Updated: Jul 15, 2019
To provide guidance to leaders I decided to share some foundational mindfulness leadership principles and values which can be gradually adapted and integrated into a leader's mindset and management style. Once they become a habit, those principles can be powerful as they influence every action and decision of a leader.
Some time ago I came across Amazon's Leadership Principles. While I like these principles a lot as they help organizations to create concentrated focus to become an "execution engine" like Amazon, there is a danger that with a non-mindful leadership approach, some of these principles can bring out a strong ego in leaders. Too often this results in needless power games, unnecessary stress and frustration among employees (will discuss this topic in more detail in an upcoming post). To compensate and better support such principles we need non-ego driven, mindful leaders, who have enough present-awareness in their decision making. To guide leaders to develop and cultivate mindful leadership I compiled these 12 mindfulness leadership principles and hope these are helpful. I expect that these principles will evolve over time based on my day-to-day observations, as well as ongoing feedback.
1) Stay present and be mindful in all your thoughts, words, and actions
This is the most foundational principle, the easiest one to understand, but in my experience possibly the hardest to follow. Being mindful means being conscious, gentle, and respectful.
It requires systematic training of your mind.
Apply mindfulness to all aspects of your leadership.
It starts with what you think, the words you use and share based on your thoughts, and finally the actions you derive from these (i.e., a 2-pager on a topic, meetings and conversations).
Being mindful will create a positive foundation for your effectiveness as a leader and work relationship with all people you interact with.
Being mindful also means to live consciously in the present moment, the "never-ending NOW". In contrast, if you identify and live in your thoughts, your mind might be trapped in stories about the past or future.
For example, during active listening in a conversation observe your thoughts that are coming up while the other talks, often times anticipating what the other person is trying to convey and already forming a response, instead of simply being there, really listening, and paying attention.
Staying present also means staying alert and being attentive- being tuned in to opportunities to be there for people.
If you are applying this principle alone, all remaining principles below are automatically applied, as your increased level of awareness will keep you alert from your ego's shortcomings. The primary reason I created the additional 11 principles is for creating guidance, practical examples and use cases on how to be more present as a leader.
2) Allow yourself and others to make mistakes, and learn from them
Once you have reached a mindful state in all your thoughts, words, and actions, by applying the previous principle, also be mindful to yourself and allow yourself and others to make mistakes.
The problem is that our conditioned mind may be programmed from our early childhood on with thoughts like "I need to be perfect", "I need to be the best", or "Failure is not an option". Based on that you will end-up trying to avoid mistakes at all, which may lead to mediocre results at best. It is only from the mistakes you learn how to succeed.
3) Always question your thoughts and assumptions whether you can be absolutely sure they are true
Many leaders nowadays become more "data-driven". Meaning that they collect facts from data, analyse these facts, and then make (hopefully) a sound decision based on these facts.
While I agree that this is an important prerequisite for decision-making, there are often times thoughts or assumptions that are present in our subconscious mind, possibly also derived from "faulty programming" in our early childhood. Those thoughts (if you believe them) may lead to unnecessary bias in our decision making. If not identified and inquired thoroughly, whether a thought is really absolutely true, it may introduce anxiety and stress for yourself or others. This requires a capability of deep reflection and thinking about the conclusions one draws from the data and which underlying thoughts had been incorporated in addition, that may not be true after all.
For example. you have a thought "My manager should appreciate my hard work". Is this really true? Can you be absolutely sure that this is true? As you don't control your manager's thinking, this thought of yours is clearly flawed, and therefore not true.
You can only control your own thoughts and behaviour. I recommend reading the book "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie. She refers to this technique as "The Work" that we have to do, in order to remove our old biases and discover flawed thinking that influences our daily decisions.
4) Don‘t judge, just observe
Don't try to judge things or persons for being something or not being something. Simply observe.
For example, you have a thought that results in a judgment "X is not confrontational enough.", as you had this observed once or someone told you about it. Now this becomes another story in your mind, and you're no longer open to the real experience that you would otherwise simply observe.
