Finding the Space to Lead

Mindfulness helps leaders see, hear, and think with more clarity, says Janice Marturano. 

“It really worked!” announced one of the corporate leaders as she arrived early for a mindful leadership practice session. Susan (as we’ll call her) was visibly happy and excited, an unusual response for 4:00 p.m. on a workday. When I asked her what was up, she told me she had just come from a meeting where a major change in corporate direction was announced that would result in months spent reworking something that was well underway. Normally such an event would have made Susan so upset she would need to be, in her own words, “scraped off the ceiling.” But this time, she said, she drew on the mindfulness training she had been practicing over the past several weeks and discovered she had the capa-city to respond in a different, more skillful way. First, she recognized the arising of a familiar form of reactivity, and then, in a momentary pause, noticed the possibility of meeting the situation differently.

As I listened to Susan, I was struck by the sense that her joy reflected a much deeper discovery: that a spaciousness and freedom from reactive, auto-pilot leadership can be accessed by cultivating mindfulness. Leaders remember something fundamental about being a human being as they recognize that there is a way to meet each moment of their lives without reactivity, judging, and storytelling. These are not only unnecessary but also cloud their ability to see clearly what is actually there and respond with greater wisdom. In these times, can leaders afford to do otherwise?

The mindful leadership curricula we have been presenting combine some of the latest neuroscience discoveries with established mental disciplines drawn from the meditative tradition. Mindful leadership training is not about relaxation. It offers the intensive mental discipline training of mindfulness meditation in a context that recognizes the unprecedented challenges and opportunities facing leaders today. It invites leaders to explore for themselves the possibility of bringing all of their mind’s capacities to each moment of their lives.

Mindfulness training teaches leaders to rely not just on analytical resources and strengths, but to intentionally cultivate and strengthen the mind’s capacity to be fully present. In so doing, leaders begin to see and hear and think with greater clarity, and perhaps to expand the repertoire of possibilities and responses in their lives.

The journey to develop the mindful leadership curricula began in 2005 during a discussion among colleagues at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness. We were talking about how, despite the increasing spread of mindfulness throughout many aspects of society, a comprehensive methodology to bring mindfulness to organizations seemed notably absent. Although there had been many attempts, none had the sustained impact I sensed might be possible.

It seemed clear that the way to have the greatest impact on any organization was to bring mindfulness training to its leaders. But offering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to leaders was not the solution. The classic MBSR format focuses on stress, and many leaders simply would not invest the time needed to experience and understand the potential of mindfulness training if the benefit were merely stress reduction. Mindful leadership training would need to explore benefits far beyond stress reduction. The journey would not be about bringing mindfulness training to leaders; it would be about cultivating leadership presence. Ideally, the mindful leadership program would bring together the mental training of mindfulness meditation with an understanding—from the inside out—of the challenges, complexities, opportunities, and responsibilities of today’s leaders.

There was no road map to follow in developing this new approach, and it would depend on ongoing dialogue with the participants. A daunting challenge, but thankfully one that I began with an extraordinary partner: Saki Santorelli, executive director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Together, we began this journey with a pilot group of thirteen leaders and a newly developed curriculum entitled Cultivating Leadership Presence through Mindfulness.

Four years and more than 350 graduates later, a unique exploration of mindful leadership has emerged. This exploration takes place in a laboratory that can take the form of a multi-day residential retreat or a series of consecutive weekly classes. Each leader becomes the experimenter and collects his or her own data. Some of the data is familiar; some is newly discovered and holds the promise of more deeply understanding ourselves and bringing our true and complete self to leadership.

