Bringing Mindful Leadership Education to our MBA Program at MIT
By Meggan Davis, José Ramos, and Jeremy Scharf, guest contributors
We started Mindfulness and Leadership (“M&L”) in 2019 as a student-led initiative at MIT’s Sloan School of Management with a firm belief that to lead others well we must first know ourselves. Despite research recognizing some inner knowledge is key to effective leadership, many MBA students graduate without a toolkit for understanding themselves or how they relate to others.
Jeremy Scharf, one of our co-founders and a second-year MBA, says about this disconnect,
“We miss a lot of important things about leadership. When you look at studies of effective leaders, you’re not reading about someone who’s good at calculus or economics. Never. It’s someone who can listen to other people and make them feel heard and valued.”
José Ramos, a second-year MBA and a second co-founder of M&L, saw this evidence first in his own real-world experience and then came to MIT Sloan with an intention to share the benefits of a mindfulness practice with classmates and future leaders. Still, he hadn’t realized the scope of the need until he got to campus.
“In our core classes, there’s no real focus on EQ, self-awareness, or becoming mindful of the impacts of our actions. That’s scary to me because we’re educating future leaders with the same old methods that have put us in the situations we’re in today,” José said. “The world is becoming more complex, so we need to be able to get outside of ourselves and our emotions and think objectively about the situation.” This idea is supported by major business leaders as well—but the MBA education, for the most part, has yet to catch up to this new mindset.
Many define mindfulness as the ability to create space between stimulus and response. We think of it as the ability to see oneself and the world with clarity and equanimity, enabling actions to arise from a place of stillness, understanding, and compassion. This practice can enable more creative thinking and improved empathy. Imagine how useful this ability is in a heated moment, after a disagreement with a colleague or superior, or even to enable deep listening during a friendly conversation. For many who seek to hire tomorrow’s leaders, this skill—which comes with practice—is scarce and sought-after.
Our organization has taken a tactical approach to helping students explore how being more attentive and aware can contribute to their individual leadership abilities. At the outset, we aimed to understand our community’s needs and meet them where they are. We learned that people felt their two biggest hurdles were a lack of time and uncertainty about where to start.
In response, our first step has been creating space for students to build a mindfulness practice on their own time, in whatever form it may take—we wanted to make mindfulness feel very approachable.
“Do you want to take care of yourself? We think about our body and nutrition but we rarely think about care for our minds,” José says, giving the club’s pitch. “We start by getting students to say, ‘I want to strive to have my best well being’, to pay attention to the signals their bodies send, and to build a daily practice with an intention.” This can be as simple as a morning routine (think: making coffee attentively and setting a personal goal for the day).
We also focus on designing events that delve into the connection between a personal mindfulness practice and leadership—or putting yourself in service of others. One of our most popular programs, Mindfulness in Practice, brings prominent leaders to campus (or, in the Zoom era, “to campus”) to discuss how a focus on personal awareness has influenced their leadership abilities and professional journey. Last fall, we also had the chance to bring some of our members to the Mindful Leadership Summit for deeper examination of this connection.
It has also been invaluable to have allies and champions on and off-campus who believe in the necessity of this effort. Our partners on campus remind us that this belief in mindfulness exists close to home if you seek it out.
“To provide an opportunity for MBA students to maintain or to build a mindfulness practice while in business school feels critical to creating leaders who live from a place where they know what it means to be human. It ensures that they will show up better to help solve the world's most important problems.”
- Abby Berenson, Associate Director of the MIT Leadership Center. We look to our allies and champions on campus like Abby, Miro Kazakoff, Kathleen Stetson, and many more for guidance and support.
In addition to our allies, we have focused on developing strong financial backing to ensure that M&L can be a sustainable presence for semesters to come. We looked for support internally, from alumni, and from corporate sponsors. Silicon Valley Bank was our first corporate sponsor and really believes in the necessity of what we are building. We’ve learned that there are many companies who are not only looking to hire people with the types of skills we’re focused on fostering, but that they want to support this type of leadership development financially.
To others looking to build out a mindfulness community at their institution: the importance of strong supporters cannot be overstated, and looking for support doesn’t have to be complicated. We started with a Google form that asked who in our community might be interested in helping. Ten people raised their hands.
Our hope is that mindfulness will one day be considered a core competency for every MBA at MIT and beyond. In the meantime, we’re excited to see some students applying with this specific hope for their own MBA journey, and for other MBA schools to start scaling their mindfulness education offerings. And for today, we’ll keep working on ourselves and in our own Sloan community.
The Mindfulness and Leadership Club at MIT also wants to thank for their guidance and support Jeremy Hunter, Jerry Colonna, Lissy Alden, Matthew Bellows, and José Alvarez. In addition, the club is grateful for the ongoing enthusiasm and leadership of club executives Ilona Balagula, Ana Carolina Blain, Meggan Davis, and Roxanne Moslehi.
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Delighted to read about this! As Chair of the Global Online Conference of the International Leadership Association [November 5-9], with a deep interest in mindfulness and leadership, I've worked with the ILA to offer special sessions about mindfulness and leadership. There will be practice sessions for mindfulness and connection, a panel on inner development and social justice, as well as many workshops and presentations on research--and hundreds of others on major leadership topics around the globe. Keynote speakers will address heart and the arts in leadership--as well as covid, systems change, and the rise of authoritarianism. Students interested in mindful leadership will find lots of people who will interest them.
Good article. Thanks. I wanted to offer our team of combat veterans who are certified mindfulness instructors as possible speaker(s) for an event. I'm the Exec Director of Veteran's PATH. veteranspath.org. We introduce mindfulness to transitioning veterans as they leave the military to rejoin civilian life. your statement "focus on designing events that delve into the connection between a personal mindfulness practice and leadership—or putting yourself in service of others..." resonated with me. Our veterans have just done exactly that and viscerally understand what mindfulness means for practical leadership in life-threatening situations. might be a good perspective for MBA students to hear from. I'm a graduate of HBS across the river and I admire the leadership position MIT is taking on this important core teaching.
Thanks David, I'll connect with you via LinkedIn
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