Being mindful improves leadership

By Angelo Kinicki  |  Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership


Have you ever forgotten someone’s name shortly after being introduced? Have you ever been in a meeting and heard someone ask a question that had already been answered? And if you are like me, have you driven to work or some other location without remembering the journey?

These are all examples of “mindlessness,” automatic activities fueled by mind wandering, which happens about 50 percent of the workday. If left unchecked, mindlessness can negatively affect our interpersonal relationships, performance and health.

“Mindfulness,” on the other hand, has the opposite impacts. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned expert on the topic, defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Mindfulness represents our ability to be aware and attentive to what is happening around us.

Improved focus can lead to better sleep, energy, performance

The benefits of being mindful include increased confidence, better sleep, more energy and improved physical and mental well-being. Mindfulness also reduces blood pressure, reactions to chronic pain and negative thoughts and feelings. Personally, it helps me remain calm in the face of adversity or stress, and it improves my performance in competitive golf events. All told, mindfulness has the potential to better our lives. It also can make you a better leader at work and home.

Companies, such as Google, General Mills Inc. and McKinsey & Company, seem to agree with this, as they all are investing in company-sponsored training programs to help employees become more mindful. So, how does mindfulness work in the office?

Mindfulness results in a greater ability to focus your attention on people and events in real time. This, in turn, increases your ability to truly listen to others and be empathetic to their concerns. One end result is a greater ability to influence others, the cornerstone of effective leadership. Mindfulness also leads to decisions that are free from bias, not overly emotional and not based on knee-jerk reactions.

Mindfulness further promotes a more intentional or purposeful way of living and managing. It is a key component of success. For example, Pete Carroll, head coach of the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks, intentionally uses mindfulness techniques to help players perform to their best abilities. Carroll wants his players to quiet their minds and exclusively focus on what is happening at a given moment. He told a reporter from The Arizona Republic that “staying balanced” was one of the keys to winning today’s Super Bowl. Mindfulness is essential to mental balance. To improve your level of mindfulness, try these easy techniques:

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Practice focusing your attention.

A simple way to do this is to pick an object and then spend five minutes or so putting your full attention on it. I like to use something like a rock or pen. First, hold the object and pay attention to its texture and the feeling it has in your hands. Note the edges and curves. Next, shift your focus to the object’s color and smell, trying to notice all the different colors that may exist. The key to this activity is to maintain your focus for a period of time and to ignore any distracting thoughts that enter your mind. Just note those thoughts and then return your focus to the object at hand.

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Practice meditating. Many different types of meditations are available. I like to use meditations in which you focus on your breath. Another option is walking meditations. They are both easy to learn and can be done almost anywhere. I encourage you to start by reading about these techniques or finding a CD or app that provides simple instructions.

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Practice setting daily intentions that benefit you or others. As I mentioned in last month’s column, intentions specify the how, where and when of what you want to accomplish. Here is my intention for practicing mindfulness: “I intend to stop multitasking during all meetings, and I will turn off my cell phone after 7 p.m.”

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Note when your mind wanders.

Pay attention to the frequency of your mind wandering. Make a point of noticing its occurrence, and then gently refocus your attention to whatever you are doing. Ultimately, mindfulness requires effort because our brains work in ways that detract from staying focused.

Everybody benefits from mindfulness. Remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “The future depends on what we do in the present.”



First published in The Arizona Republic, Feb. 1, 2015