Mindfulness — Growing the Capacity for Leadership*

Pexels image modified for Polski Instytut Mindfulnes

“How to manage sustained periods of stress poses a central question for the exercise of leadership,” writes Ron Heifetz, the legendary Harvard professor, author and consultant in “Leadership Without Easy Answers”. As a certified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, I am convinced that this seminal program by Jon Kabat-Zinn is the perfect supplementary fit to Heifetze’s revolutionary concept of successful leadership practice.

What follows is an exploration of how the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, as an ancient contemplative practice informed by modern neuroscience and social science, can be a means to acquire and become fluent in the capacities necessary for the kind of leadership work defined by Heifetz and his colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School for Public Governance.

In the first section of this paper, I explore the existing intersections between leadership and mindfulness by showing their common root paradigm, looking into “the balcony” metaphor and proposing that the way mindfulness helps practitioners deal with stress is a form of self leadership that builds real and neccessary capacity in global agents of change.

In the second half of the paper, I examine selected exercises from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that specifically address areas of development conducive to successful leadership. These include: the value and practice of focused attention, learning to recognize the body as a holding space for the self, working with perceptions to increase the accurate reading of reality, unlearning the habitual avoidance of discomfort to increase steadiness in the face of trouble, turning off the autopilot of reaction and learning conscious response, and using mindfulness as a diagnostic tool for self care and to foster the compassion and community that are so important to well being and survival.

Mindfulness and leadership grow from a common root

From the very first exercise on the power of presence (Jon Scherer’s 110%) to the commencement speech at graduation (Ron Heifetz’s notion of sanctuary and return to self) the compatibility of mindfulness-based skills to leadership was in vivid evidence. These include being fully present, focus, learning to recognize and work within interconnected systems, clarity of perception, steadiness in face of threat or discomfort, the capacity to choose action rather than react automatically and finally, the capacity for compassionate self-care in the interests of survival. These are among the basic capacities that mindfulness-based approaches help people to discover and cultivate during secular training programs offered in academic, business, military and medical contexts.

These skill sets do not overlap without reason. Underneath both mindfulness and leadership lies a common paradigm: the fundamental acceptance of the world, exactly as it is now, without regret, yearning, or other states which cannot change what is already here and play no constructive role in moving us forward. This ability to see and accept circumstances as they are is the starting point of the entire diagnostic and intervention process of facilitating a holding space within which solutions to adoptive challenges can be incubated in the leadership framework. As professor Cezary Wójcik said in his first lecture during the Leadership Academy residential program, „ Leaders see reality as it is, and build from it. They do not focus on the past, because it already happened.” Coincidentally, this is also the heart of secular mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered the father of modern mindfulness, emphasizes this point in his core definition of the practice: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”[1] From this accepting mindset flow the individual qualities of mindfulness — from self-awareness, self-mastery and resilience, to lightness and compassionate curiosity. Neither practice can exist without this foundation.

The balcony is mindfulness

Both disciplines refer to this acceptance of circumstances without judgement in core vocabulary. In leadership study, this act of paying attention none judgmentally to the present moment is called „being on the balcony”. As Ron Heifetz explains, „Hindus and Buddhists call it “karma yoga,” or mindfulness. We call this skill “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back in the midst of action and asking, “What’s really going on here?”[2]. The difference, however, is in how this concept is explored in both programs. During my leadership training, „being on the balcony” was a metaphor for a perspective participants were encouraged to employ, with the understanding that they knew how to do it and could use it at will. In mindfulness, „being here and now” is a challenge, or a skill that participants are encouraged to learn and develop through secular meditation practices maintained throughout their lives.

The assumption that mindfulness holds, is that presence to the here and now is a way of being that we are all born into. As our experience with the world grows, however, our minds become full of memories, associations, language and concepts, relationships and voices. Though being present is the mode that enables us to learn as children, often as we mature, the attraction of what is inside the mind becomes greater than that which is outside of it. In this way, the proportion of being here and now to being lost in thought begins to shift towards the latter, until we literally forget how to be fully present in the world. In a study conducted in 2010, Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert estimated that the amount of time an adult in the western world spends inside his or her own head can be as much as 47% of their waking lives[3]. In this sense mindfulness and leadership agree — we all understand what it means to be on the balcony rather than on the dancefloor and we have all done it before. What mindfulness addresses and proposes, however, is that most of us have lost the ability to harness this capacity and therefor need regular mental practice to relearn and strengthen it.

The balcony metaphor is uniquely suited to illustrating the practice of mindfulness also because it highlights a core concept upon which the practice depends: that one can notice where one’s attention is and exert influence on it. Specifically, what one tries to do when one sits down to meditate, is direct one’s attention to a single object of observation at a time. Most often this will be either the breath, body sensations, sounds, thoughts, or emotions. When one does this, the mind’s tendency is to wander. Before long, focus on the breath has turned into making a shopping list for dinner or replaying scenes from last night’s Netflix series. The practice of mindfulness is then to notice where the attention has gone and, without judgement, or feelings of failure, simply bring it back to the single object of observation. This act of noticing where one’s attention has gone correlates nicely with the concept of a higher vantage point, or balcony, above the level on which one’s attention functions. From there, one can observe what one’s attention is doing and exert influence upon it.