You can use the same technique to dismantle any judgment as explained in the previous principle "Is it really true and can I absolutely be sure that this person X is not confrontational?" - and then you realise that you can't be absolutely sure and therefore it is another story that your mind has fabricated.
Therefore, make sure not to pass judgement too easily and observe people as they are happening, unbiased, without applying your old judgments - just like your child who is exploring the world with open eyes.
5) Choose a positive attitude
Remember that you cannot control others, but you can control your attitude toward everything around you.
Events are continuously happening, and it is up to you how you decide to react to them.
By keeping a positive mindset and attitude you can approach for example problems in a more constructive way, looking for a solution instead of complaining and assuming the role of a victim.
Although you cannot change what external events are happening to you always have a choice on how to approach things.
Also keep a positive attitude when looking at your own or other’s achievements by focusing on the things that were accomplished well and not the smaller things that didn’t go as well as planned. A good anecdotal comparison is the story of a monk who built a wall out of 1000 bricks, where two of the bricks were slightly misaligned. So the monk regarded this project as a failure, instead of realizing that 998 bricks were placed properly. Only after visitors congratulated him on this beautiful wall, he realized that it was only his attitude towards the smaller negative things that distracted from the actual accomplishment.
6) Do not get too attached to the outcome
In the business world companies usually have some form of goal setting process in place (e.g. OKRs, S.M.A.R.T.) to set the overall company direction. Sometimes goals are set on quarterly, half-year or yearly cycle. Leaders and employees collaborate on crafting these goals, teams align on deliverables in case of dependencies, and then the leadership team does a final sign-off.
As a mindful leader during this goal setting process I advise you to review and challenge each of your goals, whether it is for the greater good or an ego inspired goal.
Once everyone starts working towards these goals and takes action, there are usually lots of interactions, and obstacles naturally arise. Try to face an obstacle in a state of presence, then think about a way beyond it, and avoid entering a state of reactivity.
It is important as a mindful leader to not place emphasis too much on the achievement, but be as present as possible in the doing to avoid stress, and cause otherwise a potentially a toxic work environment.
Nothing is worth achieving if the journey is stressful. With stress I don’t mean if a person puts in an extra effort or works extra hard to produce high quality results (positive stress). If a goal is aligned with a person’s purpose and people enjoy being there, then they happily go the extra mile to make things happen. I’m referring to negative stress that is caused for example by unconscious behavior of a person who is too attached to the outcome.
As a mindful leader It is important to constantly assess the collective state of consciousness during the journey of achieving the goal, and support your teams by providing them with guidance when needed to produce a healthy and productive work environment. You can ask yourself these questions:
Do people enjoy being here?
What is the relationship with you and your colleagues?
The answer to these questions may point out opportunities that you can address and help your teams to work in a healthy work environment.
Another problem that arises in this context is too much haste and false urgency. Too often there is a sense of urgency to move as quickly as possible driven by (artificial) deadlines. Many of us are conditioned with the old saying „time is money“, but is this really true?
Slowing things down gets actually to the desired outcome faster, as less unnecessary re-work later on is needed, and superior solutions with a higher quality are created. Besides who wants to work in a hectic environment where constantly everything is seen as urgent? Reflect on your priorities, and if urgency arises then create the necessary focus by clearly prioritizing such topics, but do this mindfully and stay in the present moment while doing this.
7) Watch out for your ego
Everyone of us has an "ego" or personality, which is a mental construct and represents who we think we are.
But if you drill deeper you will eventually realise that you are not defined by your role at work (or at home), your body, or your thoughts.
You are the "observer" of your thoughts, the consciousness who is observing what happens to you every day, your feelings, and desires.
The ego is part of your mind, a story of what you think of who you are on the surface.
In general there is nothing bad about having an ego, in fact it can be very valuable, as it helps you to plan your day, organise your work, and helps you function on your day-to-day tasks. However, there are two traits of the ego which you need to be aware of:
The ego tries to avoid risk, loss, or unpleasant experiences at all cost.
The ego tries to maximize your belongings, perceived power, and social status.
If you become more self-conscious, once you are faced with a decision, watch out carefully for your ego in the form of thoughts, as it may be lurking there and pulling you into a direction that may not be particularly constructive.
