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Bringing Mindfulness into Leadership Practice and Online Education: Theory and Application

Boyatzis and McKee (2005) define mindfulness as “living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, other people, and the context in which we live and work;” and more simplistically, “mindfulness means being awake, aware, and attending—to ourselves and the world around us” (8-9).  In a very real and deliberate way, mindfulness then is engagement with what is present with a sense of context and awareness of the broader picture.  It is with this approach and mentality that I propose that mindfulness enhances leadership ability.

Clinical psychologists (Bishop et al., 2004) have come together to define mindfulness as:

“a two-component model….  The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.  The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance” (p. 232). 

Langer (1989) instructs that all one has to do in order to be more mindful is to always look for something new, which brings one back to the present moment.  This method of looking for newness and approaching activities with subtle ways of newness and change engages the mind and pulls it free from autopilot, habitual functioning.  Her approach and instruction is unique as most proponents and practitioners of contemporary mindfulness have been either directly or in-directly influenced by Kabat-Zinn (1990).

Kabat-Zinn (1990) is referenced in nearly all present day articles and books referencing or discussing mindfulness, as he is the founder of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, originally called the Stress Reduction Clinic.  Kabat-Zinn’s (1990) definition of mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”  In this regard, mindfulness is the ability to observe present circumstances as they are.  An example would be hearing the results of a poor sales report, noticing the negative report and the personal response that one has to hearing the results—the emotions, the quick mental processing and questions that rise to the surface, the actions from the mental processing, and the results of any communication to the deliverer of the news.  It is observing the action with context and awareness.

Creating the ability to be more mindful is typically done through particular meditations that focus on training the mind to notice the present moment and focus on one thing in particular (Kabat-Zinn, 2009; Marturano, 2014).  As a practitioner of mindfulness having gone through Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program, I can attest to the value of the simplistic practice of noticing the basic elements of the present moment—the thoughts, the emotions (or lack of them), the signals from the body, such as temperature or an itch or tension, the sounds, and sights.  By recognizing all of the present moment intake, the variety of inputs occurring in a given moment, one generates the ability to be more aware of the present moment and the nature of the mind. 

“People who live mindfully catch problems before they become serious, because they pay attention to their inner voice:  a voice that includes intuition, wisdom, and a subtle but very sophisticated analysis of what is going on in the world.  Mindfulness means using all the clues available—our emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, in-the-moment reactions, and sense of right, wrong, justice, and injustice.” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, p. 113)

Mindful Leadership in Practice

As a leader, I recognize that mindfulness practices naturally spur me to listen more deeply.  When I hear someone speaking with emotion, concern, or indifference I take notice and investigate.  Mindfulness practice asks one to turn toward what is present rather than away from it, especially in regard to emotions or discomfort.  The act of listening more attentively naturally evolves into inquiry; meaning asking questions that may reveal a deeper understanding of the present circumstances.  The inquiry process then leads to a better understanding of individuals’ concerns.  This progression from listening, observing, noticing, inquiring, and understanding then further reveals the drivers of action—identifying the root cause of present circumstances (see Figure 1).  Recognizing the drivers of action then allows one to see the broader picture. 

I have utilized this model in a variety of situations from accreditation site visit reviewers, to frustrated faculty members, students with grade challenges, and administrative staff issues.  One example comes from a faculty member who wrote a strongly worded and very lengthy email to a number of administrative staff, attacking and discrediting a payment policy.  I noticed a “buzz” in the office, some eye rolling and group sympathy of having to deal with an issue.  The email chain was forwarded to me.  A deeper look at the contents of the faculty email revealed a sense of desperation.  I had a hunch that this faculty member was in a financial bind, so I sent her a private email inquiring if she needed a pay advance.  She sent a quick and short reply, expressing her great relief at seeing my email, accepted the offer, and explained how she had three personal financial issues collide at once.  She never mentioned the payment policy ever again because that was not driving her action.  The root cause was a desperate need for money now.