It is interesting to note, however, that the balcony perspective recommended in leadership practice serves to provide the viewer a wider, detached perspective on the situation that he or she is involved in. Though mindfulness training can and does exercise the ability to get oneself up on this balcony, the first and most important object of scrutiny from this vantage point is the mindfulness practitioner him/herself. By assuming an observational stance towards oneself, the mindfulness practitioner strives to develop an understanding of the automatic habits and reactions of his or her own the mind, body and emotions. In understanding these, one can begin to direct one’s responses consciously to increase the likelihood of a desired outcome. Without this understanding one remains at the mercy of one’s limiting collection of default reactions which tend to lead off track from where one would like to go.

It would perhaps be possible to argue, that the first adaptive challenge that a mindful leader takes on is the identification of one’s own work in the center tackled through creative interventions into one’s patterns and attitudes in a lifelong journey towards self-mastery.

MBSR as a self-leadership boot camp — stress IS the way

The eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by the neurobiologists Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Massachusetts University Medical Center in 1979, was the first transplantation of this ancient contemplative practice from its spiritual Buddhist home into a scientific context. Kabat-Zinn discovered that attention is a resource that can be cultivated. As he worked to research the effects of secular meditation on the mind and body, he introduced the academic world to the concept of mind-body connectivity that has grown into a library of scientific work surpassing 3,000 publications to date.

Honed and fine-tuned by the scientific community over the last 35 years, the MBSR program has become the most commonly taken road into mindfulness practice. On its foundation, numerous specialty mindfulness courses have been developed by global academic, medical, psychological and business communities to address the needs of groups of people or to grow and build on particular aspects of the practice.

What makes MBSR so powerful as a starting point and foundation course, is the universal human struggle around which it is constructed. Though the word used to describe this is ‘stress,’ in actuality, MBSR helps people to take responsibility and exercise greater conscious choice in the face of difficulty of any kind. Stress, as understood in the MBSR framework, is what we experience when anything occurs in our lives (or minds) that diverges from what we would like to happen. Ron Heifetz refers to these kinds of difficulties simply as ‘problems’. „We perceive problems whenever circumstances do not conform to the way we think things ought to be,”[4] he writes in „Leadership Without Easy Answers”.

As we learned at the very beginning of the LAP residential program during Professor Cezary Wójcik’s first lecture, „problems are the way”, and are an intrinsic part, or even the only path, for leadership practitioners. Accepting circumstances, facing them and skillfully searching for solutions is the very definition of what leadership is for. It is therefore key, in my opinion, to acknowledge and address the effect that problems have on those seeking to exercise leadership, so that they may do so with success.

MBSR proposes exactly this — a closer look at what happens when one encounters problems, and a set of tools to replace potentially destructive automatic reactions with consciously chosen responses.

Without the capacity to understand and direct our behavior in moments of fear, crises, high stakes or hostility, human beings habitually revert to default behaviors ingrained during childhood. These automatic reactions bypass our mental and moral resources inciting instead a physical instinct towards flight or fight collectively referred to as: the stress reaction. Heavily documented both psychologically and biologically[5], the stress reaction is recognized as sadly deficient in helping us address modern day challenges. Most problems that evoke a stress reaction in the XXI century stem from regretting events from the past, mental overload or fear of the future, not from a real threat to our lives. As a relic of our more primitive days, the stress reaction has failed to evolve as quickly as our civilization and is therefore more of a handicap then a help in facing our daily and extraordinary problems.

To diffuse this reaction and retain access to the mind and heart’s full potentiality, mindfulness proposes both a study of one’s patterns, triggers, default behaviors and mental accelerators, as well as a set of practical techniques to hack into this reaction by way of skillfully steering one’s attention to the here and now. As it turns out, doing so during a stress reaction to a non-violent situation effectively conveys to one’s brains that the danger one’s body and mind were alarming about, has passed. This in turn prompts the body’s defense mechanisms to power down and restore psycho-physical equilibrium. By bringing one’s attention to the physical present, one cuts off the stress evoking input. This is the power of mindfulness and the healing gift of being present to what is actually in front of us, as opposed to what is behind us, in our minds, or still to come. Mindfulness unlocks this power as a starting point to understanding the self, the surrounding world and our relationship to both.

This study and practice in an MBSR program spans the course of eight weeks during which the course group meets 8 times for 2,5 hours and once for 6 hrs. However, the key to the weakening of old habits and developing the capacity to climb onto the balcony and choose an appropriate response to difficulty, depends most heavily on the systematic daily practice of mindfulness guided meditations at home. The group meetings serve to help participants recognize the mechanics of their own minds, bodies, emotions and relationships, while the meditations serve as practice space for observing them. From those observations comes the discovery that we can take a step back and watch our minds and bodies react, without acting. This pulling away provides the balcony vantage point and can at first be as brief and seemingly insignificant as one breath or a single second. And yet within that tiny piece of time resides the freedom from being pushed and pulled by habits and instead to give one’s self pause.

