Mindfulness developing transformative leaders

Leadership, by far, has been the most sough-after quality in new and existing employees

Mindfulness developing transformative leaders

by Saaransh, MBA, P.Eng. CSCP & Simon Taggar, PhD

Leadership, by far, has been the most sought-after quality in new and existing employees. Mahatma Gandhi started a non-violence movement with millions of people intrinsically motivated to follow him at great personal risk. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights movement using moral arguments grounded in nonviolent civil disobedience. Steve Jobs, through a futuristic vision, transformed people’s interaction with technology. Indra Nooyi with her courage and infectious values that she learned from her parents (e.g., “if you do a job, do it better than anybody else”) took PepsiCo from revenues of $35 billion in 2006 to $63.5 billion in 2017. Mother Teresa transformed a large swath of society through love and faith. These leaders have a few things in common. They had a vision, displayed high levels of ethical and moral reasoning, they inspired and understood their followers’ needs. This bundle of qualities is referred to as transformative leadership by scholars. Almost every professional in their career has had to consider this leadership style because it is considered the gold standard of leadership.

The debate around “best” leadership practices is more prevalent than ever. Under the effects of Covid-19, today, it is not business as usual and it is not leadership as usual. Employees are isolated and disconnected from their workplaces. Today, more than ever, there is a need for transformative leaders who can build a passionate commitment to their organization.  But how can one learn to exhibit transformative leadership behaviors? Our research has found that the practice of mindfulness helps develop a transformative leader style. In fact, the leaders mentioned above have one additional thing in common; they practice mindfulness.

Before we get into the mechanisms of how mindfulness is associated with developing transformative leadership, it is important to describe transformative leadership in more concrete terms. Transformative leaders encourage their followers to develop new ways of thinking and novel problem solving. They provide feedback, coaching, and acknowledge and commend performance. They also convey statements of confidence, exhibit high moral standards with a motivating vision. Additionally, transformative leaders show an understanding of their follower needs (e.g., needs of competence, relatedness and autonomy). Lastly, transformative leaders are good at relationship building, developing trust and perceptions of fairness.

Read more: Mental health: How to lead by example

Our research suggests that transformative leadership has strong associations with follower motivation, confidence, creativity, questioning the status quo, going beyond self-interest and working for the collective good. Transformational leadership is particularly important for enhancing team effectiveness and organizational effectiveness, through increased collaboration, innovation, and by encouraging individuals to work towards a common vision and goal. Research shows that transformative leadership often has a positive and impactful association with organization performance.

Furthermore, our research shows that mindfulness is an antecedent to transformative leadership behaviors. Jon Kabat-Zinn, renowned researcher and expert on mindfulness, describes mindfulness as:

“A moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgementally, and as open heartedly as possible. Mindfulness is an innate quality that we all have, but we simply need to cultivate it more through meditation practices."

Mindfulness training, by developing “non-judgemental” thinking and “non-reactive” impulsive responses to others, leads to increased awareness and delayed gratification. The latter characteristic is what helps individuals resist greed, which facilitates moral behavior. Through increased awareness of their emotional states, mindful individuals are able to detach themselves from their immediate thoughts or emotions, leading to recognition of a moral issue and application of moral reasoning. Through “open-heartedness” and “acceptance”, individuals practicing mindfulness support their capacity to be compassionate, which is a key component to understanding the needs, concerns and desires of others. Mindfulness training also leads to meta-awareness, which can be defined as enhanced awareness and knowledge of one’s thoughts, feelings or emotions. An individual low on meta-awareness is unable to separate “self” from negative thoughts, emotions or impulsive reactions. An individual high on meta-awareness is better able to separate self from negative emotions or impulses through a better understanding and awareness of their emotional process, an ability that also helps with understanding the emotional processes of others, enhancing empathy. Empathy and compassion are pivotal characteristics leading to the transformative leadership behaviors of caring and understanding followers needs and desires, relationship building, trust, perception of fairness, and understanding other viewpoints. In fact, heightened empathy guides transformative leaders to being able to resonate with their followers and empower them, by providing them with tools and skills to be able to think innovatively. By doing so, transformative leaders help develop in followers the practice of novel thinking, build trust and affirm to them that the organization values their contribution.

Read more: Are employees on the brink of burnout?

So, by now you must be wondering, how does one cultivate mindfulness? There are many ways to practice mindfulness with courses ranging in time commitment from a few hours to weeks. However, one can simply start by taking 15 minutes for meditation. All it takes is comfortable clothing, comfortable sitting up posture on a chair or a stool, with your spine erect, closing your eyes, taking three deep breaths, inhale-hold-exhale, followed by normal breathing and drawing one’s attention toward inhalation-holding-exhalation of breath. Many people quickly realize how restless their mind is. The key is to be able to quiet your mind and simply focus on your breath. Just as a swimmer, through sustained practice, is better able to control his/her breath, one can also develop and quiet one’s mind at will, through the sustained practice of meditation. This ability to control a wandering mind leads to enhanced cognitive capability resulting in better emotional regulation, meta-awareness, increased response flexibility, and increased awareness. Each of these psychological processes can help enhance transformative leadership behaviors.

Given our research suggesting mindfulness is an antecedent to transformative leadership behaviors, it is no surprise that organizations like Google, Apple, Coca-Cola, and P&G have workplace mindfulness programs. Transformative leadership behaviors are associated with creativity, trust, effective and compassionate commitment to an organization’s mission and motivated employees willing to go the extra mile for their firm.

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