How Mindfulness Shapes Effective Strategic Leadership

By February 20, 2016Leadership

mindfulness leadershipStrategy provides the clarity for any organization. Even though this is true, many struggle with defining a strategy and gaining momentum around it. Ignoring strategy or floundering on the pursuit of one is no fun. The lack of a strategy weighs on the business culture and many of the team initiatives that try to gain traction.

Many reasons exist as to why strategy development and leadership fail. Thoughts of mindfulness, especially as I arrive at Wisdom 2.0, may provide a clue to solving this problem.

Mindfulness is a squishy topic for many. However, this attitude is changing as leaders like Bill George and organizations like the Center for Brain Health show how mindfulness can be a big difference maker for leaders and organizations.

As I was reading more about mindful attitudes and principles, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction – MBSR, outlines seven attitudinal foundations of mindful practice that constitute the major pillars of mindfulness. The seven attitudinal foundations are highlighted in this PsychCentral article, “Non-Judging, Non-Striving and the Pillars of Mindfulness Practice.”

“Non-judging: Not getting caught up in our ideas and opinions, likes and dislikes. (impartial)

Patience: An understanding and acceptance that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.

Beginner’s Mind: Seeing things with fresh eyes, with a clear and uncluttered mind.

Trust: Trusting in your intuition and your own authority.

Non-striving: Trying less and being more.

Acceptance: Coming to terms with things as they are.

Letting Go: Letting our experience be what it is.”

These mindful attitudes are essential, and I believe they also apply to strategy development and leadership. Each of these mindful elements may be the missing piece in the often scattered strategy practices.

7 Mindful Attitudes for Effective Strategic Leadership

The very thought of mindfulness and corporate strategy may turn off some leaders. Although I am not 100 percent sure how mindfulness shapes strategic leadership, it is worth exploring. A good place to begin is with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seven attitudinal foundations. I will take a different order than above as I think a different flow is more appropriate when applying them to strategic leadership.

Let’s dive in and explore how a mindful attitude can inspire a shift in being more effective strategic leaders.

1 – Beginner’s Mind

In corporate strategy, experience counts. Many believe this. After all, the individuals involved in strategy development are usually senior leaders. CEO, COO, CMO, CTO, and the C-list continues. Having a “C” in your title usually comes by accumulating years of experience, especially in larger corporations and organizations.

Experience does count. However, experience can get in the way, too. Experience can make every problem look like an old solution. “We did this before, and it worked.” “In my experience, we implemented this pricing change or this channel approach or this product direction.” We have heard statements like this many times. In a world filled with constant change, old solutions don’t always solve new problems and challenges.

The old trodden path of what worked fails. Frustration builds within the ranks. Even the older generations get frustrated because of their growth mindset. The frustration cuts across the generations – Millennials to Boomers.

A beginner’s mind calls us to think anew. Refreshed views enable us to see challenges in a different light. A different light reflects different ideas that are unproven, yet they may be less risky than the proven past idea.

The point is experience can evaluate the risk of a new idea, as long as experience doesn’t become the excuse to do the same thing again in hopes of the same result. In many ways, this may be the new definition of insanity – Doing the same thing expecting the same result.

Success breeds ruts. We cannot afford to get stuck here, so a beginner’s mindset keeps us on a refreshed, successful track.

How to keep a beginner’s mind? One way to see challenges or opportunities in a brand new way is to invite in younger perspectives. Tapping into youthful insights may incite new solutions. Other ways include:

  • Talk with customers to understand their viewpoints
  • Engage partners and gain their perspective
  • Attend industry educational sessions and hear what others in the field project
  • Look at different industries to see how they solved comparable situations
  • Engage in scenario thinking, looking at different options and potential outcomes

A beginner’s mindset means to unplug from what you have always done. One of the best things to do may be to take a vacation or go bowling. In other words, a refreshed view comes from a refreshed spirit. Don’t ignore your spirit. Take the time to tap into things for the first time.

2 – Non-judging

Group think. It happens more than we may care to admit. Developing strategy can become too collegial. As plans are discussed and determined, we begin to fall in love with what we know and what we begin to formulate. We become attached to an idea or action, and other ones get ignored.

