‘People think they have to go off and meditate for 20 minutes a day to become mindful,” says Dr Esslin Terrighena, a Hong Kong-based psychologist who specialises in mindfulness among other disciplines. “Whereas in reality, mindfulness is simply focusing on the moment. It’s something you do constantly.”
It’s also something that’s said to dramatically improve leadership skills. While mindfulness does have its roots in Eastern philosophy and meditation, a million miles from the modern-day work environment, an increasing number of advocates are extolling its applications in the workplace. This is thanks in part to popular apps such as Headspace helping to destigmatise conversations around mental health.
Ever ahead of the curve, Google has offered mindfulness courses for its employeessince 2007, convinced of the benefits to both emotional intelligence and productivity. Today, everyone from Nike to Goldman Sachs has mindfulness programmes for its employees. It’s now much more than a wellness fad; mindfulness has gone mainstream.
So what is mindfulness, and how exactly can “being in the moment” improve professional performance? “Mindfulness is observing the present moment in a non-judgemental way,” says Dr Terrighena. “Being mindful increases your ability to remain an observer of a situation before immersing yourself into an emotional or behavioural reaction. By practising observation without judging what we’re seeing, we help create a space between the trigger (the event) and how we react. So it puts us back into control in terms of choosing our reaction or our response to the events around us.”
Here are five reasons every modern leader should embrace mindfulness, according to Dr Terrighena.
1. To sharpen your attention
“Engaged leaders are constantly juggling several balls at the same time. Mindfulness can ensure you don’t drop any of them. Regularly fine-tuning your attention to the present moment will help you clear your mind of anxious rumination about the past or future and maintain your focus.
Research has shown that practicing mindfulness strengthens the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices—the control centres of the brain that guide your decision-making, attention control and emotion regulation. If you can strengthen these, you’ll be able to switch between tasks efficiently and lead your team with greater confidence.”
2. To lead in high-stress environments
“When your work is your passion, emotions often run high. Mindfulness can keep you calm in the face of high-pressure situations. Non-judgmental observations of yourself, others and your environment foster a space in which you can soak up all aspects of the present moment before deciding how to react.
Mindfulness helps dampen activity in your emotion centre, the amygdala, thereby keeping your initial feelings in check rather than immersing you in them. By heightening this awareness and understanding, you can break negative cycles of thoughts and feelings before they are triggered. Thus, your decisions are less driven by momentary emotional states and it's easier to keep your cool amidst chaos.”
3. To protect your health
“The thrill of the chase can provide rushes of excitement that keep leaders going through the hardest of times, but the corresponding surge of hormones will take a toll on your body. Mindfulness can intervene before your body floods you with stress.
Mindful leaders do not suppress their reactions to the events around them. Instead, they train themselves to pause and respond with purpose before any physiological reactions have been initiated. This process limits the ups and downs your body goes through, promoting deeper rest periods and improving your cardiovascular and immune health. Consequently, you can function at the height of your performance, rather than dragging yourself through fatigue or illness.”
4. To enhance your empathy
“Successful leaders bring out the best in people. Mindfulness boosts your empathic and interpersonal skills, increasing your compassion, patience and kindness. Being present, committed and aware in interactions with others will increase your understanding of their motivations and strengths, which makes you a more approachable and inspirational leader.”
5. To take you off autopilot
“With so much pressure to hit targets, it’s easy to slide into autopilot and rely on safe, routine courses of action just to stay afloat. Mindfulness and being present in the moment can help you break out of this habit. Your increase in productivity will free up quality time to spend on yourself, your decrease in negativity will invigorate you and those around you to be creative and explore undiscovered paths, and your genuine empathy will nurture warm, rewarding relationships.
Ultimately, mindfulness brings balance and growth into your leadership style to create the inspirational change you want to see in your world.”