How Mindfulness Can Improve Executive Coaching and Leadership

A great deal of empirical research has examined the benefits of mindfulness meditation for business leaders and has affirmed its ability to improve cognitive performance, increase emotional intelligence, strengthen interpersonal relationships, and encourage strategic focus. In the business world, as in popular culture in general, mindfulness has become a major buzzword. A recent article appearing in the Harvard Business Review linked mindfulness with executive coaching and argued that personal mindfulness meditation programs reinforced the lessons learned in executive coaching, especially when coaches and meditation instructors work in unison to help leaders identify personal limiting beliefs and negative behavior patterns. A mindful approach to these issues helps individuals overcome them more readily than through traditional coaching, which may rely more heavily on commands and directives than self-exploration.

Even Forbes has connected the mindfulness trend to executive coaching. In an article published a few years ago, a Forbes contributor extolled the value of a coach trained in mindfulness techniques over those individuals who employ more traditional coaching models. Executive coaches who embrace mindfulness can help leaders recognize and accept their flaws in a calm, nonjudgmental manner that in turn helps them deal with these issues constructively.

The Unique Traits of a Mindful Executive Coach

startupOne of the key benefits of working with a mindful executive coach is the experience of non-reactivity. Many executive coaches feel compelled to offer immediate responses and reactions when a client presents them with an issue. A mindful coach, on the other hand, is not so concerned with immediately fixing the problem, and is thus freer to intuit the needs of the client and respond without misinterpreting intent or feeding into the emotion that may be driving the issue at hand. Some people misinterpret non-reactivity to mean a total lack of judgment, but this isn’t true. Mindful coaches do not make judgments because they feel pressured to do so. Instead, they make wiser judgments that take into account what is important and what is not, and are ultimately able to help their clients make more progress in the end. Executives who expect constant encouragement and pep talks from a coach may find non-reactivity refreshing. Taking away empty encouragement gives leaders the space they need to explore their strengths and weaknesses honestly, without fear of manipulation or criticism.

Many mindful coaches also endeavor to cultivate what they refer to as an “empty” mind. Again, some people may interpret this negatively, but in truth, it means that these individuals have the capacity to stay present in the moment, without getting lost in their own thoughts, anxieties, or snap judgments. It’s all too common for people to have conversations or interactions in which they feel like the other person isn’t really listening, because their mind is somewhere else. Coaches are most effective when they can dedicate their attention 100 percent to their client. This type of complete attention is deeply affirming and can have a profound effect on how a leader interacts with other individuals. When coaches simply dictate advice without really listening, the underlying statement is that they do not trust their client to arrive at a conclusion independently. In contrast, a mindful coach lets their client do the work.

The Benefits of Mindfulness for Executives

A mindful approach to coaching involves encouraging the client to develop a sense of self-awareness. The modern business world can make people feel like they are stripped down to a list of skills and work experience. However, people cannot be great leaders until they honestly acknowledge their personal strengths and weaknesses, both professional and personal. In addition, leaders who have a clear concept of their personal values and attitudes see themselves, and others, as total persons. This self-awareness paves the path toward personal growth. Many executives do not see how their own attitudes or behaviors might be contributing to an issue at work, and without self-awareness, they cannot begin to identify how they need to change. Mindfulness helps individuals not only become aware of where growth is needed, but also distinguish between areas where growth is possible and those pursuits that may prove futile for the time being.

Of course, mindfulness does not mean dwelling on the negative. Through honest self-exploration, leaders can also identify their strengths and consider how they can apply those skills to counteract any shortcomings. Mindfulness also encourages people to think about how they may have been ignoring their best attributes, or not allowing themselves to develop their full potential. For example, perhaps an executive created and managed a successful talent development program years ago, but has since let this pursuit fall to the wayside because of other demands of the job. By recognizing how this strength has been ignored, the executive can take steps to reclaim what made him or her an excellent leader, and use this as a launching pad for becoming even better in the future.