Another element that comes into play is people. There are some people we like more than others, so we like ideas that come from certain people more than others. Personal relationships cloud our decision-making and problem-solving.

Just as experience clouds a beginner’s mindset, experience can make us judgmental, too. Experience is not bad unless we use to our disadvantage. I know. Experience becomes the scapegoat. However, we need to find the right blend of experience and acceptance.

We need to guard against becoming partial to certain ideas, people, or actions. Non-judging insists on being impartial. To do this, certain questions need to answered with deep reflection:

  • What is something new that excites you?
  • Who is someone who intrigues you with different thinking?
  • When is the last time you went to a new neighborhood or new restaurant?
  • When is the last time you did something that made you feel uncomfortable in the ideas being expressed?

To break out of our judging ways, we need to experience something out-of-the-normal for us. Integrity is present through each activity or thought, but we need to see the world from a different view a few times each year. To keep strategically fit, we need to hear new concepts or experience new art.

3 – Acceptance

When a strategic challenge appears, the first reaction is to ignore it. This too will pass. Or, this will impact them more than us. We’re different. We will survive. A false sense of confidence arises. Worse, a case of invincibility emerges. Self-made leaders can weather any storm, right?

Ignorance is not a strategy. Invincibility is not a strategy. The first step in making a strategic change is acceptance of what is. The second step is to be fully present in the conversations and leading by being honest and transparent. From here, clarity will be felt within and throughout the organization.

The key mindful points are:

  • Accept what you cannot control and understand how it makes you feel
  • Understand how you feel and then understand how it makes others within your organization feel
  • Don’t ignore the feelings that gnaw at you in important ways; lean into them to discern what matters most and let go of the rest
  • Seek others to help; remember interdependence is the new standard of leadership, not independence

4 – Letting Go

The next step after acceptance is letting go. When we shed our over confidence and invincibility, we prepare ourselves to let go of what was and begin to embrace what can be. Clinging is comfortable. Letting go is uncomfortable. A sense of loss feels present. However, safety in the marketplace is fleeting. To innovate and keep our relevance as changes advance, we need to let go of the past and keep focused on the present, leading toward the new future.

How do we know what to let go of? A key question. The answer will vary by the situation and person, but some thoughts are:

  • When discussing an idea with others, are they active within the conversation or have their eyes checked out?
  • When you mention a plan forward, do others react with a facial expression of “here we go again”?
  • When is the last time you proposed something brand new, never heard before by the people closest to you?
  • Do people shut down during planning sessions?

Being mindful of your impact on others will tell you whether it is time to let go. Let go, before others depart from you and your business.

5 – Patience

Impatience is everywhere in the world, and business is driven to achieve short-term results. Quarterly results are a must. Strategic objectives must be met each year, no matter the effort or consequence. Take Volkswagen. To capture the U.S. marketplace as quickly as possible, they were willing to tell a lie about their “clean” diesel technology. Impatience drives over integrity and character if we are not careful and diligent in our patience.

Patience does not mean being inactive or unaware. The opposite, in fact. Patience means we take the time to analyze what is happening. Patience means we evaluate the options and scenarios. Patience means we reduce risk as much as we can. Patience means we implement change thoughtfully, being fully present.

Patience is one of the topics that resonates well with the readers of Activate Leadership. Patience is a new leadership principle we need to use, and it comes to us by finding the right blend of pace and stride. We need to keep doing the necessary work while innovating to take the next big step forward. Being mindful of these differences and the necessary connection between the two results in finding the right strategic tempo.

6 – Trust

Every leader has a certain wisdom. Recognizing our self-wisdom means we have a certain self-awareness. Tapping into our wisdom requires trust. We need to trust our instincts and experience. Now, this may sound opposite of what was said earlier, but it is different.

When we trust ourselves, we can trust others as well. Mutual trust is crucial. Self-trust does not work when we don’t trust others. The same is true the other way. When we don’t trust others, we cannot fully trust ourselves.

