15 Mindful Leader Development:

  • 1Radboudumc Center for Mindfulness, Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen, Netherlands
  • 2Kalapa Leadership Academy, Cologne, Germany
  • 3Division of Integrative Health Promotion, Coburg University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Coburg, Germany
  • 4Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
  • 5Institute of Medical Psychology, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Munich, Germany

How Leaders Experience the Effects of Mindfulness Training on Leader Capabilities

Introduction

In popular literature, Mindfulness is promoted as an effective leader development tool (Bunting, 2016; Reitz and Chaskalson, 2016; Hougaard and Carter, 2018) and increasingly offered in leader development trainings. Mindfulness has been defined as the state of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2011, p. 291). This state may seem at odds with the main objective of leaders, which is to get results and be future-oriented (Goleman, 2004). Lyddy and Good (2017, p. 1) showed that mindfulness may be applied to goal-directed behavior at work as a way of “being while doing.”

Highly-self aware leaders are highly self-efficacious and more likely to be effective leaders (Day and Dragoni, 2015). Researchers highlight the importance of a leaders’ ability to regulate (negative) emotions. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and manage emotions in self and others, is related to team and leader performance (Ashkanasy and Dasborough, 2003; Ashkanasy and Dorris, 2017). There is an ethical and virtuous aspect to managing emotions for leaders (Brown and Treviño, 2006; Jackson, 2018), a responsibility for acting in a way that causes the least amount of harm for others, grounded in an awareness that leader behaviors are strongly related to followers’ wellbeing, job and life satisfaction (Kelloway et al., 2005) and that both positive and negative emotions of leaders may be contagious.

Leaders need to be able to effectively lead themselves, as well as others. Self-leadership is defined as a set of behavioral and cognitive strategies related to enhanced (individual) performance (Furtner et al., 2013). This includes behavior-focused strategies such as self-goal setting and self-observation and constructive thought patterns such as evaluating beliefs and assumptions. Sampl et al. (2017) showed that a mindfulness-based self-leadership training was effective in improving self-leadership capabilities. Self-leadership is distinct but associated with active leadership styles (Furtner et al., 2013) and improvements in self-leadership aspects are likely to be associated to improvements in leadership style and vice versa.

Given the fast-changing nature of today’s dynamic environment, Nesbit (2012) there is an emphasis to teach leaders the meta-skills needed to continuously develop themselves in a self-guided manner as a critical leadership competency. It remains unclear, how leaders can be trained in self-directed leadership development and thus adapt to increasingly challenging working environments themselves. Mindfulness training may be uniquely positioned to provide leaders with a useful method to engage in continuous self-development by providing them with a practical tool that aids them to gain awareness and manage their own and others’ emotions more effectively.

Mindfulness has been understood as a personal resource (Grover et al., 2017) that might affect leader capabilities through improvements in attention regulation, emotion regulation, and self-regulation (Good et al., 2016) as well as resilience of leaders. Evidence shows that mindfulness is effective to improve a number of health-related conditions including depression, pain, (Goldberg et al., 2018) and stress and burnout in workplace settings (Hülsheger et al., 2013; Lomas et al., 2017). Eighty percent of mindfulness studies set in working environments investigate the impact of mindfulness training using stress or strain as their primary outcome measure (Eby et al., 2017), therefore, the evidence-base to date is mostly limited to health-related outcomes of employees. However, scholars believe that individual mindfulness may be beneficial beyond stress reduction, for example when interacting with others (Glomb et al., 2011; Good et al., 2016) therefore, a leaders’ mindfulness trait was positively related to external ratings of leader-member exchange quality (Reb et al., 2018), aspects of a servant leadership style (Pircher Verdorfer, 2016), and follower well-being (Reb et al., 2014).

Mindfulness Training in Workplace Contexts

How may leaders increase their ability to be mindful? Mindfulness can be developed and refined through the practice of mindfulness (Baer et al., 2006, 2012). Mindfulness trainings are usually include the practice of formal meditative practices and informal mindful activities, such as mindful walking. King and Badham (2018) suggested differing between first-generation and second-generation mindfulness programs.

