Mindfulness at the Executive Level – University of South Australia

Sustainable Development Goal 3 focuses on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages. This includes a focus on mental health. At the University of South Australia Business School, Nicola Pless, Chaired Professor of Positive Business, has been teaching a course focused on mindfulness for the past 5 years at the executive level. According to her, mindfulness not only helps develop more responsible and competent leaders, but to get better at that by paying attention to people in the here and now; to their positions and viewpoints, to their emotions and feeling – which is an important part of building more sustainable and trusting relationships to others. I spoke with Nicola about this course and the impact it has had had on her students.

What is mindfulness ?

My understanding of mindfulness is shaped by the influential work of medical professor Jon Kabat Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It can be defined as the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Thus, mindfulness requires a bivalent attitude of paying attention to the present moment, and the challenges at hand, while adopting reflective distance and a non-judgemental attitude.

Leaders often operate under extreme pressure (tight timelines, multitasking, high risk decisions) and experience high levels of stress which can negatively impact communications styles, internal and client relationships, decision making quality, well-being etc. Mindfulness is used as an effective tool for coping with stress and fostering resilience.

Why is mindfulness important for business students?

Responsible leaders are boundary-spanners who bring together stakeholders from different sectors to facilitate co-creation processes to develop sustainable solutions to complex economic, social and environmental problems that have an effect on the sustainability of business and society.

Mindfulness is an important element that helps them develop their inner self and be better equipped to cope with the broader challenges around them – to stay grounded in complex and uncertain situations, stay calm when juggling different responsibilities and interacting with diverse stakeholders, and have a clear, open and then focused mind when making difficult decisions that impact stakeholders in business and society.

At the intra-individual level mindfulness helps people to become more self-aware: (1) in the physical sense – being aware of the body, relaxing, taking better care of their physical self and balance – important for lowering stress levels; (2) emotionally – what affective experience are there – this helps to distance one-self from emotions and better respond to stimuli; and (3) cognitively – to focus attention to what is happening in the present moment, to reflect on thoughts, values, intentions, and what is truly important for the leadership vision that one pursues.

It also helps leaders to connect with, listen to and focus on others, which is an essential part of building sustainable and trusting relationships to others. This and the following aspects are relevant at all interpersonal levels of leading teams and mobilizing and interacting with stakeholders inside and outside the organization.

So for students who aspire to become resonant and responsible leaders, mindfulness can be a fruitful catalyst.

Introduce your Responsible Leadership course

The course provides a unique opportunity for current and future senior and executive leaders to prepare themselves for leadership. It follows a multi-level approach tackling RL at the intra-individual level by looking into the inner theatre of resonant and responsible leaders, and addressing it at the interpersonal levels of (1) the team by addressing dynamics that affect RL, (2) the organization by touching on questions of a responsible organizational culture, and (3) society by addressing the multi-faceted relational interface to the multitude of stakeholders that leaders have to engage with.

The course integrates the latest knowledge on personal and strategic leadership with topics such as CSR, sustainability, diversity, business ethics, and geo-politics and offers a variety of practical tools on how to become an effective responsible leader.

The course explores mindfulness throughout as participants discover and work on their inner strengths as a leader and their leadership story, acquire skills for approaching broader leadership challenges in business and society, strengthen their leader decision making skills, learn about best practice approaches in Australia and beyond, come up with their own leadership vision, and craft their leadership development plan.

How do you develop / use mindfulness?

I introduce mindfulness as a voluntary element within the Responsible Leadership course and as an opportunity for people to explore. I work with a certified mindfulness trainer who delivers an introductory session and a debriefing session based on a 4-week program that we have developed together. Between those sessions participants work daily with guided meditations that we have created with leading experts in the field. They write down their experiences in a journal and submit their weekly diaries, on which they receive a weekly feedback to foster learning and engagement. We use a range of teaching methods such as 360 leadership feedback, guided self-reflection, coaching, work on case studies, decision making cases, and dilemma vignettes to practice ethical reflection and critical thinking as well as inputs from responsible practitioners.

What have been some of the challenges?

Despite wide media coverage of the relevance of mindfulness for stress reduction and benefits at work in particular, it is still a new field in management which requires a bit more explanation then other psychological concepts that have a longer tradition in leadership, such as the related concept of emotional intelligence.

So if one teaches mindfulness one can expect a certain percentage of course participants who are sceptical and with whom the idea of mindfulness does not resonate. This does not mean that they cannot profit from such a component, some of them may even find it quite useful once they have tried it. However, it is always important to offer it as a voluntary tool and provide a convincing and evidence-based business case to show the relevance of such an intervention, so that also highly sceptical individuals at least accept it as a well-researched approach and potentially helpful tool that one can give at least a try.
How has this approach been received by students?

In my courses there is a high number of students (80%) who enjoy the short mindfulness practices in the classroom and more than half of them engage in the daily guided online practices over a four-week period. Over this time we also have observed an increase in the experience of well-being as well as empathy and perspective taking, which are relevant for resonant and responsible leadership and decision making. I also have a number of students who started mindfulness initiatives for employees within their companies based on the positive experiences they made in the course.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

Since Mindfulness does not work for everyone it is important to keep the practice of it optional. I also make it clear from the beginning that we use it as an educational tool, it is not psychotherapy and also does not replace any other kind of psychological or medical treatment.

It is also strongly recommended to work with a certified mindfulness expert who runs the interventions and a coach with a psychological background who oversees the feedback process. So if one integrates such a component one needs to make sure that one can provide this additional support.

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