Reflections on “Mindful Leadership” Retreat

On August 13-14, 2010 Yongey Mingur Rinpoche and I co-led a two-day retreat in Minneapolis on the subject of “Mindful Leadership.” Over 400 people participated actively in the retreat. To our knowledge, this is the first time that a Buddhist Rinpoche and a leadership professor have joined forces to explore this subject and see how Eastern teaching can inform our Western thinking about leadership, and vice versa.  Rinpoche led several guided meditations over the course of the two days, but this was strictly a secular event, not a Buddhist teaching.

The Mindful Leadership retreat enabled us to explore such complex subjects as the impact of mindfulness on leadership, new neurological research on the impact of meditation on the brain, understanding and framing your crucibles, the role of emotional intelligence and self-awareness in leadership effectiveness, gaining self-compassion, shared awareness through small group support, leading others mindfully, and self-actualization to contribute to a better world.

None of these subjects was easy, nor did we reach definitive conclusions. Our dialogue took the issues to a deeper level that engaged the participants and enabled each of us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Gaining awareness of oneself – our motivations, our destructive emotions, our crucibles, and our failings – is essential to being an effective leader. Based on my research into leaders, I have found the greatest cause of leadership failures is the lack of emotional intelligence and self-awareness on the part of leaders. I cannot name a single high-level leader who failed due to lack of IQ, but am aware of hundreds of leaders that have been unsuccessful due to their lack of emotional intelligence (EQ). The destruction of organizations caused by their shortcomings is staggering.

Mindfulness – the awareness of one’s mental processes and one’s mind works – offers leaders a path to address these issues in a non-judgmental, non-threatening way. Meditation is the secular process that enables us to develop mindfulness and to approach challenging issues in a calm, thoughtful manner.

Even more exciting are the research indications that meditation can enable us to reshape our brain (much more so that we can do for the IQ). One leading researcher at the seminar explained that measurable impacts have been found even after as short a period as eight weeks of meditating. Of course, people need to have consistent practices in order to sustain and strengthen the impact.

As Rinpoche said, we spend a great deal of time and effort in developing our bodies; shouldn’t we do the same for our minds? Just as we need sound habits for keeping our bodies in shape, we need regular practices to be mindful.

After working with Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama during the course of the past year, I have reached a preliminary conclusion that gaining mindfulness through meditation may be the most effective way to gain self-awareness and to develop self-compassion. Another important aspect is through group support that provides honest feedback, compassionate support, and deeper understanding of oneself. Having practiced meditation and having been part of a support group for thirty-five years, I have personally experienced the highly beneficial impact that they have had on my leadership effectiveness.

Having observed hundreds of leaders under pressure, I have no doubt that self-awareness and self-compassion are the essential aspects of effective leaders, especially when they are under stress and pressure. Leaders who develop and maintain these qualities are better able to lead others mindfully and to empower people to perform at a very high level. With a shared sense of purpose and common values, organizations can then take on very challenging goals and overcome great difficulties and achieve outstanding results on a sustainable basis.

Let’s look at some of the specifics of these two days and what can be learned from them:

Reflections on Day 1

The first day of sessions focused on developing self-awareness through leadership and though meditation. A key part of the Summit was devoted to learning from Rinpoche how to become mindful through meditation. After I outlined the plan for the summit, Rinpoche shared the story of how he first started meditating at nine years old. Suffering from panic attacks, Rinpoche turned to meditation as a method for facing his panic and calming his anxiety rather than letting them dominate his mind and his life. 

Rinpoche noted that everyone has love and compassion within themselves, yet the hardest person we have to lead is ourselves. Through meditation we can become mindful in our leadership, especially when we are facing extreme challenges. He taught the group many different types of meditation: open awareness, breath, sound, object, and emotion. 

Here are some of Rinpoche’s takeaways on meditation:

  • Mindfulness is like space, it is always there.  But the monkey mind, the restless, confused part of our mind that is filled with random thoughts, often takes over our thinking.  Give the monkey mind a job by focusing its restlessness to find greater clarity.   Problems come to the surface during meditation, which is natural.  The key is to use these problems, rather than surrendering to them.
  • Rinpoche suggested that we need to challenge our minds to bring those things that we don’t like about ourselves into our meditation.  By owning them, they don’t own us.
  • Don’t force the mind to focus on one specific thing, but become mindful through awareness of our body and our surroundings.

Self-Awareness and Leadership

In the following session, I challenged the group to think about how they can gain self-awareness through understanding their life stories and their crucibles that will enable them to discover their authentic leadership and develop their emotional intelligence. 

I also recommended Professor Paul Lawrence’s new book, Driven to Lead, which discusses how the mind can be remodeled for leadership. Lawrence has rediscovered Darwin’s theories that are not about the survival of the fittest, but development of the mind’s leadership qualities that can enable more effective decision-making.  Developing a clear mind enables leaders to integrate the drivers of their minds – security, material acquisition, bonding with others, and the search for meaning – into an effective whole.

In the 21st century, leaders need to empower other people to lead rather controlling them through a hierarchy.  Leader must learn to empower those around them to feel that they are a part of something special and to take on leadership challenges.  Leadership no longer means getting people to follow us but rather about serving those around us. 

Becoming a leader is not a straight line process; rather, it is a series of ups and downs. In those down periods it is your values, or your True North, that will enable you to successfully navigate the crisis. 

Destructive Emotions

We closed the first day with a joint session on destructive emotions. Rinpoche and I encouraged the group to face their fears and those things that were dragging them down. We need to recognize that the things we don’t like about ourselves – our negative qualities – are just as much a part of us as are our positive qualities. I shared part of a David Whyte CD where he read his poem, “One Day the Hero Sits Down,” as a way of illustrating the importance of recognizing those things about ourselves that we suppressed long ago. 

Reflections on Day 2

Day one of the Summit prepared us for the work on self-compassion that came on day two. Rinpoche opened with a remarkably effective meditation on compassion. It was composed of four successive parts: compassion for someone you care about; compassion for yourself (which is much more difficult than compassion for others); compassion for those you don’t know; and, most difficult of all, compassion for someone you don’t like or respect.

In my following session, I examined how to gain self-awareness, how to develop compassion for yourself, and the role of shared awareness through group support. We also talked about how support groups work, noting there are five keys to a successful support group: 1) openness, 2) trust, 3) confidentiality, 4) honest feedback, and 5) candor. The group then divided into six-person groups to practice the technique.

I have shared some slides from my discussion on developing a support group.  I encourage you to think through how you can develop a group among your peers that you can turn to in times of crisis. 

Leading Others Mindfully and Self-Actualization: Toward a Better World

In the final afternoon, Rinpoche and I had two dialogues on “leading others mindfully” and “how self-actualization can lead to a better world.” The mindful leadership dialogue focused on how to empower others, and how to give them honest feedback and compassion through effective leadership. In the final dialogue we talked about how we can create greater compassion for the world around us and that through compassion gain greater wisdom. 

I was moved by the turnout this past weekend, not just the numbers but the depth to which people actively engaged in these complex topics and dealt with them on a personal level, not strictly an intellectual plane. For all of them, our hope is that this seminar will result in an acceleration of their journeys to authentic leadership.