Mindful Leadership

Mindful leadership seems to be a term resonating with folks, even if they aren’t sure what it means. Many of us are looking for new ways of being as leaders. Here are some of the components of mindful leadership I find myself working to practice myself and discussing with others in keynotes, presentations, and retreats.

8 Pillars of Joy

The Book of Joy chronicled a week of conversations between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. The two spiritual leaders discussed joy based on the similarities and differences in their spiritual traditions and lifetimes facing hardship, violent oppression, and genocide. Douglas Abrams participated in the conversations as a journalist asking questions and provided the readers with background information on the two leaders as well as connections to scientific research and evidence related to joy, suffering, meaning, and perspective. You can learn more about the 8 Pillars of Joy from the book and other take aways here.


Mindful leadership is about letting go of control AND claiming agency. Weather is a great example of this. When it is raining it doesn’t serve us well to lament and complain that it shouldn’t be raining (control). Instead, we’re well served to acknowledge that it is raining and make decisions about bringing an umbrella or not (agency). Yet, many of us experience significant suffering because we are trying to control things that are out of our control like weather, circumstances, elections, or other people AND we give up agency over changes we can make within ourselves like choices, decisions, and actions. The image below describes how I think about this.

How can I give up as much control as possible over what is beyond me & simultaneously claim as much agency as possible over what is within me?

I think about this regularly when I fly. I am surrounded by people who are frustrated and even angry about things they cannot control like the flight time, temperature, noise, other passengers, wifi, etc. But I find there is much I can claim agency for like whether I sleep, meditate, listen to music, enjoy a podcast, talk with the people next to me, make a to do list, or just let my mind wander and enjoy those moments of being disconnected.

Process vs Outcome

How can we let go of the outcome, which we often have little control over, but put our energy into the process? This is outlined through the lens of Stoicism in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is the Way.  How do we let go of control over the outcome such as whether we win the game, get the sale, find the right person, or get our kids to wear winter jackets? How do we instead focus on putting in all of our energy and effort into each play, connecting with the client, making ourselves vulnerable, or being as patient as we can?

Middle Path

Buddhist refer to this as the middle path or healthy non-attachment. On one hand we have caring too much and holding on too tightly to what happens and on the other hand we have not caring at all and giving up. Neither serve leaders very well. The middle path is about letting go of where this might go or what might happen but focusing on being and giving our best toward the outcomes that are important to us. How are well all in with our time, energy, and effort but let go of any expectations that it will work out the way we wanted? This is what Buddhist call engaged Buddhism and related to what bell hooks describes as engaged pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress.

Professional Will and Personal Humility

Mindful leaders practice professional will and personal humility. They take their work very seriously but they don’t take themselves seriously at all.

“This is far too serious a matter to take too seriously.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn

I heard Jon Kabat-Zinn use this approach when talking about the impact on social media on our well-being as well as instances of global terrorism. How does our taking critical issues too seriously prevent us from seeing possibilities, solutions, and creatively addressing problems? Below is a great and funny TEDx Talk from my friend Paul Osincup on the power of humor for leaders.

Being an Essentialist

If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. How can you do less, so you can be more? How can you weed the garden of your life? How can you apply the Pareto principle? Author Greg McKeown explores all of this in his book Essentialism. I recommend it highly and often.

Mindfulness and Meditation

These two are often confused and used interchangeably when they are two different but related ideas. Mindfulness is simply the practice in being in this moment. And then in this moment. And being fully present in each moment.

Meditation is the focused practice on being fully present.

Meditation is simple. It is hard. It takes practice. And it is often mis-understood. It also has been proven in thousands of research studies to make us happier, healthier, and more effective. Here is the most succinct and clear explanation I have found.

Letting Go

Mindful leadership is mostly about letting go. About letting go of control, perfectionism, fear of failure, being right, getting it right, and more. It means letting go of your ego to open yourself up to be more effective aligned with your purpose.

Want to work more closely with Keith?

Leaders and organizations turn to Keith as an authentic educator, trusted leader, and unconventional scholar helping them advance leadership, learning, and equity.

6 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *