Mindfulness: A Critical Skill for Future Leaders

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022
By Hema Krishnan
Photo by iStock/fizkes
We must integrate mindfulness into business curricula if we are to educate transformational leaders—here are recommendations for achieving that goal.
  • Through consistent mindfulness practice, leaders will be better positioned to address employee stress and burnout, manage increased disruptions and interdependencies, and counteract inequalities.
  • By engaging in breath awareness, mindful communication, and consistent digital detoxing, students can develop ethical and transformational leadership skills.
  • Mindfulness integration in the curriculum will not happen without the support and commitment of the school’s top leaders.

To transform business education globally for positive societal impact, business schools must foster engagement, accelerate innovation, amplify their impact, and prepare students for transformational global leadership. To achieve these goals, we need look no further than the integration of the evidence-based, time-tested practice of mindfulness into our curricula.

Long-term mindfulness meditation practitioners exhibit many of the traits that management and leadership scholars characterize as effective and transformational, such as emotional intelligence, clarity, focus, energy, empathy, and patience. Leaders and organizations will need to revisit their traditional business strategies, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. In a recent article, I argue that a consistent practice of mindfulness is an excellent strategy to help leaders and organizations adopt new practices.

According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness is a learned skill. It is a focused state—a quality of mind—that leaders can promote through practices such as meditation. With a mindfulness practice in their toolkits, leaders have greater potential to address employee stress and burnout, manage increased disruptions and interdependencies, and counteract inequalities in our world. They also will be prepared to help organizations across diverse sectors and industries create sustainable competitive advantage.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

Over the decades, researchers in wide-ranging disciplines—cognitive and social psychology, neuroscience, and medicine—have documented the benefits of mindfulness for individuals, teams, and institutions. At the same time, acceptance of mindfulness in the general population has skyrocketed, as leaders and individuals experience its psychological and physiological benefits.

From a psychological perspective, the practice helps leaders strengthen their humility, balance, concentration, contentment, compassion, resilience, stability, patience, empathy, and generosity, according to Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. It also helps every top manager develop excellent listening skills, a high emotional quotient (EQ), and a holistic view of the organization and environment. These qualities are all essential for skills such as negotiation, conflict management, and stakeholder management.

A sustained mindfulness practice not only reduces stress, anxiety, insomnia, and burnout, but also increases energy and vitality.

A sustained mindfulness practice also confers physiological benefits. As Jon Kabat-Zinn notes in his 2013 book Full Catastrophe Living, it not only reduces stress, anxiety, insomnia, and burnout, but also increases energy and vitality. And as Ellen J. Langer emphasizes in her classic work, mindfulness can help business leaders shift context and acquire new energy even in the most stressful situations.

Furthermore, as leaders commit to a sustained mindfulness practice, they can serve as champions for mindfulness at all levels of their organizations. This influence can have an amplified effect, resulting in significant improvements in employee well-being, productivity, customer centricity, company reputation, and bottom-line profitability.

Mindfulness Across the Curriculum

Business schools can integrate mindfulness concepts and tools into courses across their undergraduate and MBA curricula. In this way, they can ensure that students graduate with a foundation in the practice as they enter and grow in their workplace.

But we do not need to attach a “mindfulness” label to many of these concepts—instead, we might refer to them as emotional intelligence, EQ, ethics, transformational leadership, communication, and human resource management. Whether in the undergraduate or MBA curriculum, these topics can be integrated into intro-level business courses; core courses in leadership, communication, HRM, and business analytics; and capstones.

Of course, schools also can design dedicated electives, boot camps, noncredit workshops spread out during the four-year undergraduate program, and even weeklong retreats.

Led by faculty and a mindfulness coach, these opportunities can teach students tools such as breath awareness; sitting meditation; guided imagery and visualization; and mindful walking, eating, and speaking. Such experiences can teach students to engage in mindful movements and daily reflections. If these experiences incorporate established mindfulness assessment scales (see table below for examples), teachers can measure learning outcomes at the end of the course.

