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Becoming a Mindful Leader

Leadership and Management

Becoming a Mindful Leader

We live in a world of distraction. Technology bombards us with new information every second of the day, making it hard to focus on any one thing. Yet one of the most critical leadership skills is the ability to focus. Focus leads to greater effectiveness, better judgment, increased self-awareness, and stronger social connections.

Mindfulness is about focus. It is intentionally paying attention to the present moment. When we are mindful, we are aware of our inner experiences, our thoughts and emotions, and what is going on around us. We more readily notice when our minds starts to wander, which allows us to refocus our attention on the task at hand or the conversation in which we are engaged.

Mindfulness gives leaders calm, clear minds. A sense of calm is gained from being in the moment, as opposed to fretting over the past or worrying about the future. A calm mind enhances our ability to make good decisions. We see more clearly the pros and cons of different options.

Leaders who are mindful have greater self-awareness. Instead of getting carried away by their emotions, they notice how they are feeling, and this awareness lets them choose how to respond. The ability to regulate our behavior and respond more thoughtfully gives us greater confidence when facing difficult situations.

Mindful leaders are also better listeners, which increases their understanding of the people with whom they work. Greater empathy allows them to act more compassionately by addressing the needs and concerns of others. Acting compassionately builds stronger relationships.

So what can you do to become a more mindful leader? Many people associate mindfulness with meditation. Meditation is a formal way of training your attention. The practice of focusing your attention on something like your breath and refocusing each time your mind wanders is an excellent way to strengthen your attention muscle.

But meditating is not the only way to become mindful. Mindful leaders find ways to build moments of mindfulness into their daily lives. There are countless opportunities to be mindful throughout your day. Some include:

  • Slow down. Try walking more slowly, eating more slowly, driving more slowly. This will allow you to notice more of what is going on around you.
  • Don’t multitask. You cannot do two or more things at once. When you think you are multitasking, you are really switching your attention back and forth between different tasks. You are not focusing.
  • Control technology. Rather than letting technology control you, decide when you will check your email by scheduling times throughout the day. Turn off notifications so your mind isn’t yanked out of the present moment each time you hear a ding.
  • Go outside. There is always so much to see in nature that it pulls your attention into the present moment. Take walks or eat lunch outside when the weather is nice.
  • Use cues. Choose something you already do to serve as a cue to take a mindful pause. It could be each time you sit down to work at your desk or when you are transitioning from one place to another. Use the cue as a reminder to take a few slow, deep breaths and observe your thoughts and feelings. Then proceed with calm awareness.

We have never before experienced the amount of distraction that exists today. Mindfulness helps us handle distractions in a more skillful way. It gives us calm, clear minds, leading to better judgment and smarter decisions. It increases our self-awareness, giving us greater control over our actions. It improves our relationships with others by increasing our empathy.

What will you start doing today to become a more mindful leader?


Recommended Reading

Scott Eblin, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative (Wiley, 2014).

David Gelles, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

Janice Marturano, Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

Chade-Meng Tan, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) (HarperOne, 2012).

Beth Cabrera is the author of Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being (August, 2015). She is a senior scholar at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Blog: cabrerainsights.com. Twitter: @bethcabrera



Academic chairs and directors are in a unique position to set the culture of college teaching.


Academic chairs and directors are in a unique position to set the culture of college teaching. Chairs, through their actions, determine the teaching expectations of their faculty members, yet many chairs are unprepared for this role.” This pronouncement comes from Bridget Arend, director of university teaching at the University of Denver, in the abstract of her recent roundtable session at the 2014 Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD) Conference.

Arend recognizes the difficulty chairs face when trying to support effective teaching in their institutions, and she finds concern about these challenges to be a common problem. “A lot of people are looking at this and not doing a lot,” she says. Part of the reason for lack of action is lack of time; another reason is lack of clear direction on how best to proceed.

Arend gets a top-level view of this through her work with the Office of Teaching and Learning. “Everything we do [in this office] is voluntary,” she says, noting that the office is available “when people want help with their teaching.” Therefore, “we tend to attract people who want to balance their teaching, research, and service.”

Although there is a fair amount of interest in improving teaching, it can be difficult to reach unified consensus about the best way to encourage effective teaching. Arend explains that the departments at her university have a great deal of autonomy, and each can craft solutions that work for their students and faculty.

One popular method for attempting to improve the quality of teaching is gathering and comparing data from student evaluations of the instructor. End-of-course evaluations completed by students can be very useful; they are easy to understand and they readily give quantitative data that is easy to compare to previous terms or years. “Everyone wants a fair method with easy-to-collect [data] to be used across departments, and that’s why student evaluations are used so much,” she says. But these evaluations “should never be used as the sole method to evaluate [instructors],” Arend says.

The data from these evaluations needs to be examined in context. “Look at the response rates and the type of class,” Arend says. However, she has certainly seen some departments rely almost exclusively on these types of evaluations, when they truly should be just a part of a complete process. “Nothing is perfect,” she says, which is why it helps to use multiple types of evaluations and ways to gather data.

Departments may elect to use several possible methods to evaluate instructors. Some use peer evaluations, with instructors sitting in on one another’s classes and reviewing the syllabus and assignments. Other departments may decide to do other things.

For example, at the University of Denver, Arend notes that the business school is currently investigating standards for creating teaching portfolios that can house examples of an instructor’s pedagogy. (More information about teaching portfolios can be found at https://portfolio.du.edu/PedagogyFLC/.) The anthropology department is using qualitative data from student evaluations and alumni surveys, then analyzing this to get a picture of each instructor’s abilities. And in perhaps the most in-character method, the accounting department has created a spreadsheet and analyzed each instructor’s course according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

For other institutions hoping to develop more complete ways of assessing teaching, Arend recommends developing a definition of good teaching. For example, her institution explains “what we aspire to at DU.” “It’s always the first step,” she says.

Denver offers several programs to help its faculty members improve their teaching, including:

  • Teaching Online Workshop
  • Hybrid 3-D Workshop
  • New Faculty Workshop
  • Adjunct Faculty Workshop

The institution is also explicit about what it hopes its programs will help faculty achieve. As stated on the Teaching Excellence Initiative website (http://otl.du.edu/our-programs/teaching-excellence-initiative/):

If you are in any teaching role at DU, you want to be fairly evaluated on your teaching performance and rewarded for the effort you put into your teaching. Teaching skills are always in development, and it is hoped that this initiative will result in more teaching support for instructors, as well as a more balanced means of looking at teaching at DU.

Arend concludes by urging institutions to “keep pulling chairs together” to discuss what great teaching means and how to facilitate it at their institutions. “Provide more resources and guidelines. Give chairs support around questions to ask to keep teaching on the radar,” she says. The approach has been successful at DU. “I haven’t had any pushback,” she says.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is managing editor of Academic Leader.

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