Over the last twenty years as a leader in for-profit and non-profit organizations, I have noticed a few common qualities among the most influential leaders: pursuit of excellence, open curiosity, integrity, and respect and caring for others. My experience with mindful leadership further reinforces this observation. Leaders who attend mindful leadership retreats are often taking a leap of faith into an area they know little about, and yet their inquisitive nature encourages them to explore mindfulness just as they would any other new territory. The retreats are intense, yet the leaders are willing to work hard to meet that intensity. In fact, the physical and mental challenge of mindful leadership training aligns with their belief in pursuing excellence. Rather than being a hurdle, it keeps leaders in the game. The training also draws out their integrity and caring for others when they take a pause from the constant busyness that can infect us all and begin to reflect on what really is at the core of their authentic leadership. They notice the potential to lead with greater clarity, with more transparency, and with less storytelling about the future and the past.

When I speak with leaders about attending the retreats, I am frequently asked, “What do you know about the impact of this training on leaders?” To answer this question, we started collecting qualitative responses at the first retreat. This group was made up of leaders from General Mills, where I work, and I knew firsthand that they had access to some of the best leadership training available. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when the most commonly used word among all of the feedback responses was “transformative.”

To take our research on impacts further, we wondered if there would be value in asking about specific leadership qualities, such as strategic thinking, decision making, listening deeply, increasing productivity, and decreasing reactivity. So in 2009, we undertook two studies. Since leaders were not so interested in whether the training would help them handle stress, we didn’t do typical mindfulness research, which measures biological and psychological indicators of stress. What we wanted to know was whether the training would affect how well they would lead, and to our delight the answers were consistently strong, as the sample data below shows.

We also did a pre- and post-course survey of mid-level managers who participated in a seven-week, two-hour-per-week, Mindful Leadership@Workcourse. All 19 categories we looked at showed statistically significant positive change. In addition, we’ve noticed interest in the program going viral: colleagues of leaders who have participated in the programs routinely tell others about the changes they have noticed in the leaders who have taken part, and of course the leaders themselves speak about their experiences.

One of our key assumptions in this work has been that if leaders embody mindful leadership, the impact on their organizations would be significant whether or not their teams were trained in mindfulness. If, for example, they use the calendar exercise on the preceding page, what kind of ripple effect does that have? What if the leader begins to question the volume of meetings, perhaps delegating more, or being more intentional about leaving space in the day for connecting with colleagues and direct reports? What is the impact on the organization and the community if a leader routinely has enough space in their day to ask if there are better ways to do things—ones that are more productive, more profitable, more compassionate, more socially responsible?

The work that began with the four-and-half-day Cultivating Leadership Presence through Mindfulness retreat has unfolded to include many other offerings under the mindful leadership umbrella, including a seven-week course for all levels of an organization, an annual Mindful Leaders Alumni Retreat, a Mindfulness Meditations for Leaders CD and a wide variety of weekly, bi-monthly, and internet meditation practice supports.

All of these emerged in response to leaders asking for something more to support their exploration. Leaders lead, so once they were touched by mindful leadership, they had plenty of ideas about where else mindfulness might be brought into their organizations. So, the mindful leadership work has spread quickly to leaders from more than 30 organizations, because leaders tell other leaders about their experiences—particularly when they help them find better ways to lead in the face of change and uncertainty.

Cultivating Leadership Presence through Mindfulness

A 4 ½-day retreat, 80 respondents

• Please rate how much change, if any, has occurred for you in the following attitudes and behaviors as a result of your participation in mindfulness (retreat and practice).

Percent reporting positive change:

93%   Taking time to reflect…space for discovery/innovation

89%   Enhanced listening…to self and others

88%   Exhibiting patience…with self and others

80%   Making better decisions…clarity

Mindful Leadership@Work

A 7-week course, 40+ respondents

• I am able to be fully attentive to a conversation.

Pre-course:  26%,  Post-course:  77%

• I am able to make time on most days to prioritize my work.

Pre-course:  17%,  Post- course:  54%

• I am able to notice when my attention has been pulled away and redirect it to the present.

Pre-course:  23%,  Post-course:  67%


For more, read Marturano's blog: On Leadership

Photo © Tim Davis