Lessons Learned from the Mindful Leader Summit

Last week, I attended the Mindful Leader Summit in Washington, DC. This conference brought together researchers, practitioners, and companies leading the way in organizational mindfulness initiatives. I found myself walking away both excited and cautious about the term mindfulness.

lesson-learnedEighty percent of US adults are mentally and emotionally not flourishing (National Institute of Health). This reality has kicked off a mindfulness revolution and many companies are searching for ways to shift these numbers in their organizations. British neuroscientist, Dr. Anil Seth kicked off the conference with how science and philosophy are studying how the brain creates self-awareness. Google, Microsoft, EnPro and Novartis shared their evolving mindfulness programs. Kristin Welsh-Simpson presented the mindfulness program she organically created for the US Senate and its employees. The New York City Department of Education shared its first-year district-wide mindfulness initiative. The conference also included mindfulness critics like Dr. David Forbes and Candy Gunther Brown.

First off, the term mindfulness receives a lot of hype these days. And, for some it conjures up negative connotations. What is mindfulness? During the conference I heard references to workplace meditation rooms and classes, centering activities to begin meetings, movement breaks, outdoor retreats to connect as a team in nature, inviting vulnerability, and coaching leaders to be present and grounded. Companies and individuals call it different things, but overall it seems to include activities and practices that help us operate from a more authentic and grounded place.

If you are an employee or HR director looking to build mindfulness into your culture and programming, here are some insights from the conference:

  1. Sustainable Initiatives Start at the Top. Of the large corporations and school districts represented at the conference, there was true buy in from the executive leadership. The New York City Department of Education Superintendent initiated their program, Google, EnPro, and Novartis started with training their leaders and observed “trickle down” effects. Then, they expanded offerings with a broader reach.
  2. Mindfulness may not be the right name. Sustainable initiatives are linked to business priorities and culture, not just part of a wellness program. If a company priority is talent retention, then offering leadership coaching to your managers and directors might be a very effective answer since most people do not leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers. If decreasing employee health costs is a priority, offering leadership and wellness coaching as an employee benefit might be a very effective way to do that. If being on the Best Places to Work list is a priority, invest in your social culture. Set aside time and a budget to offer regular opportunities for employees to connect socially and get to know each other beyond the job.
  3. The research on the effects of mindfulness on leadership and teamwork is very limited. This does not mean the research is not on the way. However, the hype had outpaced the research. Again, this brings up the question of “what falls into the mindfulness category”? I would suggest leaders allow themselves to follow their gut on this one. Do they feel like mindfulness will improve employee performance and well-being? Do the coaches and teachers they bring in align with the values and culture they want to create? And, ask your employees for what they need and want. Empower them with some time and resources to give it a try.
  4. Mindfulness programs must be opt-in. Not everyone embraces mindfulness and may even feel it challenges their beliefs. Many companies are seeing benefits, so offer away. However, allow employees to decide if they are willing to participate.
  5. Personal mindfulness must be paired with social mindfulness. Personal mindfulness puts the onus on the individual to manage their own emotions, behaviors, health, etc. This is very empowering and valuable. However, mindfulness is also about understanding how individual and institutional actions impact the greater organization, community, and global world. This is where social impact comes in. Are you offering opportunities for employees to consider what kind of imprint the company is leaving in the community? Are they inclusive in their leadership and decision-making? Do they seek environmentally sustainable practices? Are they challenging outdated workplace norms? Do they engage employees in community initiatives?

Companies and Practitioners Leading the Way

If you are looking to see what other companies are doing look at EnPro, Google, IBM, NYCDOE and Novartis. They each have approaches that reflect their company culture and all took a patient approach with their programming. If you are just starting out or are looking to make the case for a program at your company, these examples may give you some evidence for your case.

Practitioners Supporting the Movement

There were a number of practitioners at the conference offering expertise in mindfulness. Marc Campbell, serves as the performance coach for the Washington Nationals and focuses on peak performance. Cara Bradley is a movement specialist and makes the case for increasing “flow state” at work through a movement-focused workplace. And, The Kripalu Institute (of which I am a regular visitor) offers year-round on-site courses in all kinds of well-being and personal growth in a retreat setting. Finally, Max Strom focuses on breathwork to reduce stress and anxiety.

At the end of the day, we are all leaders in some way, shape or form. In our families, organizations, community involvement and most importantly, we are the leaders of our own self. Our schools, companies and society can all benefit from a culture that teaches us the tools of self-management, compassion, and connection.



Sara Emhof

Sara Emhof

Sara is a leadership coach and community builder. She works with organizations and schools committed to increasing performance and well-being by providing coaching for existing and emerging leaders and team experiences that build trust, collaboration, and sense of purpose. Learn more or subscribe to her blog at https://saraemhof.com/

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