It would be safe to say that this pause is a profound space in MBSR and the reward for the disciplined work of daily meditation. The ability to stop oneself from careening headlong into action, the capacity to pull back and notice the effect of a judgmental thought on our perception of a person or situation or even ourselves, the readiness to experience discomfort without immediately reaching for fast and easy relief, these are the steps leading to the balcony that one comes to discover during an eight week MBSR course.

Course specifics — how MBSR builds leadership muscle

The journey from week one to week eight of the MBSR training takes participants on a guided tour of their own mental habits and introduces them to the interconnected system of their mental, physical and emotional lives. It is only by the understanding of the domino effect that one has upon the other that participants can discover the source of what influences and moves them. It then slowly emerges that one can take the wheel of conscious response away from the autopilot that has long been at the helm and steer one’s life more masterfully towards its guiding purpose.

The themes addressed in MBSR consist of eight areas of exploration. The first is recognizing automatic reactions and learning to slow down to make observations. Second — understanding perceptions and the effect of judgement on how we view the world. Third — learning to stay at the boundary of comfort to explore reactions to conflict and heighten tolerance for disequilibrium. Fourth — the biological specifics of the stress reaction. Fifth — undermining the western paradigm of ‘I think therefore I am’ and coming to see thoughts as chemical events in the mind that we can observe and chose to let go of or engage in. Sixth — understanding the evolutionary and social purpose of difficult emotions and how to hold them. Seventh — understanding the dynamics of intention in communication conflicts and our own habitual patterns of communicating with others. Eighth — compassion as a way to remain open to one’s own vulnerability and connect to others.

For the purpose of this exploration, I have selected several aspects of the MBSR course to show how they supplement and support leadership work. A full analysis of the MBSR program as relevant to leadership practitioners would have exceeded the prescribed length of the paper.

Relearning the value and practice of focused attention

The MBSR course begins by pulling the hand brake and bringing the sprinting minds and bodies of course participants to a forced stop. It is essential to make it clear at the beginning of this process, that results of an inquiry into complex systems, such as the self or adaptive challenges, do not come up as quickly as google loads on our smartphones and cannot be fished out while simultaneously doing or thinking about other things. This modern notion of the value of speed and multitasking is important to tackle head on at the very beginning of the program to diffuse unrealistic expectations that MBSR will give fast and easy answers. It will not and cannot do so. In fact, it will challenge the habitual seeking of easy answers that we have been conditioned to engage in, demonstrating instead the value of focused attention over time.

As we know from Dean Williams, this is the type of approach that adaptive challenges require. He wrote, „A technical challenge requires the straightforward application of expertise to solve the problem, whereas an adaptive challenge is more complex in that it necessitates changing people’s values, habits, practices, and priorities.”[6] By their very definition, adaptive challenges do not come with preprogrammed solutions and require both time, care and skill to bring about. Though they may be urgent, they can rarely be solved or even constructively addressed by rash action. Instead they must be observed, explored and understood as fully as possible for creative ideas on how to influence them to emerge.

During the first session of MBSR, The Raisin exercise is introduced to begin familiarizing participants with a different tempo then they are used to and to a sustained focus on one object of scrutiny.

The Raisin is a group activity during which the teacher prescribes the perspective of an alien scientist and guides participants in using all their senses to explore and try to understand the nature and purpose of a strange wrinkled packet of brown matter. The exercise lasts about 15 minutes and involves a detailed scrutiny of the raisin each participant is holding. During this time, participants discover not only the look and feel of a raisin, but the sounds that it makes, the length of time that the smell of a raisin stays inside the throat and mouth, and finally they observe themselves struggling with their habitual eating patterns to not bite and swallow the raisin immediately. Instead they are to explore its texture and taste using their tongues, teeth and the roofs of their mouths. The teacher also guides a short contemplation on the journey each raisin has taken from ripening on a branch, through the picking, packaging and sales process and into their hands. It is safe to say that everyone in the group has a small or great discovery during this exercise that reveals something about the way they eat or the nature of the raisin that they had not noticed before.

This lends itself to a discussion about how much more we can learn if we stop and take the time to play close attention. The Beginners Mind, as it is called in MBSR, helps to assume an attitude of none judgment by asking previous experience to step away and allow a full and curious contact with something that we may have encountered before, but certainly have not discovered and understood fully.

The body as a holding space for the self

With the tempo established, the next important step is to pull MBSR course participants’ attention from its habitual place of residence in the mind and widen it to include the body. Because people facing challenges in the XXI century most often do so in an intellectual capacity of some kind, the tendency to allocate all available attention on the workings of the mind is quite natural. The effect, however, is a cutting off our conscious experience from the valuable insights and information available in and broadcast by the body.

As such, the body and mind have enormous impact on each other. The power of this impact is just beginning to be uncovered in such research fields as medicine, neurology and psychology. One of the pioneers of this work was neurobiologist Jon Kabat Zinn, the previously mentioned creator of the MBSR program, whose now famous psoriasis study showed that meditation substantially increased the recovery time of skin lesions during radiotherapy.[7] Other discoveries in this area include power posing[8] — a collection of archetypical physical poses communicating social strength and dominance that have a measurable effect on mood, including distress (lower) and confidence (higher), by influencing hormone production. Recent studies on stress disclose that the ill effects it has on health are a direct result of one’s mental attitude. Kelly McGonagall of Stanford University published her findings in the best-selling book „The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It[9]. She discovered, that if one interprets the body’s symptoms of stress as helpful in confronting the task at hand, the stress reaction causes zero damage to the circulatory system. If the opposite is true and we fear or recognize the presence of stress as harmful, the shrinking of capillaries in the circulatory system begins to wreak havoc on the heart.

