By Martin Boroson
As I stood at the podium, ready to deliver the opening keynote for the AAMC’s Executive Development Seminar for Interim and Aspiring Leaders last May, I paused to notice how much times had changed.
The audience before me was composed of academic physicians, each selected for his or her leadership potential. And although they were attending this so-called boot camp primarily to learn the “hard” skills of management, no one seemed perturbed that we would begin with a presentation on meditation — and specifically my take on meditation as a leadership skill.
This idea would not have been so welcome during my own formal education in management at Yale in the late 1980s. Back then, meditation was still a fringe pursuit, highly esoteric compared to the very nuts-and-bolts work of a manager, and still foreign to a Western context.
Although Yale’s business school was innovative in some ways, the dominant model assumed that life was linear and predictable, that a manager’s job was to make a plan and implement it. The curriculum prioritized quantitative analysis. There was no serious consideration of the “state of mind” of a leader or how this could be nurtured, developed, or improved — not to mention the effect of a leader’s state of mind on an organization.
Yale was not alone in this. The formal education of managers in the United States, which began in the late 19th century, is deeply rooted in the Industrial Revolution. Thus the typical “MBA” curriculum was intended to meet the needs of a manufacturing economy — managers primarily supervised engineers, assembly lines, piece workers, and clock punchers. There was an emphasis on numbers, counting, and prediction, for the focus of an Industrial Era manager was mechanical, materialist, and predictable: You put x in and get y out. There was not much room for the mind.
This highly mechanical understanding of management is, however, entirely inappropriate to a rapidly changing, complex, and chaotic world. It is especially inappropriate to the management of people, and it is dangerously inadequate in our highly networked, technological, and innovative Age of Information.
Nowadays, it is pretty obvious that a leader’s state of mind can have a huge effect on her performance, not to mention the performance of her close associates, the entire organization, and indeed its wider constituency. A leader’s state of mind affects her ability to listen and learn, to care for self and others, to think clearly, to be creative, and to foster innovation. It affects her clarity of purpose, flexibility, and the ability to make decisions. It is integral to her values, ethics, authenticity and integrity.
Remarkably, meditation seems to have a positive effect on all these aspects of leadership.
Indeed, when one looks at the emerging scientific research on meditation, it is hard not to think of it as something close to a panacea, and not just for leaders.
The Mayo Clinic website now states that meditation may help such medical conditions as allergies, anxiety disorders, asthma, binge eating, cancer, depression, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, sleep problems, and substance abuse. Research has also indicated a positive effect of meditation on stress regulation and immunity, as well as treatment of ADHD in adolescents.
In the workplace, meditation has been shown to improve concentration and productivity. And in specific studies of health care workers, meditation has been shown to improve empathy, reduce stress, increase self-compassion, and decrease the tendency to take on others’ negative emotions.
In my own experience, working with physicians, nurses, and corporate executives, the ability to meditate is invaluable for those who want to identify core values, avoid making mistakes, stay calm in a crisis, develop leadership presence, and learn how to be appropriately responsive (rather than inappropriately reactive).
Meditation can also help leaders become more comfortable with uncertainty and better able to support staff through periods of anxiety. (In my current work with a global pharmaceutical company, we are designing a meditation training program specifically to help employees develop resilience — the ability to cope better with change.) In addition, I believe that leaders who meditate garner respect quite naturally — through enhanced personal integrity, authority, and presence.
As one meditation teacher said to me, “It is just so much easier to work with someone who meditates.”
By saying this, she no doubt meant that someone who meditates is less likely to be rigid, and is more able to step outside of his own position to consider other ideas. Someone who meditates is generally more relaxed about self, and therefore more open to collaboration. Someone who meditates could even be considered more rational — that is, able to see reality more clearly and make a decision uninfluenced by unconscious habit or emotionality.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the steadfast Burmese opposition leader and Nobel laureate, recently stated that, while under house arrest, “I meditated regularly. I still meditate regularly. I think it’s to develop a sense of calm and a sense of awareness, and that certainly helps a lot.”
So as I stood at the podium, about to address the emerging leaders from the AAMC community, I realized that yes, times have changed. And so, I decided to take a leap. Instead of simply suggesting that meditation could be a useful part of leadership development, I decided to posit that, for the next generation of leaders, meditation will be considered a core competency. For with the profound challenges and change now facing academic medicine, the next leadership breakthroughs may well come from those who can simply take a moment to be still.
—Martin Boroson is an organizational consultant, trainer and speaker, and is the author of One-Moment Meditation: Stillness for People on the Go, now published in ten languages. He has delivered training in One-Moment Meditation to physicians at the AAMC and UC Davis Medical Center, and has worked extensively with physicians and staff at Kaiser Permanente. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.