Figure 1:  Active Process of Approaching Situations with Mindful Awareness

Before continuing to develop and flesh out more themes in mindfulness in leadership practice, I feel it necessary to describe how I use mindfulness as an individual in a non-leadership context.  At the basic level, mindfulness practice involves directing my attention toward regularly scanning my internal environment.  As I turn my attention inward, I may notice areas of tension:  physical, mental, emotional, and relational.  By noticing what is present, I am then able to use the same process described above and inquire into root cause driving the present and then appropriately address the area of tension.  Perhaps I become aware that I am biting my lip, tapping my fingers, frowning, or sighing.  Noticing the action allows me to gain more understanding through inquiry.  By inquiring into the “why” behind the action (i.e. why am I biting my lip, frowning, etc.) I gain more understanding of how I am in the present (mood, emotions, thoughts, etc.) and how I am reflexively (instead of reflectively) responding to stimulus.  By gaining this awareness, I then open myself up to being able to consciously choose how I would like to be in the present and how I would like to respond to the stimulus.  This process of self-awareness generates the ability to self-regulate by making sense of the present reality.  So instead of sending an emotion filled email response, I can first notice that I am emotionally charged (I’m frowning and feeling angry) and create some space between stimulus and response.  This process is instrumental in situations of higher-cognitive demand, such as board meetings or when unexpected emotions flare in meetings.  The inner work on myself and outward use of the mindfulness practice are interrelated (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Mindfulnes Practice As a Leader and As an Individual

Through regularly inquiring internally (with oneself) and externally (with others) mindful leaders are more apt to distinguish when they notice something, that is, they notice the experiences taking place in the present moment.  By noticing experience, mindful leaders can then inquire for understanding and sense making (as mentioned above).  This process, especially when conducted in a non-judgmental way, creates a pathway for higher forms of leadership.  The more the leader is in-touch and in-tune with reality (internally and externally) the better the leader can see “the field” and take appropriate action. 

Bridging Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

Since its popularization by Goleman (2009), emotional intelligence has gone from an unnamed, yet valuable component of human behavior, to a well-defined, researched, common-use tool to aid people with recognizing the need to connect personal actions, thoughts, and behaviors to external outcomes (Goleman, 2006, pp. ix-xvii).  The four components of emotional intelligence (as outlined by Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002, p. 39) are: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, and relational management.  The authors have pointed toward specific behaviors of leaders that “bring out the best of those that they lead…[specifically,] resonance—a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people” (p. ix).  Of importance, emotional intelligence is learned and cultivated through practice.  Goleman (MoreThanSoundNet, 2013) has publicly identified mindfulness practices as being tremendously valuable in building and sustaining emotional intelligence and he participates in mindful leadership conferences and workshops. 

Yet, Goleman’s popularization of Emotional Intelligence has been questioned and criticized (see Mayer, Salovey & Caruso, 2004), particularly around validity of measurement and universality.  In order to remedy this elusiveness, researcher’s Mayer and Salovey (1997) define EI as the capacity to reason about emotions, and of emotions to enhance thinking.  It includes the abilities to accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

This definition shares similarities with Goleman’s work, but avoids boiling down EI to essential and specific components.  Instead the authors suggest that emotional intelligence is more about awareness, understanding, and self-regulation.  Again, one must consider this relationship of synonymous words that are consistent with mindfulness:  awareness and self-regulation. The focus returns to the internal environment of the individual in order to positively affect the external environment.  In this sense, EI is about seeing what is occurring internally in a given moment, recognizing what emotions and responses are naturally arising, and appropriately choosing a response through reflection rather than immediate reaction. 

