Mindfulness for leaders is necessary for good leadership. As a leader, you’re expected to lead by example, influence others and be nimble in the face of adversity.
Which is where mindfulness comes into play. Because mindful leaders are more effective.
A mindful leader is more attuned to their environment and other people’s feelings while also managing their own emotions and stress levels. So that they can choose – and inspire others to take – an appropriate course of action despite difficult circumstances.
Stick with me to learn exactly why mindfulness for leaders isn’t just important but necessary for effective leadership. Here’s what we’re covering:
- The impact of stress and anxiety on your brain (and how that impacts your leadership).
- The top mindfulness myths (too many leaders believe).
- The basics of what mindfulness is (and isn’t).
- The top 5 benefits of mindfulness for leaders.
- Simple mindfulness exercises for leaders to get started with.
Before moving on, be sure to grab my free guide of 8 science-backed activities that will help you rewire your mind to be calm, confident and emotionally in control. This guide includes mindfulness techniques that will make you a better leader.
Table of Contents
Why Mindfulness For Leaders? How The Two Are Related
How Stress and Anxiety Hurts You
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. It can motivate you to perform better and keep you focused in the short-term. But it IS bad when you’re chronically stressed. Because your body isn’t built for that.
Chronic stress causes a host of negative health problems, including:
- immune system disruption, which increases your chances of getting sick;
- circadian rhythm disruption, making it harder to sleep (and further increasing stress and hurting your health); and
- hormonal imbalances, which wreak havoc on your emotional and physical well-being.
And being a leader is stressful. The problem is that stress inhibits creative thinking and innovation (both required skills for good leadership).
But there’s more to it than that. There’s a ripple effect that goes beyond you because it impacts your decision-making and even your team (they can feel it too).
[Recommended Reading: What Makes A Good Leader (10 Essential Leadership Traits)].
The Ripple Effect of Stress and Anxiety That Impacts Everyone
A 2017 survey of 1,000 college-educated employees in the U.S. found that when leaders are stressed, there’s a negative ripple effect throughout the entire organization. Here’s what that survey found:
- Only 11 percent of employees of stressed-out leaders felt engaged at work (and only 7% believed their stressed-out leaders were effective).
- Stressed leaders were perceived as harmful or ineffective by more than 50% of their employees.
- 79% of employees of resilient leaders wanted a more senior role in their organization.
If your employees see you as ineffective and harmful, then you ARE harming not just yourself but the entire organization and its employees. This is a recipe for distrust and a toxic culture. And the negative impact on company culture and morale will hurt the company’s bottom line.
Conversely, mentally resilient leaders who deal with stress constructively will have more loyal employees and hence a better company culture. That can only help the bottom line.
That’s why it’s so important for leaders to decrease stress and anxiety (and why mindfulness for leaders is a necessity). It’s not just about your health, but the health of your company, your team, and your employees.
Mindfulness For Leaders: Understanding What Mindfulness Is (And Isn’t)
Before we jump into the how-to of mindfulness for leaders, it’s important to understand what mindfulness even is. Because I often find that it’s not well understood.
Some leaders I come across think of it as woo-woo. Others believe it requires a lot of time to practice. And some leaders think they’re just not good at it (and so shouldn’t bother).
None of these things are true.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness seems to have various definitions, depending on who you talk to. Here are a few:
- Paying attention to the present moment.
- Being aware of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and your environment.
- Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
All of these are starting points, but incomplete.
I prefer a definition put forth by a consensus of mindfulness researchers almost 15 years ago, which is:
The self-regulation of attention while adopting an orientation in the present moment characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
This is specific and clear yet also a broad viewpoint of what mindfulness really is. I like it’s two-pronged emphasis on (1) self-regulation of attention and (2) being present while adopting a curious, open, and accepting attitude.
Self-Regulation of Attention
Self-regulation of attention is often glaringly missing from most people’s definition of mindfulness. . . but it shouldn’t be. This component is important for increased mental awareness. It’s also what keeps you from getting caught up in your thoughts and allowing them to run away from you.
And that’s the point for mindfulness – to notice and acknowledge your thoughts when they wander and then to bring them back to your focal point. If you’re not self-regulating your attention, then you’re not really practicing mindfulness.
Being Present With Curiosity, Openness, and Awareness
The second part of the definition above involves curiosity, openness, and acceptance while in the present moment. This nonjudgmental way of being in the present moment is what helps you bring more of your subconscious out into the open. And it also encourages openness and acceptance of others (something that’s important for leaders to be able to do).