When it comes to leading a strategic direction, trust is required. Tapping into our wisdom is required. Tapping into the wisdom of others is required. Trust is necessary in our wisdom and the wisdom that surrounds us.

Trust also means alignment. Knowing whether a choice may be a good one happens when our heart, mind, and soul are aligned around it. When it comes to leading strategy, these three elements are not usually discussed. However, mindfulness helps us discern this connection point and whether or not it is present. If this connection is not made, we need to:

  • Heart: Our heart is into the change, but we keep thinking about the unanswered questions. We need to tap into our mind and think through the answers and scenarios.
  • Mind: Our mind has come to a logical conclusion. However, our heart is not into the path forward. We need to explore what is missing to tap into our passion. If we cannot be passionate about a direction, how will our team be passionate?
  • Soul: An inner confidence and comfort level needs to be present in what we are about to embark upon. There will be a certain nervousness, and that is normal when something new is being done. We need to be present in that moment, using our heart and mind to re-center.

7 – Non-striving

As we embrace trust in our strategic actions, we need to try less, think more, and empower as often as we can. Action for action’s sake is spinning in a circle. Brainstorming for brainstorming sake wears everyone out with no resolution in sight.

Non-striving is an opposite in leadership, especially in leading strategic change. We are supposed to be busy. We are supposed to work hard. We are supposed to ensure everyone else is working hard.

We definitely need to be active in our work. At the same time, we need to be actively present for others. We need to support our teams with encouragement, tools, plans, measurements, and celebrations. We don’t need to do all the work ourselves, but we need to work to ensure others know we trust them through the successes and lessons learned.

We also need to be present within ourselves. We need to take care of our personal self with healthy practices. Some of our actions need to be centered in thoughtful practices from meditation to reading books to exercising to spending time with our family and community.

Strategic leadership requires this mindful blend of non-striving. Within these practices, we unleash more potential within ourselves and others.

Mindfulness is not just a passive meditative act. Mindfulness is activating our best strategic leadership capabilities along with the skills of the people in our teams and organizations.

Mindfulness and Strategic Leadership

What happened here is much more than I expected. I thought this would be a short article on mindfulness and strategic leadership. What I learned is mindfulness and effective strategic leadership are tightly interlinked. More than new age thought this is new age strategic leadership. Much more can be written. It should be, but we will save that for another time.

I am very interested in your thoughts.

How will mindfulness change our strategic leadership mindset? What mindful attitudes are necessary for more effective strategic planning and implementation?


Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Alli Polin says:

    Wow. So much to reflect on here, Jon. I’m reminded of someone I worked for years ago and we, the leadership team needed a new strategy to drive results through our division. Unfortunately, the C-suite didn’t want to give us time to create change – they wanted immediate impact and strongly suggested the tried and true. We tinkered and tried but because we never, as a larger team, mindfully embraced acceptance, old strategies would never work in our new paradigm.

    Will continue to ponder. Grateful when I know I can come here and dig in not only while reading but also once the window’s closed.

    ~ Alli

  • Rurbane Rogue says:

    “… mindfulness and effective strategic leadership are tightly interlinked.”

    No kidding. The excellent overarching point Jon makes here is that of integrity:

    “… alignment. Knowing whether a choice may be a good one happens when our heart, mind, and soul are aligned around it.” And not just alignment, but synergy – when the whole is greater than the mere sum of parts.

    “When it comes to leading strategy, these three elements are not usually discussed.” At least not altogether, at any rate. But that is what an authentic strategy requires.

    And too often, it is left to the “genius” of the C-suite, the one dimensional “discipline” of the middle management, and without “mindfullness” by the rank-and file (most of the time by design and protocol).

    “What mindful attitudes are necessary for more effective strategic planning and implementation?” If all individuals were encouraged to justify their efforts by being mindful of, and aligning with, the strategic goals, the feedback loop would self-reinforce the strength (and synergy) of the strategic ambitions.

    • Jon Mertz says:

      A key point. Integrity is vital in strategic leadership for all involved. With mindful integrity, better feedback will be given and received, keeping a business and organization accountable. Thank you for adding your perspective! Grateful.

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