Mindfulness and Leadership

I regret that my erroneous perception of what meditation is kept me from discovering it earlier in life and enjoying its benefits sooner, especially in times when I desperately needed that calm, clarity and focus.
12/12/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Meditation. Until a year ago, I would chuckle to myself when I heard the word and wonder, do people really do that? I mean, do people really sit on the floor, cross-legged, with incense burning, and chant "Om"? Had you told me then that meditation (not the version of it I had in mind as described above, but I'll get to that) would be part of my daily routine, I would have thought that you had lost your mind.

I got into it by accident, really. A close friend of mine started a company that focuses on positive psychology and asked me to use the app while it was in beta testing. I was curious to see how it worked, but was very skeptical of the idea that simple activities can affect a person's happiness. So I went into the test 99.9% certain that it would not work. I used the app for a few weeks and much to my surprise, I started to notice a difference in the attitude I had toward different things -- events, people and people's reactions. I was particularly surprised by my reaction to one activity, the body scan-screening through the body head-to-toe and becoming aware of the body's sensations. Sounds peculiar, I know. After a few weeks of regular use, I gave my friend my list of notes and mentioned that I really enjoyed the body scan they had in there. (Pause: You know how some moments are really life-changing, but you don't realize it when they happen? This was one of them.) My friend recommended that I check out an app called Headspace. According to him, they were the best in the business of meditation. Meditation?! Not for me. My friend explained the benefits and how you don't have to sit on the floor and you don't need to burn any incense. So, reluctantly, I gave it a try. And I haven't missed a day since.

This past year, I've been reading research and talking to meditation experts, and now I know that what I experienced -- greater calm, clarity, space in the mind, focus, patience, compassion and resilience -- is all research-proven. It's not just me and my personal experience; it's what meditation does to your brain, and how those changes, in turn, improve your life and the lives of those around you. It really is a gym for the mind, without the sweat and physical pain.

I regret that my erroneous perception of what meditation is kept me from discovering it earlier in life and enjoying its benefits sooner, especially in times when I desperately needed that calm, clarity and focus. One of the most intense, fun, but also stressful periods in my life were my two years at the NYU Stern School of Business. My husband and I started the MBA program in 2008, and a few weeks into the school year, Lehman fell. We were all under immense pressure to do well -- in school, recruiting, networking. The stress levels were peaking and I totally went for it, trying to be the absolute best at everything I did. I desperately needed some space in my mind back then, but I didn't even know it. In fact, had I heard of someone wasting 20 precious minutes a day on meditation, I would have probably thought they were doing themselves a disservice and could better utilize this time reading another case study, sending another thank-you note, or attending another networking event. What I wish I had realized back then is the level of impact that investing those 20 minutes a day could have had on my health, performance, focus, happiness and the happiness of those around me. But I didn't have the space in my mind to think about that. I was busy sprinting through life from one finance class to another, meeting deadlines, attending recruiting events, and applying to jobs.

Luckily, I'm not the only one who realized the potential contribution of mindfulness and meditation to business school students. This year, NYU Stern created the Mindfulness in Business Initiative, providing students with exposure to meditation and mindfulness at this very critical point in their professional and personal lives. This program gives students the tools to develop themselves as leaders with a greater ability to make effective decisions, focus, and achieve goals -- all with greater resilience and compassion. I am so happy for current students that they have this opportunity; and I'm a little jealous of them, too.

I recently attended one of the events that the Mindfulness in Business Initiative at Stern put together, and I was amazed to see students taking the time to invest in themselves in this way. It is such a good use of their time and I'm glad for them that they realize it. That workshop was a real eye-opener for me, and I am certain that it was even more so for the MBA students that attended it. It was a perfect example of the impact that meditation has on various aspects of our lives. For me, it was the first time I was truly able to make the connection between mindfulness and leadership. Janice Marturano, the founder and executive director of the Institute of Mindful Leadership, took us through her personal experience of discovering meditation and the effect it had on her personal and professional life as a senior executive at General Mills. She made us think about what makes an excellent leader; how little it has to do with achieving traditional goals like meeting quarterly earnings expectations or stock price appreciation; and how much it has to do with being compassionate, being present, and cultivating focus, clarity and creativity. These are the qualities that stand out to us in leaders, and they are so closely related to mindfulness. In fact, these crucial leadership qualities are what being mindful is all about.