Why Harvard Business School Should Teach Mindfulness

Technology promised to make our lives easier, faster and simpler.  And it has.  Yet it has also made our world vastly more frenetic and complex.  Smartphones and laptops mean that there is no division between work and home.  Email and social media deluge our lives with information, and interrupt our most precious commodity: focus.  And the further we advance in our careers, the worse this phenomena becomes.  

Everyone knows that to compete in this world, you need more skills and education than previous generations.  But what no one is talking about is the extraordinary demands that this connected world is putting on our inner resources to handle this complexity.  

Business schools, like my alma mater Harvard, teach skills in functional areas like finance, operations and marketing.  And as necessary as it is to master these skills in business, getting an MBA won't necessarily change your capacity to handle the increased pace or complexity of today’s business environment.  After I graduated from Harvard Business School, I was still the same person, just with a few more tools in my belt.  My business school experience developed me horizontally, and only gave me approaches to cope with the challenges.   

In the past, it was sufficient for leaders to set goals, establish sensible norms and cultivate alignment around them.  And horizontal development was sufficient to meet this kind of challenge.  But horizontal development isn’t enough anymore.   What is needed to meet today’s challenge is a radical shift in mindset, and a quantum leap in our capacity to handle greater complexity so that we can make sense of this rapidly changing and uncertain world.  We need leaders who are vertically developed enough to remain self-aware, independent thinkers comfortable with competing viewpoints in the storm of every day work life. 

Sounds great, but how do we vertically develop ourselves?  

The most systematic way I know to build ourselves vertically is through mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness is the ancient science and practice of cultivating the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now, without getting carried away by it.  Having this awareness allows us to consciously decide how we’ll respond. 

I initially came to mindfulness practice trying to find a way to address the mounting stress in my life.  My days were filled horizontally — with more and more things to do, and less and less time.  As hard as I might drive myself to work, the demands competing for my attention never ended.  The overachiever in me was constantly feeling like I was perpetually underperforming. 

My stress came to a head when it started to manifest as persistent hives.  My body was simply on fire with stress.  Faced with the prospect of permanently living on anti-inflammatory drugs, I started looking for sustainable alternatives. 

After exploring a number of avenues, the only approach that consistently hit the reset button for me was mindfulness. 

I started studying mindfulness deeply, and even traveled across India and Asia to study Eastern wisdom traditions.  The more I practiced, the more I came to realize that mindfulness wasn’t just helping me to cope with my work, but was actually building a different kind of capacity — I was becoming a person that could better handle situations with growing clarity and discernment.  Rather than simply reacting to stressful situations that seemed to come at me from all directions, I was developing the presence to see what was truly important in any situation and stand calm in the midst of it.  

Mindfulness has an enormous body of scientific research backing up its benefits. Not least of which is that we can build a better brain through mindfulness meditation.  A recent Harvard MRI study showed that in just 8 weeks, new meditators had more gray matter.  And a Yale brain imaging study showed that meditators are able to use their brains in ways that others can’t (e.g., to be more focused and tune out distractions).  

My hypothesis is that mindfulness is the next big thing, on par with where fitness was several decades ago.  As journalist Dan Harris is fond of saying, “Fifty years ago, if you went jogging down the street, you’d be asked ‘Who’s chasing you’?”  But today, we all know that we need to exercise our bodies, and thanks to the growing body of neuroscience research, we’ll come to see that we also need mindfulness to exercise our minds.

And mindfulness isn’t just a way to keep our brains in optimum health.  It’s also a path to greater professional success.  Hedge Fund titan Ray Dalio has said “Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had.”

So when will you join the elite subculture of high performers* who are already meditating? 

And @HBS, when are you going to start teaching mindfulness?  Management education needs mindfulness to stay relevant to the leadership challenges of today.  


If you’re looking to learn more about mindfulness and start meditating, I am launching a 28 Day Meditation Challenge for leaders on Feb 1, 2015.  Sign up here: http://www.seachangecoaching.co/sign-up/ 

* Among the 6 million meditators in the US today, they already include Arianna Huffington, Marc Benioff (Salesforce CEO), Bill Ford (Chairman of Ford), Russell Simmons, Congressman Tim Ryan, Anderson Cooper, the Seattle Seahawks, and even the US Marines. 

How Emotions are a Competitive Advantage

Shhhhh.  There’s a secret that many highly intelligent people have in common, but rarely talk about: analysis paralysis.  

…Like the talented job seeker who has 5 great job offers in front of them, but doesn’t know how to choose.  The entrepreneur who has a dozen great business ideas, but doesn’t know where to start.  Or the CEO who isn’t sure which of 3 directions to take the company.  

