What is Mindful Leadership?

A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the services of others.

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Is there such a thing as “mindful leadership”? Can this training of the mind be an ally for the increasingly complex challenges of leading? And, what is “mindful leadership”?

The word “mindful” in everyday language is not new. It is often used as a warning about something that may be dangerous, or unexpected. For example, one might be told to be mindful of the foreign traffic rules. But as it applies to leaders, being mindful is less about paying attention to external elements, and more about paying attention to what is happening “inside.”

What is Mindful Leadership?

The single most important factor in being a successful leader is to “know oneself.” Not in some “new agey” way, but to truly understand enough about our mind, our reactivity, our “filters” to be able to use that information to make us more effective, more compassionate and more innovative. This work of cultivating our capacity to know ourselves can be difficult, but it is the difference between an auto-pilot existence and being there for your life.

A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the services of others.

Leadership presence is a tangible quality. It requires full and complete nonjudgmental attention in the present moment. Those around a mindful leader see and feel that presence.

Once, a friend of mine decided to attend a local rally to see if he could get an important healthcare question answered by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Of course, when he arrived, he faced a teeming, screaming crowd, but he maneuvered his way to the police barricade and waited. Clinton soon arrived and began walking along the barricade shaking hands. As my friend stretched out his hand and Clinton took it, he yelled out his question. In that moment, the candidate stopped, faced him, and responded to the question. Later my friend told me, “In those few moments when we spoke together, it seemed as though Clinton had nothing else on his mind. It was as if there was no other person there.” He felt heard and respected. That’s leadership presence: you give your full attention to what you’re doing, and others know it.

Leadership presence is powerful. In your own life, you can probably recall times when you experienced leadership presence, either in yourself or someone else. It might have been in a one-on-one conversation, or it might have been in an audience filled with people. Presence can be felt even from far away.

You can undoubtedly recall the much more common experiences when you feel only partially in the room, or you feel the person you’re speaking with is not really there. Like all of us, even when you have every intention to be focused, your mind becomes easily distracted—thinking about the past or the future, and only partially in the present if at all. In those moments, you are not embodying the innate capacity everyone possesses to be present. Why is that?

What do we know about being present?

As a beginning, you might recall a moment when you experienced full awareness in a situation. When there seemed to be nothing else but whatever you were noticing. This might have been a momentous moment like the birth of your child. In that moment, time seemed to stand still, and nothing else existed but the warmth of that miraculous being softly sleeping in your arms. You were not distracted by the to-do list or the noises in the hall. Your full attention—mind, body, and heart—was completely absorbed in that moment.

Leadership presence is not only critical for us as individuals but also has a ripple effect on those around us: the community we live in, and potentially the world.

Or it might have been an ordinary moment, the kind often overlooked and not particularly celebrated. You may have lingered to notice a sunset. Perhaps you recall that it stopped you dead in your tracks and held you in its beauty, all of you, for what seemed like forever but in clock time might have been just a couple of seconds. In those seconds, you became aware of the shades of pink and orange, the intricate play of light and shadow, your body’s absorption of the waning energy of nature, and the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself.

Maybe you were at the coffee shop in the morning, your mind racing through the details of the upcoming day, and you looked up from your coffee and actually noticed a piece of art on the wall or the warm, comforting aroma of the shop. Whatever it was, it interrupted the busy mind, and you were living that moment of your life more fully.

Such moments—when we fully inhabit our bodies and our senses are at work on more than an internal storyline, checklist, or rehearsed conversation—are what give life true meaning. Beyond that, for those of us who hold positions of influence, the ability to be present, to embody leadership presence, is not only critical for us as individuals, but it also has a ripple effect on those around us: our families and friends, the organization we work within, the community we live in, and potentially the world at large. Just as a pebble thrown into a still pond can create ripples spreading throughout the whole of the pond, so too can the cultivation of leadership presence go far beyond the effect it has on us alone.