THE BIG IDEA: Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the profound effects meditation can have on an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. For executive leaders, meditation can be a transformational practice as well as a moral imperative.
Chief executives always have a lot on their plates. They are accountable up and down: up to their stakeholders and down through their organization.
Our culture has many biases. It values faster and bigger over steady and sustainable. It values money over happiness. It values the tangible over the intangible. It looks for short-term profit over long-term gain.
The stress of leadership responsibilities combined with these cultural biases play against the executive’s wellbeing. Effective leadership requires a clear mind and a strong body, that enables clear thinking and right action.
Adopting a practice that brings us closer to our best selves is imperative for our long-term success and fulfillment.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is the practice of conscious observation. It is an age-old method of training the mind.
Various fields of science and medicine began studying the psychological and physiological effects of meditation over three decades ago. The results have been nothing short of miraculous.
Perhaps that’s why companies including Google, Apple, Nike, Target, General Mills, Proctor and Gamble, and AOL Time Warner now offer meditation training to their executives.
What benefits can mind training have for a CEO (and virtually every other human being)?
Meditation Gives You Space
First and foremost, meditation gives you space from your thoughts and emotions. With more internal space—by lowering the volume of your brain’s noise—you’re able to become more conscious of what’s happening within yourself and your environment.
You can see what you’re doing more clearly. By witnessing and observing the behaviors to which you generally remain unconscious, you’re in a better position to change these behaviors.
Meditations gives you more space from your thoughts and feelings by slowing down your brain wave patterns. Slower patterns translate to greater awareness.
Meditation Improves Your Emotional Intelligence
With this increased awareness, you can learn about your emotional responses and how to better control them. Improving your emotional regulation is the cornerstone of developing greater emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence, as Daniel Goleman’s research has found, is the defining factor in outperforming leaders. It’s not about how “smart” you are—that’s called cognitive intelligence or logical-mathematical intelligence (in multiple intelligence theory).
Almost every CEO is smart. But only a minority have a high degree of self awareness, who can accurately perceive what they and others are feeling. Only a few can consciously regulate their emotions without suppressing them. And only a few have the competency to manage the emotions of others. These emotionally-intelligent CEOs outperform their peers.
Meditation Grows Your Brain
Meditation doesn’t just grow your emotional intelligence, it actually grows your brain too.
Neuroplasticity is the change in the brain’s structure as a consequence of experience. Brain scientists used to believe that once the brain was fully developed, it stopped growing. The discovery of neuroplasticity changed that belief.
Meditation Makes You More Resourceful
Meditation also makes you a more resourceful and competent CEO. It has proven to increase creativity in the form of divergent thinking. That is, certain forms of meditation can help you generate more ideas.
Meditation is a key to higher performance as it improves your focus through the regulation of attention. Distraction and multitasking are common themes for chief executives—both of which destroy focus and reduce performance. Within eight weeks of mind training, you can begin taking better control of your attention.
Speaking of control, we all struggle with impulse control in one form or another. We all have disempowering habits we’d like to change. We can all benefit from a lift in our level of willpower.
One of the two qualities of Jim Collin’s Level 5 Leadership is fierce resolve, or professional will. We have a set amount of willpower each day that gets depleted throughout the day. Meditation has shown to reduce this depletion effect, thereby giving us greater energy reserves to fortify our will.
Meditation Strengthens Your Physical Health
Sleep is a key factor for high performance. Meditation promotes better sleep and helps fight insomnia.
When you have less stress, lower anxiety, and better sleep, you also have a stronger immunity system to fight off illness. Meditation has shown to improve immune function.
Meditation Improves Your People Skills
Mind training can also greatly improve your interpersonal relationships both inside and outside your organization.
In addition to greater emotional regulation and empathy, studies show that meditation can make you a more compassionate person. With greater compassion comes more understanding and less interpersonal conflict.
You can also improve your ability to resolve conflict between others, something many CEOs struggle with.
Meditation is a MUST for Leaders
Ultimately, you need to take care of yourself. If you don’t regulate your mental, emotional, and physical state throughout the day, it negatively affects your organization (as well as your family life).
The more calm, compassionate, and centered you become, the more your business will profit. Meditation does translate to the bottom line. But it goes far beyond that.
It can help elevate your mood, heighten your alertness, open you to new perspectives, increase your focus, and bring you a greater sense of inner calm. By all markers, mind training can make you a better leader.
The 3-Minute Meditator
There are many different forms of meditation. The key, in the beginning, is to start small and build your skill in meditation over time. If you try to do too much—if you take the approach of an overachiever—you’ll likely lose interest in meditation very quickly.
Start by becoming a 3-minute meditator. You can do it right now. Set a timer on your phone for 3 minutes. Sit up straight, lower your gaze, and turn your attention to your breath.
Simply observe your breath. Don’t concentrate on it as that will make you tense up. Just gently observe it.
Fairly quickly, you’ll find that your attention will shift to your thoughts, a sensation in your body, an emotion, or something in your environment. When you notice that your attention has shifted, just bring it back to your breath.
Be gentle and be friendly toward yourself. Repeat this process over and over again, bringing your attention back to your breath during the course of these 3 minutes.
That’s it. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Just scan over all the benefits listed above (yes, there are at least 20) to remind yourself why it might be worth experimenting with this exercise.
Try it a few times throughout the day. After about a week, you can move to 5-minute sessions or seek out more in-depth mind training.