With countless projects, tasks and employees to manage, it's easy for leaders to feel drained and misguided. But when was the last time you acted mindfully — slowed down, took a breath and focused on just one singular thing?
Mindful leadership simply means that you are highly aware of what's going on around you, said Richard Jolly, adjunct professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School.
"It involves the ability to pay attention to your environment, both within the organization and in the broader business environment," said Jolly. "[It means] being present to what is happening in the moment ... [and] listening carefully and nonjudgmentally. Mindful leaders are collaborative and able to cope with high levels of uncertainly and complexity without getting overwhelmed."
Kim Bassett, president and CEO of Norwood Hospital, noted that the ability to tune out the constant flow of distractions on any given day is an essential quality for mindful leaders.
"Leaders are responsible for taking a lot of data in various forms and turning this information into decisions," Bassett said. "We are in constant communication with others through email and text messages. Mindful leaders do not let all the constant distractions interfere with their ability to prioritize what issues are most important and will receive their full attention."
Why mindfulness matters
Actively trying to be more mindful is one important way to combat what Jolly calls "hurry sickness" — an "understandable reaction to a world that's increasingly complicated and chaotic."
A video published on the London Business School's website explains that hurry sickness stems from the high associated with multitasking and accomplishing goals.
"Getting things done feels good. And our brains reward us with a hit of dopamine," Jolly said. "What busy executives don't realize is that if they carry on like this it'll affect not just their career but their health."
Hurry sickness sufferers are often tired and stressed, and end up achieving little of lasting value for their organization, said Jolly. Therefore, it's critical for leaders to slow down, practice listening and ask open questions.
"The main impact is to build greater focus and confidence, enabling people to be more collaborative and resilient," Jolly said.
"Demands on a leader can be stressful and continuously changing," added Kris Mailepors, author of "The Easy to Follow Leader" (Aloha Publishing, 2018) and executive coach. "Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment. For leaders, mindfulness as a regular practice is a bona fide way to control the long-term effects of stress on their mental, emotional and physical health."
Additionally, leaders need to communicate with their team every day – and they need to be emotionally available to do so. Mindfulness helps them be more engaged in conversation.
"It's an opportunity to be fully present for them; to be there for what they need that day without being distracted," said Mailepors. "The new skill leaders must master is creating space for the needs of their people as individuals in the moment they arise. It's a new way to show support for others."
Mindfulness can also help a team reduce the stress of day-to-day distractions by focusing on the members' own talents, said Bassett.
"If each member of the team is mindful about his or her own talent and can bring that to the table, then as a team you have a greater chance for success," she said.
Becoming a more mindful leader
The London Business School video says that the best way to slow down is by creating and protecting the space you need to think: "Focus on your key priorities. Set ground rules for managing communications across the organization. Block out time to think. Work smarter, not harder."
Leaders can also set a good example for their employees by demonstrating the importance of the things that truly matter in life, such as family, Bassett said.
"If we are mindful in the moment for those things, then I think people are more productive in their work life as well," she added. "It's our job to take care of our employees and provide them with a safe environment."
However, we often overcomplicate mindfulness, rejecting the idea before giving it a chance. While you certainly can't just collapse on the ground for a meditation session in the middle of your workday, you don't have to go to such extreme measures to achieve calmness.
"If you think about it, merely realizing that you are not being present brings you to the present," said Mailepors. "Mindfulness is actually effortless in this sense. All it takes is a trigger or reminder, and awareness kicks in."
To increase this awareness, Mailepors advised setting your own reminders by using Outlook alerts, sticky notes, phone alarms, etc. Then, you can do something as small as massaging your hand muscles, stretching your joints, reciting a mantra or observing nature – whatever it is that makes you feel most grounded.
"The reminder should connect the leader to some activity that is known to help with mindfulness," he said. "These are usually paying attention to breathing, thinking about a body part or sensation, looking at an object in the room … The moment you realize you are not being present, your mind automatically creates space to just be where you are; the worries and anxieties wane a little."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.