Following the progression of Goleman’s work, particularly alongside of Boyatzis, who both studied together at Harvard under David McClellend (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002, p. xv), there is a clear evolution of focus, first from a direct approach to discussing emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), then to finding leadership components from emotional intelligence (Goleman et al., 2002), and finally to a leadership theory itself, namely “Resonant Leadership” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  What is interesting to me is that mindfulness becomes increasingly named in these books with Resonant Leadership championing it:  “Great leaders are emotionally intelligent and they are mindful:  they seek to live in full consciousness of self, others, nature, and society” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, p. 3).  More discussion of resonant leadership will continue below.  Let’s now examine the specific attributes associated with mindfulness and emotional intelligence (see Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Components of Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence


Emotional Intelligence

Being awake, aware, and attending to surroundings (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005)

Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relational management (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002)

Self-regulation on immediate experience (Bishop et al., 2004)

Reason and accurately perceive emotions; reflectively regulate emotions (Mayer & Salovey, 1997)

Orientation toward openness and curiosity (Bishop et al., 2004)


Looking for something new, curiosity (Langer, 1989)


Paying attention, on purpose, nonjudgmentally to the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 1990)


Using Figure 3, the common elements between mindfulness and emotional intelligence can be identified, namely:  awareness of self, regulation of self, awareness of environment, and regulation of response to environment (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Core Common Elements of Mindfulness & Emotional Intelligence.

The relationship of awareness of oneself and one’s environment combined with the self-regulation of the discoveries from the awareness are the key foundational elements of mindfulness and emotional intelligence.  The awareness and self-regulation require concentration and focus of attention in order to be implemented.  How then is this brought into leadership?

Mindfulness and Leadership Theories

The following sections will attempt to convey how mindfulness can positively affect practitioners of specific leadership theories and help to fill in the gaps of the how-to of implementation and explanation of leading at a high level.  Figure 5 outlines the proposed theory of how mindfulness practices relate to servant leadership, authentic leadership, and resonant leadership.

Figure 5--A Relational Model—How Mindfulness Practices Relate to the Theories

The following sections will explore the assertions from Figure 5 in detail.  The premise is that practicing mindfulness, as described above, is positively beneficial to leaders attempting to utilize servant leadership theory, authentic leadership theory, and resonant leadership theory.  The definitions of and research behind the three leadership theories (servant, authentic, and resonant) will also be compared to the definitions and components of mindfulness. 

Servant Leadership

Based on the historical work of Robert Greenleaf (1977), this leadership style puts others first and places the leader as the person who uses authority, power, and position in order to get their team all the necessary ingredients for success (Northouse, 2013, p. 220).  The method requires the leader to live with a mantra of “how can I help,” “what do you need,” and “how can I be of service to you” and places emphasis on helping to nurture and grow people (Keith, 2012, p. 50).  This counterintuitive approach to leadership puts an atypical demand on the leader, removing the authoritarian nature and emphasizing the value of the team and the workers.  How does the leader then feel personal value?  Is it by success, through providing service to others, or is it directly translated to the organizational results?  And how does the leader sustain the focus of servanthood if it is not inherent in the person’s nature?  This leadership style strikes me as requiring a particular state of mind and in order to achieve and sustain the servanthood mentality and this would require the leader to have a regular practice that leads to emotional intelligence and present moment awareness.

Autry (2001) suggested a need for presenting how to cultivate servant leadership, to which he gave the five ways of being: be vulnerable, be accepting, be present, and be useful (p. 10).  Of the five, being present, is most related to mindfulness.  Autry (2001) discussed the demands and regular crises that leaders face and emphasized the need for leaders to be in the moment, not caught up in emotions and losing control of being the center of the place (as the leader).  He also provided a brief meditative practice for readers to try in order to let go of emotional responses to the demands of the day, which is focusing on something that makes you really happy and allowing that feeling of happiness to permeate your present awareness (Autry, 2001, p. 19).

Greenleaf (1977) pointed to a very specific area that coincides directly with mindfulness:  awareness.  When discussing the servant as leader, Greenleaf (1977) asserted that “framing all of this [discussion on being a servant leader] is awareness, opening wide the doors of perception so as to enable one to get more of what is available of sensory experience and other signals from the environment than people usually take in” (p. 27).  Greenleaf (1977) and his predecessor Spears (1995) both placed a very strong emphasis on the value and significance of awareness itself, of being aware of personal stress and uncertainty and of others’ feelings and emotions, as a foundational element of servant leadership.  Spears (1995) stated that one of the ten components of being a servant leader is awareness, to which he referred to as being awake, a common mindfulness term (see Kabat-Zinn, 1990).

