Recently, Henry and I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. This three-day event was attended by more than 750 business leaders focused on cultivating self-awareness, compassion, and authenticity. Below are my top take-aways and reflections from the event.

1. Mindfulness increases capacity for ethical decision-making because it creates choice between the stimulus and a measured response.

In a panel facilitated by New York Times editor David Gelles, Bill George (founder of Medtronics) and Penny George (George Family Foundation), discussed the intersection of mindfulness, leadership and ethics. A highlight was a testy exchange following Gelles’ blunt question on mindfulness in the ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs board rooms where Mr. George serves. George’s response was that mindfulness is as ethical as the person practicing it.

2. “The longest journey is from your head to the heart.”

This quote was a theme in many of the summit discussions. To practice mindful leadership, one must do the inner work first.

3. Employees generally express interest in mindfulness to manage stress and improve focus and increase attention.

In the discussion about Science and Tips for Cultivating Well-Being in the Workplace with Richard Davidson (author of Your Brain at Work) and Golbie Kamarei (Blackrock), we heard how “mind training” is seductive, especially to business leaders. Many start their practices from a place for improving performance and results but ultimately the goals shift to being more heart-centered, building emotional awareness and tuning-in with their own intuition.

4. The key benefits of mindfulness practice are: Resilience, Outlook, Attention and Generosity.

According to Davidson, the four primary benefits are:

  • Resilience – how long it takes to come back to baseline and recover come adversity
  • Outlook – the ability to focus on positive attributes of others
  • Attention – a wandering mind is an unhappy mind
  • Generosity – the best system for neuroplacity and changing the brain circuits

As teachers working with leadership, it’s important to remember that their current beliefs and practices have worked very well for them, which mean they often are initially resistant to a different way of doing things.

5. Our brains are like sailboats in the middle of the ocean being blown around, mostly unwittingly.

We are constantly evolving and being shaped by external influences. In general, when our minds wander, we are unhappy. Yet, we all have a choice in the way your brain evolves, and by bring attention to our attention, we can have a greater impact on our experience.

6. These practices evolved to produce awaking – not reduce stress or lower blood pressure.

While there is a growing body of peered-review scientific evidence, the judge is still out on all the health benefits of mindfulness. Business leaders have become enamored with mindfulness, but it’s important to remember that the recent secular interest is only part of a much larger body of beliefs, including the Noble Eightfold Path.

7. Mindfulness is really about well-being.

When we sit, we can choose to evoke that we’re not just doing this for ourselves, but in service of others.

8. Compassion is a form of social innovation.

Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, KY led perhaps the most moving presentation with stories and videos highlighting his Compassionate City Initiative. Fischer has been extraordinarily bold in his stand for compassion, from people working within the criminal justice system to first responders, and exploring how were can change the civic dialogue to one of compassion.

9. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

This quote from the Dalai Lama also seemed to be an emerging context for the summit. The conversation is not just about mindfulness — but how compassion is really at the heart of mindful leadership.

10. Don’t just do something, stand there.

Dr. Susan Skjei led an interactive workshop on leading with authenticity in challenging moments. As Director of the Authentic Leadership Center at Naropa University and author of Leading with Spirit, Presence and Authenticity, Skjei has the bonafide credentials on the intersection of contemplative practices and leadership.

In her session, participants paired-up for an exercise addressing a specific work challenge. While listening with presence and supporting the other person, she walked through the five steps:

  1. Abide in ambiguity (Rest with “what is”)
  2. Listen to the Body
  3. Engage with honesty and vulnerability (Where are you stuck and what do you long for?)
  4. Open to new possibilities (What else might be possible?)
  5. Act with courage and resilience (What new actions could you try?)

11. Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.

Roshi Joan Halifax, the true headliner of the summit, gave a talk exploring how compassionate and principled leadership emphasizes four dimensions:

  1. Systems perspective – we live in a world of interdependence
  2. Moral sensitivity – one leads from a very clear north star, based in values and that is compassion-fed
  3. Trust – Trust in our basic goodness
  4. Connection/collaboration – how we meet each other (i.e. face-to-face, in our cities and communities)

12. There are 10 Qualities of Leadership from a Buddhist perspective:

  • Generosity – service for the good of people
  • Ethics – maintaining high morality in personal conduct
  • Altruism – generosity toward people
  • Integrity — serviing with loyalty
  • Gentleness – being kind and gentle
  • Self-restraint – performing one’s duties with dispassion
  • Non-anger – remaining calm in the midst of it all
  • Non-violence – not persecuting people
  • Patience – practicing patience in one’s duties
  • Uprightness – respecting public opinion and promoting harmony

13. A Map of Compassion means leading from G.R.A.C.E.

Halifax’s Map of Compassion for cultivating compassionate and wise leadership:

  1. G – Gathering attention
  2. R – Recalling intention (what your north star is)
  3. A – Attuning to self/other (identify you biases, somatically, sense into feeling)
  4. C – Considering what will really serve (process of insight)
  5. E – Engaging and ending (how to complete and let go; no care-over)

14. Language can overcome the common challenges of implementing mindfulness in larger organizations

Rasmus Hougaard of the Potential Project, led a wonderful panel with Peter Bostelmann (SAP), Meghan Seybold (Royal Bank of Canada) and Manish Chopra (McKinsey) discussing how each of them brought mindfulness practices to their very large respective organizations. Together they shared the primary challenges for employees are: lack of time, skepticism, lack of role models, and the sense this is about addressing a deficiency rather than increasing performance. The last point especially resident from management.

Solutions included to start with a small group and use language to meet people where they already are. For example, improvement in focus, effectiveness, stress management, creativity, quality of relationships, quality of collaborations, reaction time, effective leadership, dealing with change, attention training, and awareness of unconscious bias. All organizations measured success with self-reporting from participants (i.e. before training, 4 weeks in, then 6 months later) and noted the more they practice, the higher the scores on all self-reporting.)

15. “Above and Below the Line”

Jim Dethmer of the Conscious Leadership Group lead a fun and interactive session on the 15 commitments of conscious leadership. The commitments (paraphrased) are:

  1. Taking 100% responsibility for one’s circumstances and well-being
  2. Growing in self-awareness
  3. Feeling fully
  4. Speak candidly and listen deeply
  5. Ending gossip and addressing people directly
  6. Being impeccable with agreements
  7. Live in a state of appreciation
  8. Live in zone of genius
  9. Make it playful, easeful and fun
  10. See that the opposite of my own story as true
  11. Source approval from inside myself
  12. Experiencing that I have enough of everything (time, money, love, energy, etc)
  13. Experiencing everything as an alley
  14. Creating win for all solutions
  15. Being the resolution or solution that is needed

As leaders committed to the above, we can regularly observe if we are in fact “above the line” (coming from presence, curiosity, growth and learning) or falling “below the line” (drama, defensiveness, scarcity) in our interactions with others.

“Compassion is the radicalness of our time” ~ Dalai Lama

If you were at the Mindful Leadership Summit, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What were your top take-aways of the event? Please let us know in the comments below!