Mindful Leadership



Mindful Leadership

We’re social beings. We all want to be connected—not just digitally but in fundamentally human ways. Because of this desire, leadership cannot be a transactional activity. It’s about creating human connections to strengthen engagement and increase productivity. As leaders, we have a choice. We can utilize the built-in structures of command and control and engrained power dynamics to enhance productivity. Or we can facilitate true connectedness, meaningful work experiences, and human flourishing to enhance engagement, happiness, and, in turn, productivity. The latter is an enormous opportunity we cannot take lightly.

Consider the experience of Narendra Mulani, chief analytics officer, Accenture Analytics. Narendra joined the firm in 1997 with significant experience relative to many of his colleagues, who had been hired directly out of college. At that time, he noted the strong sense of unity and cohesion in the culture. It was as if everyone knew how to operate in the Accenture mindset to the point that people seemed to know what others were thinking.

But now in Accenture—as with most other large organizations—the days of near mind-melding cultural cohesion are long gone. Organizations today are increasingly digital, global, virtual, and in a state of constant change. As a result, human connection and cohesiveness is deteriorating. Yet, as Narendra told us, “You need something that gives you a common language and allows you to collaborate, trust, and work together, because we all come with such different experiences. It’s made me aware that everyone wants to connect. Even in this digital world, personal connections are everything.”

We all have an innate urge to feel connected and part of a whole. For leaders, this human need to feel connected is critical to better understanding and managing people. In global teams—despite distance, digitalization, and disruption—mindfulness can become the glue that creates true human connections.

Nathan Boaz and Rahul Varma, global leads of Accenture’s leadership development and talent organizations, are implementing global initiatives to help leaders care for their people like family, with a deeper sense of belonging and connectedness. In our conversations with them, they shared their philosophy and strategy. “We are working to develop a truly human experience within the company, where everyone brings their whole self to work. One of the foundations for this is that our leaders show up fully present, attentive and focused, when they engage with their people and teams.”

In this chapter, we’ll share how you can lead your people with mindfulness to build more effective teams and realize increased levels of engagement, trust, and performance.

The Power of Presence

Some years ago, we worked with a country director of a multinational pharmaceutical company. This director was receiving negative 360 reviews on engagement and leadership effectiveness, putting him under pressure from the company’s board. Although he tried to change, nothing seemed to work. His frustration grew, and so he started tracking the time he spent with each of his direct reports. Every time he received feedback that indicated he wasn’t an engaging leader, he would pull out his data and state: “But look how much time I spend with everyone!” He didn’t know what to do.

As a last resort, he got in touch with us.

We started him with ten minutes of daily mindfulness practice and showed him how to apply it to his everyday leadership activities. After a couple of months, people began commenting on a big change in their experience of working with him. They found him more engaging, nicer to work with, and more inspiring. He was surprised and elated by the results. The real surprise? When he pulled out his spreadsheet that tracked time with direct reports, he saw that he was spending on average 21 percent less time with his people.

The difference? He was actually there.

He came to understand that being in a room with someone is not the same as being present with someone. He recognized that previously when someone came into his office, he would often be occupied with other activities or thinking about other things. Most of the time, when he thought he was listening to others, he was in fact mostly listening to his own inner voice. This reality was obvious to the people he was with and left them feeling unheard and frustrated.

If you’re not familiar with your inner voice, it’s the one that often provides a running commentary of what you’re experiencing. It often says things like, “I wish he would stop talking.” Or, “I know what she’s going to say next.” Or, “I’ve heard this all before.” Or, “I wonder if Joe has responded to my text?”

To truly engage other human beings and create meaningful connections, we need to silence our inner voice and be fully present.

According to a Chinese proverb, presence is the greatest gift you can give another. It is the intensity of attention you pay to other people. And it greatly determines the outcome of an interaction. Mindfulness stands in stark contrast to being scattered and distracted. A lack of mindfulness comes across as impulsiveness and lack of focus. It doesn’t leave a positive impression.

Presence is a universal language with a two-way benefit. According to research from Harvard University, you are happier when you are present, and the ones you are with experience a greater sense of well-being. In leadership, being mindfully present is foundational for connectedness, engagement, and performance.

Bain & Company conducted a large research project to pinpoint key traits of effective leadership. A survey of thousands of employees revealed thirty-three important characteristics, such as creating compelling objectives, expressing ideas clearly, and being receptive to input. But the one trait that stood out as the most essential was centeredness—the ability to be mindfully present in a situation so that you can bring your best traits to bear, moment to moment.

In this light, it is not surprising that a study by Professor Jochen Reb of Singapore Management University found a direct correlation between leaders’ mindfulness and the well-being and performance of their people. In other words, the more a leader is present with his or her people, the better they will perform.

In our survey, more than a thousand leaders indicated that more presence would be an optimal strategy to overcome such challenges as stress, complexity, information overload, and conflicts. We all know it, but we forget it in the busyness of work.

Like most senior executives, Dominic Barton of McKinsey & Company has a daily schedule of back-to-back meetings. All of these meetings are important, all include complex information, and most require far-reaching decisions. Under these conditions, being present moment to moment, meeting after meeting, is a challenge. But in Dominic’s experience, presence is not a choice. It’s a necessity. “When I’m with people during the day, I’m doing my best to be focused, I’m present with them,” he told us. “Part of this is because I get energy from being with people. But the other part is because if you’re not focused, if you’re not present, it’s discouraging to the other people. They lose motivation. If you’re not present, I think you may as well not have the meeting. It can sometimes be difficult to do, but it’s always important.”

The person currently in front of you does not know what you were dealing with a moment ago, and there’s no reason he or she should. It’s your responsibility to show up and be fully present to effectively utilize the limited time you have with each person you are with.

Dominic believes being mindfully present requires discipline and skill. It takes discipline to stay on task—not letting yourself be affected by nagging challenges or distracted by mental chatter. And it requires skill to have the mental ability to stay laser focused and present. When he’s present throughout his day, he finds it deeply gratifying. Being present becomes the cornerstone to getting the most out of every moment with each person.

Lead with Mindful Presence

Through our many years of working with leaders around the world, we’ve discovered a number of strategies that answer the question “how to” with respect to leading with mindful presence. The foundation for developing leadership presence is to practice mindfulness, as described in chapters 2 and 3. Mindfulness practice is the mental gym that trains your neural networks for presence.

Just setting an intention to be more present with your people is not enough. Although you may have great intentions, if you have not developed the mental fitness to let go of distractions and overcome the mind’s natural tendency to wander, you will have only limited success. After you have cultivated a greater ability to “be here now,” here are two ways you can apply mindfulness toward enhancing leadership effectiveness: creating personal “touchpoints” and doing less by being more.

Creating Personal Touchpoints

When Douglas Conant was appointed CEO of Campbell Soup Company in 2001, he identified presence as his guiding leadership principle. After his ten-year turnaround of the company, it received some of the highest employee engagement levels in the Fortune 500. In his decade as CEO, Doug developed rituals for physically and psychologically connecting with people at all levels in the company. He did this by explicitly being present. He coined the term touchpoints and later wrote a book of the same name. Touchpoint is his word for the short moments of presence you can create with each individual you meet at work.

Every morning, Doug allocated a good chunk of his time to walking around the plant, greeting people, and getting to know them. He would memorize their names and the names of their family members. He would take a genuine interest in their lives. He also wrote handwritten letters of gratitude to recognize extraordinary efforts. And when people in the company were having tough times, he wrote them personal messages of encouragement. During his tenure, he sent more than thirty thousand such letters.

To Doug, these behaviors were not just strategies to enhance productivity, they were heartfelt efforts to support his people. He was being truly present, mindfully present. These efforts can’t be faked. Faking presence—and concern for others—is worse than not being present at all. People will know. In fact, if presence is inauthentic, it will negatively impact connectedness, engagement, and performance. Therefore, cultivating the right intentions is important.

Before taking action, reflect for a moment on why being present is important to you. How do you think it would benefit you as a person and as a leader? Be clear about your intentions, and then consider what steps for being mindfully present with your people you can bring into your daily ritual. It doesn’t need to be a big initiative. Start simple. Begin with yourself, your behaviors, and those with whom you directly engage. You may even be surprised at the extent of benefits that arise simply from being more fully present.

Do Less—Be More

Individuals rise up through the ranks of organizations often because they are good at solving problems. Although this ability is very useful, always coming up with solutions can get in the way of connecting with, engaging, and empowering others. Gabrielle Thompson, senior vice president at Cisco, has found that when an employee comes to her with a challenge, sometimes it needs a simple solution. But often, the problem just needs to be heard: “Many situations simply need an ear, not action. Oftentimes problems don’t need solutions, they need presence and time.” As leaders, having the ability to be fully present and listen with an open mind is often the most powerful way to solve issues.

As noted in chapter 6, in many instances, mindfulness can help us create the emotional resonance needed for a person to feel heard, understood, and valued. As a leader, our role can simply be to create the safe space for people to air their frustrations and process their problems. Through mindful presence, you become the container in which they have space to process the issue, without you stepping in to solve, fix, manipulate, or control the situation. Presence in itself can help resolve issues. This kind of presence not only has the potential to solve problems but can also create greater connection and engagement.

A simple but effective mindful leadership mantra: Do less—Be more.

The above strategies are specifically derived from a mind perspective, but leadership presence is further cultivated and enhanced when it is embodied.

Lead with Physical Presence

Exceptional leaders influence the environment around them without saying a word. What are you communicating nonverbally with your posture, body language, and gestures? What effect are these physical actions having on your colleagues, your team, or others around you? Think about the way you feel when you’re in the presence of colleagues or other leaders who inspire you. How did they carry themselves? What gestures did they use?

Mindful leadership can be solely about being mentally present, but it can also have a physical component. The people we are with know when we’re mad, sad, glad, or anxious without us saying a word. This is because emotions, sensations, and reactions manifest themselves physically—whether we like it or not. Our bodies communicate far more to our employees, colleagues, and clients than we might think.

Embodied leadership presence is a sense of being fully present in your body. It comes out of strong mindfulness, combining focus on what you do with awareness of yourself and your physicality. Embodied presence is tangible. When you have it, others feel it. It creates leadership from the inside out. And not through intellectual understanding or by presenting a theoretical model, but by connecting to one’s own body.

We’ve all experienced leaders with embodied presence. It feels like charisma. But really it’s a presence based on centeredness. Centeredness increases our physical presence, it opens our perspective to interconnectedness, and it helps us see the big picture. When we’re present and centered, we open ourselves to challenges. We can acknowledge and face difficult situations without the noise and frustration created by fear, bias, or judgment. We have heightened awareness, greater perception, and greater confidence.

Loren Shuster, chief people officer at the LEGO Group, explained that when he has very important meetings or presentations, he takes five minutes to ground himself in his body. He visualizes coming fully alive in each cell of his body. As he explained to us, “When you’re not grounded, when you’re not connected to your body and surrounding environment, you don’t have a strong sense of direction or purpose. You’re just floating. The smallest thing can distract you. This grounding technique helps me clear my mind, recharge my energy, strengthen my instincts, and calm my emotions.” After this five-minute practice, he walks differently, he talks differently. With more gravitas. With more weight. With more vigor. And as a result, he’s able to be more fully present mentally and physically with those around him. It grounds him in the room like a rock. Gaining this type of physical embodiment—this type of centeredness—involves three basic factors: posture, space, and engagement.

When we have embodied presence, our posture shifts. Rather than slouching, crossing our arms, and literally closing in on ourselves, we assume a more balanced, uplifted, open, and inclusive posture. This includes sitting up straight, with our arms open. As shown in many studies, this shift in posture can influence how we think, behave, and communicate. In the same way that we can catalyze qualities like confidence through assuming a bold posture, we can induce qualities like awareness, focus, inclusion, and compassion through an uplifted, dignified posture. The act of sitting up and opening up has a positive effect on the chemistry of our brains. It cultivates our capacity for higher functioning thought processes. It gives us access to wisdom that comes from heightened awareness, compassion that comes from increased openness, and confidence that comes from the strength of vertical alignment.

To achieve this type of posture and its benefits, stand straight, shoulders pulled back and squared, with your arms at your sides. Think of your body as being on an axis, with everything centered and vertically aligned but not rigid. When sitting, assume a similar posture: back straight, shoulders back, with your torso aligned. Position your feet squarely in front of you, evenly spaced, and flat. Place your arms on armrests or extended in front of you, squared with your body but distinctly open. Adjust as appropriate to achieve an overall feeling of alignment, openness, and expansiveness. Ideally, you want to feel a sense of readiness and vigor but still be comfortable.

If you begin to slip into a closed or sagging posture, ask yourself: What shape is my body taking? Where is my attention focused? Am I being inviting and engaging for the people I am with? The answers to these questions will help you regain your physical presence and strengthen your embodied leadership.

During particularly difficult conversations, you may find yourself crossing your arms or legs, slumping forward, and physically closing in on yourself. But when the body contracts, so does the mind. As the mind contracts, the prefrontal cortex—the home of executive functioning skills—begins to shut down, with the more primitive parts of the brain taking over. This limits your capability for high-level, logical thinking and puts you into a reactive mode that limits your potential responses. If you realize that you’re physically shutting down, you should revert to a more centered, welcoming posture—vertically aligned, shoulders squared, arms open. This will help you regain the clarity, focus, and thoughtfulness needed to resolve difficult problems.