By treating the body as a technical problem and the mind as an adaptive one, western medicine and philosophy have divided an interdependent system, which benefits all its parts when recognized as a whole. For this reason, the first formal mediation taught in MBSR is the Bodyscan, and serves to increase the holding space of human experience to include the body, by re-teaching participants the value of directing focused attention to it.

During the Bodyscan participants lay down on a bed or a matt and practice bringing their habitually scattered focus to one part of the body after another and searching, not with the mind, but via the senses, for signals and sensations there. Information about our state of restfulness, our level of vitality, about strain or tensions being carried in a part of the body is being transmitted via sensations all the time. Likewise, the body is first to express that we are experiencing an emotion. By keeping our attention trapped in a focus on the mind we miss both early warning signals of impending illness or exhaustion as well as confirmation about what supports and strengthens our body to work at its full potential. We also miss the opportunity to notice emotions as they arise and therefor often don’t realize how they are fueling or driving our actions.

In the discussion after this 30-minute guided exercise participants often talk about a powerful automatic reaction of the body and mind to being in a laying down position with eyes closed — many, if not most participants, fall asleep during the Bodyscan. This is not wrong. It is simply a learned and trained response that we have developed over a lifetime of reacting to this position by falling asleep. But MBSR promises and does not fail to deliver on the promise, that with time and diligent practice, being attentive in any position and situation is a state of being that is available to us.

Another struggle that begins to be addressed during the bodyscan is the attention’s tendency to wander. This flickering of the mind to varying aspects of one’s mental and physical experience is, as mentioned earlier, a key aspect of mindfulness practice. The mind will shift from what one is trying to pay attention to often and repeatedly. This is not bad. It is simply another of the habits that we have developed and even aspired to. Multitasking, however, is a modern myth that has proven[10] to be a misunderstanding. Despite common convictions to the contrary, the mind cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Instead, it shifts from one task to another. During this toggling, the cost that we incur is expressed in time and precision, both of which are lost to some degree in this process. As we practice formal mindfulness mediations and persistently bring our attention back when it shifts from instructions to ruminating, planning or fantasizing, we slowly strengthen our capacity to keep focus and attention where we want it to be, instead of skipping randomly around the channels of our minds.

Seeing clearly — how perceptions differ from reality

It is paramount in seeking to lead adaptive work, to understand the complexity of situations being faced. The most important first step to instigating positive change is making an accurate diagnosis of the problem. If done poorly, no amount of skill in later stages will make a difference in creating lasting and sustainable growth, because action will be undertaken to address the wrong issues. It is therefore crucial to develop the ability to see reality clearly, with as little clouding by our own biases and expectations as possible.

Doing this is a challenge despite our best intentions, because our minds are trained to latch on to certain types of information. We tend to overlook the familiar, and seek to confirm our convictions or find proof of our deepest fears. These strategies of fishing for information are a natural selection process necessary to keep the mind from getting over cluttered by needless details. However, they also tend to create a distorted or at least a fragmentary perception of reality. As the artist, Andy Goldsworthy stated in the film Dean Williams screened during his LAP16 workshop, „Our perception of the sheep is so different from the reality of the sheep.”[11]

To disarm this automatic filtering system, we first need to prove to participants that things they do not pay attention to practically disappear from their perception. An exercise involving mindful looking is done in week two of the MBSR program. During the exercise, participant’s attention is drawn to various aspects of the experience of observing a wall with a window, or a table with some objects on it. As the group faces this wall or table, the teacher gives instructions on where to look.

Participants are asked, for example, to notice familiar objects in their field of vision, like glasses frames, strands of hair, their own noses. These are always there, part of every picture that we see, and yet by all intents and purposes, perfectly invisible. Because we never pay attention to them, we do not „see” them, and therefore they may as well not be there at all. This is true of many familiar places, people and situations that we cease paying attention to until we nearly literally cease to see them completely.

During the exercise, we also work with focusing minutely on the details of a chosen object in front of us to show what happens to the rest of the picture in our field of vision when we do so. Invariably, all other details but the one we are focused on become blurred. This also happens in life and work, when we focus strongly on a project, a problem, fantasy, fear or worry. The rest of the world becomes blurred and out of focus because the mind’s carrying capacity is not constructed to focus simultaneously on more than one thing. This is a second way that reality becomes distorted — when we are fixated on a detail we are unable to simultaneously fan our focus out.

Similarly, when we focus on widening our perspective to include as complete as possible a picture of what is in front of us, we are not simultaneously capable of taking in details of any of the objects within that frame. Neither strategy is wrong, however both types of scrutiny are limited in their capacity to uncover reality fully. Things beyond our perception, that we do not take notice of or „see”, may be a part of reality that we miss because of the nature of our attention and our preferred way of exploring. To counteract this, it is necessary to consciously employ multiple strategies and viewpoints that will supplement each other and support the gathering of accurate information.

