Business leaders who meditate: why they do, why they should
Reading “Zen and the art of management” in the Financial Times, we get a good view of why business leaders meditate.
- “Meditation, more than anything else, is responsible for whatever success I have had…When I meditate, I acquire an equanimity that allows me to see things from a higher-level perspective and that allows me to make sensible decisions.” – Ray Dalio — founder and CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedgefund
- “I get excited about things and meditation helps pull me back and see the bigger picture,…I am probably more effective for it, although I’m not going to say it makes me a better person – that’s awful!” Lord Myners, ex- chairman of Marks and Spencer
- “In a world of screens, texts, cell phones, information all over you, spending 20 minutes purposefully not thinking of anything is a wonderful thing…It’s a pause that refreshes. In some ways in the financial world, it is a must.” – Philipp Hildebrand, vice-chairman of BlackRock
- “It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected,” Janice Marturano, General Mills’ deputy general counsel
There are common themes. Focus, effectiveness, a pause in order to be recharged, creativity, resulting in better decisions, increased ability to cope with pressure, and even the slightly more spiritually charged…equanimity. Not to mention Rupert Murdoch’s tweet in April about giving Transcendental Meditation a go: “Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything!”
As the elites of the business world come out about meditation, business leaders everywhere may have their curiosity piqued. “Why not try this meditation thing if it helps my performance?”, is a good question. But how far is meditation really reaching into the boardrooms of today? What are the MDS’ attitudes towards it, how much do they understand it, and what benefits have they started to get from it?
I talk to executive coaches Paul Wielgus and Ros Boughtflower, to find out.
Paul and Ros both come from brand backgrounds in Carlsberg, Vogue and Body Shop. They have been coaching blue chip clients for 20 years, with a client list including Kellogg’s, Merck, Beiersdorf, Phillips, Reckitt Benckiser, NSPCC, Allied Domecq and Orange.
Paul owns Dragonfly Coaching For life, and Ros prefers to keep it personal under her own name. Both are directors of Social Innovation that focuses on Innovative Engagement Experiences. They bring meditation at “affordable prices”, to their local community, with a project called “Medicine for a Happy Life” .
Despite being coaches and Buddhists for 20 years, Paul states it is only within the last 12 months that he has had the courage to put mindfulness meditation totally at the heart of his new coaching business, Dragonfly Coaching. In fact to participate he contractually agrees with prospective coachees that they will make effort to bring Mindfulness into their lives.
Adiba: Paul you’ve been coaching business leaders for 20 years, and practicing Buddhism for as long. Why have you brought mindfulness meditation into your coaching programmes only now?
I’ve used meditation into my workshops since the beginning, although in a limited capacity. If I saw a room full of stressed people I’d have them do breathing exercises, or sometimes I’d use meditation as an exercise to help liberate their natural creativity – because mediation can stimulate the part of the brain that leads to lateral thinking.
It was limited because if I used it more fully the business audience would be suspicious or nervous. You have to remember there wasn’t any where lie the interest in research on meditation 15 years ago, so they would sometimes think it is too left field. It was just too high risk.
Over the years I’ve been increasingly asking myself “what is it that I really want to do?” with my business. Then last March I went to a “Mindfulness in Society” conference where Jon Kabat Zinn was speaking, and he spoke of the paramount need for authenticity in mindfulness. I was already working with his approach, but to actually be in his presence, I also realised just how truly authentic he is,the “real deal” and how fundamental Mindfulness is, or can be in our lives
So at that point I realised I needed to make Mindfulness the absolute centre of my coaching activity, the essence of it and the driving force of every other aspect of the coaching program.
Adiba: And why is it so important to you to have mindfulness meditation at the heart of it all?
I genuinely believe that in business as in everywhere else, sustainability is the only way forward; whatever we do now will impact our children, and their children, etc. etc. In order to be conscious of that, we need to improve our self-awareness, and I think mindfulness is a natural emergence of our evolution as human beings, that enables us to look at today’s problems from a different level and perspective, primarily through increased self awareness an enhanced consciousness.
And also because it works!
One of my coachees described it as “yeast” for everything we do – like an accelerator, a generator for all the other elements – the essential missing ingredient – mindfulness meditation turns what would be a good to very good coaching journey into an extraordinary journey of discovery for people.
So what I now ask of all the people I work with is that they have enough of an open mind about mindfulness to contract with me to have it as part of the coaching programme. These days I find that most of are aware of it, have heard of it, or may have even dabbled in it. So they are receptive to it.
Adiba: Where in the coaching programme does mindfulness meditation fit in?