For example, as a leader if you are working on the new budget for the coming year in your organization, the ego will naturally try to increase your reach to gain more power, therefore it may suggest that you need to grow your area by hiring more people.
Or, when faced with a decision about what the best organizational setup would be for your team, the ego may be on the lookout for opportunities to grow your reach within the company.
In general I noticed that the ego becomes exaggerated when there is a sense of power. This can be harmful to the organization and its people.
Once you become aware of these patterns, you will realize that these may not be in the best interest for you, your teams or the company.
Independent of the ego there is self-esteem, which has to do with self-respect and having confidence in one’s abilities. Some ego in the form of healthy self-esteem can actually be quite useful.
For example, in a meeting with senior leaders one has to have enough self-esteem and confidence to speak up if needed or voice a possibly different opinion, which could result in a confrontation.
In contrast when people speak of the ego, they usually assume it is the person’s self-importance or self-greatness in terms of intelligence, power, money, strength, abilities, etc. The problem here is when you are not present enough self-esteem may fade into self-importance, and your ego becomes dominant.
Therefore you need to be alert and have enough awareness to notice when this happens. I refer to this also skill also as “ego calibration”, the process of determining the minimum amount of ego and self-esteem that is helpful when going into a meeting or in general interacting with others, so that the ego is not getting in the way and thus keeps the discussions open minded and respectful.
8) Lead through inspiration, not control
Initially when you start as a leader you may think that you have power over others, and that you are able to control your people and team's actions.
However, control is an illusion.
Here is the simple truth:
„You were never able to control anything, nor can you control anything right now, and you will never be able to control anything in the future - except your own thinking and behavior.“
Once you realise this, you move up as a leader by focusing more on achieving alignment between other leads, or your teams, and then realise that your effectiveness as a leader improves greatly.
However, to be truly exceptional as a leader you should lead through inspiration. By inspiring others, for example with a compelling vision and shared purpose, they will follow you.
There is no need for control anymore - just defining a clear purpose that is resonating with everyone in your organisation is what will create the necessary buy-in and support from others.
9) Be humble
Being humble in all situations is related to an ego-less attitude. You will do great things, and you have every right to be proud of it.
But don't let the ego creep in and start boasting about your accomplishments, and comparing yourself or your results with others.
The ego likes comparison, and either feels good or bad about the outcome.
By being humble about yourself, your actions, and accomplishments, you keep your ego at bay. Note that your accomplishments still will be seen by others and have an impact anyhow.
10) Recognize, be thankful, and act quickly
The topic of „recognition“ is a very important aspect of leadership.
Recognition usually is measured through employee feedback surveys, and managers usually think about compensation topics first.
However, looking deeper, the word „recognize“ is key here. If you realize that there is really nothing that you can expect from others, and you are present and fully alert, you start to recognize that others may be doing a lot for you every day, for which you can be thankful for.
We are simply taking many things for granted, and certainly there are some minimum commonly agreed on expectations when it comes to employees (e.g., that they show up for work) but beyond that ensure to recognize their daily contributions.
If you are fully present you start to recognize also smaller things that you did not notice before, for which you could be thankful for. Then act quickly and show your thankfulness. In my opinion this is the missing part once you have become more conscious that you start to recognize things when they happen for which you are thankful for but then don’t act on it.
Actions means expressing your gratitude and let the other explicitly know about it. These can be small gestures (e.g., a small thank you note for staying late and finishing a report) or also bigger rewards if appropriate (e.g., a bonus for a person who worked overtime two weekends in a row to complete an important deadline).
It is up to you to decide what feels appropriate, but don’t procrastinate and show your thankfulness action as soon as possible, otherwise you’ll forget or the other person forgets. Of course there is the saying “better late than never” but this makes your action less impactful.
11) Expect nothing, accept anything
"Expect Nothing" - this may sound strange initially. As a leader you may think that you can expect direct reports or teams to deliver certain results within an exact time frame.
However, if you inquire these thoughts, you will eventually realise that no thought where you think someone should, could, or needs to do something is true. Why? Because you cannot control anyone except yourself.
