The Mindful Leadership Summit 2019: Challenging Assumptions

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By Laura Berland 

This year’s Sixth Annual Mindful Leadership Summit in Washington, DC brought a fresh set of voices and perspectives to honestly assess the current state of mindfulness in leadership. The rich presentations, conversations, and connections all contributed to a stellar experience of new learning, ideas, and practices. Read our main takeaways from the conference below.

Commitment from the top is necessary for organizational impacts. Or is it?
There were a number of organizational success stories demonstrated at the summit, with Novartis, EnPro, and the New York City Department of Education representative of the wide range of settings in which organizational mindfulness can take root. Consistent across these organizations is a buy-in at the highest level of the organizations, strong data to validate success, and the right timing.

To build a grassroots program from the bottom-up or the middle out (regardless of someone’s role or title), everyone agrees that the process should start small, test, and build organically. Growth comes from finding internal champions, and in some large organizations like Humana and IBM, linking separate initiatives to bring more momentum to the fore.

In a conversation with thought leader Andy Lee, we agreed that the leader (from the top, middle, or grassroots) driving the implementation of mindfulness programs is most effective when they have a strong individual practice and embody the benefits in life and at work.

The evidence is compelling. Or is it?
It is clear by the numbers of studies that mindfulness has an amazing impact on its practitioners and those around them. Whether in the areas of neuroscience, resilience, happiness, productivity, or others, the impact of mindfulness has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt, especially when it comes to the well-being of individual practitioners. But when it comes to mindfulness and leadership, the answer is not quite so clear.

Darren Good of Pepperdine University and Christopher Lyddy of Providence College made a compelling case that the studies that exist linking mindfulness to leadership fall far short of establishing a causal link. In the first place, there are few studies of mindfulness that focus on leadership and team well-being and performance. The studies that do exist have generally been lab-based, a context that may or may not correlate with the real world of the workplace. In addition, many studies do not have well-controlled peer groups, and where there is some correlation between mindfulness and the leadership trait being measured, it is very difficult to establish causality.

The message here isn’t that mindfulness doesn’t work to support leadership and in teams. There is evidence to suggest that it does, just not scientific gold-standard proof. The call to action is to pursue further research that meets the highest standards of causality, control, and real-world conditions. In addition, the mindfulness community would be well-served by precision in expressing the benefits of mindfulness, so they don’t fall prey to overpromising and underdelivering.

We experience what we think we are going to experience. Or do we?
The conference opened with a mind-blowing keynote address from Anil Seth, PhD, of the University of Sussex. Dr. Seth, who researches consciousness, proposed the idea that what we experience is simply controlled hallucination. It is not so much that we come to “believe what we see,” but that what we see is based on what we are expecting, or in other words, we actually “see what we believe.”

The implications of this are wide-ranging, and certainly provide a theoretical understanding of why mindfulness practices enhance performance. There were a number of sessions on performance enhancement through mindfulness and visualization. One certainly expects that Mark Campbell, Director of Mental Conditioning of the World Series Champion Washington Nationals, knows a thing or two about being at your best performance-wise. His advice is simple, “The secret to being at your best is being present.”

Simple advice is different from being easy to execute. To help out with the execution, there were many excellent sessions on connections between the body and the mind and our states of being. Cara Bradley, Loch Kelly, Fleet Maull, Richard Miller, PhD, Max Strom, PhD, Ginny Whitelaw, PhD, David Treleaven, PhD, and Emiliya Zhivotovskaya led a wide variety of practices on breathing, resonance, neuro-somatic meditation, trauma, grounding, and bodily awareness.

Mindfulness anywhere, including the workplace, is a process, not an event.
There is a reason that people refer to mindfulness activity as a practice. The benefits don’t come from a weekend training or even an eight-week seminar series. The real benefit comes from rewiring your brain to respond differently – more calmly and thoughtfully – to external stimuli.

A number of speakers spoke of the importance of making practice ongoing. Patti Coan of Humana shared the importance of ongoing circles of practice. Rich Fernandez, PhD, of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute offered five principles to sustaining mindfulness in organizations, including creating a sustained learning journey, keeping it practical, and socializing the outcomes.

Listen carefully to the dissenters. They might just strengthen your feelings about mindfulness.
In the most dramatic session of the conference, four leaders debated two topics, “Is mindfulness changing capitalism, or is capitalism changing mindfulness?” and “Are mindfulness practices religious and do they belong in public institutions?”

In the first topic, mindfulness and capitalism, David Forbes, PhD, and Rich Fernandez, PhD, seemed to agree on much more than they disagreed. Mindfulness can be manipulated by corporations to attempt to extract more from employees by increasing their stress tolerance. This is bad. Their difference boiled down to the question of how to best overcome economic system structural problems that undermine our humanity? Dr. Forbes advocates for a more forceful deconstruction of systems while Dr. Fernandez believes that mindfulness holds the key to helping us recognize our shared common humanity within the existing structure, and thereby leads to creation of a completely new structure.

The second debate, between Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, and Barnaby Spring, Director of Mindfulness in Education, NYC Department of Education, on whether mindful practices are religious, certainly led to heightened emotions on stage. But even amidst the rhetoric, there was no disagreement between the debaters that mindfulness practices have positive effects on practitioners. Dr. Brown’s objection to mindfulness in the schools is not due to a belief that it isn’t helpful, but simply that it is based on religious foundations. While the narrower question of whether mindfulness practices are appropriate in public institutions certainly raises interesting questions, it is quite reassuring (to an advocate of mindful practices) to hear someone strongly associated with opposition to mindfulness say that “Practices can produce secular benefits and still be religious.” It is interesting to note that mindfulness practices exist in all the major religions.

Learning trumps winning.
We would like to give a shout out to Mo Edjlali, who staged the four-day event, and did so this year with a bit of risk-taking. The speakers he invited included many new voices, and he didn’t shy away from speakers who have doubts about mindful leadership. As Barnaby Spring said during the debate on religion and mindfulness: “Debate is not about winning. It’s about learning.” By bringing a broader range of voices to the 2019 Mindful Leadership Summit, we were all able to learn.

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This article has been republished with permission from the author.

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