They described first-generation programs as “individualistic, therapeutic, and primarily instrumental” (King and Badham, 2018, p. 1). These interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) were designed to alleviate stress or symptoms of depression and have been offered in both clinical and non-clinical context. Consequently, the evidence-base around mindfulness interventions is largely inferred from the efficacy and effectiveness of MBSR and MBCT to reduce stress in healthy adults (Fjorback et al., 2011; Eberth and Sedlmeier, 2012; Kuyken et al., 2016; Goldberg et al., 2018).

In workplace and leadership contexts, second-generation mindfulness trainings are gaining in popularity (Shonin et al., 2014; Kersemaekers et al., 2018; King and Badham, 2018). Responding to calls to re-integrate an ethical dimension central to the Buddhist understanding of mindfulness, second-wave mindfulness trainings are secular in nature but they reference Buddhist philosophy more explicitly with the objective “to produce transformational change in practitioners” (King and Badham, 2018, p. 1). To date, the evidence-base for these trainings is limited. Furthermore, the problem remains that leader development trainings in general, and mindfulness-based leader development are often not evaluated (Goleman, 2004).

Materials and Methods

Study Design and Paradigm

We conducted in-depth one-to-one interviews with participants of a Workplace Mindfulness Training (WMT). We chose a qualitative design in order to gain a deeper understanding of participants’ phenomenological experience of this mindfulness training in their workplace contexts and to derive models and hypotheses from the interviews that may be tested in future studies. Our analysis was rooted in a realist paradigm assuming that participants articulated experiences and insights in an honest recount of their experienced reality.

Participants

In this research, our sample consisted of 13 leaders (11 males, 2 females) who had taken part in a 10-week WMT. Participants had a median of 5 years of leadership experience and a mean age of 48 years. They were employed in six different organizations and had diverse professional backgrounds (six worked in technology, two in the chemical industry and five in higher or postgraduate education).

We invited a total of 143 employees and leaders to a larger qualitative study that included employees and leaders. Out of this larger sample, we invited a sub-sample to participate in the interviews who met our inclusion criteria: (1) they had completed a WMT at their organization in the past 6 to 12 months and (2) they currently held a position with leadership responsibilities. A leader was defined as holding a management or supervisory position. Participants were invited to participate on a voluntary basis in this study via an email sent from the trainer of the course; emails were followed up by one of the researchers. We excluded interested participants if they (1) had participated in an abbreviated version of the training or (2) were not currently holding a leadership position. Because leaders and employees were recruited via an email sent to the course organizer, measures of the percentage of non-responses are not available. Participants received no compensation for their participation in the interview.

Intervention

This WMT program named “Working Mind” is a second-generation intervention and as such secular in nature but closely modeled after Buddhist philosophy. The training objective is to transform leader capabilities by providing insights and practical tools to increase self-awareness (view), understand and work with the contents of mind (practice) and engage with followers and teams (action). Its formal structure resembles traditional mindfulness-based interventions, but it has been tailored to meet the needs and demands of employees and leaders in a workplace environment. Compared to traditional and more clinically oriented mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) like MBSR and MBCT, the WMT differs in a number of ways. For example, the WMT has a longer duration requiring participation in two day-long training days in addition to eight 2.5-hour-long sessions and is comprised of content and exercises relevant to leaders and workplace.

The intervention took place in a group setting with 12–25 participants per group and consisted of a mixed convenience sample of leaders and employees interested in the WMT with the exception of one organization where the group consisted solely of leaders. Participants learned a variety of formal and informal meditation practices including mindfulness meditation, walking meditation, pausing meditation, body scan, and compassion meditation and were asked to practice for at least 10 min daily. Participants were encouraged to practice mindfulness in everyday life (informal practices) which included applying mindfulness in conversations at work (listening, dialogue) and in team meetings (a minute of silence before a group meeting), noticing positive experiences, using email in a mindful way, and daily journaling. Participants received app-based audio recordings of formal and informal mindfulness practices. Moreover, the WMT’s comprehensive psychoeducational component included information and discussions about the neurobiology of stress and emotions, the functioning of attentional networks, mindful task management, and mindful team collaboration. The intervention was delivered by two experienced trainers with 10 or more years of personal practice and prior experience in leading group processes in a company setting and a good understanding of the relevant neuroscientific background.