Van Dierendonck’s (2010) review and synthesis of servant leadership highlighted six essential elements of servant leaders, stating that they “empower and develop people; they show humility; are authentic; accept others as they are; provide direction; and are stewards who work for the good of the whole” (p. 1232).  The benefits of mindfulness, that of more awareness of the internal and external environments, increased focus, and enhanced self-regulation, would clearly aid the aspiring servant leader, who is seeking to sustain a level of being as the leader, that is above and beyond the norm.  Van Dierendonck (2010) does not discuss how one cultivates this leadership capacity (like Greenleaf, 1977, Autry, 2001), although he provides great insights of what servant leadership looks like in his attempt to isolate and identify the specifics on servant leadership theory. 

Van Dierendonck (2010) did, however, refer to the term self-actualization, stating that servant leaders achieve self-actualization and, perhaps more importantly, seek to provide their followers with the same.  Researchers Brown and Ryan (2003) conducted a study on the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) and the benefits of mindfulness and well-being, and found that a significant positive correlation between mindfulness and self-actualization exists, meaning that the higher the score on mindfulness the higher the score on self-actualization and vice versa.  This implies that servant leaders are more mindful.

In summary, one can see that the founder of servant leadership, Greenleaf (1977) highlighted awareness as the key element; his predecessor Spears (1995) seconded and furthered the value and importance of awareness and being awake/present; servant leader practioner; Autry (2001), identified being present and using meditation as an essential element to being a servant leader day in and day out; and finally, Van Dierendonck (2010) identifies some of the benefits of being a servant leader are and highlights the significance of self-actualization of servant leaders and their followers, something that is directly correlational with mindfulness practice.

Authentic Leadership

The authentic leadership models approach the area of leadership through an understanding of the importance of leaders being genuine, real, and ethically sound, aka authentic (Northouse, 2013).  The literature on authentic leadership makes it clear that an authentic leader is not just a person who is open and honest about certain personal traits and behaviors that may be ethically unquestionable, rather it is about the personal development of the leader to increase their capacity toward being an ideal human being, nurturing qualities such as self-awareness, self-regulation, identification of personal belief systems, and awareness of how their personal world view affects other people. 

In 2005, The Leadership Quarterly released a special edition devoted solely to discussing and advancing authentic leadership.  The lead article defined authentic leaders as “those who are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by others as being aware of their own and others’ values/moral perspectives, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character” (Avolio, Luthans, & Walumba, 2004, p. 4; as cited in Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 312).  Advancing their discussion and investigation on authentic leadership definitions, researchers Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May and Walumba (2005)  “zero in on the self-awareness and self-regulatory processes whereby leaders and followers achieve authenticity and authentic relations, which [they] deem as being an essential starting point for discussing ALD [authentic leadership development]” (As cited in Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 321).  They reduce their hefty definition of authentic leadership to self-awareness and the self-regulatory process—terms used to define mindfulness (see Figure 3).  Gardner et al. (2005) further explain their emphasis on self-awareness as linking it to the self-reflection of the leader, “by reflecting through introspection, authentic leaders gain clarity and concordance with respect to their core values, identity, emotions, motives, and goals” (p. 347).  This self-reflection and introspection builds the authenticity of the leader as they take the time, effort, and energy to use their mind to really focus on themselves as individuals and as leaders.  When leaders reflect upon their own obligations to the organization—their employees, the customers, and the public at large—their level of understanding regarding their ethical responsibility to do their best increases. 

