Meditation as a Leadership Practice

I recently posted an article about the importance of sleep for leaders and was reminded by a reader that meditation is also a critical practice for the mind of a leader. This week I wanted to take up this topic to encourage you to begin or take back up your meditation practice.

In my work as an Executive Coach I have found a correlation between professional and personal success and happiness, and the ability to metabolize anxiety. Leaders who are able to move through anxiety-provoking events with less reactivity, who demonstrate greater calm and ease in tough situations, move forward to increasingly high levels of leadership. Those who react poorly to bad news, crises, and anxiety provoking events in the workplace tend to stay in their current role, some get demoted, and some get coached to new roles.

Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of meditation. For our purposes I’ll relate those benefits to some desirable and undesirable leadership behaviors:

Angry or Emotional Reactions

Are you a leader who has a tough time controlling your emotions? Do you react with anger in the moment when you are frustrated by the performance of your team?

Meditation can calm that response. A 2012 study builds off a number of other’s to show that meditation can reduce the amygdala’s reactivity to stimuli.[i]

Want to be less reactive the next time you get bad news? Try meditation.  People who do react less quickly and negatively to difficult situations.

Stressed or Worried at Work

Feeling overworked or stressed out at work? A meditation practice can help.  Meditation can expand an individual’s ability to withstand discomfort, like the anxiety of waiting for a meeting with an upset colleague or coping with the results of a negative review. Best of all the impact of meditation lasts. Those who meditate daily experienced increased coping ability well beyond the time of their meditation practice. 

Finding Your Best Self

If you are looking to have a better experience with your current role: less stress and more enjoyment, less anxiety and more calm, then introducing a meditation practice to your daily life is a great first step to get there.

It seems that meditation allows a person the ability to grow a new skill: a greater ability to pause and reflect on emotions. While the mind races through a meditation practice, the practitioner is learning to attend and simply notice the noise. This practice of noticing changes the brain’s typical reaction response. Best of all, the new, longer response meditators gain during their practice lasts beyond their quiet time. Something different happens in their bodies all day.

Noticing the Difference

How a leader prepares themselves for the day matters, and when meditation and quiet time is a part of the leader’s routine, people notice.

Typically when a client begins to meditate and then misses a day, they will comment in our next coaching session:

“Well, other people may not notice when I skip my meditation time, but I sure do!”

Trust me, if you notice, they notice.

And the data supports people’s experience: fMRI imaging of meditators and non-meditators is different. The amygdalas of meditators take longer to light up with reactivity than non-meditators.

In my experience, this gives these leaders the priceless gift of time. Time to think. Time to pause. Time to decide how to react and what is wise before the reaction actually begins.

A centered leader is a priceless gift for an organization. A regular meditation practice gives you a edge: the edge of self-control.

How to Get Started

There are many schools of meditation, and worldwide there are countless different approaches: from Centering Prayer, Yoga and Meditation to name a few. You have a wide variety to choose from if you are considering incorporating meditation into your daily life.

I encourage you to simply pick one that intrigues you and stick with it for 8 weeks. In that time you will learn the practice well enough to feel more natural and at ease with your chosen approach.

A simple place to begin:

1.      Rest your hands just under your ribcage on your belly.

2.      Close your eyes (or keep them open!).

3.      Simply breathe deeply, feeling your abdomen expand and contract.

4.      Count backward from 10 with each exhale.

5.      Repeat that for 2 minutes.

If you take the time to pause and breathe throughout your day things will begin to shift.

Want significant impact?

Option 1: Increase the time. In the study referenced, participants meditated 20 minutes a day for 8 weeks.

Option 2: Meditate on compassion. Those who practiced compassion meditation, in the study, found significant change in just a few minutes of meditation. 

*(see link in footnote to read about the different meditation practices studied)


[i] “Effects of mindful-attention and Compassion Meditation Training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in ordinary non-meditative state,” Desbrodos, Nehi, Pace, Wallace, Raison, Schwartz, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, November, 2012.