The Mindful Leader: Research Findings

Developing the capacity for resilience and collaboration in complex times through mindfulness practice

Megan Reitz, Michael Chaskalson, Sharon Olivier, Lee Waller

Mindful Leader

Context and research questions

Interest in mindfulness as a helpful skill for leaders to practice in the complex, dynamic and fast-paced context of the 21st century has been growing exponentially. Whilst evidence for its effectiveness in improving a variety of skills such as focus, empathy and emotional regulation is very promising, the evidence has predominantly been gathered with clinical populations. Robust research conducted with organisational leaders examining the impact of mindfulness training is, however, extremely limited. This leaves leaders and leadership developers considering mindfulness interventions with little idea about whether, why and how mindfulness practice might impact leadership effectiveness.

This project focused on three key leadership capacities: resilience, collaboration and leading in complexity. Our key research questions included:

  • To what extent can a mindfulness training intervention improve these key leadership capacities?
  • In what other ways does a mindfulness training intervention impact leadership effectiveness?
  • If the intervention does impact leadership capacities, why and how does it?
  • How much home practice is needed to make a difference?
  • What are senior executives’ experiences of undertaking a mindfulness training programme, in particular the home practice element?
  • What advice can we give to leaders and leadership developers in relation to mindfulness interventions?

Findings

Evidence suggests the programme was effective in developing the three capacities as perceived by the individual but not by others, and this effect was reliant upon the level of home practice undertaken. Participants described a number of challenges to practicing meditation including: busyness, ‘beating themselves up about practice’, lack of routine and lack of support from others. Conversely what helped these busy executives to practice regularly included building practice into a routine, seeing that the practice was giving them positive benefits, accepting and allowing themselves to experience highs and lows in their practice and lack of support from others.

Participants practiced on average 10 minutes a day. Those who practiced more than this were significantly more likely to experience improvements in their mindfulness and resilience levels than those who practiced less than 10 minutes. 

A theory of mindful leadership

Following participant reports, we offer the beginnings of a theory of mindful leadership which suggests that improved metacognitive capability, the capacity for ‘allowing’ and an attitude of curiosity may be viewed as ‘meta-capacities’ which create a ‘space’ conducive to responding as opposed to reacting to events. This in turn may influence critical leadership skills such as focus, emotional regulation, empathy, adaptability and perspective taking. These skills may result in improvements to resilience, collaboration and leading in complexity as indicated by the participants in our study.

Whilst advising further research in this area, we suggest that mindfulness training, including personal practice, may be considered an important and effective intervention in developing leadership capacity for the 21st century. 

Research Team

The research team was led by Associate Professor Megan Reitz and included Michael Chaskalson, Sharon Olivier and Lee Waller.

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How do I find out more?

Join us for a free webinar which will summarize this research. Read Megan and Michael's article in Harvard Business Review about the research. 

For further information, please contact Associate Professor Megan Reitz.