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In 1656, Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens rocked the scientific world with the invention of the pendulum clock. Admittedly ‘rocked’ is a bit of an overstatement, but there was certainly an audible ‘tick-tock’. The pendulum clock was the most accurate timekeeping device ever know, but nine years late Huygens discovered something possibly more fascinating: when two pendulum clocks are hung from the same wall, their pendulums will always synchronise. So it is with mindful leadership.

In their worldwide bestseller, Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal reference the phenomenon of synchronising pendulums in the context of leadership. Pointing to the fact that multiple clocks on a wall always synchronise to the biggest pendulum, the authors draw attention to the amplified sphere of influence that leaders have in any team environment. Leaders are the biggest clock in the room, and for good or bad they have more impact on the performance of a group than any other member of the team.

Mindful leadership drives engagement

 

In a 2015 Gallup study, managers were found to account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement across business units. Strong leadership can stimulate the high levels of team engagement that drive productivity and profitability, but leadership that is lacking sees a significant decline in engagement. Researchers at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona (twice ranked the top business school in the world by the Wall Street Journal) used EEG machines and Heart Rate Variability monitors to assess what was happening as their MBA students worked together in teams. They found that team engagement and connectivity is highest when teams are working around a visible and connected leader. They also found that engagement is relevant to the team outcome – the more the team is engaged, the better the solutions.

The 10 expertise of mindful leaders

 

But what defines a strong and connected leader? Science suggests it has something to do with the human brain. In her book, Neuroscience for Leadership, MIT neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart elucidates the neurological conditions required for impactful leadership. Dr Swart specifically focuses on the role of the prefrontal cortex – the ‘CEO of the brain’ – in opening access to the 10 Expertise of Leaders:

  1. Ability to focus attention
  2. Ability to switch focus effectively
  3. Critical self-reflection on thoughts, attitudes and behaviours
  4. Ability to manage change
  5. Mood an emotion regulation
  6. Ability to balance intuition and rational thinking
  7. Maintain health and energy
  8. Focus on the development of relevant skills and knowledge
  9. Ability to relate well to others
  10. Resilience

These powerful capacities are clearly critical to mindful leadership, and they rely on optimal functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is one of the most sophisticated parts of the brain and home to many of the higher functions we regard as uniquely human, but it is also notoriously sensitive to chemical and hormonal fluctuations. Sometimes called the Goldilocks of the brain, because everything needs to be just right for it to work well, the PFC is especially vulnerable to disturbances in our brain chemistry caused by stress. As the fight or flight response takes hold of our autonomic nervous system, levels of cortisol and catecholamines rise, causing the brain to effectively prioritise survival over more developed abilities like awareness, reason, strategic thinking, impulse control, and creativity. In this contracted state, leaders effectively lose access to the expertise described in Dr Swart’s list. Instead, an out of balance PFC results in distractedness, cognitive decline, reduced capacity to handle stress, increased emotional strain, impulsive and reactive behaviour.

Leaders set the tone

 

This limitation of faculties is hard enough for any individual to manage, but for leaders the knock-on effects are even more significant. A leader who is not able to calmly navigate the vacillations in brain chemistry caused by stress can negatively impact the wellbeing of their teams and the individuals therein, while a leader who is able to regulate their PFC can have a profoundly positive impact on those around them. In the ESADE Business School study mentioned above, the programme managers were able to predict ‘emergent leaders’ – those who would have an outsize positive impact on their team – within 30 minutes of the group working on a difficult case study. The clue was not how much the emergent leaders spoke, or even what they said, it was in their neurophysiological responses. The best leadership candidates not only managed their own nervous systems better than others, they also caused their team members to do the same. Just like clocks on a wall, teams synced to the state of their leader.

A new kind of leader

 

What separates individuals who can regulate their neurophysiological response to stress and pressure, and those who lose control? Many factors play a role, but one of the most effective tools that can be used to train positive management of the PFC is mindfulness. This secular approach utilises neuroplasticity to open new capacities of the human mind. It works directly on the brain, as evidenced in a 2015 Harvard study that showed dramatic results from only 8 weeks of mindfulness practice for 15 minutes a day. Participants in the study showed an astonishing increase in grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, increased integration between the PFC and the rest of the brain, improved function of the insula (the brain’s centre of awareness), reduced grey matter in the amygdala (the source of the flight or flight response), and weaker connections between the amygdala and the rest of the brain.

Mindful leaders are proven to exhibit greater self-awareness, increased self-control, elevated sense of personal wellbeing, greater resilience and higher empathy. To most of us these may sound like attractive qualities worth pursuing, but for the 21st Century leader they are quickly becoming fundamental to success.

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