What It Means To Be A Mindful Leader


As a leader, you’re pulled in a thousand different directions every day. Everyone around you has a demand on your time. Your attention is scattered across multiple projects and your focus so stretched that it can be hard to stay in the room. You probably don’t need convincing that practicing mindfulness could help.

But that’s easier said than done, right?

What does it mean to be mindful?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction defines mindfulness as:

“The awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

It hardly requires evidence or example to get the impact this might have on improving you as a leader and your whole team’s experience at work.

When we’re in a mindful state, our senses switch on. We pay attention, we notice details, and we listen, really listen, to what our peers and colleagues have to say. From here, we are positioned to respond on the spot, in the moment, and with skill and grace.

Practicing mindfulness as a leader has outcomes ranging from cutting down time spent in meetings to reducing unnecessary anxiety in your team. And longer term, it could help you realize your potential as a leader, and help members of your team realize theirs.

Being a mindful leader

Being mindful is an iterative process. Some days you’ll be able to stay mindful throughout the day. On others, you may be easily distracted. You should see improvement over time but there’s no end-state. Being mindful is something you have to work hard at whether you’ve been actively practicing it for ten days or ten years.

Of course, as with any leadership practice, it starts with you. From there, you can use techniques to help your whole team work and live more mindfully.

Take out technology

To remove physical objects of distraction.

This is the most obvious technique, and the one while requires the least discipline. Nonetheless, it needs to be covered because we are in dire straits here:

I am astounded by how normal it has become for friends to stare down at their phones while I’m catching up with them over a meal. Or for peers to sit working on their laptops while one of their team is standing up giving a presentation. It’s like everyone agreed to a new rule that I missed. Maybe I’m not a real millennial.

Either way, technology present in the wrong setting can certainly prevent you from being present in the moment.

At Jobvibe, we practice a laptops-down rule. You can bring your laptop to a team meeting but it must stay closed, unless you are pulling up a piece of reference for the team, or making notes on the points of discussion.

Better yet, take them out of the room altogether. Leave your mobile on your desk the next time you go to a meeting or switch it off while you’re completing an important piece of work. See what happens and observe the impact it has on your focus and awareness on the task at hand.

Take 10 mindful minutes

To get some headspace.

It’s difficult to write an article about mindfulness and not mention meditation. I often see the two used synonymously but I don’t believe you need to practice meditation to be a mindful person or mindful leader.

We’re big fans of the Headspace app at Jobvibe. Most members of the team have had on-off relationships with meditation at some point under the guidance of Andy Puddicombe. It is a great place to start.

But even if you decide not to take up meditation, take his advice and take 10 minutes out of your day:

Go for a walk outside in the middle of the afternoon; notice your steps, look up at the trees, pay attention to the people walking past you, give one of them a smile. When you get back to the office, pay attention to how you feel, how you interact with your team and how they respond to you as a result.

Run project retrospectives

To be mindful next time around.

Agile retrospectives are a technique used in software development at the end of a batch of work, or a sprint. The aim is to reflect on what has gone well, what hasn’t gone so well and decide what to change.

While this won’t help train your mind to be more focused, retrospectives can certainly help your team’s collective mindfulness. Reflecting on success and failures, however small they might be, creates markers. Markers that mean that next time around, everyone in the team is aware of the positive behaviours to repeat and the destructive behaviours to call out or kill.

This is the framework I learned from scrum master Andy Burrows a few years ago. The team I was in then used it every two weeks over the course of a six-month rebranding project to iterate, improve and become more mindful about how we were working together. You can apply to any project-based work or in any situation where you have a defined team working closely together:

  1. Set the stage: Ask everyone in the team to describe, in one word, how they feel about the project.
  2. Gather data: Discuss the key events and challenges.
  3. Generate insights: Examine what happened and try to understand the root causes.
  4. Decide how to improve: Agree on what to do, how to do it and commit to change.


Practice prospective hindsight

To set up strategies for times of crisis.

In his TED talk, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes locking himself out of his Montreal house the night before he’s due to fly to Europe. He breaks into his house, catches a taxi to the airport the next morning only to realise when he gets there that he’s forgotten his passport.

Since then, he’s been practicing prospective hindsight. Or the premortem; a technique invented by Gary Klein, and used by behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman to make better decisions.

Prospective hindsight involves imagining yourself at the end of a project and thinking up everything that could have possibly gone wrong throughout. In a way, it’s like the retrospective flipped on its head, and without any of the real data. But of course, it has the benefit of helping you work more effectively and mindfully from the very start.

Running this with your team can help bring up real concerns they have about the project, for example, the way the team is structured or the technical resources available. From here, you can agree as a group how to minimise the damage.

First up, this technique will help you put in place backup systems for when things go wrong; the point when we’re usually at our least mindful. But perhaps more importantly, it can reduce the overall feeling of anxiety (mindfulness’ number-one enemy) in the team by bringing niggles they have in the back of their mind out into the open for the whole team to solve together.

How do you practice mindfulness at work? Let me know your tips and techniques.

Tim Mullen

Tim is Co-Founder and Head of Customer Experience at Jobvibe. We help teams work better together. Jobvibe is a simple, smart mobile platform to gather real-time feedback from your team, openly discuss results and improve the way you work together.