What is mindfulness and what is its significance for leaders?

Mindfulness is a journey, not a destination. If you’ve looked into mindfulness at all, and tried to put it into practice in your life, then your journey is already underway.

Like most journeys, the benefits will be greater if you approach mindfulness as an ongoing process of discovery and exploration. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people give up on mindfulness when their journey has barely begun. If you find meditation difficult, you might conclude that mindfulness is not for you. But it’s important to understand that mindfulness is not just meditation. Mindfulness involves so much more than meditation, as this article explains.  

There are formal and informal practices that will help you cultivate mindfulness. The obvious formal practice is meditation which, it is true, is very valuable. If you want to learn how to meditate, I can certainly teach you. But I have met many people along the way who are not interested in meditation, or who are not willing to try practicing it on a regular basis.

So what is a mindfulness teacher to do? I always encourage leaders to give meditation a go, but I’ve had to conclude that meditation is not actually essential for leaders who want to be more mindful. You can now breathe a sigh of relief if meditation has been a barrier for you!

“Mindfulness isn’t difficult,
you just need to remember to do it.”

– Sharon Salzberg

The good news is, there are many other ways to cultivate mindfulness. The key is to be wholehearted in applying yourself to developing your mindfulness. As the meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, once said – mindfulness isn’t difficult, you just need to remember to do it.

Mindful leadership also involves learning about and applying ethics, something which really is essential if you want to be a mindful and effective leader. There are also many informal practices you can apply, both at work and in daily life. Some simple examples are mindful meetings, mindful emailing, mindful breaks, mindful relationships and mindful decisions.

What does this look like? For me, instead of trudging through my work day on automatic pilot, or feeling scattered, exhausted and overwhelmed, I prefer a mindful day where I calmly do one thing at a time, pause to reflect before dashing off any reactive emails, and feel engaged in my work and clear and confident about my decisions. This requires me to take responsibility for my states of mind and the impact of my actions on others. I can then engage with colleagues and clients in a positive way – curious and caring about their feelings and perspectives – so we can all be fully present in our work and in our lives.

What is mindfulness?

I sat down to try to come up with my own definition of mindfulness and I realised this is not an easy task. Mindfulness is a complex subject with a history of more than 2,000 years. By comparison, mindful leadership is very new, with the integration of mindfulness and leadership still being worked out by people like me.

Every time I lead, or share what I know about leadership with others, I learn more about the significance of mindfulness for leadership. So, in the spirit of the mindfulness journey, which is a journey of lifelong learning, I am calling this my working definition of mindfulness. It draws from the Buddhist roots of mindfulness and is also informed by contemporary developments in mindfulness in the last 40 years, including its application to leadership.

“Mindfulness is a both a practice and a way of being. It involves cultivating lucid awareness by being present to the whole of your experience in a spirit of curiosity, compassion and acceptance. Mindfulness requires sustained effort as well as clear comprehension of the purpose of the practice and its ethical implications. Practised and lived in this way, mindfulness will lead to more skilful actions and states of mind, and insight into the true nature of your experience.”

This goes much further than many contemporary interpretations of mindfulness which have emphasised paying attention, intentionally, in the present moment. While that is certainly part of mindfulness practice, it is very far from the whole of it.

Mindfulness involves cultivating a type of attention which Bhikkhu Bodhi (2011) describes as lucid awareness. This word resonates for me because it suggests that awareness is not simply paying attention, rather, it is wholehearted, intensely emotional and alive. We pay attention to the whole of our experience – body, feelings and thoughts – while also recalling the true purpose of the practice. Ultimately, the purpose of mindfulness is to develop ourselves as human beings. This inevitably involves contemplating the reality of the human condition and our impact in the world.

These four ways of practising mindfulness are known as the four foundations of mindfulness (body, feelings, thoughts, reality). We work on these foundations when we first come to mindfulness practice but they are not just for beginners. In any event, we are all beginners all of the time if we maintain that spirit of openness and curiosity known as beginner’s mind.

The body (including the breath) is the first foundation. It is the primary gateway through which we practice mindfulness. By being mindful of our bodies, we have a very tangible focus for our attention; it is always with us – no matter what we’re doing. Our body tells us how we are in a very immediate way. Tense shoulders? Tight jaw? Slumping over? What is that telling you about what’s really going on in your experience?

