The Mindful Leader

by  Shawn Murphy  |  Leadership Development

As a leader, letting go of control over a situation or person takes practice and discipline. No matter if you are a leader of a formal group or one who emerged out of necessity, leadership fulfills the purpose of getting things done through others.  What I find absolutely intriguing is why some leaders are phenomenal at working with others to accomplish success, and some leave a wake of dead bodies behind them.  While there are many reasons successful leaders succeed, I want to focus on one thing specifically – mindfulness.

First, let me define mindfulness.  It’s a person’s ability to vigilantly observe what is unfolding around him and remaining open to what is happening.  A mindful leader recognizes what is unfolding around him and can let go of control without much thought.

Mindfulness is about awareness of what is said and not said. What is done and not done. To cultivate mindfulness as a leader, you must be willing to get in tune with others.  This ability serves as a powerful way of being that can strengthen working relationships to the level of deep and lasting success.  Imagine working with someone or a group of people where your unspoken words speak as loud as your spoken words.  This is made possible because you are aware of each other’s presence, silence, and actions.  A successful leader doesn’t focus on letting go of control, but on responding to a situation based on the circumstances.

Surely it takes skill to strengthen your mindfulness.  That skill relies heavily on observation. In a separate blog post, I shared 5 observations that are critical to cultivating mindfulness.  The mindful leaders I had the pleasure to work alongside also had these tremendous abilities:

Constantly question your own worldview. Your worldview is how you make sense of the world shaped by your life experiences. Mindful leaders recognize the importance of challenging and letting new ideas become part of the lens through which they see the world.

Surround yourself with opposites. Build relationships with a diverse mix of people who challenge how you think.  If you’re not a numbers guy, be sure you have a few in your inner circle.  If you’re a numbers guy, be sure to have creative, expressive people in your inner circle. Like-minded groups run the risk of mediocre results.

Meditate or pray. Okay, I might turn a few of you off with this. Hear me out though.  One reason meditation or prayer is helpful is that it forces you to focus on other people.  It also forces you to slow down the pace of your life. Mindfulness is an outcome of either practice.

Cultivating mindfulness is a powerful way of building teams and causing results.  For leaders in our complex, dynamic world, you must also know when to find your neutral gear to more fully understand situations that require your input or decision. Mindfulness allows you to find “neutral” and then power back into fourth or fifth gear.

What do you do to strengthen your ability in mindfulness?

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Articles By shawn-murphy
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What People Are Saying

David  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

I’m soooo glad I’m not alone here. I simply think that leaders in the future has to be Mindful or evolution will do something about them!

Shawn Murphy  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi David,
Leadership ways of being and behaviors certainly must evolve to remain effective. In our increasingly complex world, leaders need to find stillness in the chaos. And as you point out, that is key for future leaders.


Marty Caise  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

This is a great post, I started to put my thoughts together and realized a blog response was probably a little more appropriate..

Shawn Murphy  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Marty, I’ll respond here and on your blog post. You are spot on about the importance of knowing one’s purpose and its influence on mindfulness. I’m glad you pointed that out. For many leaders its a big question mark as to what impact they want to have and its alignment with their purpose. It takes time to cultivate, as you point out. The important thing, though, is that we all get out their, roll up our sleeves, and do the work. If we authentically lead by connecting with and engaging people, purpose is more likely to reveal itself. And mindfulness evolves from doing the work. Thank you for taking time to write such a thoughtful post/response.


Dawna  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Great post Shawn! Have you read Michael Carroll’s book The Mindful Leader? Highly recommend it, one of my favourites!

Shawn Murphy  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Dawna,
I haven’t read Michael Carroll’s book. I’ll check it out. Thank you for the recommendation.


Phil Tretheway  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Great post Shawn. It’s delightful to read about different leadership styles. While what you’re describing here may not make for blockbuster movies and traditional American heroes, I think it is a more sustainable and effective way to lead and get consistent results over time.

Shawn Murphy  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Phil,
I guess it depends on what is considered sexy in leadership, right? =)
What you point out though is that the hidden gems of leadership may not be sexy. But without a solid foundation from which to lead, the sexiness is fleeting.

Good to see you here in Lead Change, Phil.


Erin Schreyer  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Shawn, great post!!! I think this is one of the greatest challenges of leadership, and it’s incredibly difficult to teach or coach someone to improvement. You’ve done a nice job of painting a picture here that not only can be understood…but also remembered! Part of being mindful is keeping messages like this top of mind!!! Keep up your great work!

Shawn Murphy  |  17 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Erin,
Indeed it’s difficult to cultivate and coach mindfulness. A great place for a manager to start is purposeful observations of their team and groups. It takes practice, though. And for some managers, it’s paying less attention to an agenda and more attention to process and content of interactions.

It’s always a delight to interact here with you. Thanks for stopping by.

Georgia Feiste  |  21 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Shawn: I love your insights into mindfulness born out of observation and truly listening to the people around you. For me, that means listening and watching for the energy beneath the words. Paying attention to everything around me so that I might feel the waves of agreement and silent disagreement hidden by nods to seek approval. And then asking the questions necessary to gain understanding. It is a powerful, and difficult, skill to develop, and one that is critical to a great leader.


Shawn Murphy  |  21 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Georgia,
I love your description “energy beneath the words.” Paying attention to what cannot be seen but what is shown through the emphasis and selection of words is a phenomenal way to cultivate mindfulness.

On a separate note, I thoroughly enjoy my interactions with you. Have a fantastic week.


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