Introduction to Mindful Leadership

Hello, I’m Nicola Richardson from The People Mentor and in today’s episode of my podcast, I’m talking about mindful leadership. 

Think about a time when you have been fully present; where you weren’t distracted by to-do lists, distracting thoughts, or judgements. Where you were just there, fully aware, taking everything in, and even though your mind felt slowed down, you knew at that moment that you had absolute clarity of thought. 

What if you were able to take this sense of clarity and peace into your day, your interactions with others, and your decision-making? 

Can you see how it would make you much more effective and compassionate as a leader?

I recently read a journal article about the positive impact of mindfulness on leadership.

In it, the authors talked about how after being introduced to mindfulness, leaders felt that they developed the capacity to manage pressures and deal with difficult situations better, as well as being able to give themselves permission to not be in complete control. 

Not only that, the managers said it strengthened their ability to stand back, take time to respond, and react more thoughtfully, which had a positive impact on how they communicated with and managed others. 

As well as improving effectiveness and relationships with others, mindfulness helped leaders take better care of themselves, for example taking time out to think and reflect as well as being more intentional about their work-life balance. 

So, as you can see, there’s a huge potential for mindfulness to transform leaders, their teams, and organisations as a whole. 

So, let’s look at some of the fundamentals of mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. In Buddhism, mindfulness is not a means to an end; it’s an essential part of a journey towards enlightenment, and the fundamentals are awareness, presence, and acceptance. 

Awareness is having the self-knowledge and ability to focus your attention on your inner processes and experiences. Acceptance is the ability to observe what is happening and accept that this is how it is rather than trying to judge, avoid, or think that something should be different. Presence is something that many of us struggle with in the course of our busyness, and it’s all about being in the moment, in the here and now, not dwelling on the past, worrying about the future, or thinking about our to-do lists. 

If you have heard of mindfulness, you’ll have probably seen it associated with meditation. It can be practised while meditating. But the goal of mindfulness is not to ‘turn off’ your thoughts, the goal is to help you be here now, right where you are, without judgement. 

The clinical psychologist Jade Wu says about mindfulness “It is more of a philosophy than an activity. It’s an idea: to simply be here and now, without judgment. You don’t need to be secluded or follow a ritual during a specific time to practice mindfulness. You could be washing your car, having a snack, jogging around the park, playing with your dog, singing in the shower… all of these activities can be done in a mindful way by being fully present in the moment.”

Translate that to your work day, and this could mean taking a moment to be present before you go into a meeting or a performance review or taking a 10-minute mindful walk at lunchtime. 

If we go back to the point about mindfulness helping you be more self-aware, this is what can help set you apart as a truly effective leader. 

While technical and strategic skills are undoubtedly important for leaders, the self-awareness that breeds emotional intelligence is, too. 

Researcher Daniel Goleman identified five components of emotional intelligence: motivation, self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, and empathy.

So, what do these look like in practice?

Motivation might be leaders leading by example, being inspiring, and not being afraid to deal with the difficult stuff. 

Self-awareness can look like being confident, honest, direct, and consistent.

Self-regulation may be when leaders act in ways that are decisive and intuitive.

Being a good communicator who is approachable and listens to others is a good indicator of a leader with social skills and empathy leaders who identify with their team members’ struggles and are able to influence people because people feel like ‘they get me.’ 

Going further into this, let’s look at how you, as a leader, might use emotional intelligence at work. 

Successful and effective leadership is about being able to lead yourself, lead others, and lead the organisation. 

In leading themselves, emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and they are always trying to improve. 

They work to overcome their weaknesses through pursuing personal development, learning new skills, or empowering others to use theirs. 

In addition, emotionally intelligent leaders always have goals to work towards and can appreciate that they may meet some obstacles along the way. 

This means they have to find ways around these obstacles and know that it won’t always go right, but they can pick themselves up should things go wrong. 

Emotionally intelligent leaders know that staying calm and positive under pressure is key, and that the journey of mastering leadership of themselves is not a quick fix but a lifelong journey. 

In leading others, emotionally intelligent leaders know that this involves discovering and utilising their peoples’ potential. This involves understanding what motivates them and what matters to them, and being willing to listen and demonstrate empathy. This is particularly important when it comes to having difficult conversations. 

And finally, in the leadership of an organisation, an emotionally intelligent leader knows how to inspire others and communicate a vision to everyone else. The overall goal is more important than personal ambition-emotionally intelligent leaders don’t gain success by fear or force, they gain it by influencing, inspiring, and building good relationships.  

Speaking of building relationships, good communication is what good relationships are built on, and mindfulness comes into this as well. 

Mindful communication is about thinking before you speak and making a conscious choice about the words you use and the way you deliver them. You are also mindful of your intention and that your expectations may or may not be met. And yes, this applies even to difficult situations. 

When something needs to be addressed and there’s a chance that emotions will be heightened and things will get out of control, mindful communication can keep things in check.

Say you’re in a meeting with someone of equal rank, and they verbally attack or reprimand you. While it would be difficult for anyone to remain calm in this situation, if you practice mindful communication, you will be aware enough to not take it personally and move the conversation to something more productive which gets to the real root of the issue. 

