What Mindful Leaders Do Differently
In your life, you’ve probably met both mindful and mindless leaders.
Give yourself 30 seconds before reading further and remember:
- A leader in your life — a teacher, supervisor, boss, community organizer — in whose presence you felt safe and empowered. You felt like they had things under control. They were like a solid rock you could lean on.
And then, remember:
- A leader whom you obeyed out of necessity, but whose leadership felt like a burden more than support. Take a moment to remember what it felt like to be around them, talk to them, answer their questions.
The difference between a mindful and mindless leader may be hard to name — but you feel it.
In my life, I had the pleasure to meet quite a few mindful leaders and even work for some. One that stands out the most was Caroline, a life coach and owner of a guest lodge where I worked for a few summers.
Caroline embodied those fascinating qualities of mindful leadership that I couldn’t quite name. All I knew was that in her presence, I felt seen and heard. The team meetings she would hold for us once a week started with tai-chi sessions — only then would we proceed to discuss work.
Caroline was different from all the other leaders I met before. But the more I spoke to her, the more I realized this wasn’t always the case.
Before she became a mindful leader, she brought her business to the verge of bankruptcy. She made a lot of mistakes. Most of them had one root cause:
Not paying enough attention.
The Main Challenge of Leadership
Any leader faces lots of challenges in their work. At the center of them all is one prevalent dilemma:
Balancing long-term objectives and short-term metrics of success.
Most leaders start with a mission. Whether they lead an entire organization or manage a team, they often have a set of strong values. That’s what draws them to leadership. They want to make a meaningful change, which is a long-lasting process.
Meanwhile, in their day-to-day leadership, they confront lots of smaller challenges that demand an immediate response. These are often about keeping the organization afloat, meeting financial goals, or performance targets. Because these short-term goals seem more urgent, it’s easy for the leader to focus on them to the exclusion of the big-picture.
This happened to Caroline as she opened the lodge for the first time. She had a vision for it to be a place not just to spend holidays — but also, to initiate personal transformation. To achieve that, she wanted to create a serene environment in which both the guests and staff could feel safe and taken care of.
While that vision was big and inspiring, Caroline started losing sight of it as soon as day-to-day challenges arose. The business needed income every month, and she was micro-managing everything and everyone to make ends meet. She also tried to offer top-notch service for which she simply didn’t have enough staff.
A few years in, the business collapsed. Caroline left the lodge without any plan for how to move things forward.
The inclination to focus on day-to-day tasks rather than big-picture goals is natural. It comes from our human wiring to avoid threats before all else. Leaders often see failing to deliver on their short-term goals as a threat. In Caroline’s case, that threat was about not generating the baseline income and driving the business into bankruptcy.
Paradoxically, while trying to avoid the threat, she ran straight into it. Because of forgetting her vision and values, her leadership became uninspired and draining. She burnt herself out and couldn’t lead with integrity. That ultimately led to the failure of her business.
Mindfulness allows leaders to avoid this traps. Why? Because it supports the balance of short-term goals and the big picture. Thanks to that balance, the organization or team the leader is responsible for can reach its full potential.
Harvard Business School Professor Bill George put it best:
“When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.”
How Mindful Leadership Transforms Teams
Mindfulness is about being receptive to the moment exactly as it is, without judgment or wishing things were different. This is beneficial for a number of reasons. One that’s particularly important for leaders is that mindfulness allows them to collect more information relevant to their role.
You can understand this through a simple example. Imagine traveling to a new city with a friend for a short holiday. Before deciding what to do, you first jump on a bus tour that takes you around town. The idea is to see what the city has to offer and then decide which landmarks you want to explore.
During the tour, you’re daydreaming and not paying much attention. In the end, your friend asks you which would you like to see first — the castle or the magnificent cathedral you’ve seen through the bus window? Unfortunately, you remember neither. You’re not in a position to decide since you weren’t paying attention.
That’s why mindful leadership can be so transformative. A leader who doesn’t know how to be present doesn’t have the accurate data to make the best decisions. They operate based on what they’ve learned in the past, not seeing how the situation at hand is different.
In essence, that was Caroline’s problem with running the lodge. Because she was so focused on just making it through each day, she wasn’t paying attention. She couldn’t see when her staff was exhausted. She couldn’t see that by trying to offer a dozen items on the restaurant’s menu, she wasn’t making the dining experience any good for the customers.
Only after she stepped away from the business for two years, she learned how to operate differently. She built the internal skills necessary to be present. From there, she came back to running the lodge in a completely different manner.
She became more mindful as a person. That made her leadership responsive instead of reactive. She learned how to maintain a strong personal presence, and recognize her thoughts and emotions in each moment. Thanks to that, she approached business challenges not as fires that needed to be put out as soon as possible — but rather, as learning experiences both for her and her team.
I started working for Caroline after that transformation. Even if it wasn’t always easy, I remember it as one of the most rewarding work experiences in my life.