In terms of sustaining this state of being reflective and self-aware, Gardner et al. (2005) point toward the second part of their description of authentic leadership, that of self-regulation, which they define as including “internalized regulation, balanced processing of information, authentic behavior, and relational transparency” (p. 347).  Of note, balanced processing requires a level of “unbiased collection and interpretation of self-related information” and authentic behavior requires the actions of the authentic leader to be driven by the leader’s “true self as reflected by core values, beliefs, thoughts and feelings, as opposed to environmental contingencies or pressures from others” (Gardner et al., 2005, p. 347).  The guiding force here is a deep connection to one’s core values, a willingness to examine circumstances and reactions to them (thoughts, feelings, and emotions) from a variety of angles for the greater good, not for individual selfish desires, and then living, acting, and leading according to outcomes of the internal processing.  When comparing this to mindfulness practices, one sees a striking resemblance in terms of the mindful practitioner living their practice and the authentic leader utilizing the internal process to be a representative of high ideals, high ethics, and voicing truth despite resistance.  Let’s examine a practitioner of authentic leadership who also claims a connection to mindfulness practices.

Bill George, former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Medtronic, has written two books on the subject of authentic leadership.  Since their publications, George has teamed up with other leadership experts and a Zen Master to create conferences and training programs on mindful leadership, which he has advocated for as helping leaders to become more authentic and find their “true north.”  More specifically, George (2003) outlines “essential dimensions of all authentic leaders” in which they demonstrate five qualities: “[1] understanding their purpose, [2] practicing solid values, [3] leading with heart, [4] establishing connected relationships, [and 5] demonstrating self-discipline” (p. 18).  He guides readers through various scenarios that leaders encounter, and when he describes the “how-to” he attributes meditation as being the beneficial enabler:  “meditation helps clear away my trivial thoughts and worries, enables me to focus on the important things, and gives me added energy to get through a stressful day” (George, 2003, p. 42).  As has been established, mindfulness practices include specific meditations that help people to become more aware of present moment circumstances.  George directly ties his personal ability to lead at his highest level, the authentic level, with meditating twice a day (2003, p. 42), and as mentioned above is a public proponent of mindful leadership.

Following the logic, how could a leader be authentic without being aware of him/herself?  People have preferences and opinions.  Self-awareness and a self-regulatory process is a skill that allows people to notice if they are acting on preference and opinion.  An example is to notice one’s reaction to different subordinate managers.  Perhaps one of the managers is a better public speaker and always presents items with a positive demeanor, making it much easier for the leader to sit with this particular manager and work with issues.  It may be a noticeable preference that the leader does not mind meeting with this manager.  Other managers may be more swayed by emotional reactions to good news and bad, making the leader have to be more prepared to deal with the emotional intensity of the manager.  Self-awareness allows the leader to recognize the preference and the self-regulatory process provides the leader with tools to give the emotional manager as much time as the other manager.  Thus nobody is neglected due to preference and the leader remains authentic. 

Mindfulness practices appear to fit hand in glove with authentic leadership theory as both emphasize the internal processing for self-awareness, the neutral and non-judgmental consideration of present circumstances for deeper understanding, the regulatory process for sustaining self-awareness and the state of mind that is ideal to both practices.  Both mindfulness practitioners and authentic leaders, in theory, exhibit a presence of depth that is noticeable and modeled given their commitment to self-awareness and self-regulation.

Resonant Leadership

Resonant leadership is an evolution of the work of Boyatzis, McKee, and Goleman (1999, 2005, 2006) from Emotional Intelligence to Primal Leadership and now Resonant Leadership:  Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion.  Resonant leadership theory then stands upon the foundation of emotional intelligence as applied to leaders and leadership situations.  Resonant leaders are described as being “in tune with those around them, [which] results in people working in sync with each other, in tune with each other’s thoughts (what to do) and emotions (why to do it)” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, p. 4).  Resonant leadership theory is presented as a balancing act between resonance as an ideal state that is difficult to achieve and sustain, and dissonance, which is when leaders become stressed out, burned out or lose resonance (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, pp. 7-8).  As implied in the subtitle, mindfulness, hope, and compassion are the key ingredients that promote and sustain resonance.  Resonant leadership theory is the first leadership theory discussed in this paper that directly and openly ties itself to mindfulness, asserting that mindfulness sustains the leadership ability (aka resonance) (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, p. 112).  The authors (Boyatzis & Mckee, 2005) refer to both Langer (1989) and Kabat-Zinn (1990) for definitions of mindfulness and relate case studies of exemplary leaders who are mindful and promote and sustain resonance.  They (Boyatzis & Mckee, 2005) relate mindfulness to awareness of self, others, and the environment (pp. 112-114), to connecting authentically with others through listening (p. 114), and being open to learning, especially from failures (p. 117).  Essentially, Boyatzis and McKee (2005) are referring to open-mindedness, authentic presence, sustained energy and vitality through managing oneself, and approaching each life situation with full attention. 