In the discussion that follows the exercise, we explore the mechanism behind each minds’ selection process. Thus, we begin to uncover, that what we saw or chose to notice was that which our mind had labeled most clearly as a „like” or a „dislike.” This tendency of the mind to select what it perceives is accomplished through judgment. People find themselves focusing on imperfections of symmetry because they are irritated by them. Or on a plant because they love gardening. Discovering the connection between judgement and perception is the first step in an MBSR participant’s journey towards understanding the value of a non-judgmental attitude towards the here and now. It is only through such an attitude that we may hope to perceive reality directly, as opposed to through the perceptive lenses of our judging minds.

Holding steady — unlearning the habitual avoidance of discomfort

Leadership undertaken from a position of formal authority calls upon those exercising it to occasionally turn up the heat to ripen an issue and prepare society[12], a company, or a family for the learning required to make an adaptive change. During this process, the ability to hold steady despite intense pressure from constituents to relieve the stress involved with confronting difficulty, is crucial to successfully moving forward.

Practicing leadership from a position of little formal authority also requires the capacity to tolerate heat. It calls for skillfully maneuvering people, including those in formal positions of authority, to face hard questions. As outlined by Heifetz in „Leadership on the Line”, the most common reaction of an environment to being confronted with difficult reality, is to resist[13]. Most often, this resistance and push back are expressed in direct or indirect attacks on the credibility, position or personal life of the person attempting to instigate change. The ability to remain cool headed when under attack is key to choosing a response capable of moving an issue forward. An automatic reaction of taking offence and moving in one’s own self defense has the opposite effect of taking the focus off the issue and directing it at the often-public spectacle of a personal conflict. The result is, what Heifetz calls, ‘work avoidance.’[14]

„Take note of social stresses; they are clues to needed work. Take note of attacks upon you: they are clues to work avoidance”[15] he counsels.

Both taking the heat from your constituents and refraining from the temptation to react personally to attack require a tolerance for discomfort that most people do not possess. As a culture, we have been trained to view the more difficult end of the emotional spectrum as a danger zone to be avoided at all costs. The pharmaceutical industry, the watered down, Hollywood propaganda of success and medical professions have all contributed to the west’s habit of alleviating uncomfortable symptoms rather than doing the deep healing required to remove the real source of suffering. One could even argue that work avoidance techniques have become the habitual automatic response to difficulty employed by most modern communities, companies and families.

MBSR tackles this theme head on. The second formal meditation practice called Mindful Movement consists of a series of basic yoga positions done with painstaking slowness conducive to observation. The instructions are to use these asanas to explore the limits of one’s physical endurance. Though the positions are simple, they require effort to hold, which puts strain on various parts of the body. In this very safe and controlled environment, participants are encouraged to explore their physical limitations and the edges of their comfort zones to discover their habitual reactions to strain. It is only in observing and learning to recognize the mind’s and body’s knee jerk reactions to discomfort, can we begin to identify how these patterns play out in our work and personal lives.

This exercise also begins to introduce the quality of mindful attention to more dynamic situations then mediating in stillness, which allows participants to slowly experiment with applying it to their daily lives.

Responding — turning off the autopilot

As weeks pass, the effects of daily meditation practice slowly begin to surface. Practitioners begin to „catch themselves” in the middle of a blow out, notice triggers that evoke in them a psycho-psychical stress reaction, and learn to recognize their individual tipping points. After hours of diligently bringing their minds back to focus, they also have a clearer sense of what content is tumbling about inside their heads. With the practitioner’s ability to sustain attention strengthened and the body reinvented into their general field of interest, the remaining constituents within the system of the self are ready to be explored. In the final weeks of the MBSR program, participants turn the spotlight of their attention on the workings of the mind from the observational meta level of ‘the balcony,’ and observe the relationship between certain types of thoughts and the emotions that they trigger.

The third and final formal meditation in the program is simply called the Sitting Meditation. During this 35-minute guided mental exercise, participants begin a controlled exploration of the present moment by shifting attention to various psycho-physical layers of human experience. The exercise begins with the body and its most intense areas of sensation — its weight and shape and its contact with the ground, clothing and air around it. Then attention is then shifted consciously to an experiencing of sounds. There is an important distinction here between listening and thinking about sounds, however. The task of the mediating practitioner is not to engage in the latter, nor to create and tell mental stories about the sounds he or she hears. Instead it is the practice of being like an antenna that solely receives without judging, filtering or trying to have any effect on its surroundings. The next area of mindful observation during the Sitting Mediation is thoughts. The invitation is to observe the thinking mind without trying to exert any influence or become engaged with the content of the thoughts that are moving through it. Indeed, the beauty of this mediation is the sense of freedom that comes with the realization, that we can allow for thinking without being caught up in it. The instructions here are most often a variation on the theme of sitting on a river’s edge and watching the water flow by, without wading into it. From this lookout point on the workings of our minds, we begin to discern the intimate relationship between certain kinds of thoughts and a resulting emotional response that lights up in the body. Most often, a judgmental thought about ‘dislikes’ triggers reactions from the difficult end of the emotional spectrum, while thoughts about ‘likes’ set off emotions from the more pleasurable end. The exercise concludes with a short period of choice-less awareness which is the widest possible opening of the attention to all aspects of the present moment without any exerted control. This letting go of the directed attention is the final practice ground for maintaining a non-judgmental, curious openness to the experience of oneself and one’s surroundings in the present moment.

