appreciation and understanding of others, improved emotional intelligence, more thoughtful inquiry and deeper, more considered, decision making. These are leadership skills which are essential to the navigation of our organisational context in the 21st Century.

Ellen Langer, writing in HBR on the subject of mindfulness, heralded the 21st century as ‘an age of complexity’. Organisations find themselves in a global marketplace surrounded by breath-taking technological change. Political, environmental and economic instability are never far away. In such a context the traditional heroic view of a leader, as one who ‘knows’, who has the vision and charismatically sells it to others, who single-handedly makes the important decisions whilst engaging others, is unlikely to survive.

As well as heroic and charismatic leadership, in the academic world relational, spiritual, quiet, complexity, artistic, shared and distributed leadership are just some of the theories which are being taken very seriously more recently. There will always be debates about the meaning of ‘effective’ leadership because the term is socially constructed (in other words we come to our understanding of what leadership means in relation with others and our understanding is formed through who we are, where we are and at what time in history we are placed). Increasingly, effective leadership is being associated with facilitating dialogue, listening, collaborating and learning in organisations. It means stepping into inquiries on ethics, sustainability and the meaning that the organisation has in this world and its contribution to it.

Mindfulness has a crucial role to play in these ideas around effective leadership. The body of research evidence on mindfulness is fast growing with approximately 40 peer-reviewed research papers emerging every month. These papers evidence the significant benefits that mindfulness can confer, for example:

  • People who are more mindful:

    • Are less likely to experience psychological distress, including depression and anxiety

    • Report greater well-being and satisfaction

    • Have greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of their emotions.

    • Recover from bad moods more quickly

    • Have higher and more stable self-esteem

    • Are better at communicating and less troubled by conflict in relationships.

  • It is correlated with emotional intelligenceIt seems to increase self-awareness

  • It is associated with greater vitality and is linked with higher success in reaching academic and personal goals

  • When managers have been taught meditation their levels of care and concern rise and they become more likely to make socially responsible decisions.

We think these benefits are crucial for leaders in the 21st Century. Whilst the evidence base is indeed increasing, there is surprisingly little that examines how mindfulness affects specific leadership skills (according to those around the leader as well as the leader’s self-perception) and how mindfulness practice is experienced by those holding leadership roles. For this reason we are launching a research programme to examine these areas.

Are you a leader who is interested in learning mindfulness? We invite you to an event at Ashridge Business School on the 30th January to learn more about The Mindful Leader.

If you then wish to take your understanding and personal practice further we invite you to join us on our research programme where you will be given the unique opportunity to be part of a ground-breaking programme, designed specifically for senior executives, developing personal mindfulness.  If you are unable to make the 30th but are interested in joining our research programme please email Megan direct at

kim hollamby