Can Mindfulness Make You a Better Leader?

09 Mar 2020

Can Mindfulness Make You a Better Leader?

Can 10 minutes of mindfulness training help you become a more effective, focused leader? We asked Harvard Business Review author and mindfulness expert Jacqueline Carter.

Most leaders today admit that they’re struggling to stay focused and to prioritize. Their work environments are distracting, there’s constant pressure to always be on, and they’re inundated with more information than can effectively be managed. As a result, they face challenges related to performance, innovation, resilience, and engagement. In fact, according to mindfulness expert and author Jacqueline Carter, the research shows that people are distracted about 47 per cent of the time.

Moreover, according to her recent book, The Mind of the Leader, Carter and her co-author Rasmus Hougaard found that 71 per cent of leaders feel distracted from their current task either “some” or “most” of the time, and a whopping 67 per cent of leaders view their minds as cluttered and lack clear priorities. Not surprisingly, almost all the leaders surveyed, 96 per cent, said that enhanced focus would be valuable or extremely valuable.

If you’re a part of the group of 65 per cent of executives who say that they sometimes fail to complete their most important tasks, there’s good news. According to Carter, there is something that you can do in only 10 minutes per day. We recently sat down with the author to get her advice on what executives – and, more specifically, executives transitioning into new roles – can do to cut through the clutter and be more effective.

Can you tell us what mindfulness is and why it’s so important?

Mindfulness is the practice of training the mind to be more focused and aware. It’s important because it’s become a survival skill for today’s busy leaders. The practice of mindfulness is about working to actively manage your mind – paying attention, being present, staying calm, focused, and deliberate. Improving mindfulness helps leaders concentrate on the right tasks and enables high productivity.

Interestingly, new research also shows that mindfulness can even help at the physiological level and that consistent training can result in a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and even better sleep and reduced stress.

In your book, you discuss that there are three qualities – mindfulness, selflessness and compassion – that are the hallmarks of good leadership. Why are these behaviours so important?

Mindfulness is just a foundation for good leadership. It’s the first step in strengthening your ability to choose where you’re putting your attention so that you can be more present with people and create stronger relationships.

Mindfulness alone improves focus, but these other qualities – selflessness and compassion – help us focus on the right priorities. The human ego is naturally programmed to focus on ourselves. A self-referential perspective doesn’t make us bad, but a leader’s job is to focus on the people that they’re leading.

Selflessness is the ability to manage your ego and remember that it isn’t all about you. A selfless leader has no hidden agenda and has both strong self-confidence and humble intentions. These types of leaders support their people, organizations, and communities and can create strong cultures.

Compassion is about having positive intentions for others. Many people mistake this quality for being soft or wanting to please everybody, but it’s quite different. It’s not about being nice all the time. Compassion can mean giving tough but appropriate feedback, or making a decision that’s good for the organization but still negatively impacts some people.

Compassion can be hard. Leaders will always have to make tough decisions, but mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion can go a long way to creating a happier, more productive, and people-centred organization.

How can leaders work on improving these qualities?

Over the past two decades, neuroscientists have discovered that our brains can change depending on how we use them. It is called neuroplasticity and it means we can train our brains in a similar way to how we’d train our bodies when working out. Studies even show that mental training exercises can help our brains begin to default to a certain way of thinking or acting. When we practice mindfulness training regularly, we begin to rewire our brains to be more focused, clear-minded, patient, and kind.

It typically begins with simple exercises involving turning your attention to the experience of breathing and gently releasing distractions to train your attentional muscle to focus on an object of your choice. Research has demonstrated that 10 minutes of daily mindfulness training can make a noticeable difference in focus and mental clarity in three weeks. To help getting started, it is helpful to set intentions, i.e. your “why” for training your mind. And then, it is important to have a daily routine and track your progress on a regular basis.

In addition to mindfulness training, do you have other tips for leaders adjusting to new roles or managing new challenges?

I think it’s important that leaders in new roles think about what they’re doing to manage their minds. The first 12 months of a new role can be overwhelming, even for the most experienced leaders. If we’re not managing our minds, we miss opportunities to be effective, because we lack clarity. Truthfully, when you’re too busy to practice mindfulness is when you need it the most.

There are other small things that we can do to help ourselves. Here are three quick tricks that I often recommend:

  1. Turn off all the notifications on your phone. Don’t let it distract you. Check your phone when you want to. You can do it as many times as you need throughout the day, but it should be your choice and on your time.
  2. Every day, at the end of each day, think about somebody who supported you today. Somebody who got you coffee, the cleaning crew that helped tidy your office, the person that helped put together a last-minute presentation – anything at all. But think about your gratitude every single day.
  3. Approach every meeting with the thought: How can I support you today? Put other people on your agenda and think about what your role is in helping them be successful.

Any other words of wisdom for leaders?

The best advice I’ve heard from interviewing top global executives is to always remember to take care of yourself. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be good at your role or be able to support your team, family, or anybody else that you’re responsible for. In our research we found that the more senior people are in an organization, the more disciplined they are at taking care of themselves. I remember interviewing an extremely accomplished business executive who told me that he learned very early in his career that he needed to exercise every day. He had learned that if he didn’t take care of himself, he’d never make it to the C-suite. Real success is also about finding time to take care of yourself.

To learn more about mindfulness training or Jacqueline Carter’s work, visit The Potential Project. You can also click here to learn more about her book, The Mind of a Leader.