It’s about hearing what is really being said, and that means listening mindfully as well as speaking mindfully. Listening mindfully can be difficult for lots of reasons, including: 

a tendency to get defensive or jump to conclusions, 

a habit of interrupting to get your point across, 

wanting to bring about a quick fix to whatever is happening,

hearing what you think the person is saying rather than what they are actually saying.

I’ve been guilty of all of these at one point or another, and the best way to listen more mindfully is to try and ‘catch’ yourself doing them. When you do, try your best to come back into the moment and listen with curiosity and without judgment. 

Remember, the aim is to listen to understand, not to interject!

To communicate mindfully, you need to slow down and take the time to think, which is challenging for the best of us. 

How many times has someone asked how you are, and you’ve automatically replied ‘I’m fine!” without any thought about how you actually are? 

If you checked in with yourself and slowed down, would you still think you were fine?

If you can’t slow down enough to be present and aware of yourself, you won’t be able to be present with others either. 

By slowing down and being aware of how we are in the moment, we will be able to speak and listen mindfully, enhancing our connection with others. It’s something that’s definitely worth working on because there are so many benefits. 

There’ll be more engagement and collaboration in the workplace because all parties will feel heard and respected. 

It will be easier to resolve conflict as you’ll be more aware of how you react and respond.

You’ll have more empathy because you take the time to listen to and understand others-and that will have a knock-on effect on how effective and respected you are as a leader. 

That leads me nicely onto the next thing I wanted to talk about, and that’s building empathy in your team and the impact it can have on performance. 

Empathy in the workplace has never been more important. In the last few years, we’ve had a pandemic and a cost of living crisis which have sent stress and anxiety skyrocketing. 

Add to that work-related and personal pressures, and the result is overwhelm, disengagement, and ultimately, lost productivity. 

Empathy can make the difference when people are struggling. 

When was the last time you asked your team members how they were?

A simple gesture like this can be very powerful and can go a long way to building an empathetic workplace. 

Why is this important?

Well, studies have shown that:

Empathy encourages loyalty. If team members feel valued, supported, and understood, this builds trust and in turn, loyalty. 

It also increases engagement. Showing that you care about your team members’ wellbeing makes it more likely that they’ll be invested in their work and want to go the extra mile. 

If there’s a sense of empathy that starts with you at the top, it will have a knock-on effect on your team, reducing conflicts, and improving collaboration. 

So building an empathetic culture brings with it a lot of benefits, and it all begins with being able to recognise and appreciate each other. 

With that in mind, here are some exercises you can try to build empathy in your team. 

The first is called ‘The Appreciation Round’

Get your team members together and taking turns, ask each person to complete the following sentence about a colleague:

“What I appreciate about you, (name) is…”

The more specific and detailed the answers the better. 

The second exercise is called ‘Complete the Sentence’ and this can be done verbally or in writing. 

Ask each person to complete these sentences:

“I made a difference recently when I…”

“I show up every day because…”

“Sometimes, I struggle with…”

This gives team members space for reflection but also helps them get to know each other on a deeper level. 

The last exercise I want to share is another one that will help team members get to know things about each other. 

Ask everyone to stand in a circle and ask them to step in when they agree with a statement. After each statement, they step back to the original circle. 

You might use statements like…

Step in if you prefer the beach to the countryside.

Step in if you have not had the chance to exercise in the past month. 

Step in if you often feel like you aren’t enough.

You get the idea. You can start with easy statements then move onto statements which require people to be that bit more vulnerable. Just a note, if you are doing this with a remote team, you can ask them to raise their hand if they agree with a statement. 

Let me know if you give any of these a try; they are simple and effective ways to encourage trust and recognition, and build empathy in your team. 

Where there’s an empathetic culture, there’s also resilience, and a resilient team starts with you.

The last several years have tested our resilience, to say the least.

But in the face of challenges, whether they are huge like the pandemic or the day-to-day challenges that being a leader brings, how do you remain hopeful and adapt, and keep moving forward?

While it’s true that some people are naturally more resilient than others, resilience is something we can develop. 

Here are some resilience tips I’ve picked up over the course of my 30+ years in management:

Accept change as an inevitable part of business and life. Change can feel threatening, but instead, welcome it as a challenge to be worked through or an opportunity to grow. 

The next tip is to think about what you have accomplished and been through so far…and you’ve survived! The wins, the struggles, and the failures are all part of the story of how you’ve got where you are today. 

Surrounding yourself with people whose perspective you can trust is also important. They can help you see things differently or bring you back down to earth when you’ve gone into a spiral of stressing and worrying. 

Then there’s the need to take a pause every now and then, whether it’s a simple time out or a few moments of reflection. This is particularly useful if overwhelm hits. Either take a short walk in the fresh air or just pause and take some deep breaths where you are to restore calm. It can also help to journal at some point about whatever felt overwhelming – it’s a great opportunity to learn more about yourself and the situation. 

Write down what was happening, who was around, how you felt (emotionally and physically), and what you think was at the root of how you were feeling. 

