The Importance of Mindful Leadership

by Dr. Chris Maxwell

Jeff Klein, Executive Director of the Wharton Leadership Program, advises each entering class of MBAs to seek out and learn from stretch experiences on their path to developing as leaders.  Out of the thousands of fleeting experiences one has every day, he says, some are truly poignant and warrant serious, focused attention as learning opportunities.  This importance of mindfully attending to experiences is generating new interest among leadership educators as research expands and as educational programs teach participants how to build skills in mindfulness.

Klein’s advice echoes the work of two thought leaders, early American psychologist William James (1842 – 1910) and Case Western Reserve University educator David A. Kolb.  In 1890, American psychologist William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.  Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”  The second thought leader, David Kolb, devised the experiential learning model now used by many in the field of leadership development, essentially a continuous cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting.

Karl Weick, a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at the University of Michigan, describes mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.”  Virginia Commonwealth University psychologist Kirk Warren Brown and co-authors say awareness is our most direct and immediate contact with reality, and that when a stimulus is sufficiently strong, attention is engaged.  However basic these features of consciousness are, Brown says, they are of decisive importance to quality of experience and action.

What often happens next in the mind, however, is an automatic imposition of labels, ideas, and judgments on what is encountered.  Psychologists Charles Baron and Mario Cayer say that although creating categories and rules allows us to impose some order on a somewhat chaotic reality, by doing so we may end up simplifying and falsifying that reality.  University of Michigan management professors Susan Ashford and D. Scott DeRue say that talented, successful people are often their own worst enemies when it comes to learning from experience.  “They know what works,” the researchers say, “because it has worked in the past.  Combine this with a business environment that over-emphasizes execution and short-term performance metrics, and the result is a serious challenge to developing leadership insights.”

Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor credited with much of the early work in this field, says mindlessness is a state of reduced attention in which one becomes trapped in pre-set categories and distinctions.  Langer argues that mindfulness, on the other hand, is a “state of alertness and lively awareness.”  By mindfulness Langer means paying attention, consciously looking for what is new and different, and questioning preconceived ideas.  While Langer’s approach emphasizes cognitive processing of input and an intentional search for novelty, which goes somewhat beyond the present-oriented engagement of other mindfulness investigators, Brown and co-authors say there is research evidence in both streams of mindfulness research that the practice can undercut habitual, automatic evaluations and open possibilities for fresh, creative response.  As an example, in one recent investigation, Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade and her co-authors at INSEAD examined the impact of a short period of mindfulness meditation on decision making.  Their experiments found that participants who received a one-time 15-minute mindfulness induction reported a greater awareness of the present moment and effectively reduced their tendency to focus on “sunk costs” in a business scenario.

Mindfulness, Langer says, leads to improvements in performance, attention, memory, and creativity.  “At the very highest level of any field,” Langer says, “you’ll find mindful people, because that’s the only way to get there.”  Langer says mindfulness, because it embraces novelty and builds a sense of mastery and control, is “essential for survival,” and that mindlessness “limits human potential.”  Karl Weick suggests that “high reliability organizations” like nuclear power plants or aircraft carriers need to process large amounts of information and must act to discover and manage unexpected events.  He calls mindfulness “enriched awareness,” and says it is as much about what people do with what they notice as it is about the activity of noticing itself.

Deepak Sethi, writing in Leader to Leader, puts mindfulness in perhaps the simplest terms:  it’s about focus, awareness, and living in the moment.  Focus enhances listening skills.  Awareness enhances nonjudgmental awareness and openness to new ideas.  Living in the moment allows us to move our focus away from ruminating on the past or speculating about the future, and to what’s happening around us now.  Sethi even suggests that leaders who practice mindfulness may influence others around them to act in a similar manner through the action of mirror neurons, in which the mind of one person automatically attempts to mimic the moods and emotions of another.

A systematic review and meta-analysis published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine by Johns Hopkins University researchers found evidence that mindfulness meditation programs could help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain in some clinical populations.  The small to moderate reductions in negative dimensions of psychological stress were enough to result in a recommendation that clinicians be ready to discuss the role that a meditation program could play.  Meanwhile, a growing number of studies suggest that mindful leaders are better facilitators of organizational learning, appear to be better agents of change, and are described as being more effective and productive. Our advice to incoming MBA students couldn’t come at a better time in their burgeoning careers and William James would surely approve of the resurgence of interest in attending mindfully to one’s experience.


Chris Maxwell, PhD is a Senior Fellow, Center for Leadership and Change Management, at the Wharton School.  Contact him at