If you believe there’s a “right” or “wrong” way of thinking (or have negative judgments about your thoughts and feelings), then you won’t be open to exploring them. And that likely means ignoring and pushing them down instead of processing through them and getting past them. Part of the beauty of being mindful is what happens as a result of it: you’re more likely to work through difficult emotions, feelings, fears, and beliefs so that you can let go and move on.
And bonus: becoming a more mindful leader will empower you to be more open to – and understanding of – other people’s feelings and thoughts. Which will positively impact your ability to motivate, inspire and influence.
Common Misconceptions, Myths & Misunderstandings About Mindfulness
Although there’s a lot of information about mindfulness and it’s benefits, I still find that many professionals don’t believe it works or falsely believe that it won’t work for them. This is due to some common misconceptions about what mindfulness is, how to use it, and how it works.
Here are a 5 common misunderstandings about mindfulness that I would like to dispel:
Mindfulness Myth #1: Mindfulness is woo-woo.
Although it’s not the panacea of happiness and positivity some like to claim (what is?), there are numerous science-backed benefits to mindfulness. Besides, what’s woo-woo about being able to self-regulate your emotions? Or in being present, open, aware and curious? [Hint: nothing].
Do some people practice it in woo-woo ways? Of course. But there are many ways to practice mindfulness. You get to choose which type of practice feels right to you.
Mindfulness Myth #2: You don’t have time to practice mindfulness.
Most people who believe they don’t have time to practice mindfulness incorrectly think that mindfulness is about meditating for long periods of time. Although meditation is one way to practice mindfulness, it’s not the only way. And you don’t have to spend an hour – or even 30 minutes – meditating to get benefits (you can actually meditate in a couple of minutes).
See below for several mindfulness exercises that can be done in couple of minutes.
[Recommended Reading: How To Relax Your Mind (Even When Busy)].
Mindfulness Myth #3: You’re not good at clearing your mind, so can’t meditate.
Meditation is NOT about clearing your mind. When you meditate, it’s expected that your mind will wander. That’s when the self-regulation of attention kicks in. All you have to do is acknowledge that your mind has wandered and bring your attention back to your focal point.
Part of the benefit of meditation is the act of noticing that your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back to your focal point. So, instead of thinking you’re doing it wrong focus on the fact that what’s happening is supposed to. You’re in the process of retraining your mind to be more present.
Mindfulness Myth #4: Mindfulness sounds complicated and yet another thing you have to add to your to-do list.
There’s nothing exotic or complicated about being mindful. It’s something you already do (although probably not well if you don’t practice it intentionally). Mindfulness isn’t about adding more to your plate – it’s really a mental shift in how you live and a way of being.
As noted above, (1) your brain already has the capacity to be present and self-regulate and (2) most mindfulness exercises can be done in a matter of minutes. Some of the exercises below can actually be done while doing things you already do. So they don’t add anything to your to-do list.
It’s time to stop using this as an excuse not to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness Myth #5: Mindfulness is about changing your beliefs.
Some people I come across believe that the point of mindfulness is to change your beliefs. That’s just not true.
What mindfulness helps you do is to become more aware of your beliefs, thoughts, fears, and feelings. And then you choose what to do with those. Including whether you want to change your beliefs.
You don’t need to change who you are or how you behave to be mindful. That doesn’t mean that mindfulness won’t affect you in a positive way (it will). But again, it’s you who determines what happens.
Why Use Mindfulness (For Leaders Especially)?
Incorporating mindfulness into your life will benefit you in many ways. Here are my top 5 reasons why it’s important for leaders to be more mindful:
Benefit #1: Mindfulness decreases emotional reactions and enhances thoughtful response.
Mindfulness helps you to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, so that you can process them and not be held hostage by them. It actually trains your brain to be less emotionally reactive and to instead calm down so that you can think more clearly.
This will will result in a more thoughtful response and stop you from lashing out in frustration, anger, or fear. Clearly this will help you be a better leader.
This Viktor Frankl quote gets to the heart of this concept:
“Between stimulus and response there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Mindfulness gives you the power to choose.
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Benefit #2: Mindfulness will help you be more open and accepting.
Part of the practice of mindfulness involves being open, curious, and accepting (and to stay away from judgment). This is an important leadership quality.
As a leader, you must be open to the ideas and opinions of others. And for people to challenge your ideas.