Mindfulness and resonance are directly related, with the former promoting and sustaining the later.  One could assert that resonant leadership is mindful leadership:  having resonance is being mindful and that dissonance is lack of mindfulness or mindlessness.  As described earlier in this paper, Goleman is a public proponent of mindfulness and mindful leadership (MoreThanSoundNet, 2013).  This paper has already shown how mindfulness directly relates to emotional intelligence and authenticity, as Boyatzis and McKee (2005) have presented a clear connection between EI, mindfulness, and effective high-level leadership.

Perhaps what is most valuable from the resonant leadership theory is the attempt to synthesize mindfulness in leadership practice and to provide a means through exercises for individuals to become more self-aware and more mindful of their habits, routines, preferences, and defensive patterns.  In this regard, the resonant leadership material is useful for the aspiring practitioner, the leader looking for a means to become more resonant and less dissonant.  One thing that I have learned from working on this paper is that it is a challenge to appropriately articulate mindfulness and relate its value or significance in relation to theories.  Boyatzis and McKee (2005) do an excellent job of articulating the value and application of mindfulness in leadership practice.  At the same time, I do not believe that their work is comprehensive enough for a person who has no exposure to or experience with mindfulness to be able to put it into practice.  Their book (and theory) is an entrance that points toward the deeper practice of mindful leadership.

Norms and Marginalization in Mindful Leadership

If mindful leadership were enacted and became the norm in an organization, one would assume that leaders and those in the working arena of the mindful leadership would be exhibiting traits of mindfulness and higher levels of emotional intelligence.  Marturano (2014) explains that “a mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the service of others” (p. 11).  By creating the norm of exhibiting the leadership presence it is possible to assume that those who come into the workplace not embodying the leadership presence would be identified as not being mindful.  Given that the mindful leader should be exhibiting compassion, one would expect the mindful leader to have understanding and perhaps give the non-mindful person a reminder to be present.  In my experience, mindfulness is a state of mind that requires effort to achieve and sustain.  If a mindful leader is continually seeing non-mindful behaviors in subordinates or coworkers, I imagine that the employees could become marginalized.  It is also possible that particular employees who present challenges to the leader in such a way that they remove the leader from the state of presence, could be creating a rift where the leader would subconsciously wish to avoid them.  It is also possible that this could affect hiring and firing, as well as impact promotions.  Now, if a leader was able to truly exhibit mindfulness, he or she should be able to notice such behaviors and remove any inherent preferences, bias, and marginalizing of personnel.

Opportunities for Further Consideration and Limitations

One of the limitations of the scope of this paper is the narrowed focus of leadership theories.  I had originally planned on comparing mindfulness to more leadership theories, including adaptive leadership theory.  An initial exploration into the effectiveness of considering mindfulness with adaptive leadership theory yielded a number of items worth consideration and further investigation.  As a starting point, consider the following.

