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  • Writer's pictureStephen Presley, PhD

Why Leaders Need Mindfulness Skills

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

In this article, I share some observations about the state of leadership development, as well as four factors that are creating enormous challenges for leaders and ideas for how leaders can engage these challenges more effectively, based on mindfulness practices. Studies show mindfulness can improve teaming, creativity and innovation, decision making, cognitive flexibility, interpersonal relationships, adaptability, and more.

On the Effectiveness of Leadership Development Today

Organizations spend billions of dollars a year on leadership development. Estimates put this annual spending somewhere between $14B and $50B. Is this investment paying off with the desired results? The pandemic alone has created one of the most challenging environments we've seen in modern life, stretching even our best leaders. Here are a few other recent data points that raise a red flag that leadership capabilities may not be keeping pace with the demands of today's complex and rapidly changing environment.

· In Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace, the Gallup Chairman and CEO state, "These figures indicate an American leadership philosophy that simply doesn't work anymore." The CEO is referring to their findings that 51% of employees are not engaged, and 16% are actively disengaged.

· In 2016, McKinsey and Company surveyed some 52,000 managers, 86% rated themselves as "inspiring" and good role models (Bazigos and Caruso, 2016). That same year, Gallup performed a separate engagement survey (Rigoni and Nelson, 2016) and found that 82% of employees saw their managers as uninspiring, and only 13% of the workforce was engaged.

· Recent US history has seen the 2008 financial breakdown, cracks in the health care system, callous and debilitating politics that disable and distort effective governing, and as well as a failed leadership response to hurricanes, floods, and Covid-19, to name just a few.

Four Factors That Challenge Leaders

Today's complex environment can be very difficult for leaders and their organizations, and they are struggling. While many factors contribute, here are four important ones driving the challenges that leaders must face.

Technology continues to drive business and social change around the world relentlessly. The growth and change we've seen in this sector in the last 20 years are astounding, and more radical change is on the way with artificial intelligence.

Social and cultural changes during this period have included the devastation of school shootings, a rise in tribalism, and even domestic terrorism, as well as more subtle but still powerful changes like tailored news driven by ratings and profit, an ever-increasing torrent of email, and the span of five generations in the workplace.

Globalization has led to a highly interconnected world of nations, financial flows, supply chains, etc., where boundaries are becoming more and more porous, and in some cases, vulnerable to attack. We see the darker side of this with our 2016 and 2020 elections here in the US. While globalization has brought about positive changes, it also has a negative impact. Today, the cracks and fractures in our systems and processes are more evident and concerning than I've seen at any time in my lifetime.

These three factors provide fuel for the fourth factor– the rise of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments. The term was coined by the US ARMY to describe the dynamic situations they were encountering around the world that were obliterating their pre-engagement planning. In the business world, the VUCA nature of today's environment creates enormously challenging demands. Leaders must frequently engage with and adapt to relentless change and complexity. The presence of any one of the VUCA factors makes leadership more challenging and difficult. When multiple or all four are present, the demands on leaders can and often do outstrip their capabilities. Leaders under these conditions must function at profoundly high and complex levels of awareness that reflects both mind and heart.

Two Kinds of Problems – Technical and Adaptive Challenges

What is it about VUCA factors that make them so difficult to navigate? I suggest that when an environment is teeming with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and/or ambiguity, leaders face what Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University calls adaptive challenges, which are problems that can only be addressed when people change their belief, assumptions, values, loyalties, and habits. Progress depends on mobilizing discovery, shedding specific entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating new capacity to thrive anew." (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky, 2009)

Heifetz et al.

Here's an example of an adaptive challenge involving a corporate merger, which can be particularly difficult for the purchased company. In this case, a law firm we'll call Kindred Legal has a strategy of building client relationships. Kindred was purchased by Analytics Legal, a firm focused primarily on competitive rates. The Kindred team was challenged to find ways to adapt to the new primary value of competitive pricing, which often was in conflict with the long-term relationship-building strategy that the firm had been founded on. Both teams face adaptive challenges around integrating these divergent strategies, but the difficult inner work of the Kindred team requires them to examine not just how they operate but how they see themselves, their sense of identity, and this can bring real feelings of loss.

Adaptive challenges are distinct from the more familiar technical challenges that can be resolved using existing expertise and known methods.

Most problems come with a mix of technical and adaptive challenges, and learning to distinguish the two is critical because trying to solve an adaptive challenge with technical means will not work. Adaptive challenges require learning that requires people to see, examine, and actively work with their beliefs, assumptions, loyalties, and values. To do so successfully may include making changes that actually can upend our sense of identity and mastery.

Continuous change also brings loss. Most leadership development is not focused on this kind of inner work, and yet we must do just this again and again in VUCA environments.

Developing the Inner Game That Powers the Outer Game

The good news is that learning to engage in inner work is a skill that can be developed. In today's VUCA environments, leaders must develop their "inner game" to improve the "outer game" of behavior, performance, and generating results. Doing so requires a mind shift about how we go about developing leadership skills. Think of it this way. If you wanted to increase your physical capabilities in some particular way, you would go to the gym or train on building that strength. Similarly, leaders can learn to build the inner game by starting to work out in the mental gym in a way that expands and strengthens cognitive and emotional capacities.

So, how do we go about engaging the inner work of the mind? One thing for sure, we can't keep doing what we've been doing. More of the same won't be enough.

A Missing Piece of Leadership Development: Mindfulness Practices

One way for leaders to close the gap between what's required in today's environment and leaders' capabilities to lead effectively is to begin engaging in conscious inner work. To do this, leaders need to start visiting the mental gym and "working out, or in this case, working within.

One approach to working in the mental gym is to begin learning and applying mindfulness practices to one's leadership practices. Combining formal and informal mindfulness practices can illuminate and engage one's inner landscape. We can work with it in a way that begins to remove hindrances (e.g., mind wandering, autopilot behaviors, and lessens reactivity) and build new capabilities better suited to meeting the challenges of a 21st-century VUCA environment.

More and more, world-class organizational leaders and professional athletes are turning to mindfulness to up their game, to build an edge they didn't have before. They know that once you reach a certain level of performance, it's no longer about the technique. It's about the mental game, the inner game.

How do we know that mindfulness practices can improve leadership outcomes? A large and growing body of research and findings, over 7,000 to date, shows that mindfulness practices can bring about changes and outcomes that matter to leaders and organizations. Research shows that mindfulness improves teaming, creativity and innovation, decision making, cognitive flexibility, interpersonal relationships, adaptability, and more. The range of leadership domains affected by mindfulness is quite remarkable. For a more detailed list, please visit

If you are a leader looking to be more effective in today's environment, and you are willing to focus on the inner game of working with your mind, you cannot afford to ignore these research findings.

As our world continues to change rapidly and become more complex, how leaders see, understand, and lead must adapt accordingly. Mindfulness practices can help leaders make these changes to better meet the challenges of a 21st-century world.

Stephen Presley, Ph.D., founded Upgrading Leaders and is the creator of the "Leadership powered by Mindfulness" (LpM) series of online courses. For more on the LpM courses, go to

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