Mindful Academic Leadership
This article first appeared in Academic Leader on May 1, 2014© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Mindfulness, which we can define as giving nonjudgmental attentiveness to each experience as it occurs, has begun to receive a great deal of attention in academic circles. The health benefits of mindfulness are well established. Studies have demonstrated that it can alleviate chronic pain (Wong, Chan, Wong, Chu, Kitty, Mercer, and Ma, 2011), decrease the urge to smoke (Brewer, Mallik, Babuscio, Nich, Johnson, Deleone, Minnix-Cotton, and Rounsaville, 2011), and help people cope with stress (Schreiner and Malcolm, 2008). Leadership strategies based on mindfulness are increasingly taken seriously in the corporate world (see, for example, Karakas, 2011, and Veil, 2011), and a number of training programs either specialize in mindfulness-based leadership or offer it among their other workshops. See, for example, the Authentic Leadership in Action Institute (www.aliainstitute.org), the Institute for Mindful Leadership (www.instituteformindfulleadership.org), and ATLAS Leadership Training (www.atlasleadership.com).
Most approaches to mindful leadership begin with secular practice in meditation. Put most simply, meditation involves allowing the mind to rest on a specific point of focus or awareness. In religious traditions, that point of focus might be a particular aspect of a deity, a sacred sound, or part of a prayer. In secular meditation, the focus is often the breath, the present moment, bodily sensations, the immediate environment, or a meaningless repeated sound. Inevitably, as the meditator engages in this practice, the meditator will eventually notice that their attention has wandered. When that happens, the goal of the practice is to guide one’s awareness gently back to the object of meditation and start over again. With practice it’s possible to remain “grounded” on the object of meditation for longer periods and even to carry awareness of this focus into one’s daily life.
Approaching leadership from a mindfulness perspective involves more than simply encouraging people in positions of authority to meditate regularly. It also involves applying the insights one gains from a meditation practice to the challenges and opportunities that arise during one’s leadership. A key element in leading mindfully is tied to the definition of mindfulness we saw earlier: the nonjudgmental attentiveness to each experience as it occurs. Mindful leaders resist the urge to attach an interpretation to everything that happens. If someone says something rude or fails to complete an assignment, the mindful leader doesn’t conclude “Oh, this person is rude” or “This person is a failure.” Putting labels on people in this way narrows them unnecessarily. We’re all rude from time to time if we’re in a bad mood or just happen to be preoccupied with other thoughts. We all fail occasionally, because no one can ever be perfect in everything they do. But just as we don’t see ourselves as rude failures, so do mindful leaders resist the urge to apply these designations to others. They simply remain aware of what happens, deal with the situation as effectively as possible, and then move on. They don’t base their entire judgment of someone on what that person did last week or last year.
Mindfulness as a welcome antidote
In higher education, mindful academic leadership provides a number of benefits. First, it serves as a welcome antidote to the small-mindedness we so often find at colleges and universities. Nearly everyone in higher education is familiar with the old maxim that political disputes among academics are particularly nasty because the stakes are so small. Mindfulness helps academic leaders keep matters in perspective. Not everything is a crisis, and not every crisis is part of a conspiracy. Good things and bad things occur all the time in higher education, and developing the practice of being nonjudgmental about experience as it occurs helps leaders appreciate the difference between the trivial and the truly important. It causes them to have fewer of those moments when afterward they think, “I wish I hadn’t said that.”
Second, mindfulness helps academic leaders maintain a better work/life balance. Administrative work can be all-consuming, and many academic leaders find themselves on call 24/7/365. Mindful academic leadership is extremely useful, therefore, because meditation itself is a common way for people to deal with stress, and the ability to pull back and see “the big picture” helps one avoid a significant amount of stress even before it begins. When we work in environments where we’ve already categorized many of our colleagues as bullies, failures, whiners, tattletales, and enemies, it makes us feel as though we’re entering a battle zone every time we come to work. But if we come to our jobs with the attitude that there will be all kinds of interesting experiences throughout the day—opportunities that we get to cultivate, problems that we get to solve, and concerns that we get to alleviate—our mind-set becomes totally different. We start seeing the value of what we do, not the frustrations and annoyance we’re likely to suffer.
Becoming more attentive
Finally, mindfulness causes us to be more attentive to our work and, even more important, to the people with whom we work. By becoming more attuned to experiences as they occur, we fixate less on the next meeting we need to go to or the next appointment we have to make. We do our jobs better by noticing details we may otherwise miss and draw satisfaction from giving 100 percent of our attention to everything we do. Instead of mindlessly signing documents while worried about other issues from other parts of our day, we pay better attention to the exceptions we’re being asked to grant and the allocations we’re expected to make. We notice the achievements of those we work with and remember more often to support others with a word of thanks or encouragement. We treat people respectfully as individuals and don’t inadvertently cause offense because we barely notice they’re there.
Sometimes, when people hear words such as mindfulness or meditation with regard to the workplace, they dismiss the ideas being presented because they think they’re merely fads or too soft to have real value. But mindful academic leadership is more about improving one’s effectiveness as an academic leader than it is about navel-gazing or New Age thinking. It’s a management technique that has been proven both in the laboratory and in the workplace, and it tends to increase job satisfaction, reduce administrative burnout, improve productivity, and decrease interpersonal conflict, all at little or no cost.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.
Brewer, J.A., Mallik, S., Babuscio, T.A., Nich, C., Johnson, H.E., Deleone, C.M., Minnix-Cotton, C.A., & Rounsaville, B.J. (December 2011). Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: Results from a randomized controlled trial. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 119(1-2), 72-80.
Karakas, F. (January 2011). Positive management education: Creating creative minds, passionate hearts, and kindred spirits. Journal of Management Education. 35(2), 198-226.
Schreiner, I., & Malcolm, J.P. (January 2008). The benefits of mindfulness meditation: changes in emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress. Behaviour Change. 25(3), 156-168.
Veil, S. (2011). Mindful learning in crisis management. Journal of Business Communication. 48(2), 116-147.
Wong, S.Y., Chan, F.W., Wong, R.L., Chu, M.C., Kitty, L.Y.Y., Mercer, S.W., & Ma, S.H. (January 2011). Comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and multidisciplinary intervention programs for chronic pain: a randomized comparative trial. The Clinical Journal of Pain. 27(8), 724-734.