Results

Effects of WMT on Self-Leadership

Leaders’ improvements in self-leadership were evident in new skills concerning effective task management, self-care and self-reflection. The data suggests that the leaders used mindfulness to enhance their effectiveness and performance including becoming more aware of their personal limits of performance. Specifically, enhanced levels of self-awareness, attention and emotion regulation were applied as mechanisms of change to improve their effectiveness.

Mindful Task Management

More single-tasking

Leaders acknowledged that dynamic work environments often challenge their ability to perform focused work and to sustain concentration prior to the start of the training. After WMT, they had in a greater ability to regulate attention and set the goal to “focus more on individual tasks rather than multitasking.“

Managing distractions

Leaders introduced new measures to cope with a multitude of distractors in their work life. Many leaders reported reducing the amount of potential distractions. A major source of distraction was attributed to automatic notifications from emails and phones and some leaders indicated limiting and controlling access to the respective devices: “I turn off all automatic messaging, I even turn off my phone or office chat so that I can’t be disturbed during a challenging work task (…) I used to receive emails day and night and even check them in the evening on my couch. (…) This is a small change that gave me an enormous life quality back. ”Because participants were better able to observe where their attentional focus wandered, some changed the conditioned automaticity with which they interacted with their devices and information channels. While adopting new strategies to handle constant access to information are not specific to leaders, leaders also indicated that their behavioral pattern in response to task interruptions by followers had changed. Instead of automatically reacting to a followers wish to speak to them, they used mindfulness skills to pause and discern whether they needed to immediately shift their attention or whether it would be favorable to schedule a formal meeting, taking into account both their own emotional state and that of the follower.

Conscious transitions

Respondents gave examples of using mindfulness as an anchor in transitions, e.g., between work and home or between two work tasks, meetings etc., These spaces between two tasks were used to become aware of the current state of body and mind or to pay attention to the outside world. One respondent installed a regular mindfulness break in order to cultivate the transition from home to the start of the work day: “I meditate right when I arrive at the office (..) to clear my head (…) and to be able to concentrate on the first work task, to familiarize myself with my work day and to organize myself.” The meditative practice was employed in order to be more effective at work. Another leader often had to walk to different locations at his workplace to attend and lead meetings and used the transitional period to practice mindful walking awareness, again in order to be better prepared for the next meeting: “When I have to go from one location to another, I now pay attention to the way I am walking and to my inner state. So it’s not only about where I need to go but also the way. (…) It clears my head for what I do next or to let go of what happened before.”

Self-Care

An element of greater self-care emerged in the leaders’ accounts as they became more aware of their personal limits and simultaneously more allowing to respond to limits by choosing to postpone a work task and take rest when they assessed that their ability to perform was low. “When I had a strenuous long appointment, and then a colleague comes in and says, ‘I would like to discuss something important,’ I now realize more that I am exhausted – that is, a mental and physical exhaustion – and then I inquire whether we can resume the next day, if it is not absolutely urgent.”

It may be argued that self-care is an effective self-leadership tool to maintain high effectiveness. This includes acknowledging that a person needs to take a break: “So it was probably the first time in many, many years that I decided I needed a 4-week break this year and during these 4 weeks I didn’t do any meditation, I just took a break of everything. And that was very useful in the sense that I had a sort of reset (…) coming back to work I felt much more motivated, a lot more energized to carry on the tasks.”

Leaders also gave examples of sharing their emotional state more readily with followers, which may be regarded as a way to model self-care to others. Interestingly, one participant acknowledged that becoming more aware of his limits contributed to working less:  “I am more aware of myself and my limits. So I noticed, for example, that I work less. (…) I can get out of here better, although things aren’t finished yet, because I just say to myself, ‘Ok, it’s enough for me today and it’s not good for me to be here any longer and it wouldn’t be as effective anymore,’ to be honest.”

