Zen and the art of business leadership

Meditation is catching on amongst CEOs as the new way to get ahead. But can a few minutes of daily contemplation really improve your leadership skills or your company’s profitability?

At the Silicon Valley headquarters of the world’s largest search engine company, employees are receiving training in a different type of search.

These Google classes have nothing to do with algorithms – the Search Inside Yourself program teaches employees the skills of meditation and mindfulness to help them develop emotional intelligence. Google is not the only business which promotes such techniques. Contemplative practices have become commonplace amongst companies in the Silicon Valley, while interest in meditation appears to be growing throughout corporate America.

Business leaders which practise meditation include Bob Shapiro, former Monsanto CEO; William Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Co; Bill George, a Harvard professor and former CEO of Medtronic, the world’s largest medical technology company; Rick Goings, Tupperware CEO; and media proprietors Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey. Some business schools including Wharton and the Drucker School of Management now include meditation as part of their MBA course.

Proponents claim meditation offers benefits for both the individual and organisation – such as improved cognitive function including better concentration and creativity, greater productivity and job satisfaction, and reduced absenteeism and staff turnover.

Research backs up some of these claims. For example, Dr Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin found that the brain function of serious meditators is ‘profoundly different’ from that of non-meditators – in ways that suggest an improved capacity to concentrate and manage emotions. He calls meditation a ‘kind of mental training’.

Chade-Meng Tan, the former Google engineer who originated the Search Inside Yourself program, dismisses the notion that meditation is ‘fluffy’, saying the program is based firmly in scientific concepts. The course was designed in conjunction with experts including Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence.

Meng says emotional intelligence is known to make people better leaders, more effective workers and is also important for innovation. “Studies have shown that emotional competencies are twice as important in contributing to excellence as pure intellect and expertise,” he argues.

If meditation isn’t ‘fluffy’, neither is it an easy option, says Professor Jeremy Hunter who leads one of the courses at the Drucker School of Management in California. “These exercises are difficult. They’re emotionally demanding. You have to be able to really honestly look at yourself in a very unvarnished way.”

Leadership coach Peter Bregman says meditating helps business leaders to stay more in control and therefore make better decisions. “Meditating daily will strengthen your willpower muscle,” he insists. “Your urges won’t disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them…you can make intentional choices about which to follow and which to let pass.”

Michael Carroll, business coach and author of The Mindful Leader, says mindfulness meditation helps business people to gain a clearer viewpoint.

He recommends adopting an upright posture, keeping relaxed and alert, with eyes open. Breathe normally and notice the sounds, sights, smells and sensations. As thoughts come into your mind, recognise that you are thinking and bring your attention back to your immediate experience.

“This act of just sitting still teaches a vital, visceral lesson from the very start: when we pause and look directly at our minds, we discover that our attention is restlessly wandering,” says Carroll. “Where before our wandering mind gave us the impression that we were reliably living our “normal” lives, now we realize such a perspective to be a narrow window.”

For mindful leaders, cultivating this wisdom of seeing clearly is at the very heart of the meditation practice, says Carroll, and helps them develop the mental agility that is required in modern leaders.

“As an executive coach, I am routinely inspired by business leaders who bring this special breed of agility to today’s business challenges because the old model of ‘command and control leadership’ simply doesn’t scale to today’s self-organising networks and distributed technologies. Today, work is about resilient coalitions and leaders who are agile enough to lead them.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019