Mindfulness in Leadership

By Ingrid Fairlie MBA, MIML

Responding to a major disruption to the way we live, work and play brings immense pressure on leaders of all organisations. Our natural response in times of crisis is to go into “auto-pilot” characteristics or the shortest path of least resistance; 

  • We avoid deep thinking 
  • We become reactive
  • We focus on the negative and become judgemental
  • We avoid change
  • We don’t like our assumptions to be challenged
  • We lack thinking differently, being innovative or creative

“Leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others, and in motivating them toward shared goals. Hence, they become more effective in leadership roles”. William George, Harvard Business School, Professor and former Medtronic Chairman and CEO.

Mindfulness is having an awareness of the present moment. It is a unique capability and skill, requiring a person to pay attention and let go of judging what is unfolding in that present moment. 

An example of mindfulness in leadership, which I came across during my research was the introduction of mindfulness for workers at a mine site. The organisation aimed to have zero-harm safety culture utilising mindfulness-based techniques. The techniques were designed to ensure workers adopted conscious thought on what would typically be automatic/habitual. By being more conscious and aware, staff were able to mitigate risks and reduce accidents at the work site. In this safety context, imagine what mindfulness in leadership can achieve in aged care, disability services and the health care sector.

It has taken practice to build my mindfulness skills whilst working in the regulatory environment of aged care and disability services (and later at the provider level). In my most recent activities of compliance remediation, as well as coaching and mentoring emerging leaders, it has been my mindful acknowledgement that has managed my “auto-pilot” response of becoming overwhelmed when I observe and listen to the emotional stress of leaders and their reactive nature when dealing with crisis management. 

It takes effort, courage and choice to understand and master mindfulness, and then apply it to leadership. The practice involves observing ourselves, our body, our breath and observing our own thoughts. It requires a person to challenge beliefs and consider that our own beliefs may be irrational. It is being aware of our own state of mind before attempting to respond to the disrupters in the environment that we lead.

Meditation for mindfulness can be as simple as to focus on breathing; set aside five minutes or more to be mindful about breathing. Let go of distractions and remind yourself to be present in that moment. Being mindful when going for a walk is also helpful by shifting the mind to focus on each step and thinking about the roll of the foot from heel-to-toe assists in letting go of distractions and focus on the present. This results in cultivating calmness and composure. 

The benefits of mindfulness result in a person who can manage their stress responses and is able to apply clarity in rational decision-making. This is achieved by being aware of alternative choices and options, without applying pre-disposed ideas and judgement. Mindfulness improves the capacity of a person to adapt and adjust to the changing contexts in the workplace; building enhanced capacity to respond in non-judgemental ways, resulting in positive relationships, improved productivity and a ‘safety’ culture.