Not only that, but it will enable you to have empathy and be a more intuitive leader. You’ll understand other people’s beliefs, emotions and motivations. That doesn’t mean that you’ll agree with them. But merely being empathetic goes a long way to creating a better culture.
This quality will help you build trust.
Benefit #3: Mindfulness will teach you to be more present in the moment.
The practice of mindfulness accentuates being present in the moment. To pay attention to not just what’s going on within you, but also to your bodily sensations and to the people and environment around you.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from prospective and new clients is that they want to be more present – both at work and at home. They feel like their mind often wanders, which makes them less productive and makes them feel less connected to those around them. And that’s not good for leadership.
Mindfulness helps to train your brain to be more present and aware of your current environment. Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will help you to become more aware when your mind wanders and to refocus quickly. And it also helps you to stay more focused in the first place.
Benefit #4: Mindfulness will get you out of auto-pilot so that you can enjoy life more.
One of the benefits of mindfulness I’ve been most surprised by is how much it’s helped me enjoy the little things. What I used to take for granted – and might not have even noticed – I now pay closer attention to. This has helped me to see my life (and my place in the world) differently. And it’s made my life more enjoyable.
There’s something about noticing the beauty in other people and our natural environment that keeps things in perspective. This helps you to keep a more positive outlook and is a natural stress and anxiety manager.
Don’t underestimate the impact this can have on your leadership ability, as it will inspire others to want to follow you.
Benefit #5: Mindfulness stops your stress response, makes you more aware of stress triggers, and increases resiliency to stress.
There are science-backed benefits to utilizing certain mindfulness practices when it comes to reduction and prevention of stress. First, note that all of the previous 4 benefits will reduce your stress and anxiety levels. Being more accepting, open, and present while being less reactive and in auto-pilot have obvious stress-reducing benefits.
But there’s more to it than that. A regular mindfulness practice lowers your stress response in the amygdala. When you go into fight or flight mode, it’s difficult to get out of it without invoking mindfulness practices. In fact, it’s likely that you already utilize mindfulness for this purpose without realizing it through slow breathing, journaling, or tensing and relaxing your muscles.
Mindfulness also helps you to prevent stress by becoming more aware of triggers. Finally, mindfulness meditation has proven benefits for more quickly bouncing back from stressful events (called stress resiliency).
Mindfulness For Leaders: Quick Exercises To Become A More Mindful Leader
Now that you know the benefits of using mindfulness for leaders, it’s time to figure out what mindfulness activities to begin with.
When it comes to using mindfulness for leaders, you’ll want exercises that provide the benefits listed above while being quick and easy to implement. Because there’s only so much time in the day (and the last thing you need is to add more to your plate).
When it comes to getting started with mindfulness, I recommend you try 5 types of activities:
- Mindful noticing.
- Mindful awareness of thoughts/feelings.
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Mindful journaling.
Let’s break each of these stellar mindfulness for leaders exercises down…
Meditation is the most recognized form of mindfulness. Unfortunately for many, it’s also the most daunting. There’s something about sitting still and trying to focus on one thing that feels strange (even scary). But it isn’t – all you need to do is try something simple.
Even better is that you can practice meditation actively while exercising (such as when walking, running, swimming, doing yoga, or riding a bike). You don’t have to be seated to meditate. And there are numerous ways to meditate. You might focus on your breath, something you hear or something you feel. You can be silent or say a mantra. And you can even create an image within your mind as part of your meditation.
Getting Started: A Simple Meditation
If you’ve never before meditated, I recommend starting with a simple breath meditation:
- Go somewhere that is quiet and where you can relax. Do NOT take your phone or turn any electronics on.
- Set a timer for however long you want to meditate. You can go for just 5 minutes if you’ve never done it before. I recommend building up to 10-12 minutes on a regular basis.
- Sit comfortably. You don’t have to sit on the floor if you don’t want to. Just be sure that you’re comfortable, your spine is straight and you’re stable.
- Straighten your spine naturally. Rest your head and shoulders comfortably and sit naturally straight. The point is to not slouch (not to be stiff and uncomfortable).
- Rest your arms parallel to your upper body, with your hands in a comfortable position on top of your legs. This will help you be more natural, comfortable, and not too stiff.
- Close your eyes or gaze slightly downward (and slightly drop your chin). You don’t have to close your eyes (although you can if you want to).
