Zen and the Art of Mindful Leadership: 6 Skills to Develop

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting




This post originally appeared on HubSpot's Agency blog. For more content like this, subscribe to Agency.

We all want to be better leaders. We want to create environments where people are successful, happy, and creative. We know that this contributes to the health of our businesses.

But being thoughtful and purposeful in our approach to leadership takes work. Sometimes, it requires some temporary navel-gazing. To be a great leader, you need to be mentally strong and emotionally intelligent. You need to understand yourself before you can support and guide others in the right direction.

In the past few years, the practice of mindfulness -- through meditation, yoga, and other activities -- has caught the attention of the business industry as a way to improve leadership and decision-making skills.

Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as:

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.

It is about the way you pay attention: being curious and open. And this type of approach leads to increased focus, clarity, and empathy.

These are skills necessary for every leader, but they are the ones found in the very best of leaders.

And these don’t necessarily come naturally. We’re distracted easily. We default to self-absorption. And we allow past decisions and future fears to control us in our day-to-day lives.

And when stress, confusion, and incivility exist in a leader, the entire team can be infected. Managing your own emotions and inner self is key to being able to effectively lead others.

Consider these core skills of mindful leaders to become more purposeful and focused in your approach to management. 

1) They are accountable.

There’s a long legacy of managers who place blame on their team members or external circumstances to avoid responsibility and the potential for a backlash from higher-ups.

They are afraid of mistakes and overcompensate because they want to be seen as indispensable and even perfect.

We all know this is an impossible standard to meet, but many managers try anyways, and this approach is what actually leads to discontent employees and failure. Their defensiveness leads to harsh criticism and incivility for the people around them.

And this type of environment can be destructive to your entire company. Incivility and disruptive behavior in the workplace can lead to an increase in mistakes. One survey found that 71% of doctors, nurses, and other employees tied this type of environment to medical errors. It also can make your team less creative. In an experiment, people who had experienced rudeness performed 61% worse on puzzles and produced 58% fewer ideas in a brainstorm.

Instead, mindful leaders ask what they could have done to prevent the problem, and what they can do now to solve it. Leaders know that they are the agents of change in an organization, and they take full responsibility for their team’s action when they meet their goals and when they don’t. They are also transparent about their own failings, which encourages others to share their insecurities and shortcomings. The end result is a more authentic relationship between managers and those who report to them.

2) They value clarity, not speed, in decision-making.

Mindfulness encourages individuals to let go of the past and the future and to focus on the present. This can be a valuable tool when making decisions. Yes, the implications of a decision are important. But this can also be paralyzing. What if I make the wrong choice … again?

One area where mindfulness and meditation have shown to be beneficial in decision-making is in reducing the impact of sunk-cost bias, a term that describes when you think that you need to keep investing in something until it is successful because of how much you have already invested. You stick with a decision because you don’t want to lose the time and money you have already spent.

Researchers at INSEAD’s organizational behavior department found that people who listened to a 15-minute focused-breathing meditation recording were less likely to be influenced by the sunk-cost bias.

Stopping for a moment, realigning your focus, and then considering a decision doesn’t mean that your company will fall behind. It means you can clearly understand what is at stake, what’s important, and what needs to happen next to put you on the best path forward.

3) They are adaptive.

Many of the problems leaders face are unruly. There is no defined issue nor a straightforward solution. Typically, in this situation, many people simply apply a solution that has worked in the past. They are under stress to find a solution, and research has shown that when people are pressed, they are more likely to consider the upsides of alternatives and pay less attention to the downsides. In addition, when men make decisions under stress, they tend to take more risks while women are more cautious when feeling the same pressure. Either approach can lead to less than optimal results.

Mindfulness practices teach people to pay attention to habitual thoughts, preconceived notions, and decision-making processes. This focus helps managers to realize if they are defaulting to a previously known solution. In addition, mindfulness can be used to recognize the emotional and physical stressors that may be causing a person to make ill-informed or risky decisions.

Mindful leaders don’t manage by reacting to events. They are proactive and present.

4) They start with compassion.

Chade-Meng Tan, the head of personal growth at Google, discussed compassion in a TED Talk a few years ago. He pointed to Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, which outlines that the two most important qualities in truly great leaders is humility and ambition.

Chade-Meng said:

These are leaders who are highly ambitious for the greater good. And because they're ambitious for a greater good, they feel no need to inflate their own egos. And they, according to the research, make the best business leaders. And if you look at these qualities in the context of compassion, we find that the cognitive and affective components of compassion --understanding people and empathizing with people -- inhibits, tones down, what I call the excessive self-obsession that's in us, therefore creating the conditions for humility.

He described the three main areas of compassion.

  • Affective Component: “I feel for you.”
  • Cognitive Component: “I understand you.”
  • Motivational Component: “I want to help you.”

The motivational component of compassion creates the space for leaders to be ambitious for the good of their employees, which requires a level of selflessness.

The cognitive component creates an attitude that is in direct opposition to the demanding, impulsive, insensitive, intimidating, and even abusive attitude seen in many managers. The latter demeanor isn't just detrimental to employee happiness. Working for someone with an abrasive or abusive attitude can cause serious health issues.

Researchers at the Stress Institute found that employees who reported to managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, and uncommunicative were 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition.

5) They are open to change and innovation.

People don’t like change. Change is threatening. It is new. It is unproven. And while you might like to think you are an go-with-the flow type of person, most likely you too are more comfortable and happy when you know what you need to do and when you need to do it. This is especially applicable in the workplace.

Mindfulness teaches a person to be open -- to new experiences, new ways of doing things, and new processes. It is ultimately about freeing ourselves from attachment, as being prohibitive to change is about ownership over processes and procedures.

Leaders who practice mindfulness are open to new information and details that will prove that change is needed and beneficial. They understand that holding on also holds companies back.

Mindful leaders can also lead change. They are compassionate, which means they are also highly aware and sympathetic of people’s attitudes and feelings. They lead with information and personal benefits, not by command. And because of their openness to change, they are also open to failure, which they know is necessary for gaining knowledge of the best way to enact change.

6) They prevent burnout -- in themselves and their team.

Increased focus and attention on the present is a key component of mindfulness, and these skills are necessary when faced with daily decisions. While the small things might not seem to matter, they can build up and lead to long-term exhaustion. The frantic pace, stress, and consistent change of most organizations means that individuals can begin to adhere to a constant “go” mentality. This is only heightened by the amount of distractions we all face on a daily basis.

Being present requires a person to recognize their emotional state, understand it, and make changes if it is detrimental to their well-being. Too often, we push ourselves to do more and more until we are plagued by emotional stress, headaches, and even bodily pain -- signs that your body needs a rest. When people continually push themselves, they can reach burn-out, which can easily lead to indifference and unhappiness. 

Being more aware of this in themselves means managers can look for the signs in someone else. They can encourage their team members to work hard but to also pay attention to the signs that they need a break. This approach will result in fewer sick days and happier employees.

Managers that remove the auto-pilot setting are able to take stock of their team and analyze what priorities are actually important and what things can be removed to reduce workloads and cognitive stress.

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