3 Examples of Mindful Leaders That Will Inspire You

How they use mindfulness to achieve incredible results.

When I began meditating, my anxiety was at an all-time high. My business was doing well, I had a wonderful family — but still, I suffered from crippling anxiety nearly every day.

It all came to a head when I was on “vacation” in Northern Michigan with my family. It was a beautiful day, my family was out enjoying it, and I was inside the house working. At some point, I paused and felt this overwhelming feeling of helplessness come over me. I’d read about meditation in the past and even researched its benefits and how to do it. But, I’d never found the time to try it. That day would be different. I looked over at a chair in the corner of the room and said to myself, “Go sit in the chair, close your eyes, and focus on your breath for five minutes.” And I did. And, I felt better.

Twelve years later, I’ve developed a daily mindful meditation practice, I’ve attended five silent meditation retreats, and I’m beginning to spread the word to fellow business leaders about just how transformative this practice can be. I’ve also learned that as my company continues to grow, the more time I need to sit and “do nothing.” As many of the most successful mindful leaders have experienced, clearing your mind through a disciplined practice can lead to greater innovation, increased productivity, and a compassionate approach to leadership that is desperately needed these days.

As a business leader and a meditator, I’m excited to share these inspiring stories of mindful leaders that have used meditation to achieve incredible results in their diverse fields.

Mark Bertolini, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Aetna

In 2004, Mark Bertolini broke his neck and suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a traumatic ski accident in Vermont. Partially disabled and in serious pain, his doctors attempted to manage his physical and emotional ailments through traditional painkillers and therapy — but it wasn’t enough. In fact, I recently interviewed Mark and he shared with me that he didn’t experience significant relief until he discovered yoga and meditation, two practices that allowed him to strengthen his body and cope with the pain and trauma of his accident.

He now practices every morning, beginning at 5:30 a.m. with a 30 to 60 minute viniyoga routine, a type of yoga focused on adapting to the individual’s unique condition and needs. Following his yoga routine, Mark sits in meditation for 15 minutes to an hour per day, depending on what his schedule will allow. And most incredibly, he no longer needs the painkillers and medications prescribed by his doctors.

Mark’s mindfulness practice also gave way to a more compassionate approach to leadership. When he became CEO of Aetna in 2010, their stock price was at $30 per share and they were losing millions of dollars every day. Mark traveled around the world to meet the employees who made up the company on every level. He began to hear what he refers to as “whispers,” which were subtle and not-so-subtle comments and clues from company employees who were having trouble making ends meet in life. They were struggling, and there was a pervasive sense of unhappiness. His practice allowed for him to pick up on this message and act.

Under Mark’s leadership, a shift started at Aetna, one that included strong empathy and compassion; insight and action based on doing good and doing well. Mark slowly instituted a series of changes, including voluntarily increasing the minimum wage — which resulted in a $50,000,000 per year hard cost increase. Student loans are now reimbursed up to $2,000 per year. One third of the company’s employees have taken a health and wellness program that includes education on meditation, yoga, sleep, diet, and nutrition.

The total investment, including the increased minimum wage, is at $75,000,000. After sharing this, Mark paused and said, “But I’m getting a 10x return on that investment — and it’s worth investing in great people.” As of July 2017, Aetna’s stock price had risen from $30 when Mark took over to $153 per share.

Soledad O’Brien, Broadcast Journalist and Producer, CEO of Starfish Media

Soledad O’Brien is a television anchor and correspondent, the mother of four children, and a self-proclaimed “Type A” personality whose mind is always going. As a result, whenever someone preached the benefits of meditation, she didn’t believe it would work for her. Finally, her friend and avid meditator Russell Simmons convinced Soledad to try transcendental meditation. To her surprise, she loved it. Now, Soledad turns to meditation as an opportunity to take the time to experience a state of deep rest and relaxation, and she feels healthier and happier for it. “It can be game-changing and sometimes a life-saver in a crazy world,” she explains.

Soledad’s practice has also inspired her philanthropic work. Recently, Soledad worked with the David Lynch Foundation as part of its Women’s Health Initiative to offer transcendental meditation as an alternative healing method to empower and heal women who have been victims of abuse. Meditation practice has been proven to be an effective tool in healing trauma, reducing flashbacks, helping manage stress, and even decreasing insomnia related to traumatic events.

As Soledad asserts in her 2012 address to the David Lynch Foundation, “It’s not just my own experience that drives my support…there’s research to show that transcendental meditation is an effective tool in the prevention and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and stress-related disorders.”

Holly Richardson and Matt Jarman, Professors at Virginia Military Institute

Perhaps the last place you’d expect to find a thriving meditation curriculum, Virginia Military Institute professors Holly Richardson and Matt Jarman are using meditation to prepare cadets to become the most capable service members possible. Both professors implemented meditation into their coursework with the goal of increasing productivity and efficiency in their students, giving them a key tool to become mentally and physically prepared to help others. They joined author and journalist Dan Harris on his podcast 10% Happier to discuss the program.

Dr. Richardson teaches physical education at the prestigious VMI, where she’s integrated UMass’s Center for Mindfulness curriculum into her course. When Dr. Richardson began reading studies that showed strong evidence of mindfulness practices helping soldiers cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), she decided to bring it VMI. The main goal of her course is stress reduction. “In this environment for the cadets, stress is endemic. It is pervasive. So, when I first got here I was very concerned about the welfare of cadets, and I just realized stress will be here…and I wanted to give them this tool to deal with it.”

Dr. Jarman teaches a leadership course called Modern Warriorship that is required for all cadets. Jarman teaches cadets that the warriorship they are being trained to embody is both a mental and a physical discipline. As part of the course, cadets start with a 15-minute daily meditation when they wake and another 5 minutes before they start their homework. The key is tying the meditation to that schedule to create a true habit.

“Meditation is not this kind of soft, fluffy thing,” Jarman said. “You’re facing your fears, you’re facing your stresses head-on or leaning into them, and it’s giving you the tools to do that more effectively and not get swept away by them.”

For me, meditation has proven to be the most effective tool for managing the demands of leadership and becoming a more mindful leader. If you’re interested in learning more about meditation and leadership, sign up for updates on my upcoming book, do nothing and our 7-day silent leadership retreat.