Last week my wife Penny and I had the opportunity to keynote the Mindful Leadership Summit. At the summit, 750 participants gathered to discuss how mindfulness practices could change global leadership for the better. As Charles Lief, president of Naropa University, said, "The opening of all sectors to talk about mindfulness, contemplation and compassion is a very powerful thing." The enthusiasm within the summit provided ample evidence that mindful leadership has indeed come of age.
How are leaders becoming mindful? One of the most popular ways to learn mindfulness is to attend a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. Popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn since the late 1970s, MBSR is built on ancient meditation practices. However, it wasn't until the last decade that the marriage of mindfulness and leadership became reality. In 2007 Chade-Meng Tan - Google employee #107 -- launched Google's meditation program. The program currently teaches 2,000 Googlers per year to meditate in order to become better leaders.
In January, 2010 I had the privilege of presenting my ideas for developing compassionate, authentic leaders to the Dalai Lama at the Mind & Life Institute's conference in Zurich. The following year Janice Marturano formed the Institute for Mindful Leadership, based on the highly successful courses she created for General Mills. Today, leading companies like Blackrock, Aetna, Ford Motor and Goldman Sachs conduct mindfulness classes for thousands of their leaders.
What is causing this shift to mindful leadership? In the stress-filled 24/7 world in which we live, leaders of all organizations need the opportunity for a "time out" period. It is their opportunity to relax, breathe deeply, de-stress and gain clarity about their work and the decisions they are facing. As I stressed at last week's summit, mindfulness practices enable leaders to ensure the important issues are taking precedence over immediate pressures.
Business isn't the only sector practicing mindfulness. These practices are gaining widespread use in health care, non-profits, education, athletics and even government. Recent clinical studies are demonstrating that mindfulness not only reduces stress, it improves productivity and reduces health care costs. As Aetna learned in its 2011 controlled study of meditation and yoga, health care costs for participating employees could be reduced by $2000 a year. As a result, Aetna is currently offering mindfulness classes as a covered benefit to its enrollees.
My own mindfulness practice began with a course in Transcendental Meditation (TM) that my wife and I attended in 1974. For the past forty years I have meditated daily. It wasn't until the late 1990s that I felt comfortable sharing my practice publicly, as I feared people would find it strange or even weird. This practice is the best thing I have done to calm my mind and my emotions, focus on what is most important while releasing trivial worries and think clearly about important decisions. Perhaps even more importantly, my most creative ideas have come from meditation.
Of course, meditation is not for everyone. What is essential for all of us -- as I share in my classes and lectures -- is having a daily practice of taking twenty minutes to quiet your mind, reflect and be introspective. For you, it may come through prayer, journaling, reflecting in a beautiful place or taking a long walk or jog. The goal? To create more self-aware leaders who understand themselves, their motivations, their values and the purpose of their leadership.
Becoming a mindful leaders requires daily practice. It is easy to say, as I did back in 1974, that you don't have the time to fit this practice into your busy schedule. In fact, the opposite is true -- you don't have the time not to pursue it. A recent study by Aetna and Duke University proved that mindful practices can increase productivity by an hour a week. Just think what you could do with an extra hour: Play with your children? Take a walk with your spouse? Organize your life? However you use that extra time, mindfulness can help you accomplish it. More importantly, you will become more effective and satisfied in your work.
As I discuss in my new book, Discover Your True North, mindful leaders can help us begin to overcome the crisis in leadership we have experienced since 2001. Simply stated, mindfulness is a powerful practice that will help all of us become more authentic as leaders. If you haven't experienced it, give it a try, and you will find that you have a greater sense of well-being and become a better leader.
- Bill George, Senior Fellow, Harvard Business School