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Train Your Mind, Improve Your Game: Meditation for the 21st-Century Leader

“I’ve still got to deal with 100 emails, finalize those two PowerPoints, read and be able to speak intelligibly about this 150-page report by this afternoon’s meeting. I can’t believe I just lost about 20 minutes web surfing. I also have only three weeks left till I take the GMAT, and I’ve barely had time to study. I’d hoped to this weekend, but now it looks like I might be called in to work on an emergency project. When am I going to even think about doing the essays? And what if I don’t get into any of my target schools? Even if I do, I’m really anxious about having to take on even more student loans. I mean, what if I do that and can’t find a job after I graduate?”

“You reach for your third 5-Hour Energy Drink of the day, hoping it’ll keep you focused and energized, and knowing you’ll need a beer or two (or three) to get to sleep. This has become a daily routine. You fleetingly wonder if this is affecting your body, but what are your options?”

“And I don’t know what to make of that last review. Analytical skills, top 5%; emotional intelligence, needs a lot of work. How is that going to affect my B-school recommendations? Apparently, I’m not managing my anger and stress very well, and I’m ‘out of touch’ with my teammates. What am I supposed to do about that?”

“I don’t even know what the face of business is going to be in three years, once I graduate. Everything is changing so fast; creative destruction is becoming commonplace, making innovation critical; developing economies keep creating upheaval in the competitive landscape; and climate change may prove to have devastating effects. How am I going to deal with all of this uncertainty and change? It’s hard just to keep up; I feel like I’d have to be a superhero to successfully tackle what’s ahead.”

Coming Back to the Present Moment

Stop for a second to see how you feel after reading the above. Perhaps your stomach has slightly tightened, your breathing has gotten a bit shallower, your heartbeat has picked up. What else do you notice? Take a few moments to investigate. Now feel yourself sitting in your chair and take a few deep breaths, becoming aware of what it feels like to inhale and exhale with each breath . . . and coming back to your present-moment experience.

As you just saw in the example above, so often our mind is way ahead of us in the future, planning or worrying away, or way behind us, ruminating about the past, but it’s rarely in synch with our body, which is where our life actually takes place.

What if there were practices you could do that would not only help you alleviate the stress of daily living, but that would also help you cultivate key leadership competencies you need to succeed in the 21st century? They already exist. Millions have benefited from mind training for millennia, and today’s neuroscientists are finding that contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation alter the brain’s structures and functions in ways that promote all of the above. You got a taste of one such practice when you stopped the freight train of non-stop thoughts above, checking in to see how you were feeling and tuning in to your breathing.

Deborah Knox is a Stanford MBA and CEO of Insight Admissions. Having meditated for the past 20 years, she has become intimately familiar with the benefits and challenges of practice, particularly for Type-A personalities. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.