MIT? More Like Mindfulness in Training

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By Ilona Balagula, Kalina Kourdova, Roxanne Moslehi, José Ramos, and Jeremy Scharf

As MBA students at MIT Sloan School of Management, the five of us are exposed to an immense array of opportunities outside the classroom. From finance groups to consulting clubs to an endless number of industry treks, how we choose to spend our time is perhaps the biggest decision we must make at school. Despite so many offerings at our fingertips, we have found that we rarely participate in programs that focus on our intrapersonal development. For this reason, our group has decided to embark on a journey to bring something new to campus.

Two months ago, the five of us, all first-year students, realized that while MIT Sloan is cultivating the next generation of business leaders, a dearth of resources exist to enable those future leaders to cultivate a compassionate, empathetic, and clear-minded leadership style. In other words, we believe that our school is doing a phenomenal job of empowering students to develop as business leaders, but that there is a tremendous opportunity to expand into mindful business leaders. We attended the Mindful Leadership Summit to inform our launch of a new organization on campus, which we are preliminarily branding as Mindfulness and Leadership.

Thank you so much for supporting our initiative and enabling us to attend the Mindful Leader conference. The conference events and workshops provided us with valuable insights on incorporating mindfulness in organizations and communities, and we aspire to make those a part of Sloan and the broader MIT community.

The summit, which was hosted at the Grand Hyatt in Washington D.C. from November 14-17, gave us the opportunity to hear from a variety of folks at the vanguard of mindful leadership. Those names included Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, founder and CEO of The Flourishing Center; Loch Kelly, Psychotherapist at Open-Hearted Awareness Institute; and Dr. Rich Fernandez, CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. The conference was directed by Mindful Leader President Mo Edjlali.

Our group had the privilege of attending the summit on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday kicked off with a case study of mindfulness at EnPro. Marvin Riley (CEO, EnPro) and Dr. Susan Sweeney (President, GGB Bearing Technology) offered insights into the use of mindfulness and related practices at EnPro. They highlighted numerous fascinating, easily-transferable practices such as arranging meetings in circles to make members feel included, allowing everyone to speak once before anyone speaks twice, and starting meetings with a short meditation. It was inspiring to know that a large, successful organization has implemented a mindfulness culture at scale. 

The case study of mindfulness at EnPro gave me the confidence and belief that we have the power to make a real change in the MIT community. The fact that real leaders in real organizations are implementing mindfulness practices to better their businesses and their people is inspirational, and makes me think we can do it too.

The case study was followed by a riveting debate involving two workplace mindfulness adversaries, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Dr. David Forbes. The pair debated with Dr. Rich Fernandez and Barnaby Spring about the uncoupling of religion and mindfulness, as well as the relation between mindfulness and capitalism.

The rest of Saturday and Sunday were spent in a variety of seminars and workshops. A few of the sessions stood out:

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Learn how to Recognize Trauma, Respond Skillfully, and Prevent Retraumatization with David Treleaven, PhD

Dr. David Treleaven, a visiting scholar at Brown University, shared how his research exploring the intersection of trauma and mindfulness was inspired by his own experience at a mindfulness retreat. At the retreat, Dr. Treleaven experienced repressed emotional trauma, which triggered long-lasting, detrimental effects on his well-being. The experience prompted his research on the impact of mindfulness on trauma survivors. Dr. Treleaven’s subsequent dissertation outlined how mindfulness may cause trauma survivors to suffer effects that require ceasing of the mindfulness practice or intervention by a trauma professional. Dr. Treleaven emphasized the importance of recognizing individuals who have experienced trauma and highlighted how facilitators can prevent retraumatization. 

The session is particularly relevant as we consider how to create a safe environment for the MIT Sloan community to learn and practice mindfulness. Dr. Treleaven’s research elucidated the importance of recognizing when an individual may require an intervention prior to continuing with a mindfulness practice.

It was an invaluable experience that reinforced the importance of mindfulness in leadership, as well as elucidated the importance of our approach (e.g., clearly framing the secular nature, grounding initiatives in rigorous science, being cognizant of circumstances where traditional mindfulness approaches may prove problematic, such as in situations where people are recovering from / processing traumatic experiences). I returned from the trip energized and excited to synthesize our collective insights into impactful initiatives for our community!

Compassionate Leadership: Unlocking Personal Truths to Harness Organizational Potential with Dr. Barbara Vacarr

Dr. Vacarr spoke about the power of listening as the secret sauce for changing humanity. Engaging as a listener and witness of someone else’s experience enables us to connect and relate to the person sitting across from us.

The talk reminded us of our innate need to be seen and valued, not only as an employee but as an individual. Moreover, developing compassion for others starts with developing compassion for ourselves, and Dr. Vacarr emphasized the importance of exploring our own vulnerabilities through a disciplined practice of compassionate self-inquiry. Fulfilling organizational potential through compassionate leadership hinges upon each person’s individual practice.

As we head back to campus, we do so with the intention to create conditions that enable our members to begin their own practices of self-inquiry. It is also a healthy reminder for the five of us, as leaders of Mindfulness and Leadership, to continue to develop compassion for ourselves as we look to extend the practice to others.

The conference was an incredible opportunity to learn about the current state of mindfulness in organizations from a very diverse set of perspectives.

Bounce Back Better with Emiliya Zhivotovskaya

The Bounce Back Better session was an energetic, interactive session aimed at examining the meaning of resilience. After several traumatizing events in her youth, Zhivotovskaya searched inside for a way to use the traumatic events to fuel personal growth. The Bounce Back Better training program is her means of teaching others how to not only overcome struggle, but to emerge as a stronger individual. In her mind, resilience is about how you “digest” your emotions. Just as a healthy digestive system is required for physical health, our ability to “digest” our emotions — take what we need and let the rest go — can keep us healthy mentally. 

Zhivotovskaya also emphasized the importance of a growth mindset when facing challenges. As opposed to a fixed mindset, which views our condition as fixed and immutable, a growth mindset views our condition as flexible and amenable to growth, learning, and change.

The Bounce Back Better session is especially pertinent to the daily lives we lead at MIT Sloan. Our days are filled with challenges, and it’s our job to figure out how to use both challenges and setbacks as growth opportunities.

An absolutely amazing opportunity to delve deeper into the idea of mindfulness as a platform for leading a better team.

The Mindful Leadership Summit provided a healthy dose of sage wisdom, practical advice, networking, and pure inspiration — all of which we plan to leverage as we help build the next generation of mindful leaders. As our team heads back to campus, it is clear from our initial reflections that the summit left us motivated and prepared to bring our organization to life. We hope that by bringing meaningful change to MIT that we inspire other students, especially at other MBA programs, to start the mindful leadership conversation on their campuses too. We believe encouraging tomorrow’s c-suite leaders to explore mindfulness as the foundation of resilience, interpersonal dynamics, and EQ is a worthwhile pursuit.

The learnings I had are ones that I will continue to carry with me in my personal and professional life.

We want to thank the Mindful Leader team and the MIT Leadership Center for believing in our program's vision and for sponsoring our attendance. Without their support, our attendance would not have been possible.

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