The ability to sustain attention and pull away to explore all aspects of the Sitting Meditation completes the introduction of practitioners to the domino effect of automatic reactions playing out within the layers of self. By acquiring a working knowledge of this topography, they begin to weaken the frequency of automatic reactions by ‘catching them’ as they roll through one of these layers. Once caught, the autopilot most often stalls — held in the spotlight of attention like a startled deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. This is the space and time when the practitioner can choose a conscious response rather than the automatic reaction. It is also the learning space in which one comes to understand the habitual patterns and reactions that shape one’s behavior, especially in times of duress.

Dean Williams refers to this distance often in the discussion on personal work at the end of his book „Leadership for a Fractured World”. „Your challenge is to become aware of what values you embody, represent, and even champion so that you can better cross boundaries and navigate the cultural, political, and institutional terrain in which you seek to exercise leadership,” he writes[16]. He goes on to explain, that this is also the space from which one observes one’s inclinations and paradigms in the study of one’s cultural narrative. „Learning about your cultural narrative is like stepping out of your body to look at yourself from a distance to appreciate how powerful cultural currents carry you along and shape your behavior.” [17] Without the wisdom to recognize these cultural currents, the challenge of understanding the complexity of the problem and even one’s own role in exacerbating it, are impossible. „To be a global change agent and provide leadership for a fractured world, you must expand your own boundaries of self-understanding and capacity for intervention. Without self-development, you will find it difficult to cross boundaries and operate in complex, uncertain environments, and your behavior might exacerbate the fractures that already exist.”[18]

„However, the challenge for anyone seeking to practice leadership is to reflect in real-time during action when emotions are high, confusion is in the air, and tough choices must be made.,” Williams observes[19]. The practice of the Sitting Meditation strengthens the brake muscle necessary for this. By practicing directing the beam of attention into the various layers on which our stress reaction plays out, we develop a habit of doing so, that makes it possible to jump to the balcony in difficult situations.

Mindfulness as a prerequisite to survival

Ron Heifetz draws attention to the fact that the holding space a leader must create to facilitate the searching for solutions does not include the leader him or herself. Often, the strain of bearing the expectations and withstanding the work avoidance and tensions involved with leadership, take a massive toll on the leadership practitioner. Heifetz recommends seven strategies to help ease the burden of leadership[20]: trying to differentiate the role being played from one’s self, observing one’s situation from the balcony, externalizing a conflict, using partners or using one’s self as data, resting in a sanctuary and preserving a sense of purpose.

To choose the most appropriate strategy to strengthen one’s self, however, one needs first and foremost to recognize that one is under strain and in need of support. Meanwhile, many ambitious, over achieving individuals have assumed or been taught that reaching for help and paying attention to one’s own needs are not part of the leadership repertoire. One’s own steadiness and well-being tends to be left low on the list of priorities regardless of whether one is a working mother, a teacher, manager or politician. In this way survival, once instinctual for all human beings, has come under threat for leadership practitioners from a habitual, cultural undervaluation of self-care.

Not only do circumstances, environments, and constituents undermine the success of adoptive leadership efforts, but the practitioner’s own lack of attention to his or her own capacity to act with focus and effectiveness also comes into play. For accurate self-diagnosis to take place, we need to relearn the instinct to pause in mid gallop, direct our attention to the state of our minds, bodies and emotions, and assess our own psycho-psychological capacity to carry our plans forward.

Compassion as key ingredient for real leadership

Unlike Heifetz, Jon Kabat-Zinn did not choose to infuse his MBSR program with strategies for self-care. The only exception is an exploration of compassion as an attitude, or habit of the heart and mind, that may be of valuable support and insight in the further search for ways to address the triggers, destructive habits and reactions that one uncovers during the course.

By definition, compassion is the emotional response to perceived suffering that involves an authentic desire to help. The effect of compassion on our health, relationships and work place performance has become the object of scientific research as institutes such as The Greater Good, at UC Berkley. From their studies, we have come to understand that this ability to perceive, feel and act is intimately linked to our survival as a species. „While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.”[21] When applied to the workplace, research shows that compassion facilitates performance by lowering levels of litigation, easing stress, and facilitating cooperation. More specific research reveals, that the higher an individual score on Social Dominance Orientation the less self-compassionate one will be, the more fearful of expressing compassion for others, and more fearful of receiving compassion from others, as well as be more fearful of expressing kindness and compassion towards oneself.[22]

The negative correlation between Social Dominance Orientation and compassion seems to coincide with the contrast between Real Leadership and Big Man Leadership made by Dean Williams. „We cannot think of leadership exclusively in terms of the “big man” or the “tribal boss” who represents the interests of their group alone. We need to distinguish real leadership from formal authority. Leaders today must be agents of change who are willing and able to cross boundaries, connect groups, and orchestrate multidimensional problem solving and change,” he writes in „Leadership for a Fractured World”. Leading with questions as opposed to ego, learning to understand the perspectives of conflicting constituencies and being sensitive to the pressures put on authority figures all require the capability of identifying the stress, or suffering, of others and a willingness to help address these concerns. Accomplishing this without a fluency in compassion would appear a hopeless task.

