Mindfulness and Leadership Development

29. Mindfulness & Leaderhsip


Paul, was a strong performer who had a solid technical knowledge of the products and excellent customer management skills. As a rising star, he was promoted to head an important unit with key operational responsibilities; however, since his promotion less than two years ago, things have not been not going well. The feedback from his team indicates that his overbearing and often confrontational management style is demoralizing.

Like Paul, we all have blind spots that we are unaware of and that can get in the way of our success. CCL, the Center for Creative Leadership, an internationally respected provider of leadership development and research in executive education, has identified five main personality traits and behaviours that can effectively stall career advancement and success. They include:

Problems with Interpersonal Relationships,
Difficulty Building and Leading a Team,
Difficulty Changing or Adapting
Failure to Meet Business Objectives
Too Narrow Business Objectives
Unless Paul changes course, his promising leadership career will stall.

Mindfulness – a strategy for improving self knowledge

Mindfulness is an approach to life recognized for its numerous positive health benefits including lowering blood pressure, improving the immune system and brain function, minimizing pain, lowering stress, and even improving sleep.

Mindfulness, involves paying attention to our immediate experiences, including our thoughts, feelings and impulses, as they happen from moment to moment in a nonjudgmental manner. It is a powerful way to cultivate self awareness by providing timely feedback.

How Mindfulness Works

Two important aspect of mindfulness, attention and nonjudgmental observation, are the key enablers in facilitating self-knowledge and behavioural change.


Mindful Meditation requires that we anchor our attention in the body by observing the felt sensation of the breath in the chest or abdomen. With practice, by paying close and deliberate attention, we become aware of rampant mind wandering or being overwhelmed by torrents of thoughts and emotions. Instead we learn to develop a keen awareness of our bodily sensations and its accompanying message. For example: the sensation of butterflies in the stomach is an indication of worry or nervousness; tightening of the jaws is the result of anger or stress; tensing of the arms and fists are clear signs of aggression.

Attention to our inner physiological signals and sensations helps us recognize and decode what emotions we are experiencing. We can then take this a step further by asking ourselves, “What was I just thinking about?”. This reveals the thought process behind those emotions, sensations and ensuging impulses to action – all crucial components for a shift in thinking and behaviour.

Through practice and paying deliberate attention to his body sensations, Paul first noticed the tightening of the jaws and the back teeth when John, the manager of an important project, seemed to be distracted by his phone instead of paying attention to a vital presentation.

With continued daily practice and more awareness, when experiencing similar tightening in the jaw area, Paul remembered to ask ‘What am I thinking right now?’ That opened the door to more insights. The thought patterns behind the sensation began to unravel. It went something like this:

“John not paying attention again.”
“He will miss crucial information that his team needs.”
“As a result, the whole team will fail to meet our targets”
“I will look bad in front of senior management”
“This is not good! I can’t allow this to happen!”

Previously this was enough to trigger an aggressive comment like, “John, I see that you are not paying attention, I am really sorry if my presentation is beneath you. If you find this boring, would you like to enlighten us with your solutions?”

It is easy to see how such thoughts and reactive behavior could actually make matters worse and sow the seeds of conflict and tension with his staff.

The Behavioural Shift

Thanks to his daily mindfulness practice and increased self-awareness, things began to change.

When Paul noticed his jaws tensing, and understood the accompanying thought patterns and feelings of anger, the story-line began to loose its hold.

Instead of reacting by making sneering verbal comments, Paul chose to practice assertive communication. The tightness in the jaw became a reminder that he needed to give feedback rather than attack.

“John, when I notice you are busy with your iPhone, it gives the impression that you are not interested. Is there something more urgent happening that we should be aware of?”

This was like a breath of fresh air, being able to make his point without creating resentment. The feedback got John’s attention and his focus for the rest of the meeting.

Nonjudgmental Responses:

When we are experiencing similar difficult emotions and sensations, it is common to judge it as bad and want to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ our way out of it. Paul’s impulse was to ‘fight’ by making sneering comments. The ‘flight’ happens when out of fear of hurting the other person’s feelings, or wanting to avoid conflict, we bury our emotions and keep silent instead. Either response is not helpful.

Through mindfulness practice, we learn to observe our thoughts, feelings and body sensations objectively. We create space around whatever thoughts or sensations that are present without making them bad or feeling guilty or inadequate for having them. This allows us to meet the challenges in a more open non-reactive way. Previously, John’s inattentiveness in meetings led to strong feelings and misplaced blame within Paul:

“Oh no, I feel this tension in the jaws again”
“I don’t like this feeling, I shouldn’t be feeling this”
“It is all because of John, he makes me so angry!”. Then, boom, a sarcastic comment or aggressive gesture would follow automatically.

As Paul learned to recognize these sensations and judgements that led to his reactions, he was able to use them as signs that something needed his keen attention. As a result, he started to change his communication style and offer a more constructive response.

The Importance of Self-reflective Practices:

In this brief video, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Bill George, Harvard Business School professor, and business leader, talk about the importance of self-awareness, feedback and the necessity of self-reflective practices in working with our blind spots so that we can achieve success.


When Paul learned to recognize the sensations he was feeling, and have an insight to their root causes, he was able to better respond to the situation in a way that expressed his concerns without alienating his staff. What else could he have done?

Think about a habit that you would like to address. Think of a situation that triggered strong emotions in you recently. Write down your responses to each of the questions below

1. Where in the body did you feel it? What was it like?
2. What thoughts or images raced through your mind?
3. What did you do?
4. Given that most habits are formed to meet a need, ask yourself, what need are you trying to satisfy with this habit?
Reducing stress?
Accomplishing a task?
Motivating or persuading others to act?
Avoiding a potential problem?
5. How well are you succeeding in achieving that need?
6. If this action was no longer your automatic response to this need, what else could you think, feel or do instead? What would that look like?

Learn to recognize the sensations that trigger your negative reactions, and consider ways of implementing more effective responses to further your goals.