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ATD Blog

Zen, Leadership, and Mind on Full

Thursday, March 21, 2019

An earlier post, “Zen and the Art of Leadership”, explored how key levers of the Dao, or Way, correlate to positive leadership practice. It highlighted elements such as heart, other-centrism, balance, discovery, and the inherent comedy of reconciling setbacks. One’s journey tends to be a blend of discipline and conscious forward momentum.

But the current spotlight on workplace soft skills, emotional intelligence, and multiple definitions of what constitutes mindfulness presents an opportunity to explore one essential practice not included in my earlier Zen article: meditation.

In leadership, at a minimum, meditation should be a reflection on the well-being of others. This exploration serves primarily as a follow-up, a reminder to slow down or take a step back, pivot, or turn forward. We get trapped in messiness that sustains disequilibrium because a more meaningful step forward requires far more work than we’re willing to invest or because a better step forward risks disrupting personal posture or the status quo.

However, this is not a guide on how to meditate nor an argument of scientific proof of effectiveness. While formal, guided practice is useful and easily found, meditation is instinctive. And while various practices have mounted a 21st-century resurgence, the discussion about possible benefits of mindfulness exercise has been popular in Western circles at least since Harvard’s 1970s transcendental meditation research.

Thirty-five years ago during graduate studies, I researched and wrote about metacognition, essentially the degrees of self, task, and contextual awareness and regulation readers bring to a page of writing. The best example of a metacognitive breakdown is reaching the end of this paragraph and realizing, “I just viewed all those words, but really didn’t digest them because my mind was elsewhere.” So you go back to the top of the passage, and with a bit more focus this time, absorption occurs. Other examples include leaving home with the door unlocked or stove burner on.

How we metacognitively regulate our conscious presence, or not let unconscious triggers (mostly preoccupations and emotions) disrupt our attention, parallels mindfulness. As mindfulness expert Shamash Alindina states, “Mindfulness is, above all, about being aware and awake rather than operating unconsciously.”


Practically, at work, lack of mindfulness or metacognition translates to dubious results, such as not saying thank you, lack of effective modeling, micromanaging, pretending to multitask, fatigue, burnout, missing or skipping meetings, distrust, and blaming, or the cult of extreme productivity. Or as advertising executives at Leo Burnett conclude, “You can’t burn hot all the time. Conscious leadership creates a space to pause, breathe, and be authentic in helping your people move forward.”

However, entrenched skeptics may still scoff. A one-shot emotional intelligence or mindfulness course might enter the curriculum, providing a brief balm to the day’s stress. However, absent disciplined practice, the benefits rapidly decay. Any meaningful, sustained habit improvement is unlikely without accompanying performance accountability or improvement of the workplace.

To further persuade the naysayers, let’s explore caveats: what mindful exercise isn’t, what it doesn’t do.

  • A Fast Company article explains that “any efforts to change the way you work or behave may fall flat if they aren’t true to who you really are,” and similarly, “any lasting change is unlikely if there isn’t consciousness about why change matters and how it matters to each person.”
  • Research suggests mindfulness’s effect is not appreciably different from exercising, muscle relaxation techniques, or doing nothing. It isn’t a cure-all.
  • Likened to “a saucepan under a hole in the ceiling to catch leaking water,” mindfulness doesn't fix underlying factors contributing to stress.
  • There's no way to quiet your mind. That’s not the goal.”

On the other hand, we should welcome tools that increase awareness. Here are some reasons why mindfulness should be taught as a daily routine:

  • Penn State and others concur that multitasking is a myth; case in point, the sheer number of times we reach for our phones suggests we are voluntary slaves to technology.
  • Although the research jury is still out, mindfulness may increase gray matter density while diminishing stress and anxiety.
  • Daniel Goleman (of emotional intelligence fame) and Wired make arguments for mindfulness as a quieting agent to fend off negative vibes.
  • Michigan State School of Social Work emphasizes that when a supervisor’s own resources are low or depleted, awareness and ability to work with staff to help relieve stressors is not possible.

For more information, the Mindfulness Initiative builds strong arguments for mindfulness as an essential skill, including myths, case studies, and needs.

A useful start to contemplating one’s mindfulness is by completing the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, or an extended version, the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire. And in high-stress moments, very pragmatic suggestions are found in “How to Be More Mindful at Work.”

Of course, learning a new way is like learning to skate. At the end of “Ommmm,” enlightenment is not the goal. Balance is, through heightened presence of heart and mind. This is not to say formidable messiness does not disrupt the process. Complacency, toxic behaviors, manipulation, mediocrity, and favoritism can truly foil progress; but better leaders constantly assess their own missed steps to reverse unproductive norms, disengagement, and disheartened employees. Empowering everyone’s full presence is integral to organizational and personnel uplift. Simply put, organizational culture suffers when leaders are not present, whether the absence is conscious but unattended or from inability. Besides, one of the reasons why workers hate work may be because we fail to take a step back in order to propel a more balanced step forward.

About the Author

Vincent Miholic serves with the Louisiana Division of Administration’s OHR Organizational Learning and Development Team. His doctoral studies were conducted at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Prior to his current role, he has served in wide-ranging post-secondary and secondary administrative and teaching roles.

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This is very helpful with great references.
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Recommended, this ATD companion piece by Devin Hughes:
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I would love if you would add your favorite, applicable zen saying or similar. Kshanti, Vince
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