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Mindful leadership: Exploring the value of a meditation practice

Mindful Leadership

The practice of meditation in the business world is increasingly moving from the fringe to the mainstream, and already features as a key part of a number of international management and organisation development programmes. Emma Dolman and Dave Bond review the impact that meditation practices have made, and report on a meditation research study conducted at Ashridge.

‘Mindfulness’ in management education

For some years now, various forms of the ‘mindfulness’ construct have been part of thinking about business, leadership and learning1,2. Isaacs3 has drawn on a range of work exploring this terrain. From one example, she refers to Waddock’s argument for the place of mindfulness in management education, where mindfulness is described as

…the capacity to be in the present moment, aware of what is happening now, and mindfulness practices, particularly meditation, can arguably help move individuals along the development ladder. Mindfulness is based on self-awareness and full presence of the sort that includes not just the mind, but also the emotions, creativity, soulfulness and spirit.4

Exploring the work of learning more broadly, Langer and Moldoveanu5 adopt a social psychology perspective to describe mindfulness as a state of active awareness which enables the continual creation and refinement of categories in a given situation – an important component of learning. This capability includes paying attention in the given moment, being aware of the environment and of others’ perspectives and an openness to new information. Mindlessness, on the other hand, is the inability to move out of automatic responses or to read new signals which would require new ways of thinking and behaving. An example of mindlessness from this perspective might be the COO of a construction company’s insistence on established supply chain management and ‘cost effectiveness’ in the face of emerging sentiment and regulation requiring increased sensitivity to environmental impact. In this sense, it can be seen that mindfulness has a crucial role to play in enhancing our capacity to lead in contexts of uncertainty and change.

Practical application

Although still seen as somewhat fringe or ‘whacky’ by some, mindfulness has been well-developed in systematic ways for practical application. Diverse organisations and businesses are now considering it as a legitimate practice, as well as those involved in management, organisation and leadership development. Karl Weick, for example, has used the construct of mindfulness to focus on organisation development. He and colleagues6 argue that organisations tend to overestimate the extent to which what they face is well structured, clear and predictable. So, Weick and Sutcliffe have developed a systematic process for auditing organisational mindfulness – the organisation’s capacity to operate in dynamic, ill-structured, ambiguous and unpredictable circumstances. This audit explores fi ve main concerns: a preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise.

They were developing this work in the early 1990s and cite, as one example which prompted their focus, the rapid sinking of the car ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise in the late 1980s. This disaster cost almost 200 lives, despite the captain having followed ‘standing orders’. They claim that the kind of mindfulness they argue for is a vital component for organisations to remain reliable in the face of constant exposure to crisis and change.

Similarly, John Mason7 has built on years of research into education in mathematics to make a persuasive case for research and professional development as ‘the discipline of noticing’. He argues that “attention to noticing turns studies focused on other people and situations into studies which learn about other people and situations through learning about oneself … the central focus of noticing, which is to be mindful, to be awake in the moment… so as to participate in an increasingly rich and productive range of options at any given moment.” Mason’s rigorous and systematic academic approach to mindfulness as a basis for self-understanding and development is similar to the notions popularised through the recent work of writers such as Boyatzis and McKee8; Goleman and Kabat-Zinn9; Scharmer10; and their colleagues.

Proven benefits

More or less explicitly, this range of work draws on a wide range of meditation practices more often associated with religion, mysticism, and the contemplative traditions. Whilst the strength of these can be their long-established provenance in contemplative practices, this can also generate opposition and resistance if overly associated with one or other religious or spiritual tradition. Jon Kabat-Zinn11 and colleagues have made considerable inroads here, by basing their work on academic research, working hand-in-hand with the health sciences. Similarly to Waddock above, Kabat-Zinn sees mindfulness as the intentional cultivation of moment to moment awareness without judgment. Kabat-Zinn’s work has become established in many medical practices, including the medical faculties of the Duke, Harvard and Massachusetts Universities in the USA and amongst health professionals in the UK12. Whilst meditation has long been associated with stress reduction and the treatment of depression, it is increasingly being recognised as important in developing the type of cognitive capacities required of knowledge workers in the modern economy.

The business world has, in part, been won over by findings at the American Institute of Health, the University of Massachusetts, and the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University. These evidence-based studies have cited the following as specific benefits of meditation for businesses:

  • Reduced costs of staff absenteeism caused by illness, injury, stress

  • Improved cognitive function – including better concentration, memory, learning ability and creativity

  • Improved productivity and improved overall staff and business wellbeing

  • Reduced staff turnover and associated costs

  • Enhanced employer/employee and client relationships

  • Reduced health insurance premiums for the business

  • A visible and tangible corporate responsibility stance

  • Enhanced employee job satisfaction13.

Additionally, the recent ‘Response’ study14, led by Insead, found that meditationbased coaching had both a statistically significant impact on socially responsible behaviour and an impact on three factors they had identified as influencing the social consciousness of managers. This was in marked contrast to standard executive education approaches.

