From Harvard Business Review, Published March 10, 2014
Time Magazine recently put “The Mindfulness Revolution” on its cover, which could either be seen as hyping the latest business fad, or as signaling a major change in the thinking of executive leaders. I believe it’s the latter.
The use of mindful practices like meditation, introspection, and journaling are taking hold at such successful enterprises as Google, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Medtronic, and Aetna, and contributing to the success of these remarkable organizations. Let’s look at a few examples:
- With support from CEO Larry Page, Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, known as Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, runs hundreds of classes on meditation and has written a best-selling book, Search Inside Yourself.
- General Mills, under the guidance of CEO Ken Powell, has made meditation a regular practice. Former executive Janice Marturano, who led the company’s internal classes, has left the company to launch the Institute for Mindful Leadership, which conducts executive courses in mindfulness meditation.
- Goldman Sachs, which moved up 48 places in Fortune Magazine’s Best Places to Work list, was recently featured in Fortune for its mindfulness classes and practices.
- At Apple, founder Steve Jobs — who was a regular meditator — used mindfulness to calm his negative energies, to focus on creating unique products, and to challenge his teams to achieve excellence.
- Thanks to the vision of founder Earl Bakken, Medtronic has a meditation room that dates back to 1974 which became a symbol of the company’s commitment to creativity.
- Under the leadership of CEO Mark Bertolini, Aetna has done rigorous studies of both meditation and yoga and their positive impact on employee healthcare costs.
These competitive companies understand the enormous pressure faced by their employees — from their top executives on down. They recognize the need to take more time to reflect on what’s most important in order to create ways to overcome difficult challenges. We all need to find ways to sort through myriad demands and distractions, but it’s especially important that leaders with great responsibilities gain focus and clarity in making their most important decisions, creativity in transforming their enterprises, compassion for their customers and employees, and the courage to go their own way.
Focus, clarity, creativity, compassion, and courage. These are the qualities of the mindful leaders I have worked with, taught, mentored, and interviewed. They are also the qualities that give today’s best leaders the resilience to cope with the many challenges coming their way and the resolve to sustain long-term success. The real point of leverage — which though it sounds simple, many executives never discover — is the ability to think clearly and to focus on the most important opportunities.
In his new book Focus, psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence (or EQ), provides data that supports the importance of mindfulness in focusing the mind’s cognitive abilities, linking them to qualities of the heart like compassion and courage. Dr. Goleman prescribes a framework for success that enables leaders to build clarity about where to direct their attention and that of their organizations by focusing on themselves, others, and the external world — in that order. Cultivating this type of focus requires establishing regular practices that allow your brain to fully relax and let go of the anxiousness, confusion, and pressures that can fill the day. (Editor’s note: here is Daniel Goleman’s related HBR article, The Focused Leader.)
I began meditating in 1975 after attending a Transcendental Meditation workshop with my wife Penny, and have continued the practice for the past 38 years. (In spite of this, I still do mindless things like leaving my laptop on an airplane, but I continue to work on staying in the present moment.) All of our family members meditate regularly. Our son Jeff, a successful executive in his own right, believes he would not be successful in his high-stress job were it not for daily meditation and jogging.
Meditation is not the only way to be a mindful leader. In the classes I teach at Harvard Business School, participating executives share a wide range of practices they use to calm their minds and gain clarity in their thinking. They report that the biggest derailer of their leadership is not lack of IQ or intensity, but the challenges they face in staying focused and healthy. To be equipped for the rapid-fire intensity of executive life, they cultivate daily practices that allow them to regularly renew their minds, bodies, and spirits. Among these are prayer, journaling, jogging and/or physical workouts, long walks, and in-depth discussions with their spouses and mentors.
The important thing is to have a regular introspective practice that takes you away from your daily routines and enables you to reflect on your work and your life — to really focus on what is truly important to you. By doing so, you will not only be more successful, you will be happier and more fulfilled in the long run.