- Start with a simple breath meditation by focusing on your breathing. Pay attention to how it feels going in and out of your nose, throat, or chest. Or count your breaths in and out to 10 (and start over). Pick one thing to focus on and go with it.
- Any time you realize that your mind has wandered, notice and acknowledge it. You can say a word inside your head such as “wandered” if you want. Then, bring your attention back to your breath (whatever you were focusing on before) and start over again.
- Keep doing this over and over until done.
#2: Mindful Noticing
Mindful noticing will increase your aware of your surroundings and your bodily sensations. And it will help train your mind to be more present and to notice the small things in life.
To mindfully notice, take time to focus on one specific thing while doing a regular activity. You could pay attention to something you see or hear while walking. Or to what you smell while cooking. It can be anything.
To help you get started, here are two mindful noticing exercises I recommend:
- Mindfully eat. For the first 5 minutes of a meal (or even longer if you want), pay close attention to what you’re eating. How does it smell, taste, look, and feel? Appreciate your food when on the plate and each bite. Chew slowly and enjoy yourself.
- Mindfully walk. Take a walk and pay close attention to what you see, hear, smell, and sense. Name the colors and textures that you see. Pick up a leaf or a blade of grass and really notice it. Don’t label or categorize but instead try to view everything as though you’re a young child. Any time you notice your mind has wandered, bring your mind back to the present and keep going.
#3: Mindful Awareness of Feelings & Thoughts
Mindful awareness exercises are designed to increase your self-awareness of thoughts and feelings. Both of you and of others. This is important because part of what makes an effective leader is the ability to:
- Effectively manage your emotions.
- Understand the emotions and motivations of others.
- Influence others positively.
This is called emotional intelligence. The good news is that most mindfulness activities will improve your emotional intelligence over time.
I have two exercises to get you started.
Mindful Awareness Exercise #1: Name Your Thoughts
Stop and name the thoughts and feelings that you’re having throughout the day. You might want to set a calendar reminder to do this (I recommend doing it 2-3 times per day).
Get curious about how you feel and what you’re thinking (and remember not to judge yourself). You might want to keep a journal to record what you find.
Over time, this will help you to become more aware of what’s going on inside of you (and better able to deal with negative thoughts).
Mindful Awareness Exercise #2: Identify Emotions of Strangers
Observe strangers and identify the feelings and emotions they’re having. Pay attention to their behavior, speech patterns, voice inflection, and even body language. You can do this anywhere – at a stoplight, in a restaurant, when standing in line for coffee, and on the subway.
At first, you might find this difficult. But through regular practice, it will get easier to identify the right emotions. And it will translate into your relationships with other people.
#4: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Muscles typically tighten when you’re stressed and anxious, which is why it’s important to become aware of when (and where) this happens and relieve the tension. But it’s not just about relieving the immediate tension. This exercise will also help you become more self-aware of stress before it gets out of hand.
To practice muscle relaxation:
- Sit comfortably or lie down.
- Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply through you nose for a minute.
- Tense the muscles in your feet and count to 10. Then, slowly release that tension for a count of 30.
- Next, move up to your calves and do the same thing. Keep going through various muscle groups throughout your body until you reach your head.
- Don’t forget to keep breathing throughout!
#5: Mindful Journaling
Did you know that writing down what’s stressing you out can help reduce stress levels? The reason this works is because it helps you to calm down, organize your thoughts, and process through your emotions. And that often leads your mind to finding potential solutions that might not have been so obvious before.
Here’s how to get started:
Set a timer for 10 minutes (5 minutes works too).
Briefly write down what’s going on that has you feeling stressed, frustrated, anxious and so on.
Ask the following questions and jot down your answers:
- What triggered your stress?
- How do you feel about it?
- What do you believe about the situation or what led to it?
- How do you want to deal with it?
- What fears are showing up?
Keep going until your timer goes off.
Become A Mindful Leader (By Using These Mindfulness For Leaders Exercises)
So, you’ve learned that using mindfulness for leaders isn’t woo-woo, has science-backed benefits and doesn’t take up much time. I’ve even given you some simple exercises to get you started.
Use the techniques above to become a more mindful leader. You’ll be less stressed, more present and more empathetic. Which is a win-win because not only will you benefit from it but so will your team and your organization.
Before you go be sure to download 5-Minute Stress Solutions, a step-by-step guide of 8 proven strategies for (1) reducing + managing stress, (2) taking control of your thoughts, and (3) increasing mental resilience. Grab your FREE guide here: