Over the course of a couple of decades, meditation has migrated from Himalayan hilltops and Japanese Zendos to corporate boardrooms and corridors of power, including Google, Apple, Aetna, the Pentagon, and the U.S. House of Representatives.
On a personal level, leaders are taking note of empirical research documenting meditation’s potential for reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving emotional regulation. Mindfulness meditation — the practice of cultivating deliberate focused attention on the present moment – has caught on as a way to bring focus, authenticity, and intention to the practice of leadership. Harvard Business Review contributors Daniel Goleman and Bill George have described mindfulness as a means to listen more deeply and guide actions through clear intention rather than emotional whims or reactive patterns.
In an age in which corporations and public organizations are increasingly under attack for short-term thinking, a dearth of vision, and perfunctory reactions to quick stimuli, it’s worth posing the question: Can mindfulness help organizations — not just individual leaders — behave more intentionally? Practically speaking, can organizational leaders integrate mindfulness practices into strategic planning processes?
Seventy years ago, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who had just emerged from years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, shed some light on the question with a now-classic teaching. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he wrote in 1946. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Mindfulness — the practice of watching one’s breath and noticing thoughts and sensations — is, at its core, a practice of cultivating this kind of space. It’s about becoming aware of how the diverse internal and external stimuli we face can provoke automatic, immediate, unthinking responses in our thoughts, emotions, and actions. As the University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson has argued, our brains are not equipped to handle the 11-plus million bits of information arriving at any given moment. For the sake of efficiency, we tend to make new decisions based upon old frames, memories, or associations. Through mindfulness practice, a person is able to notice how the mind reacts to thoughts, sensations, and information, seeing past the old storylines and habitual patterns that unconsciously guide behavior. This creates space to deliberately choose how to speak and act.
Organizations, like individuals, need this kind of space.
By Justin Talbot-Zorn and Frieda Edgette