Mindfulness meditation doesn’t fit into the programme – it IS the coaching programme. It’s the master control for all the other elements, which are a plus. Whatever we do within the coaching, such as appreciative enquiry, with its 4 stages of discover, dream, design and deliver, mindfulness meditation helps people reach the space they need to be in to do these supremely effectively, being true to who they are and uncovering their real potential.
Adiba: What reaction do you get when you introduce it to people who have never heard of it?
Some think its NLP. They think it’s something that’s going to make them super duper achievers. They’re into self-improvement and personal development, and think mindfulness will be another tool to be better at how they perform.
Adiba: And is it?
Yes it does do that, but as a side effect.
It’s only when people stick to it, that you sometimes get a moment of realisation – when you really understand what this is about – that you need to allow your true self to come through, which will then allow your true potential to come through.
One of the 7 attitudes of mindfulness is “non-striving.” As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Almost everything we do, we do for a purpose, to get something or somewhere. But in meditation, this attitude can be a real obstacle”.
This is a really difficult concept for people to understand.
Instead of having a goal and thinking how do I get there, with mindfulness you have to park that vision, then bring yourself to the present. You look at yourself fully, accept yourself, bring yourself right into the present…and then you start your journey from where you REALLY are now, as opposed to a projection of where and who you think you are.
We spend so much of our lives as the projection of what we think we are rather than being our real selves.
Another of the attitudes is acceptance. “You have to accept yourself as you are, before you can really change”. That’s when the change really begins.
But this all happens after a while…and in the mean time they pick up better habits, such as concentration, focus, calm, creativity.
Adiba: Tell us about the changes that you have seen occurring in your clients.
I talk about change on differing levels depending on what you practice within mindfulness.
By understanding and recalling key mindfulness principles, such as being aware of when you are operating on autopilot for example, people do start to notice almost immediate changes in responses to specific instances. They say, “I feel more relaxed” or “I can see my thoughts”.
Then when people start to establish a regular short daily mindfulness practice or activity you start to notice a deeper impact on your thoughts and your actions. Longer daily practices, of 20 minutes or more will then start to give us a gradual but sustained shift in how we generally relate to things which in turn positively impacts our mind and our behaviours.
As the practice embeds with people they think about their actions less and the behaviours become more natural and spontaneous and you see that in the courses over time. Interestingly those who continue to practice, get more embedded behaviours but they don’t often see how it is actually directly correlated to the practice !
For instance, after doing body scans and sitting meditation for some time, clients notice that they are a better listener, more patient, being able to control themselves in meetings that are just about to escalate – particularly MDs and CEOs. For example one MD said that in meetings people expect them to fly off the handle or push solutions to the team…but the biggest change has been that now in meetings they allow a period of quiet, and the result is that the managers end up resolving things themselves.
All of these behaviours are part of being more mindful. But it’s important to know that the effects only sustain as long you keep practicing – and the more you practice the longer you sustain them.
Richard is a great example.
Richard was brought into one of our long-term Social Housing clients. He was brought in to inject his passion for sales and business development. Paul was asked to coach him to help him integrate into a culture, which was very different from his previous fast paced sales performance focus. We got on very well and Richard embraced the tools, techniques and attitudes that we had in our coaching offering.
However, when last May he was offered the CEO role, he knew he had to really take on board a challenging personal change program that would really enable him to become an authentic and influential leader. He also know intuitively that Mindfulness offered what he perceived he needed, so he gave his full commitment to the Mindfulness Leadership program that Ros designed and integrated into his Dragonfly Coaching program- and here is Richard sharing his experience after 8 intensive sessions.
Among the things he talks about is how the mindfulness practice gives him the space to react, and ways to understand his reactions better.
Adiba: Finally, how do you deal with prevailing scepticism?
Actually we haven’t met with much scepticism. We also believe that it’s an organic process, and our job is to connect people who are ready for it, to it. It’s not about pushing it too far – you can only take the horse to water, and if it’s going to happen it will.
In business the main reason people disengage with Mindfulness and meditation it is because they find it hard to do and to dedicate the time to do it. Not because they are not interested.
It is like going to the gym – you know it’s good for you but it’s hard, it takes time and motivation. You just have to have the humour and the confidence to keep coming back to it.
Many people say that they “get” meditation and mindfulness and that it makes sense, but to really “get” Mindfulness you have to practice and really try to work with the mind beyond the level of theory and into experience.
Adiba: thank you Paul and Ros
 Ros Boughtflower is also qualified through Bangor University to teach classes in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Paul is a trained facilitator with the Foundation for Developing Wisdom and Compassion, an institution with a vision to bring the benefits of meditation to everyone, religious or not, that has the Dalai lama as its patron.