In situations like this, we’re trained to believe that “If only I could be more rational, then I’d make better decisions.”  Mainstream thinking says that true professionals can’t bring their emotions into the workplace.  And women in particular often feel that they need to tamp down their emotions to succeed in the workplace.  But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Effective decision making can’t happen without the context that the emotional brain provides. 

Enter neuroscience.  Neuroscientists have been holding onto a little known secret for at least the past two decades: that emotions are the key to successful planning and decision making.*  

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s patient “Elliott” is a case in point.  Elliott was a successful business person and model family man who went in for surgery to remove a tumor.  As a result of the surgery, Eliott lost his orbitofrontal cortex — the part of the brain the connects the ‘higher' brain with emotions (in the ‘lower’ reptilian and mammal brains).  Elliott became a real life Mr. Spock.  His IQ remained in the superior range.  But instead of making him the perfect decision making machine, he became paralyzed by indecision.  Without the input of emotions, he was unable to make even the simplest decisions.  His life fell apart — he could no longer recognize priorities, he lost all of his savings in a series of remarkably poor business decisions, and his wife and children left him.  

If neuroscientists have been wise to the impact that emotions have on our decision making, why is this still surprising to the general public?  Namely because this outdated idea is based on the faulty assumption that emotions can be successfully suppressed.  But neuroscientists have long disproven this.  Dr. Daniel Wegner, for example, has found that when people push away thoughts and feelings, this often backfires and leads to these thoughts and emotions coming back with even greater intensity.  And some researchers believe that emotional suppression is why many people with PTSD struggle with so many painful thoughts and emotions. 

There's a world of difference between seeing what our emotions have to tell us versus being a slave to them.  When we are a slave to our emotions, we lose our moorings and get washed out to sea with them.  But when we give ourselves permission to sit with our emotions long enough to feel them, it’s not only relaxing because we no longer have to spend energy fending off emotions, more importantly we can see what wisdom they have to tell us.  This is when emotions become a competitive advantage. 

Next time you find yourself in analysis paralysis, use your emotions to your advantage in decision making by checking in with your emotions to narrow down your options.  In the “7 plus or minus 2 rule” which says that the human mind can only hold 5 to 9 pieces of information at once, use your emotions to help you filter out options that don’t resonate with you, and to ultimately get out of analysis paralysis. The best professionals are able to embody their decision making with the best of their emotions and reason.  


* Ironically, artificial Intelligence researchers have also found that emotions enhance decision making.  In highly complex decision making scenarios where it's hard to “compute” a rational optimal long-run answer (e.g., where there’s no obvious wrong answer, and there’s a lot of uncertainty), they’ve found that when emotions are followed, decision makers are guided to the optimal solution.  For more, see the scholarly research from Harvard: http://ijcai.org/papers11/Papers/IJCAI11-016.pdf

The Authentic Path to Executive Presence

I was talking with a client this morning about feedback she got from her CEO.  He told her, you need more executive presence.  “Try to get rid of your nervous laugh,” he suggested unhelpfully. 

The challenge with feedback like this about executive presence is that it doesn’t cut to the core of who we really are.  You can’t fake executive presence.  Having executive presence means being so solid in who you are that it just emanates from you, inside out.  Others sense your deep confidence that everything will work out.  And they can feel that you believe in them without having to say a word.  You are so calm that you just own the room.  This is authentic power.

So how do you get to this place of being leadership embodied? 

Through the body.  

We live in a culture that’s all about the mind.  The problem is that we leave the body behind.  And if we leave the body behind, we’re essentially talking heads glued onto 2 legs.  What power do we actually have if we’re leaving our foundation behind?  What integrity would a house have if it didn’t have its foundation?    

Now there are lots of ways to gain access to the body, but the only systematic way that I know of is through yoga.  

First, get rid of your notions of what yoga is.  It’s not about being sweaty in 100 degree rooms while wearing expensive spandex.  It’s not just an exercise class at the gym.  Yoga when practiced in its full spirit is about uniting.  In sanskrit, yoga means to “yoke”.  And what you’re really yoking in yoga are the two great halves of ourselves: our minds and our hearts.  Our left brain (the analytical one), and the right brain (the creative one).  

Leadership that comes from the head will never be truly inspiring.  You can masterfully articulate all the reasons why your team should buy into a new strategy.  But if it doesn’t come from the heart, and capture other peoples’ hearts — you will only get so far.  Any change process is like trying to lead an elephant.  If an elephant keeper (your mind) isn’t able to win over the elephant, the elephant isn’t going to move without a struggle.  It’s the same with leadership.  

Yoga through its practices of physical postures and meditation is the systematic science of dropping from the head into the heart.  When we can speak from that place that is connected to who we are at our core, that’s when we can move all the elephants in the room.