Integration Over Time

Many mindfulness tools can be successfully utilized in all courses, without compromising on course content, assignments, or assurance of learning objectives. As detailed in the table below, there is ample opportunity to integrate mindfulness at various times during the semester.

Table—A Model for Ongoing Curricular Integration of Mindfulness

Three-column table listing courses where mindfulness can be embedded, topics and assignments, and institutional support required

Instructors can create environments in the classroom that foster mindful behavior among the students, via not only lectures but also team presentations, written assignments, or general classroom discussions. Assignments also can ask students to practice mindful communication as they engage in constructive review of peer presentations.

The following mindfulness skills can be worked into almost any classroom activity:

Breath awareness. Focus on the breath is one of the most important tools to cultivate mindfulness, and it can be used in all courses. Instructors can take a minute or two during every class session to redirect the students’ attention to their breath. This short activity can be very rewarding if practiced consistently in all courses.

Mindful communication. This area comprises a range of effective leadership skills, including effective and compassionate listening, as well as mindful reading, writing, and speaking. It’s a skill that students can cultivate in face-to-face and virtual formats, as well as in social media settings.

Before communicating with anyone, individuals should feel their breath for a few seconds and imagine themselves in the place of the other person. When all parties pause, reflect, and feel empathy for the recipient, the communication process is more likely to have a superior outcome. Regular practice can help students build ethical and transformational leadership skills.

C-suite leaders have recognized the importance of compassionate listening. For example, Bob Iger cites an unwillingness to listen as one of the reasons he stepped down as Disney’s CEO in 2021. “Over time, I started listening less and maybe with a little less tolerance of other people’s opinions,” Iger says. “Maybe because of getting a little bit more overconfident in my own, which is sometimes what happens when you get built up.”

University leaders can signal that they take this endeavor seriously by hiring mindfulness coaches, providing spaces for practice, and funding retreats dedicated to mindfulness and stress management.

Mindful use of technology. Distraction is one of the biggest downsides of technology. In class, it is important for faculty to gently enforce a “technology rule” to improve attention span among students. Instructors can emphasize that consistently engaging in brief periods of “digital detox,” in which students shut off their technology, is extremely important for the brain.

Informal and formal team assignments can provide good opportunities for students to regularly engage in digital detox, as they hone their communication skills and engage in experiential learning.

Use of apps. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of apps designed to help individuals cultivate mindfulness. In some cases, the use of a meditation app could be included as required course material. Among the hundreds of apps available, MUSE, Headspace, Calm, and 10% Happier have garnered good reports from consumers.

These tools also have the backing of leading practitioners and teachers of mindfulness meditation. They have been proven to help with breath awareness and stress management—which is especially important now that levels of stress and anxiety are at all-time highs among millennial and Generation Z students.

Mindfulness Implementation Starts at the Top

Without the support and commitment of the university and business school leaders, mindfulness integration in the curriculum will be a nonstarter. Mindfulness is a top-down process that eventually can become organic and absorbed in the university’s culture—but only if leaders allocate resources to building the infrastructure, systems, and processes needed to support implementation.

University leaders can signal that they take this endeavor seriously by recruiting and hiring mindfulness coaches, providing spaces for practice, instilling supportive cultures for work-life balance, offering mentoring, and funding programs and retreats that are dedicated to teaching faculty techniques for mindfulness and stress management. But as leaders make these efforts, they should approach the implementation of mindfulness programs in a slow, thoughtful, and deliberate manner.

Once leaders have committed their support to this goal and there is a critical mass of willing faculty, a school can be ready to integrate mindfulness into its strategic initiatives. Fortunately, the benefits of mindfulness practice don’t just help turn students into transformational leaders. They also support all three criteria in the AACSB standards: innovation, engagement and impact.

By integrating mindfulness into the curriculum, business schools will enable students to graduate with the skills needed to transform society for the good of all. As the number of these graduates increase over time, their influence will motivate organizations worldwide to pursue business’s ideal purpose: selfless service to the global community.

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Hema Krishnan
Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, Williams College of Business, Xavier University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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