From the moment you wake up, you're bombarded with distractions. Emails clog your inbox, requests pile up, and notifications flicker in the background. Within moments your attention is scattered. Given the realities of today's 24/7 world, how do great leaders slow down and focus in order to make thoughtful decisions?
Mindfulness is the practice of self-observation without judgment with a focus on our minds and inner voices. Mindful practices include daily meditation, prayer, journaling, or jogging alone. In a fast paced world, mindfulness enables you to clear your mind of clutter, focus on what is important, and be creative. Leaders like Arianna Huffington and Steve Jobs are well known for their mindfulness practices.
As our lives have become filled with technology, the distractions we face increase exponentially. With it, our ability to focus has diminished, but our need to think clearly in order to make complex decisions has not. More than ever, leaders need to train themselves to be fully present.
Becoming a mindful leader isn't easy. There are no five easy steps to do so. A few years ago when I asked the Dalai Lama how we can develop a new generation of compassionate, mindful leaders, he replied simply, "Develop a daily habit of introspection."
Today many more companies are promoting mindful practices to improve the health and decision-making of their leaders. Google, under the tutelage of Chade-Meng Tan, trains 2,000 engineers in meditation each year. When I visited Google this spring, it was evident that mindfulness is one of the key reasons behind Google's innovative and harmonious culture. Leading financial services firms like Blackrock and Goldman Sachs offer mindfulness courses for their employees. At General Mills Janice Marturano was so successful in mindfulness training that she founded the Institute for Mindful Leadership.
My Mindful Practice: Meditation
In 1975 my wife Penny and I went to a weekend program on Transcendental Meditation. At the time I was working nonstop, coming home exhausted, and having late dinners. I even got denied for life insurance because of high blood pressure. After the training, I started meditating twice daily--not as a spiritual practice, but for health reasons. Forty years later, I still practice regularly.
Meditation is the best thing I have ever done to calm myself and separate from the 24/7, connected world. By centering into myself, I can focus my attention on the important things, develop an inner sense of well-being, and gain clarity in making decisions. My most creative ideas come from meditating, and meditation has built resilience to deal with difficult times. No doubt it has helped me become a better leader.
The Science of Mindfulness
Mind training, of which meditation is one form, can change the composition of your mind. Research by Wisconsin's Richard Davidson demonstrated direct correlation between mindfulness and changes in the brain - away from anger and anxiety and toward a sense of calm and well-being. UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center found meditation can improve executive functions (sustaining attention, diminishing distractibility) better than medication in many cases.
Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence, describes the effect of mindfulness for focusing the mind's cognitive abilities. As Goleman says in his new book, Focus, "One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us."
The Growing Importance of Mindfulness
Increasingly, companies see mindfulness training as a competitive advantage. Aetna, the nation's third largest health insurer, partnered with Duke University to study meditation and yoga. Researchers found these practices decreased stress levels by 28%, improved sleep quality (20%), reduced pain (19%), and improved productivity 62 minutes per employee per week. Aetna is now offering similar programs to all employees as well as its insured customers.
The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses roughly $300 billion dollars per year. Over the past thirty years, we've experienced an 18-23% increase of self-reported stress for men and women, respectively. As companies such as Google, General Mills, Blackstone, and Goldman Sachs have shown, mindfulness training decreases stress levels.
The key to effective leadership is the ability to integrate your head (IQ) with your heart (EQ). As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh taught me years ago, "The longest journey you will ever take is the eighteen inches from your head to your heart." Our hearts are where essential leadership qualities like passion, compassion and courage reside. By practicing mindfulness, mindful leaders exhibit high levels of self-awareness and intentionality in their actions.
The best time to start a mindful practice is now, but don't take the word "practice" lightly. Maintaining the discipline of your practice isn't easy. To become a mindful leader, you need to make this a daily introspective act. As you do so, you'll worry less about day-to-day problems and focus on what is most important. As you become more mindful, you will be a more effective, successful and fulfilled leader.
That's worth twenty minutes a day, isn't it?
Bill George is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and author of Discover Your True North. He is the former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at www.BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.
Afterword: If you are interested in engaging more deeply in mindful leadership, please join Penny and me at the Mindful Leadership Conference in Washington, DC on November 6-8, 2015: http://www.mindfulleader.org/#home