Happily, it has been found that, like attention, compassion can be cultivated through mindfulness practice. There are two ways that this is done during the MBSR program.

One is conducted subtly throughout the course by way of the audio recorded meditation instructions, which serve to gently guide the practitioner to where his or her attention should be while simultaneously demonstrating a verbal ease and acceptance of whatever occurs during the practice. The instructions not to rebuke oneself when attention wonders, not to label intense body sensations as ‘pain’, and not to tell stories to one’s self about sounds, weaken the mind’s habitually tendency to judge and chastise everything it meets. As they practice, course participants gradually become so familiar with the recorded instructions that the voice from the recording turns into a benchmark for skillful „self-talk.” By slowly starting to mirror the style from the meditation instructions, participants begin to exercise a more compassionate inner dialogue which often finds significant reflection in how they interact with others. This is one of the ways that MBSR delicately introduces practitioners to compassion and a way to practice John Scherer’s MRI (Most Respectful Interpretation) within the safety of one’s meditation practice[23]

The second compassion exercise is META, or loving-kindness, meditation introduced during the last session of the program. In it, practitioners are invited to formulate wishes for safety, health, happiness and ease of living and express them to themselves, loved ones, people they have a neutral relationship with and to the difficult people in their lives. This exercise in emotional imagination, holds the space for envisioning the change in people’s behavior and relationships given the meeting of all their fundamental human needs. The practice shows the vulnerability at the core of all human experience, that links and bridges the fractures separating us from each other, especially in times of stress and conflict.

Continued practice — the gift of community

As the eight-week program draws to an end, the group invariably must confront the difficult reality, that this cultivation of curiosity and study of self and others is never finished. As Williams notes, „You do not just become a wise person and the job is done. The process of cultivating wisdom and expanding your personal boundaries is about the journey rather than the destination, and it is a lifelong journey.”[24] Indeed, the MBSR program is but a crash course in discovering the complexity of the body-mind system and developing the skills necessary to navigate within it. The actual exploration of self and compassionate interventions necessary to weaken destructive patterns and develop healthier ones are a solitary business, much like leadership of most varieties.

What constitutes a final offering from MBSR to leadership is a community of practitioners made of MBSR program alumni, of which most modern cities have many. As the value of mindfulness practice has become recognized via scientific research[25] and the testimony of leaders within the business, medical, educational, technology and even economic communities, the motivation for practitioners to continue the hard work of meditation after finishing an MBSR program has created the circumstances for practice groups to form.

Mindfulness practice groups make the lonely work of a meditation practice easier to bear and provide something of a sanctuary, that Heifetz prescribes to his readers. As a secular practice, mindfulness does not exclude going to church or cultivating other forms of reflection. But it does create a natural space for course alumni to give real and nourishing support to one another via the simple act of continued group presence. Perhaps in this way, practitioners of leadership could coalesce into supportive communities not only based on experience or common social purposes, but also through a mutual dedication to self-development. Williams describes this as, „a passion for wisdom (which) should lead to an intense curiosity to see and understand oneself as an instrument of power — “Why do I react the way I do?” “How do I behave under stress?” “How do I deal with complexity?” “How can I use what power I have more effectively, morally, and responsibly?”[26]

Conclusion — intersections on the roads forward

Mindfulness and leadership meet at a central intersection of modern western thought on both the inter-relatedness of the mind and body, and the interdependence of our social dynamics. While both Heifetz and Williams refer to meditation as quality techniques for the building of wisdom and distance necessary for leadership work, I propose, that the MBSR program specifically, is uniquely suited for students of the framework, as a short and intensive, scientifically informed and spiritually neutral boot camp for self-leadership.

On a personal note, I would like to observe that individuals undertaking the open MBSR programs I have taught in Warsaw, Poland have statistically been successful professionals in their forties, who have woken up to discover that they are ready to undertake the difficult work of changing their lives. The specifics vary from looking to heal neglected emotional issues that are beginning to surface in psychosomatic ways, to finding more meaningful professional challenges or the strength to disrupt stagnant, malfunctioning systems in their personal lives. The courage to look at the reality of their own contribution to the difficulties they face, the discipline needed to unlock the potential of mindfulness practice and the vulnerability that these practitioners allow themselves to share within the course group continue to strike me as heroic.

It was this heroism that led me to make the intimate connection I see between real[27] leadership and mindfulness practice. From this place of deep acknowledgement of the effort and bravery that both practices require, I developed my understanding of mindfulness as a process of mobilizing people to face reality, solve their tough problems and create what is needed to improve their condition and generate personal progress. This paraphrase of Dean Williams’ definition of Real Leadership is telling in how well it describes the process that MBSR practitioners undergo. Likewise, one could make the argument that leadership arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to discover what works needs doing to move forward towards the greater good, which paraphrases Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness.