Self-Reflection

Through greater self-observation and detachment from negative emotions, leaders indicated gaining insights into assumptions and beliefs and reflecting on how their emotional state and behavior affected the reactions of their colleagues. This subtheme is an intra-individual mental process with great relevance to leadership behavior which overlaps with the leadership theme “relating to others.” Its distinguishing feature is that the leaders internally reflect on previous behavior, set a new goal and reappraise situations that they formerly perceived as stuck.

  • One leader reflected on expressing his anger to followers.  He is now testing other approaches ”to getting the feedback he needed in a more effective way”
  • Finally, one leader described seeking feedback more readily and using it more consciously to reflect on leadership behavior:“I can cope with feedback in a much more calm or composed way and that maybe why I am also asking for feedback more often and more consciously.”

Impact of WMT on Leadership

Leaders found themselves using mindfulness skills, specifically self-regulation and emotion regulation, to continuously develop and evolve both as leaders, and actively shape and form their formal and informal role. The leaders described both mental and behavioral shifts, often but not always, with the former paving the way for the latter. For example, leaders gave comprehensive examples of how they changed their perception of others, and in turn related differently to them.

Following WMT, leaders recounted many instances where they perceived themselves as engaging in a more mindful way with followers. For example, they indicated that they listened in a more mindful way and that they experienced a greater ability to regulate their emotions and guide followers through emotional difficulties. Leaders also recounted a greater acceptance of change and ability to focus on solutions.

Relating to Others

Mindful listening

Practicing mindful listening was encouraged during the WMT and most leaders commented on the lasting effects of this practice. This leader stated that mindful listening has become her new default mode of listening:“[Learning about] mindful listening was very important. Not only practicing this during the training but also applying it afterward. I am enthusiastic to see the results I get when I focus on practicing that [mindful listening]. I think [I] even developed a kind of routine, thus every conversation feels more intense, more mindful or more attentive.”

Another aspect of mindful listening was a greater ability to sustain attention in meetings and conversation highlighted by an element of choice. This ability was irrespective of the personal interest in a topic, e.g., one leader gave an example of a presentation he regarded as boring but had to attend. Instead of thinking about other tasks, he chose to stay present and experienced the quality of the presentation as more nuanced.

Leaders observed that they were taking greater care to listen more attentively to others as well as becoming more aware of their own and others emotional states so that “when speaking with your team members, [I] really speak with them.” Some recounted giving others more space in theirs discussions and noticed a reduced need to comment on everything: “Rather than trying to impose my opinion or approach, I started listening to what people said and how people actually reacted. ”Finally, the ability to listen mindfully was perceived to be related to a heightened ability to see things as they truly are:“I try to (be mindful) in discussions, especially when there is a tension with the subject, the situation or the person. I try to listen mindfully, to look at the face, to see what is actually happening, to try not to build up with my own imagination and assumptions, extrapolations of things, just to stay on the facts.”

Buffered emotional reactivity

Leaders described applying a new set of emotion regulation strategies to leadership situations. By gaining both greater awareness and greater detachment of personal and others’ emotions, they claimed to have learnt to be less reactive to emotions in interaction with others. Leaders gave examples of being less easily triggered by emotions of others and experiencing more equanimity in encounters with followers in general.

“[Leadership] changes because you don’t escalate the situation. Somebody comes in that is very angry about something and then you react because his anger makes me angry and then it becomes bigger than it needs to be. But instead if I don’t escalate it and I am more attentive to what this person is communicating you start to (…) listen and little by little, it doesn’t always work out, but maybe the person starts to listen to you as well and abandon a bit the emotional state and you come a bit more to the factual things.”

Being less judgemental

The leaders suggested that they became more aware of the prejudgements they ascribed to followers and how that impacted their behavior toward them. One leader noticed that his tendency to “judge others and putting people in [categorical] boxes decreased. I am more attentive and open now.” And another noticed that by assuming that a female colleague had a hidden agenda he was unable to listen to her but became more aware that his judgment of this person may be “not true.”

Lower degree of self-involvement

This subtheme was created to describe a sometimes subtle shift of the perception of a self following WMT, characterized for example in meetings as a shift from feeling the urge to contribute to granting others more space. Leaders gave examples of taking others’ behavior less personal, which resulted in a lower inclination to perceive issues as related to themselves.“I take work seriously but I don’t take myself so seriously anymore and I don’t take what happens so seriously.