Last, but certainly not least, one of the most important ways you can build resilience is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Go back to basics and focus on getting a good night’s sleep, exercising regularly, eating well, and drinking plenty of water. 

Then look at your work-life balance – try your best to disconnect from work and be present with your friends and family. Easier said than done, I know, but you don’t become more resilient by constantly pushing yourself beyond your limits – no matter what society says!

These tips won’t make you more resilient overnight; you need to be consistent, and you also need to make peace with the fact that you won’t always have all the answers and won’t always know how to react in a given situation or deal with a challenge, but that’s okay. 

It’s just another opportunity to learn and grow. 

So I mentioned there that you won’t always have the answers, and that’s true-especially when it comes to decision-making. 

There will inevitably be times where you have to make decisions as a leader-and they certainly won’t all be straightforward. 

How, then, can you make better decisions more easily?

I recommend leaning on mindfulness. 

Strong decision-making skills are a must for leaders, and the stakes can be very high. 

Some huge corporations, including Apple, Google, Nike, and Procter & Gamble, are introducing mindfulness into their businesses.

And there’s a very good reason why.

Mindfulness brings the awareness that’s needed for good decision-making. 

When you are present and conscious of your thoughts, making decisions becomes a more thoughtful exercise rather than a knee-jerk reaction. 

Mindfulness research has found that being mindful:

Helps with creative problem-solving 

Helps you consider the ethical issues involved

Improves your ability to recognise what you don’t know

Helps you see what the unintended consequences of your options might be

So you can see how it might help when you have to make those crucial decisions. 

However it’s one thing doing a mindfulness meditation on your team away day and thinking you’ve cracked it, and quite another to be able to actually use it to make better decisions. 

Here are some helpful pointers on how to make more mindful decisions. 

Firstly, slow down. I know it feels like this is not always possible, but taking time to reflect can give you the clarity you need to see the way forward. 

Secondly, accept that making important decisions is not easy, and nor should it be if the stakes are high. Give yourself time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings about the decision you need to make. 

Thirdly, don’t feel pressured to make a decision that goes against your ethics or values-consider the options that sit well with you, even if they aren’t the most popular. 

Next, I think it’s also important to listen to what your gut says. Sometimes, your gut, combined with your experience, gives you a feeling about a certain course of action-be sure to listen to it. 

And finally, breathe and try to trust the process.

Calm your mind, take a deep breath, and forget about making the ‘wrong’ decision. 

Even if things don’t turn out as you hoped, you can learn a valuable lesson going forward. 

Making decisions is just one source of stress for leaders; for many, ongoing uncertainty, the pressures of their role, and burnout have a really negative impact on their wellbeing and their effectiveness in terms of focus and productivity. 

It’s not possible to completely get rid of stress (if only!), so the thing to focus on is developing the skills that will mitigate its effects. 

Adopting a regular mindfulness practice can help reduce the effects of stress. 

It doesn’t have to involve lengthy cross-legged meditations, and you don’t have to empty your mind of thoughts. 

As we’re nearing the end of the podcast, here’s a short meditation exercise I’d like you to try right now. 

*here, you can either read the following or direct them to the meditation at:

Let’s begin by taking a moment to sit comfortably. Let your body settle, lengthening your spine, softening your shoulders, softening your jaw. You can close your eyes or just gaze softly down past the end of your nose. 

Breathe normally. Take a moment to notice where you’re breathing from. Are you breathing from your throat, are you breathing from your chest, are you breathing from your stomach? 

If you’re not breathing from your stomach, I invite you to try and take deeper breaths so you can feel your stomach rise and fall.

Let’s use this time to set the tone for your leadership for today. 

Think of this as a new day for your leadership, perhaps even saying in your mind, “This is a new day for my leadership. I am a walking, breathing manifestation of the vision, mission, and purpose of those that I serve. I hold this responsibility with integrity.”

Take a deep breath; breathe in, and breathe out. 

Now, just sit with this question: How do I want to be as a leader today? What are the qualities I would like to embody?

Maybe as you inhale and exhale, you can see those qualities as words in your mind’s eye. 

Maybe it’s kindness, empathy, confidence, wisdom, courage, or thoughtfulness. 

Breathe in and breathe out. 

See yourself walking in your power responsibly. 

Imagine those positive qualities being present in every interaction, every meeting, and every space you’re in.

Embrace this moment of reflection. 

Breathe in gratitude for the opportunities you have as a leader, and breathe out purpose. 

Today, let your breath be an anchor you can focus on as you go out and lead with confidence and inner peace. 

Take one final deep breath in and out. 

If your eyes are closed, bat your eyelids open.

Wiggle your fingers and toes as you can back into the room, fully present. 

Whether you already practice meditation or you would like to get started, there are some wonderful resources on or the headspace app where you can find meditations, breathing exercises, stress busting resources for individuals and teams, and much more. 

We’ve come to the end of this episode of The People Mentor podcast and I hope you’ve managed to get some insights and inspiration about what it means to be a mindful leader. 

Maybe you’ll even feel inspired to give meditation a go! 

See you next time. 

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