We’re all more likely to follow and be engaged with someone who is present with us, physically and mentally. And one of the big reasons is that presence is the foundation for creating trusting relationships.

Presence and Trust

Who would you trust most, someone who looks you straight in the eyes and is fully present with you or someone whose attention is scattered? The answer is obvious. Fundamentally, we are more likely to trust people who are present with us.

Presence is a foundation for trust. And trust binds individuals together—it binds employees and leaders together. Trust provides us with a sense of safety and a sense of meaning, and it significantly contributes to our overall sense of happiness. Trust is a significant contributor to an employee’s sense of purpose, engagement, and performance. Paul J. Zak, professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has spent ten years studying the role of trust in organizational performance. He’s found that, compared with people at low-trust companies, people employed at high-trust companies report 74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy at work, 50 percent higher productivity, 76 percent more engagement, 60 percent more job satisfaction, 70 percent more alignment with their company’s purpose, 29 percent more satisfaction with their lives, 40 percent less burnout, and 13 percent fewer sick days. The importance of trust in today’s workplace should not be underestimated.

The organization Great Place to Work and Fortune magazine produce a yearly list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” in which trust comprises two-thirds of the criteria. Their survey shows that trust between managers and employees is the primary characteristic of a “best workplace.” And this sense of trust shows in each company’s bottom line. These companies beat the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three. Similarly, the advocacy group Trust Across America tracks the performance of America’s most trustworthy public companies, finding that the most trustworthy companies also outperformed the S&P 500.

And CEOs recognize that trust is an issue foremost in the minds of their employees. The 2016 PwC global CEO survey reported that 55 percent of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organizational growth. In 2014, just two years earlier, this number was 37 percent. Hold this number against the results of the Edelman Trust Barometer global annual survey of 2017, which found that 63 percent of employees said that CEOs are “not at all, or somewhat credible.” Similarly, Ernst & Young’s Trust in the Workplace found that only 46 percent of employees place trust in their employer.

Trust matters. In business and in leadership.

When we have a trusting relationship with colleagues, we don’t need to convince others of our intentions. And in a trusting organizational culture, much of the bureaucracy and politics can be avoided. In fact, studies show that trust affects economic and social development by enabling better functioning of organizations. Trust bypasses many unconscious and cultural processes and allows us to get things done faster. To paraphrase Anish Melwani, CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc., North America, trust is the currency of influence. If we want to influence a colleague or team to do something, their trust in you is what makes it happen.

And of course, the converse is true. When there’s a low level of trust, the opposite happens. We build control mechanisms and increase bureaucracy on individual levels, organizational levels, and throughout society. All of these mechanisms slow interactions and reduce productivity. On an interpersonal level, the impact of low trust is subtler, but even more detrimental to the speed of getting things done. An extensive study at Google confirmed this fact. For three years, Google studied 180 of its internal teams to find the secret ingredient of high-performing teams. As a company that focuses on hiring the smartest of the smart, the people at Google were confident that the common ingredient of the successful teams would be sheer cognitive horsepower. In other words, they believed the teams with the smartest people on them would also be the highest performing.

But they were wrong.

The researchers found that who was on the team mattered less than how the team members interacted. Presence, trust, and a sense of psychological safety turned out to be the key determinants of team performance. The research found that teams with high levels of trust generated more revenue for the company, were rated as effective twice as often by their leaders, and had a much better retention rate.

As the leader, you have a great impact on the level of trust in your teams. If you have integrity and people know what you stand for, trust increases collectively. You must be authentic. But equally important, trust starts with how you show trust in others. John Hansen, a senior vice president at the LEGO Group, has a guiding principle for developing trust with his people: “Whenever I interact with my colleagues, I always trust they have the best intentions. I choose not to even consider that the opposite could be the case.” John adopted this approach from a leader he once worked for who was always fully trusting of John. “It was truly liberating and motivating. I felt he had my back and that I had the freedom to solve problems and also to fail, without being judged. His approach gave me the space to learn and become what I am today.” Trust starts with your trust in your people. And your ability to be fully present when showing that trust in them.

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Reflect on your experience with your “inner voice”; consider how often it distracts you from being more fully present with others.
  2.  Consider what leading with mindful presence means for you; commit to one thing you are going to try in order to bring more presence into your leadership.
  3.  Make a commitment to find ways to better connect with members of your team and people in your organization; when you have these moments, make them matter.
  4.  Consider what embodied presence means for you and how enhancing your physical presence—posture, space, positions—could be beneficial for your leadership.
  5.  Reflect on the level of trust in your work environment and specifically, people’s trust in you; commit to one thing to enhance trust and create more psychological safety.






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