Heightened awareness of followers’ needs

Based on a reduced involvement with themselves and an increased awareness of others’ emotions, some leaders described a greater ability to identify and serve the needs of their followers. This leader described becoming more interested in a follower’s emotional state: “I try to be more aware of my followers’ emotional or physical state and to consider that in my respective actions.” Following that, this awareness enabled leaders to shift the focus on identifying helpful ways to support a follower in a specific work situation.

Adapting to Change

Some of the interview examples suggested a greater agility when responding to change and the resulting challenges it may pose. The accounts indicated two consecutive subthemes: accepting change and focus on solutions.

Leaders indicated that they were more embracing and accepting of changing situations, caused by a deeper understanding that change happens and that it’s not useful getting worked up about it. In one leader’s example, the awareness of having developed improved coping skills to handle distress innate in such an endeavor supported him in managing a challenging technical restructuring: “If I imagine myself taking that sort of responsibility before I had done the course, it would have costed me a lot of lost nights of sleep. Now, not a single one.”

It’s important to note that acceptance wasn’t related to a greater passivity but made way for a greater focus on solutions, which replaced a tendency to get worked up about change or worry about the outcomes. This also extended in one case to a greater commitment to the organization and its goals by looking for solutions:“It’s become a stronger necessity for me, to say, something is not right here. It’s not [in my area of responsibility] but (…) I have an idea how it can be improved and then I take action. Before, I thought more often that I don’t care. But I do care now.”

Discussion

Our results shed light on the multiple ways in which WMT developed leader capabilities and, crucially, that leaders continued to apply mindfulness skills 6 to 12 months after completing WMT. Although research has consistently pointed to the importance to develop capacities like self-observation, self-regulation and emotion-regulation for both self-leadership and leadership development (Nesbit, 2012; Day and Dragoni, 2015; Ashkanasy and Dorris, 2017). Mindfulness research has been able to demonstrate the impact of mindfulness training for attention and emotion regulation but there have been mixed predictions about its potential in work environments and for leaders (Reb et al., 2015; Good et al., 2016; Walsh et al., 2017).

To summarize, we contribute to the theory and research of leader development in three important ways.

  1. Workplace Mindfulness Training  can be an avenue to self-directed leader development (Nesbit, 2012). Mindfulness training in general is conducive to becoming aware of mechanical reactions and the accounts of WMT in particular showed that leaders gain insights into their self-views and became aware of automatic reactions. Their reports further indicated that they continued to do so 6 to 12 months post-training completion, suggesting, that they developed sustainable meta-skills that they continued to use to develop self-leadership and leadership.
  2. Our results provided insights into how mindfulness training may shape leader behavior and even leadership style. Our data shows that there is a potential for mindfulness training of leaders that goes beyond decreasing stress and improving resilience.
  3. Our findings show that mindfulness training may increase self-leadership capacities. Self-leadership is distinct but positively associated with active leadership styles (Furtner et al., 2013) and improvements in self-leadership aspects are thus likely to be associated to improvements in leadership style and vice versa. Our outcomes suggest that leaders improved three self-leadership capacities: mindful task management, self-care, and self-reflection and two leadership capacities: relating to others and adapting to change.

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Citation: Rupprecht S, Falke P, Kohls N, Tamdjidi C, Wittmann M and Kersemaekers W (2019) Mindful Leader Development: How Leaders Experience the Effects of Mindfulness Training on Leader Capabilities. Front. Psychol. 10:1081. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01081

Received: 03 August 2018; Accepted: 25 April 2019;
Published: 15 May 2019.

Edited by:

Armin Pircher Verdorfer, Technische Universität München, Germany

Reviewed by:

Tiffany Kriz, MacEwan University, Canada
Latha Poonamallee, The New School, United States
Ankita Sharma, Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur, India

Copyright © 2019 Rupprecht, Falke, Kohls, Tamdjidi, Wittmann and Kersemaekers. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Frontiers in Psychology, 15 May 2019

*Correspondence: Silke Rupprecht, silke.rupprecht@me.com

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Leading Teams by Cameron W. Piercy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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