Become a Better Leader, This Very Moment

The practice of mindfulness has a positive impact on transformational leadership – but it’s not a magic bullet
Become a Better Leader, This Very Moment

The essentials

  • Practising mindfulness may help individuals become better and more responsive leaders by training them to focus their attention on the issues at hand while tuning out background noise.
  • Mindfulness may better enable leaders to see situations for what they are and respond appropriately.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the last few years, you’ve probably heard about mindfulness, the practice of carefully paying attention to the present moment without judgment. As it has become more mainstream, the ancient practice of mindfulness has been tapped for everything from conquering stress and anxiety to managing chronic pain, quelling anger, improving parenting, and even helping people lose weight. Now a study by a team of researchers at Smith School of Business adds another dimension: mindfulness may indirectly make people better leaders.

“Mindfulness is being able to respond to employees and situations with no concern about external constraints or future considerations, but instead thinking about it for what it is now,” says Julian Barling, who is a professor of organizational behaviour and Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business. “Mindfulness helps put people in a position where they are more likely to be able to engage in higher quality leadership behaviour.”

Barling conducted the research with Erica Carleton, who completed her PhD at Smith before taking a faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan, and Melissa Trivisonno, a Smith doctoral candidate.

He says that leaders’ sense of wellbeing has a significant impact on the quality of their leadership. Mindfulness, for example, may help people manage unhealthy thinking patterns or ways of coping that can negatively affect their leadership behaviour.

“It’s about being able to psychologically exclude white noise,” he says.

“What we’re hoping for is to change the discourse from mindfulness as a panacea for all ills to mindfulness as an evidence-based focus for dealing with some issues at work”

Barling is quick to point out that mindfulness is a tool rather than a panacea when it comes to more effectively leading a team.

“If you were to look at [social media] in recent years, you’d think that it’s the solution for everything,” he laughs. But he points to a recent report questioning its usefulness for workplace performance. After all, to be effective at work, one must be in a state of engagement and excitation, wanting to make change and focused on the future, all of which are antithetical to the detachment and calm that characterize mindfulness.

“What we’re hoping for, from an organizational practitioner perspective, is to change the discourse from mindfulness as a panacea for all ills to mindfulness as an evidence-based focus for dealing with some issues at work,” says Barling.

In their study, the researchers focused on transformational leadership – the kind that inspires others to support new ideas, pursue innovation, and develop their own skills. Because being mindful requires a nonjudgmental and open approach, it better enables people to practice leadership behaviours such as idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration for employees.

Tying Mindfulness to Transformational Leadership

Their research also connects mindfulness to a high positive affect, which in turn reflects a state of optimum concentration in which individuals are less vulnerable to being affected by negative events and are better able to set goals for themselves and their teams.

“Mindfulness may, therefore, stimulate an increased attention to and awareness of naturally occurring positive emotional experiences leading to greater positive affect,” they write in a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science.

In their study, Barling, Carleton, and Trivisonno used survey data from more than 180 leaders who were asked to report on their trait mindfulness, positive and negative affect, and leadership self-efficacy beliefs, as well as ratings from a subordinate of that leader.  The researchers controlled for variables such as age and negative affect.

For Barling, the research is promising in that it shows that individuals may be able to become better leaders and better able to support their employees with daily mindfulness practice. He points out that many athletes use positive visualization to tackle difficult plays, suggesting that a similar practice could serve leaders heading into tough meetings or difficult conversations.

“Acceptance means letting go of the false belief that you have control in every situation,” he says. “Being mindful will help leaders remain present in that moment in order to see a situation for what it is, rather than what they fear it might be.”

Meredith Dault

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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