5 Things Mindful Leaders Do Differently
In his article on unconditional love, psychologist John Amodeo wrote:
“The greatest gift we can give another person is the gift of our own personal growth. The more we know ourselves and develop the courage and skills to communicate our inner experience, the more that trust and love can flourish.”
Although he meant it mostly in the context of personal relationships, this thought is very relevant to mindful leadership. It’s the personal qualities of the leader that allow them to up their professional game. It’s how evolved they are as a person that translates into their leadership and working style.
In other words, your level of self-mastery directly impacts your effectiveness as a leader.
But what is that self-mastery about? When I think about Caroline, a few of her personal qualities come to mind. I see them as key elements of mindful leadership.
In her recent article, Jessica Donahue wrote:
“The most valuable thing you have as a leader that your team doesn’t have is perspective. Perspective is what allows you to withhold a reaction in favor of delivering a response.”
A big-picture perspective of the business allowed Caroline to assess what was important and what wasn’t. Thanks to this, she could resist her urge to react to each problem immediately. For example, whenever there was a conflict in the team, she asked us to sit with it without jumping straight to solutions.
This allowed everyone to cool down and access the rational part of the brain, instead of making decisions in the heat of the moment.
Integrity means you follow the same set of values in your personal and professional life. You don’t fundamentally change as a person when you go to work. You make decisions based on who you are deep down — not on how you would like to be seen by others.
It was easy to observe this with Caroline since we shared a life there at the lodge. We didn’t just work together. We also ate, played, rested, socialized, and went on hikes. This allowed me to see that whenever she stepped into her leadership role, her personality didn’t change.
She didn’t pretend to be perfect to earn our respect. She allowed herself vulnerability and honesty about her shortcomings. That integrity earned her the team’s trust.
A lot of people assume that a leader’s role is mainly about telling people what to do. While working for Caroline, I realized that, most of the time, leadership is about listening, not talking.
Without listening, a leader isn’t in a position to understand their team. Remember the metaphor of a bus tour? When you don’t have enough data to base your decision on, how can you expect to make a good one?
The most precious “data” for a leader is that which comes directly from their team. To acquire that data, a leader needs to listen. But it’s not just any kind of listening that we’re talking about here. It’s active, deep listening that a mindful leader must learn.
In the words of a Buddhist teacher Susan Piver, to listen mindfully, you need to “cease thinking your thoughts and start thinking my thoughts.” This is challenging — but also extremely rewarding.
Another thing working for Caroline taught me was the true meaning of non-judgment. I realized that lack of judgment isn’t about always being happy with what others do. But even if you’re upset, you still don’t need to blame it on the other person.
It happened a few times that Caroline wasn’t satisfied with how I handled my work. In those moments, she didn’t treat me as if I was guilty of it. She always withheld judgment and assumed my best intentions.
When a leader does this, it transforms the team dynamics at a very deep level. Some people refer to this attitude as “assuming innocence” — i.e. making it a point to understand where the other person is coming from. In the words of psychologist Sukh Pabial:
“If we think about the other person as being innocent it allows so much more interactivity and flow of discussion. It also allows you to ask questions and point out flaws without seeming negative. It involves actively changing your thinking so that the language you use becomes more collegiate and constructive. You share the power of the conversation because you haven’t already taken it away with your own assumptions.”
This leads us to the last, but certainly not the least important trait of mindful leaders.
The way we communicate makes all the difference — and not just in leadership. The “what” of our conversations are often overridden by the “how.” Whether it’s about delivering feedback, discussing work strategy, or simply checking in on someone, how you say those things can has consequences.
This awareness of those consequences is what compassionate communication is about. A leader needs to be tuned in with how their words and presence affect others — and make sure they consider it when choosing how they communicate.
Caroline was very aware of that when giving critical feedback. She knew that for some people on the team it was hard to take. So, she always tried to create conditions to encourage compassion, especially when what she had to say was difficult to digest.
This could mean initiating a one-on-one conversation (instead of addressing the issue in front of the team) or delivering a critique after recognizing someone’s good work first. She knew there was no point in attacking her team. Her remarks and suggestions for improvement would only be productive if communicated with care and compassion.
Mindful Leadership Isn’t About Perfection
A mindful leader isn’t someone who has it all figured out.
They’re not necessarily the most senior person in the company. In fact, you may not even spot them at first. That’s because they’re not overly focused on making sure people notice and applaud them.
Instead, they make an effort to notice and appreciate others.
When I first met Caroline, it was clear to me that she didn’t just see me as her employee. She saw me as a human being first. She asked me lots of questions to better understand where I was coming from. She wanted to know my background, interests, and values.
From that point, she was able to lead in a way that helped me leverage my strengths and work on my weaknesses.
A mindful leader is someone how listens to people. They also do their best not to judge, to communicate compassionately, maintain their integrity, and stay connected to the big-picture goals.
This doesn’t mean they’re perfect. And they don’t need to be. They know how to use their imperfections to make themselves relatable to their teams. They show vulnerability to create a sense of connection with those their lead.
And in the end, connection is what we all want. That’s why mindful leaders tend to be among the most successful ones.