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

Before we proceed, let me define “mindfulness,” a word you’ll encounter repeatedly in this three-part series: the art of paying attention to present-moment experience in a kind, open, and curious way. Why would we want to pay attention to the present moment? Because this is where the juice, the possibility for connection, and the joy of feeling alive are available. Moreover, the present moment is where we can take effective action. Rather that unconsciously reacting to external stimuli via our (often maladaptive) habit patterns, when we come into the present moment, we have the opportunity respond to situations wisely and compassionately. Consider martial artists, who have trained for countless hours to be 100% present and attuned to their environment. Being attacked on all sides by numerous enemies wielding swords, lances, arrows, guns, and hands that have been registered as lethal weapons, martial artists seem suspended in time, effortlessly and gracefully responding to each attack. While engaging in mind training like mindfulness meditation is unlikely to make a Bruce Lee or Marvel Comics hero out of you, it will allow you to move through life’s inevitable stresses and challenges with greater skill and ease.

Train Your Mind, Improve Your Game: Notes from the Field

One of my favorite anecdotes regarding how mind training can enhance leadership capabilities comes from the military. While military training in the West had traditionally emphasized a strict chain-of-command structure, by the mid-1980s, this began to break down. Thanks to the introduction of smart technologies that provided frontline troops real-time information, soldiers were making immediate decisions instead of awaiting instructions from headquarters. Consequently, the military needed to train soldiers to become more thoughtful, resourceful, and intuitive. Fighting guerillas also demanded a new set of skills, including winning the hearts and minds of locals rather than relying on an overwhelming use of force. These soldiers needed to be more sensitive and flexible, and needed to inspire trust. From this the Trojan Warrior Project was born. Leadership trainer Richard Strozzi-Heckler, PhD, led 25 Green Berets through a six-month training in martial arts, meditation, biofeedback, guided relaxation, and mind-body psychology. The physiological results were off the charts: participants improved by between 50% and 150% in their ability to control pain and body temperature, remain alert and motionless for significant periods, and recuperate from injury and stress. They also made significant gains in flexibility, physical endurance, coordination, and team cohesion. These soldiers also demonstrably enhanced their leadership abilities, as evidenced by the 1993 battle in Mogadishu in Somalia. According to Strozzi-Heckler, “The soldiers who’d been through the program had learned to carry themselves in a way that inspired greater confidence and trust. Because they were calmer, they were much better in a crisis. Because they had more awareness of what triggered their aggression, they took more responsibility for their actions. Plus, they were far more attuned to what other people were thinking and feeling. All these changes translated into a leadership presence.”

Sports teams like the Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s and the LA Lakers in the ‘00s have also leveraged mind training to become top in their games. Their winning coach, Phil Jackson, brought in meditation instructor George Mumford to systematically train his teams to get in the zone. Jackson notes in his book, Sacred Hoops, “In basketball—as in life—true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it’s no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose and focus your attention on what’s happening right this moment.”

So here we have some elite performers who have taken their “game” to a new level by doing contemplative practices such as meditation. What about those whose standard-issue uniform is a suit or a hoodie? Do we have any examples from those camps? Most people know that Steve Jobs practiced Zen-style meditation on and off throughout his career, but did you know that billionaire Bridgewater Associates hedge fund manager and Harvard MBA Ray Dallio meditates? He observes, “I notice a difference from the moment I meditate. I can be stressed, or tired, and I can go into a meditation and it all just flows off of me. I’ll come out of it refreshed and centered and that’s how I’ll feel and it’ll carry through the day.”

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