Personal Strength

Using Mindfulness To Build the Physiology of a Leader

Have you ever wondered how some people manage to easily accomplish everything on their to-do list, while you find yourself overwhelmed by your own? With all of the everyday stressors that come our way, it’s a wonder to think about how some people manage it all gracefully. “Are they faking it?” you may ask yourself. “Are they tuned into something I’m not?”

In fact, there are real differences between how people experience stress. In a recent study Sherman et al. (2012) compared the differences between leaders and the general population. They found that leaders reported less stress and had lower cortisol levels than the general population. The higher the leader was in the organization and the more people under their command, the lower their cortisol level. In other words, the people who you might expect to experience the most stress actually experience the least. The explanation behind this phenomenon is that people in higher positions tend to have a higher sense of control, which can considerably lower stress responses.

But what if you don’t have a naturally low stress response, or if you simply experience more stress than you can handle? There are some mindfulness exercises that can help you build your personal strength and decrease your stress levels. Cultivating mindfulness is a key to reducing stress, but more than this, it can help you build social connections that further reduce your stress burden.

Ok. I know what you’re thinking. Mindfulness? Can we be done with this trend already?
But - there is more to mindfulness than simply breathing deeply (though that can also help!). Mindfulness is defined as a state of mind where you focus on experiences in the present moment without judgment (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999). As simple as this sounds, it can become a meaningful practice that has serious implications for your well-being, your relationships, and even your physiology.

Researchers recently found that people who participated in these mindfulness practices tended to behave in ways that would help them better negotiate and voice their emotions (Dekeyser, Raes, Leijssen, Leysen, & Dewulf, 2008). They empathize more deeply with others. They assert themselves more and feel less influenced by negative emotional reactions of others. They are less likely to feel socially anxious. In other words, they are in more control of themselves and how they behave in social interactions. This control and confidence is essential for learning how to navigate stressors, but also for building meaningful relationships.

Already in a leadership position? Feel like you are managing perfectly fine? Mindfulness can still help. Supervisors’ mindfulness is associated with higher levels of employee well-being, job satisfaction, performance, and organizational citizenship behavior (Cameron & Fredrickson, 2015). In other words, the benefits of mindfulness go beyond building your personal strength and resources and contribute to the well-being of others.
So, how do you start?

Dimidjian and Linehan (2003) outline four practices that can be developed to facilitate mindfulness:

  1. Mindful observation is when you carefully attend to stimulation inside and outside of yourself, including thoughts, emotions, smells, sounds, and sensations.
  2. Acting with awareness is when you deeply engage in an activity and maintain undivided attention.
  3. Accepting without judgment is when you allow yourself to soak in an experience without evaluating it.
  4. Mindful description is when you label your immediate observations without any judgment or analysis.

While meditation is a great way of building mindfulness muscles, there are a variety of ways to become more mindful in everyday life. A good way to get started is to tackle one practice at a time in small, everyday ways.

When a colleague comes to you for advice, instead of immediately dismissing them as unqualified and adding to your own work, use the interaction as an opportunity to accept without judgment.

When you are grabbing something quick for lunch, take at least a few minutes to mindfully observe and attend to the sensations you experience - the taste, the sounds, the thoughts that arise.

When you come home after work, take a few moments to act with awareness toward your partner. Ask them about their day to engage deeply in dialogue with undivided attention.

By learning to experience each moment and interaction in full and attentive ways, you can build better self-awareness and negotiate social interactions with ease. These practices can not only influence your own behavior, but also positively contribute to the well-being of those around you. This is not to say that stress won’t arise. It inevitably will. But approaching your life and relationships mindfully will empower you to live more fully in the present and maximize your ability to attend to the everyday. The to-do list won’t go away, but it will start to feel less worrisome, less tiresome, and less unmanageable.

Cameron, C. D., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2015). Mindfulness facets predict helping behavior and distinct helping-related emotions. Mindfulness, 1-8.

Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., Leysen, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1235-1245.

Dimidjian, S., & Linehan, M. M. (2003). Defining an agenda for future research on the clinical application of mindfulness practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 166–171.

Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J. L. (1999). Mindfulness and meditation. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating spirituality into treatment (pp. 67–84). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sherman, G. D., Lee, J. J., Cuddy, A. J. C., Renshon, J., Oveis, C., Gross, J. J., & Lerner, J. S. (2012). Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(44), 17903–17907.