Substantial research (see Kaiser, 2010, Nelson, Zaccaro, & Herman, 2010) has been conducted on adaptive leadership and many prestigious scholars have discussed its usefulness as a leadership theory and practical application in the workplace (Yukl & Mahsud, 2010; Heifetz et al., 2009).   Adaptive leadership has been shown to be associated with flexibility and agility, and is increased through metacognitive skills (Nelson et al., 2010; Yukl & Mahsud, 2010).  Metacognitive skills were defined in the adaptive leadership literature as “the ability to think about how and what one is thinking” (Flavel, 1979, as cited in Nelson et al., 2010).  A clinical psychology term, metacognition has been well researched and directly linked to mindfulness (Teasdale, 1999; Bishop et al., 2004; Wells, 2002; Wells, 2006).  These studies are either focused on defining mindfulness with consensus (Bishop et al., 2004) or in furthering the research on cognitive therapy and/or clinical disorders (Teasdale, 1999; Wells, 2002; and Wells, 2006).  As the clinical psychologists attempt to help the broader field to understand the value and significance of mindfulness practices, they and the adaptive leadership researchers are focused on describing the same thing:  human beings improving their self-regulatory processes and navigating the demands of ever-changing environments and stressful demands which pull on the tensions between strong emotions and well-being.  The research suggests that mindfulness enhances adaptability.

The research on mindfulness in organizations and in leadership practice is still in its nascent stage, but growing.  There is great opportunity for further understanding of the application of mindfulness in practice.  As this paper has pointed toward, mindfulness relates to leadership theories and elements of leading with a depth of self-awareness and with emphasis on being genuine and authentic and of service to others.  Still, mindfulness is a relatively new term that is not universally understood.  This paper has had to utilize synonyms and definitions of terms in order to bridge theories (e.g. self-awareness, self-regulation, awareness).  The more that mindfulness becomes understood, the more we will be able to ascertain knowledge of how it is applied in the workplace and in leadership theories.  For example, regarding Greenleaf’s (1977) description of awareness being the foundation of servant leadership—how would his description have changed had he known about or encountered mindfulness?  And, for those people who utilize mindfulness practices without knowing what mindfulness is, how do they describe it?  How many CEOs are utilizing mindfulness practices without highlighting it?  What terms do they use?  Numerous mindfulness scales exist (e.g. Mindful Awareness Attention Scale, MAAS, by Brown & Ryan, 2003) and have been used in research, so there is a means for collecting this information.  My point is, mindfulness is clearly valuable and foundational, but it is not known to the mainstream or universally understood in relation to leadership capabilities. 

Bringing Mindfulness and Contemplative Practices into Online Education

Atlantic University has been offering distance education to adult students since 1985.  In 2010, the curriculum shifted from a distance correspondence model to a contemporary online classroom model.  The university has been offering an MA in Transpersonal Studies since its reopening in 1985 (the university was originally founded in 1930, but closed due to lack of funding as a result of the Great Depression).  Transpersonal studies is an evolution of humanistic psychology developed by Abraham Maslow and others with a focus on the spiritual dimension of the human psyche.  Given the nature of transpersonal studies, it will be of little surprise to learn that this area of study is filled with contemplative practices such as, journaling, reflection, mindfulness, meditation, dream analysis, and centering prayer among others.  These contemplative practices are woven into the curriculum.  Weekly discussion post assignments include components of reflection and may include prompts to explore a particular contemplative practice and report on the experience.  The curriculum also contains reflection papers and projects with experiential components.  Contemplative practices, as experiential components of the study of transpersonal studies, are juxtaposed with the academic study of transpersonal psychology.

In 2016, Atlantic University launched a new program, an MA in Leadership Studies with concentrations in Mindful Leadership, Organizational Leadership, and Global Leadership.  Students are exposed to all three concentration areas (mindfulness, organizational leadership, and global citizenry) regardless of their chosen concentration.  Embedding mindfulness within leadership studies in an online program may seem rather straightforward to those of us who have been teaching and practicing each (mindfulness and leadership), but it does take skill to find the appropriate balance between experiential and academic pursuits.  Thankfully, our faculty who built and teach in the mindful leadership curriculum have the experience, ability, and minds to bridge the two areas, as they are leaders, scholars, and mindfulness practitioners themselves.

A brief survey given to Atlantic University faculty members (n=9) who were recently teaching in the online MA in Transpersonal Studies program revealed some interesting insights into contemplative practices in online pedagogy.  The faculty supported the statement (5 strongly agree, 4 agree) that online classrooms provide an effective platform for teaching contemplative practices to students.  A mixed response (1 strongly agree, 5 agree, 2 neutral, 1 strongly disagree) was received when teaching online was equated as equally as effective as teaching in person.  Another item of importance was that 8 of 9 faculty teaching contemplative practices online reported having their own contemplative practice, which is viewed as highly valuable by the administration (and students).


Mindfulness is a seemingly universal component of the human experience, although it takes experience to find it and effort to sustain it.  Some researchers have already made the connection between mindfulness and particular leadership theories, while others are using synonymous terms that point toward the same valuable components of intentional present moment awareness, such as, awareness, self-awareness, self-regulatory ability, and reflectivity versus reflexivity (Bishop et al., 2010).  The significance and value of this approach to leadership has been researched (Weick & Putnam, 2006) and implied, although it has yet to fully reach the mainstream or provide a synthesis of how mindfulness relates to leadership theories (as this paper attempts to do). Efforts on behalf of George (2003), Tan (2014), Marturano (2014), Bush (2015), and others have highlighted the value of mindfulness in organizations, including large corporations such as MedTronic, Google, and GE respectively, but small businesses can’t necessarily afford to bring in consultants and “new” theories.  More research needs to be conducted to help researchers and practitioners better understand the significance and the best methods of implementation of bringing mindfulness to leaders and organizations.  Mindfulness is a growing movement and has much potential for improving leadership capabilities. 

In my own practice as a leader, I have found mindfulness to be an incredibly beneficial and enabling practice.  I consider my mindfulness practice to be the provider of many virtuous and valuable elements, including: more patience and discernment with others and myself, ability to sharply focus on what is at hand and recognize when my focus and concentration has diminished, increased perception into what is causing a present mood, feeling, or emotion, resilience by being able to accept present circumstances without the long-lasting effects of negative emotions such as worry or fear, and the ability to suspend my judgments and opinions and consider alternatives that I may not have seen or considered.  This ability stems out of a personal mindfulness meditation practice wherein I sit in meditation focused on something stable, such as the breath or the body, and progress toward awareness of thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  Then I move on to awareness of awareness (metacognition) where my goal in meditation is simply to notice what presents itself from moment to moment.  This meditative practice overflows into my daily life providing me with a sharper mind and attentiveness to what comes up throughout the day.  It is a struggle to maintain mindfulness throughout each day and it takes effort and reminders.  Sometimes I have to get up from my desk and walk around the office for a few minutes, just focusing on walking and nothing else—the action of moving the body—in order to let my mind relax and let go of current burdens or emotions.  In important meetings, I calm my emotions by labeling them (e.g. experiencing anger or noticing my negative reaction to that comment) and return focus to the present moment, often listening.  The practice of being mindful allows me to be authentic, enables me to be a servant promoting self-actualization, and sustains the ideal of resonance in the workplace.  Without mindfulness, I do not believe that I would be able to navigate the demands of leadership (and life) in the way that I do.  Thus, my interest in exploring the research and literature on mindfulness and leadership theories is deeply connected to my first-hand experience of its tremendous value.


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Bringing Mindfulness into Leadership Practice and Online Education: Theory and Application
Collection 2016 Virginia Tech Contemplative Practices Conference Papers
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users

Author Information:

James Van Auken, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Atlantic University


As Vice President of Academic Affairs, I juggle the responsibilities and university obligations of ensuring that the core elements of the university (curriculum, faculty, administration, accreditation, and students) are appropriately being monitored, guided, and/or listened to.  Recognizing the rhythms and patterns, the order and chaos, the unity and individuality, and the internal and the external components of the position (and of myself) provide a means to navigate the complexity.  Reflecting on my approach to this leadership position as a mindfulness practitioner has revealed some themes, which I discuss.  Additionally, I will also discuss how mindfulness relates to established leadership theories.  I conclude the paper with a section discussing how mindfulness practices can be brought into an online curriculum.

Author James Van Auken
Rights © 2016 James Van Auken