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

Marc Benioff, CEO of, began meditating to alleviate stress. Another innovative practitioner is Alex Bogusky, former advertising wunderkind and founder of Fearless Revolution, a movement through which he is empowering citizens to become more conscious consumers and helping companies become more socially responsible. Michael Stephen, former Aetna International chairman, began meditating in 1974 and says it helped him transform from “an impatient, demanding know-it-all into a more effective leader.” Believe it or not, there are some meditators on Capitol Hill. I recently saw Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio speak about his new book, A Mindful Nation. One of meditation’s most visible proponents is Bill George, former Medtronic CEO, Goldman Sachs board member, and Harvard Business School professor who spearheaded the Mindful Leader conference in 2010. George started to meditate for 20 minutes twice a day almost forty years ago. Regarding meditation, he notes, “Out of anything, it has had the greatest positive impact on my career.” He claims that meditation practice has been “the single best thing that happened to me in terms of my leadership.”

An increasing number of blue-chip and innovative companies have been offering meditation training to employees, including Apple, Genentech, McKinsey, Deutsche Bank, Intel, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Medtronic, Raytheon, Unilever, Comcast, and the New York Times. Google has perhaps made the greatest splash with its Search Inside Yourself (SIY) program, which blends the latest research in neuroscience with mindfulness practices to help employees increase their emotional intelligence. Since the program’s launch in 2007, one thousand Google employees have participated in the seven-week course. In April 2012, SIY’s champion, Chade-Meng Tan, released his book, Search Inside Yourself; and launched the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), through which he intends to offer the course to the public and organizations.

Prominent law schools such as Harvard, Yale, and UC-Berkeley have offered meditation training, often tied to their mediation and negotiation curricula. Several business schools, including Wharton, Kellogg, Columbia, and INSEAD have dabbled with offering instruction, but I’m not aware of any MBA programs that offer it as an ongoing elective. (This is something I hope to change.) Student interest is growing, however, and related clubs have been sprouting up on campuses. I was delighted to learn about the grassroots efforts of two HBS second-years, Nikita Singhal and Suken Vakil, who undertook an independent project this past spring regarding meditation and leadership, and who made meditation training available to classmates. You can view the results of their research project here.

For the empiricists amongst you, I know anecdotes aren’t enough. You’ll be happy to know that over the last few decades scientists have been studying the effects of contemplative practices such as meditation on the body and mind. While the field is nascent and many studies undertaken to date have been small scale or preliminary, the results have been quite promising.

In each article in this three-part series, I’ll be sharing research findings, offering instructions for formal meditation practice, outlining informal mindfulness practices, and sharing resources for learning more. In this installment, I’ll be covering how these practices affect the body; in the next, the intellect/cognition; and in the final, the emotions. In truth, these distinctions are somewhat artificial since the body, mind, and emotions are interconnected, and every practice offered will affect all three, but this breakdown will make the material easier to digest.

Before we continue, let’s take a moment to come back to ourselves and the present moment. One way to do this is to use our senses. Let’s try touch first. Can you feel how your body is making contact with your chair, for instance? Notice your feet on the floor. What do your clothes feel like on your body? Now take a moment to take in your environment visually. Employing a soft gaze, let the world around you come to your eyes. Be curious about what you might observe, even if you’re very familiar with your setting. How about hearing? What sorts of sounds are arising around you? Maybe you hear the hum of the lights overhead, a bird outside, a ticking clock, or the sound of your own breathing. Can you smell anything? Food? Flowers? Someone’s perfume or cologne? Tasting might be a bit more difficult if you don’t have some food on hand, but maybe you just popped an Altoid or just took a sip of your latte, and your taste buds have some stimulation. After you have taken this little tour of your senses, check in with yourself and see how you feel.

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