During the Leadership fellowship I am now concluding, I have leaned very heavily on my mindfulness practice to make the best possible use I could of the teaching made available to me. It was with the additional perspective provided by mindfulness that I came to make my most humbling and powerful discoveries during the program. Mindfulness also supported me in my search for and defining of purpose during the eight-week immersion process that we underwent. As I tried on various articulations of what I believed to be the „right” purpose, my body and mind would repeatedly reflect back an error message clothed in a discomfort that was hard to ignore. Finally, I arrived at a purpose that fits, and that is: to learn and express concepts and ideas that may prove supportive to current and future leaders in their efforts to address a world in crises. I believe that incorporating the MBSR program into the development work of leaders serves to promote this purpose.

*This reserach paper was compiled and written as the final paper for the Leadership Academy Poland, 2016.


[1] Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness, (Jon Kabat-Zinn. Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1991)

[2] Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Heifetz, Ronald A.;Linsky, Marty)

[3] A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind (Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, Science, 2010)

[4] Leadership Without Easy Answers (Ronald A. HEIFETZ, Location 372–372)

[5] Understanding the stress response, (Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response)

[6] Real leadership — Helping People and Organisations Face Their Toughest challenges (Dean Williams, Location 7of7)

[7] Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing phototherapy (UVB) and photo chemotherapy (PUVA)(Kabat-Zinn, Wheeler, Light, Skilling, Scharf , Cropley, Hosmer, Bernhard at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 1998)

[8] Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance (Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, Columbia University and Harvard University 2010)

[9] The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (Kelly McGonagall, Penguin, 2015)

[10] Multitasking is not possible for the brain. What really happens is the mind switches between one task and another. This type of switching can happen so fast that we do not notice it. However, the length of time we need to effectively bring the mind from focusing on one thing to another has been measured and can add up to significant loss of time and precision. Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone? (Hyman Ira E. Jr., S. Matthew Boss, Breanne M. Wise, Kira E. McKenzie, Jenna M. Applied Cognitive Psychology, December 2009)

The role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for executive cognitive processes in task switching (Meyer, D. E., Evans, J. E., Lauber, E. J., Gmeindl, L., Rubinstein, J., Junck, L., & Koeppe, R. A. (1998) Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1998, Vol. 10)

Activation of brain mechanisms for executive mental processes in cognitive task switching (Meyer, D. E., Evans, J. E., Lauber, E. J., Rubinstein, J., Gmeindl, L., Junck, L., & Koeppe, R. A. (1997) Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1997, Vol. 9)

[11] „Rivers and Tides” a film by Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001

[12] In „Leadership with no easy answers” Ron Heifetz describes the skillful use of the civil rights movement by Lindon Johnson, the president of the United States. By allowing the protesters to clash with state authority in Selma Alabama and endure racial based violence from State Police as the country watched broadcast on TV, Johnson turned up the heat in a society that was not ready or willing to grant African Americans the right to vote. In the week that followed, the country erupted in protest and put enormous pressure on Johnson to intervene with federal troops to protect the peaceful demonstraters and force Alabama’s senator to allow the marchers through. Instead of a knee jerk reaction to move in and save the day, Johnson held steady and refrained from action. As he did so, the outrage at him grew but so did the realisation that racism is a real and brutal force in American society of that time. In the week that Johnson held steady, the TV images of brutal police beatings of peaceful protesters sunk in. After a week, the senator from Alabama came to Johnson and requested federal intervention that state governments so hated having imposed. When Johnson finally sprang into action, he moved quickly to use the social outrage accumulated during the week of waiting to pass through long overdue legislation allowing African Americans the right to vote.

[13] „You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.” Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Heifetz, Ronald A. Linsky, Marty, Location 187–1900)

[14] „Holding onto past assumptions, blaming authority, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jumping to conclusions, or finding a distracting issue may restore stability and feel less stressful than facing and taking responsibility for a complex challenge. These patterns of response to disequilibrium are called work avoidance mechanisms.” Leadership Without Easy Answers (Ronald A. HEIFETZ, Location 452–454 )

[15] „Leadership Without Easy Answers” (Ronald A. HEIFETZ, Location 38–41)

[16]Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change” (Dean Williams, Location 2212–2214)

[17]Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change” (Dean Williams, Location 2230–2231)

[18]Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change” (Dean Williams, Location 2174–2176)

[19]Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change” (Dean Williams, Location 2398–2400)

[20] „Leadership Without Easy Answers” (Ronald A. HEIFETZ, Location 3043)

[21] The Greater Good — The Science of a a Meaningful Life, UC Berkley, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition

[22] Multiple Facets of Compassion: The Impact of Social Dominance Orientation and Economic Systems Justification (Daniel E. Martin, Yotam Heineberg, Emma Seppala, Journal of Business Ethics, March 2014)

[23] Daughter courses to MBSR, such as Mindfulness Based Compassionate Living (MBCL) work on deepening and developing this practice further.

[24]Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change” (Dean Williams, Location 2412–2413)

[25] „Results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density (Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard and Sara W. Lazar, Psychiatry Res, 2012)

[26]Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change” (Dean Williams, Location 2204–2206)

[27] The two terms are used by Ron Heifetz (Adaptive) and Dean Williams (Real)