For example, an employee tells you that she will finalise a report by Friday. It is great if indeed the report is completed by then. However, you cannot expect this to happen, as you cannot control that employee- control is an illusion in itself.
Therefore, any expectations you may have will lead to a downward spiral of disappointment, frustration, anger and eventually general hate. Hate leads to suffering (Yoda already had coined that famous quote in "The Empire strikes back").
So expect nothing.
With this mindset, you prevent yourself and others from a lot of suffering. It does not mean that you cannot hold people accountable for not delivering. Simply have no expectations. If a deadline comes up and no results are delivered, you can inquire and then decide on the next step in a mindful way.
Similarly, if you have certain interests and values, do not expect that others have the same.
For example, if you are an open and curious person who likes new ideas, do not assume that someone else does. Or if you are competitive, do not think that others need to be competitive.
"Accept anything" - this says that when you live in the present moment, accept everything that appears and do not try to resist it.
What you resist will persist. This does not mean that you cannot act after you have accepted something, in case you want something else.
For example, your employee has not delivered that report on time. Once you notice what happened you accept that you have not received the report. Then you consciously decide on the next step. Maybe you ask the employee whether she can complete it by tomorrow, but also point out the consequences and impact as a result of this delay.
Accountability still applies. Notice the subtle difference that you first accept anything, as this is the reality, and you cannot change it. Never try to fight with reality, as reality will always win. Accept as is. Then make a decision on what you wish to create.
Last not least, always accept change - as change is happening continuously, so realize that nothing is permanent. Be open to change that life puts in front of you, and accept it for what it is. It does not mean that there is nothing you can do about it if you don’t like it, as you have a choice every moment on how you want to react to that change. Simply decide on how to proceed further, but accept what is. Have the courage to reinvent and change yourself all the time to become the best possible version of yourself.
12) Grow and teach others to become mindful leaders
Finally, once you have learned those mindfulness leadership principles, and you become more mindful as a leader, it is time to look at your true purpose, which is to help grow others in also becoming mindful leaders, and finally outgrow you.
That means you have to set aside enough time for your own growth, and enough time that you need to spend with others to help them with their own growth.
In terms of practical day-to-day work, you have to find the right balance between leadership and business topics. My rule of thumb is to spend half of your time on leadership, and then look at your particular role and context to see how much you can optimise between these two dimensions on a daily basis, so that it works well for you and your teams. Don't ignore common sense and try to adjust perfectly for this balance, but be aware of gaps are arising (e.g., spending too much time on either leadership or business topics).
Here are some additional more general leadership principles that I find very useful in my experience:
Less is more, quality over quantity
Some people feel an urge to deliver too much. They think this is expected from them, and again this could be because of some faulty beliefs and thoughts (e.g., "I need to work hard to be accepted", "I continuously need to produce results") in their mind, for which they are trying to compensate.
In this case make a self reflection to discover the underlying thoughts that are causing this in you, and realise that they are not true. In reality there is nothing you need to do, only what you choose to do.
Therefore focus on doing less, but do it with all your heart and passion. It is the quality that matters. The minimalistic approach is a good choice here.
Ensure all your communication is clear and crisp
I often times see very long emails, glamorous powerpoint presentations, and wordy discussions. I guess most of them are there to confuse you, not necessarily with a malicious intent of the author. It's simply that we have learnt if we use complex terminology, and polish things up in a very fancy style, we feel like we're possibly looking smarter (which protects our ego).
Don't fall for this and do yourself and others a favour to become very clear, concise and crisp in your communication.
Go for a narrative document (e.g., a 2-pager), no fancy slides, and keep your emails down to 2-3 sentences.
If the content of an email needs to be longer, then it is a candidate for a 1-pager possibly.
Don't use tables and complex formatting. This all needs to be processed and interpreted by the brain. Therefore keep things simple with a plain narrative (we all learned in school how to read simple sentences).
Go through every sentence and every word, and test whether this word or sentence is really needed.
Can you shorten the sentence further, or can you remove it altogether?
You will be amazed by using this technique that you can cut down an initial 2-pager in half. Once you get good at it this will become a habit, and the people around you will be thankful.