What Meditation Can Do for Your Leadership

 

By Matthias Birk
March 16, 2020

One of the things that stands in the way of many leaders’ success — and therefore the success of their companies — is their ego. Fortunately, mindfulness can help.

In my work teaching meditation to hundreds of executives, I’ve seen that one of the most valuable benefits of the practice for leaders is the ability it gives them to transcend their egos.

When our ego is threatened, we tend to hold on to past decisions, react defensively to negative feedback and 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.”

Mindful 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. These experiences have major benefits for leaders: They allow them to see things more objectively and to form deeper relationships, and to lead with deeper empathy and connection.

Mindful meditation isn’t the only way to experience self-transcendence — our ego fixation can drop away while jogging, cooking 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 and set a timer for anywhere between five and 25 minutes. Then simply start observing the in and out of your breath. Allow the mind to detach from the thoughts that run through your mind and to experience a sense of openness.

Practice regularly — every day: 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.

Find extended periods for silence: 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, for example.

Almost a decade ago, I was lucky to go on a three-month silent retreat. In one of the conversations with the meditation teacher, she said: “Remember: you don’t exist.” This made no sense to me at the time. It took me a while to realize, that self-transcendence can’t be understood by the mind. It needs to be practiced.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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