Four tips to mindful leadership

A desk with laptop, writing pad and cup of coffee

One of the great teachers of modern, secular mindfulness Jon Kabat Zinn describes mindfulness as ‘paying attention on purpose without judgement’. Leadership philosophy often talks about purpose: having a reason and motivation to lead, and using purpose to inspire others; but what about the concept of paying attention? Looking at this through the Zen lens, I’ve drafted some ideas for using our aware mind to help us be better leaders.

A desk with laptop, writing pad and cup of coffee
Learn to know when you’re planning or worrying

Most mindfulness teachers repeat the mantra that peace comes from living in the only moment we have, this current moment. Learning to spot your mind in worrisome thoughts and being able to direct your attention back to the here and now is a central tenet of the practice; but it prompts the question: How do you inspire if you’re never looking forward? That’s the difference between planning and worrying.

Mindfully planning is an effective use of the moment. The great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about using the present moment to make insightful decisions. So ask yourself, where is my thinking now? Is now the time to plan and be proactive or am I worried? If you’re worrying at the dinner table with family, that’s not mindful. If you’ve taken time out of the office to sit with colleagues and plan an effective strategy, that’s a very good use of the current moment.

Make your leadership about people, not processes

In many respects the historical foundations of mindfulness come from Eastern spirituality and while the positive consequences of a mindful approach don’t belong to any religion, the practice does seek to alleviate suffering and ease stress. Mindfulness is all about people and it reminds leaders that people, not processes, are at the heart of why we lead.

Take a look at your agenda and, where your responsibilities are focussed on processes, products and planning, make sure you know how that work ultimately benefits people. If you’re building a new workflow, be clear how it will help colleagues. If you’re developing a product, ask how it will help customers. Putting people at the centre of your workload is very mindful.

Leave the office with your body and your mind

Effective leaders do not ‘work’ all the time. Having a passion for your team, customers, strategy and brand does not demand thinking about them 24/7. The heart of mindfulness is about living in the present moment and that moment is this one: right now. Thirty years ago, Stephen Covey, in the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talked about ‘sharpening the saw’ which means finding other interests that help you grow, improve your mental and physical health, and your relationships.

A leader should spend restorative time with family and on self development projects, and learn to be still in the current moment. At lunch, when you leave the office, take your thinking with you. Go for a walk and sit in a park for half an hour. The decisions you make later that day will be better for everyone.

You are what you eat and what you think

A good leader not only walks the talk but also thinks the right thoughts. And we think about the things we consume with our senses. We are what we eat, and we are what our thinking lets us consume. We are what we hear, see and touch, and we become our good or bad habits. Again, to pursue a compassionate and mindful approach to leading change in an organisation, we should spend our moments building habits that are ethical, considered and compassionate. Ditch the gossip, scroll through fewer LinkedIn posts, and remember the office birthday cakes.

The way we build habits and put our people and plans at the centre of leadership will demonstrate an authenticity. Now that’s something to think about.