Meditation is now being taken more seriously, and features as a key part of a number of business courses. There are increasing examples of the use of various forms of meditative practice in international management and leadership development. One such example can be found in the Executive MBA (EMBA) programme of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. Over ten years ago, senior Zen Buddhist teachers were already running introductory sessions on mindfulness as part of the personal leadership component of this EMBA programme. More recently, the programme has introduced a full mindfulness course, based on the work of Kabat-Zinn, and includes regular times for meditation in its schedule. Not surprisingly, Isaacs15 found a range of responses in her study of responses to the incorporation of ‘mindfulness’ in this EMBA programme. These traversed the range from objection or scepticism, to open-mindedness and those who were incorporating it into their daily routine. A number cited the benefits associated with: being present, awareness, non-judgmental attention to the present moment, self-awareness, focused attention to the present moment, awareness of other perspectives and fostering empathy. The study also found a significant interrelationship between mindfulness, stress management, decision-making and risk taking. In one example, the CEO of a small software company described improved negotiation results and supplier relationships resulting from slowing down responses and being more mindful of options and approaches.

Research study at Ashridge

While Ashridge has for a number of years had its own room dedicated to silence and meditation, this is a relatively new area of its research. We therefore set out to lay the basis for a deeper understanding of the value and limitations of meditative practice for employees, and, where appropriate, to feed these findings into the ongoing innovation of what Ashridge has to offer its clients. The purpose of our research project was to try to identify the benefit – if any – of an individual meditating consistently over a 45-day period. If positive benefits were found, then Ashridge would be ideally placed to introduce meditation into its own practice with clients more explicitly.


For the purpose of this research, we chose what is known as Samarpan meditation. It is a simple meditation technique and is not attached to any religion. It can be practised by anyone of any age or background, and requires no prior experience of meditation. Samarpan is translated as ‘to let go’ or ‘to surrender’ (thoughts, emotions, situations). The aim of the meditation is to reach a state where the mind is quietened and there are no thoughts. This enables those meditating to connect to a state from where they can derive more energy. It increases feelings of calmness and relaxation, and makes the practitioner feel that life is more balanced. Paradoxically, this is also a state that allows for a sharper awareness of what is actually ‘going on’.

Although this is a ‘new’ technique from the Himalayas, it has ancient origins. The meditation is based on a mantra which has been handed down over 800 years from teacher to only one pupil within the Himalayas. In 2000, Swami Shivkrupananda emerged from the Himalayas with the wish to teach it to anyone who wished to learn it and in just ten years it has spread around the globe and currently is being practised by over 500,000 people.

Acknowledging that there is a growing body of research exploring the link between meditation and the health sciences16,17,18, we chose to focus this pilot research on subjective research measures supported by psychological measures. Advice from the Nuffield Health Foundation supported this more subjective approach. We used a reflective journal to capture the results of simple tests related to perceived benefits. Undertaking reflective journalling for an extended period of time focuses the practitioner on the sense of an ongoing journey and allows them to record their mental state and energy levels. This journal was somewhere to record thoughts, feelings, emotions and progress, and any additional events affecting the individual, regarding all aspects of their life and experiences.

In order for the methodology to be robust three groups were created as outlined here.

Group 1 were asked to meditate using the prescribed technique for 45 days, and to undertake some psychometric tests. They were asked to keep a journal for the duration of the research, as well as completing a ‘Life Wheel’ every two weeks to indicate satisfaction with different areas of their lives.

Group 2 were asked to take 30 minutes out of their day for 45 days and undertake an activity that they were not used to doing, but one that involves very little higher cognitive activity, e.g., walking, having a bath, knitting, etc.

Group 3 were the control group, who were asked not to undertake any activity different from their everyday life, but who completed all of the Group 1 psychometrics at the appropriate times.

Participation was sought from volunteers across the broad Ashridge community, including staff, associates, alumni, friends, and family. All the groups were fully briefed on their participation. Groups 1 and 2 had additional briefing and received a pack containing a journal and all the test material. The journals also set out clearly the process of what needed to be completed, by when, over the 45-day period.

Research tests

The research tests that were selected were:

The IPIP – a personality test to examine trends in personality of those attracted to the experiment.

Epworth sleep scale – to measure sleepiness.

Stanford sleep scale – to measure alertness.

General health questionnaire – to provide a general impression of overall health.

Mindful attention awareness scale – to measure a disposition of mindfulness – being open to what is happening in the present.

The journal – to keep a log of progress and any signifi cant events, and for writing personal reflections.

Life wheel – to measure satisfaction in 12 areas of life: relationships with partner, family, friends and at work, home, finance, health, work/career, free time, personal development, self esteem, and contentment (Fig 1).

Fig 1. Life Wheel

Figure 1, The life wheel

Research participants

Group 1

There were initially 45 people interested in meditating. Of these, 8 did not start for various reasons, 4 started briefl y but stopped and submitted little data, and 2 meditated for a short period but had to be excluded as they did not follow the meditation and research guidelines. This left a core meditation group of 32 – consisting of 27 females (84%) and 5 males (16%). Within this group, 53% had meditated before and 47% were new to meditation.

Group 2

There were initially 25 participants. 3 did not start or submit any data and 5 others did not submit all the data or dropped out. The fi nal participant group included 9 males (41%) and 13 females (59%).

Group 3

There were 20 participants in the control group, of this group 80% were female and 20% male. There was one female who dropped out early on in the process.