The second foundation is mindfulness of feelings. Initially this means simply noticing, in the moment, whether our feeling tone is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. With practice, we learn to be with our feeling states, no matter how difficult they are, without reacting or judging. This requires compassion, acceptance and curiosity because staying with our experience – especially when it is painful – can be challenging.

The third foundation, awareness of thoughts, is really awareness of the mind. We become aware of the raft of emotions and associated thoughts that can proliferate when we react to our feeling states. With mindfulness (and with compassion, acceptance and curiosity), we learn to catch our emotional reactions and thoughts earlier, and choose more positive ways of responding.  This process of “minding the gap”, between our feelings and our responses, is the heart of mindfulness practice. To find out more, see my recent article, Awareness is Revolutionary.

The final foundation, awareness of reality, involves becoming more aware of the purpose of mindfulness practice and its ethical implications, and constantly maintaining this awareness. I like to think of this as continuity of purpose, as one Buddhist teacher describes it (Sangharakshita, 2003).  This involves facing the true nature of our experience, and being mindful of the impact our states of mind and our actions have on others.

This takes me to the other important aspect of my working definition – the centrality of ethics in the practice of mindfulness.

Mindful leaders are ethical leaders

As a mindful leader, you will establish practices in the way you live and work to support the cultivation of lucid awareness. As your awareness develops and your emotions are engaged more wholeheartedly, awareness will begin illuminating all of the details of your experience. It’s like the difference between life in black and white, and full technicolour. Lucid awareness makes it exceptionally difficult to ignore what is going on with your states of mind and the way your actions impact on others and on the world around you.

The implication of this aspect of mindfulness, in the leadership context, is that mindful leaders are ethical leaders.

Mindfulness is inseparably connected with the capacity to act ethically towards others. When we are fully present with our experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, we are compelled to take responsibility for the consequences of our states of mind and our actions.

“When we are fully present to our experience … we are compelled to take responsibility for the consequences of our states of mind and our actions.”

What could this look like? Here are some hypothetical, but very real examples, of dilemmas that leaders experience all the time.

If I am in a bad mood and I snap at a member of my team, being aware of my emotional state, in the moment, means I understand and even feel the impact of my mood on the team member. I take responsibility for my behaviour and I apologise.

If I have made a mistake that will cost my organisation business (and money), I could try to shift the blame to some-one else. But my awareness of my fear and of the people who have been harmed by my mistake makes me pause, reflect and choose another path. I own up to my mistake and have a conversation about how to do better next time.

If my manager wants me to implement a decision that I know is unethical, doing what I am told and staying silent feels like the easiest option. Instead, I speak up and say “no”. This takes courage but it’s the right thing to do.  I am modelling ethics for my organisation which now starts thinking and talking about ethics when making decisions.

Let’s make ethics explicit

Mindful leaders are more ethically sensitive about the impact of their behaviours on others, and this is particularly important when it comes to making decisions. A key skill of the mindful leader is therefore ethical decision-making.

The place of ethics in contemporary applications of mindfulness (usually in health and mental health contexts) has been implicit rather than explicit. For example, in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zin (2013), ethics was not made an explicit part of the program in the interests of making it acceptable for a secular audience.

In the leadership context, however, I think it is time to make it very explicit that mindfulness includes ethics and that practising ethics is a key part of mindfulness practice. Without ethics, we risk misrepresenting what mindfulness actually is. We also miss out on the true potential of mindfulness to increase the integrity and accountability of our leaders – something that is sorely needed.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a trainer and coach who helps leaders to lead more mindfully. As a former CEO, who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years, she knows the mindful leadership territory well. Her approach integrates mindfulness with transformational leadership. Learn about mindful leadership through Maria’s Transformational Coaching Program. To find out more, contact Maria.


Bodhi, B., 2011. What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), pp.19-39.

Kabat-Zinn, J., 2013. Full catastrophe living. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.

Sangharakshita, 2003. Living with Awareness, A guide to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, UK.

© Maria Brett, 2021