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  • Matthias Birk

What Meditation Can Do for Your Leadership

One of the things that stands in the way of many leaders’ success — and therefore the success of their companies — is their ego. Leadership expert Jim Collins found in his seminal study on what makes companies sustainably great that in two thirds of the comparison cases, it was “the presence of a gargantuan ego that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.” Fortunately, mindfulness can help. In fact, in my work teaching meditation to hundreds of executives, I’ve seen that one of the most valuable — and largely unrecognized — benefits for leaders is the ability to transcend their egos.

The defensive tendencies of our ego come at great costs. When it’s threatened, we hold on to past decisions for too long, we react defensively to or “explain away” negative feedback from teams or customers, and we get emotional when we need to be rational. Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund, refers in his book, Principles: Life and Work, to the “ego barrier,” which he defines as the “subliminal defense mechanisms that make it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses.” He also credits meditation as the single most important source of his success.

That’s because mindfulness meditation is an antidote to ego. It creates what Harvard neuroscience researchers describe as “self-transcendent” experiences, where meditators begin to notice that there is no stable self that is separate from others, but rather they are part of a whole. This may sound “woo-woo” but these experiences have major benefits for leaders: They allow them to see things more objectively and to form deeper relationships.

Seeing things more objectively

Our ego wants us to be right, and it perceives failure as a threat. With meditation practice, as our fixation on ego drops away, our tendency to take things personally drops away as well.

Take the example of Scott Shute, former VP of Customer Operations at LinkedIn, who now leads the company’s mindfulness programs. He explained to me that throughout the day he “will apply mindfulness practices when I find myself anxious to make a decision or feel defensive about criticism. I will breathe and contemplate for a few minutes and something that was formerly frustrating becomes almost playful. I can pay attention to details and may see things I had not seen before”.

Jeff, the president of a large retailer, experienced something similar during a meditation session I ran as part of a leadership workshop. He received an email from his new CEO right before the session. He told me, “My mind was racing, I felt frustrated and wrongly accused. After meditating I re-read the email. My mind was calm, and I had to smile. I had made the email all about myself and had taken his criticism personally. Afterward I could see it as what it was — just several specific things that needed to get done.” Even a short meditation lessened the grip of his ego, allowing him to read the email without feeling threatened and to act appropriately.

Forming deeper relationships

These experiences also fundamentally change leaders’ relationships, allowing them to lead with deeper empathy and connection. Mike Romoff, head of global agency sales at LinkedIn, explained to me that after practicing meditation for several months, he “had a gradual realization that all beings are connected, and the whole construct of having adversarial feelings towards others as independent entities stopped making any sense.”

When he found his department mired in an intense rivalry with another one, he decided to help his counterpart rather than further the tension: “Projects moved forward, conflicts between departments got diffused, we made great progress. And it hugely benefited my own career. I developed a reputation as a collaborator and problem solver.”

Meditation can also help us deal with colleagues we perceive as “difficult,” allowing us to challenge the fear-based narratives our mind creates that get in the way of us taking action in a productive way. Take the example of Marisa, a senior executive at a large media company, who has been practicing meditation for several years. For years she dealt with a difficult colleague without openly addressing his behavior. After practicing meditation for a while she realized that her “fearful self disappeared” and she was no longer afraid to confront him.” She said that when she simply stated the facts, she felt “like the universe was speaking through me.” She was able to see and communicate the facts clearly, without fear or emotional attachment as before. To her great surprise, the colleague was willing to hear her and agreed to stop his behavior.

Practice Meditation to Experience Self-Transcendence

Mindful meditation isn’t the only way to experience self-transcendence — our ego fixation can drop away while jogging, cooking, playing an instrument, or doing some other activity that fully engages us — but it is the more direct way. Here’s how you can create that experience for yourself.

Develop a practice focused on stilling the mind. One of the simplest forms of mindfulness meditation is to find a quiet place, sit comfortably on a chair or cushion, and set a timer for anywhere between five and 25 minutes. Then simply start observing the in and out of your breath. You might count the breath, starting with one on an in-breath, then two on an out-breath, going up to 10 and then returning to one. Whichever method you use, you’re likely to notice the nearly constant stream of thoughts that run through our minds (around 70.000 thoughts a day). Allow the mind to detach from these thoughts and to experience a sense of openness.

Practice regularly — every day. Although self-transcendent experiences can occur after short sessions, maintaining a steady state takes regular practice. Just like going to the gym sporadically may feel good but won’t help you to build muscle, irregular meditation practice won’t be enough to consistently experience self-transcendence. Most executives I work with practice meditation at least 20 minutes a day. For most, getting up earlier in the morning and starting the day with meditation is the easiest way to ensure they “get it in.”

Find extended periods for silence. Most executives notice that the longer they meditate, the more their mind starts to quiet down and thoughts eventually dissipate. Because it is our thoughts that create the sense of ego, when they dissipate our ego has a chance to drop away. In a world where we are constantly exposed to new stimuli (through emails, news, social media, etc.), you need to be deliberate about finding time for silence. You might go on an extended “retreat” led by an experienced meditation teacher or carve out times of the day when you’re not taking in new information.

Apply the insights of self-transcendence to problems throughout the day. Use what you gain from these practices to loosen the grip of your ego throughout your workday. You might quiet your mind with a few conscious breaths before you enter a meeting or open your email. You can also practice in the moment. For example, while you’re sitting in a meeting or responding to an email, turn your focus to your breath, and simply notice if your mind has started to take things personally. Taking a few breaths in and out, can help lessen your ego’s grip.

Almost a decade ago, I was fortunate to be able to go on a three-month silent retreat, taking a sabbatical from my busy life as a McKinsey consultant. In one of the weekly conversations with the meditation teacher, she said: “Remember: you don’t exist.” This made no sense to me at the time and it took me a while to realize, that self-transcendence can’t be understood by the mind. It needs to be practiced.

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