Is mindful leadership and living possible or is it just a whimsical notion that’s beyond our reach?

Is mindful leadership and living possible or is it just a whimsical notion that’s beyond our reach? I sat down with Santosh Nambiar, Author of Life a Meditation to find out.

Each one of us is a leader in our own right. You don’t need a fancy title to be considered a leader. The best leaders know when to lead and when to step back and allow others to lead. As a child, I observed this in my parents. Sometimes, my mum would lead, at other times my dad. It depended on what the task was and who they felt was better at it. What was interesting is that they both had a genuine respect and trust for the other’s ability to lead when the situation warranted it. Once the task was “assigned” they didn’t get in each other’s way. In hindsight as an adult I can see that their intention was to get the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible. As a child, growing up in this environment I was learning invaluable life lessons.

Throughout my life I have observed with interest different people and their ability to lead. Reflecting back on my early childhood memories and the different type of leaders I have come across in my adult life, got me thinking into what it takes to be a good leader and whether these characteristics change over time.

There are many perspectives out there on what it takes to be a good leader. The Entrepreneur lists 22 qualities required to be a good leader, with the ability to focus being at the top of the list. In my view, the best leaders while they are not perfect, genuinely strive to be good human beings. Because they have compassion, integrity, discipline, respect and love for themselves, they are able to extend it to others. The best leaders are also great communicators and have good intentions. They know intuitively how to reach into someone’s heart and mind. They are able to connect meaningfully with the people around them and inspire and challenge them to bring out their best. A great leader is secure in who they are and are sincere in wanting others to achieve their full potential. I feel that these qualities are timeless. However, in the modern age there is an additional challenge which I feel leaders have to deal with and that is the rapid technological advances which are impacting not only the workplace but also our personal lives.

To be fair to all the leaders out there, leadership in the modern age is becoming increasingly challenging. The digital age which in theory should have made our lives easier has made us ‘busier’ than ever and left most of us time poor. Technology – especially smartphones and social media – has blurred the line between work and personal time and created an expectation of constant availability. The addictive nature of social media and smartphone apps has come at a personal cost. It has robbed us of our ability to be more fully in this moment. We are more distracted than ever before and it’s affecting our productivity and even more importantly our ability to be happy.

A study conducted in 2015 by the Australian Psychology Association (APA), discovered that 23% of adult Australians are heavy users of social media (connecting 5+ per day). This number is higher in teens with 53% being heavy social media users, and 25% of them being constantly connected. The study states that “the impact of social media use on Australian’s wellbeing is evident in a range of ways: more than one in two teens (57%) find it difficult to sleep or relax after spending time on social networking sites and 60 per cent feel brain ‘burnout’ from constant connectivity of social media”.

Me: Multitasking, meeting deadlines, achieving Key Performance Indicators while juggling family responsibilities are increasingly affecting our ability to lead and have a healthy work-life balance. Given these circumstances, does the modern leader have any hope of ever being able to be truly on top of it all?

Santosh: The biggest ill of the modern age is overthinking or compulsive thinking. It is estimated that there are about 60 thoughts that come into our heads per minute and we are constantly acting on and reacting to each. This puts an enormous strain on the body and our organs. The majority of these thoughts are of things that occurred in the past or things that will happen in the future. Both these states of mind create anxiety, fear and stress. It inhibits us from functioning aptly within society.

26 per cent of Australians report above normal levels of anxiety symptoms ~ APA Stress and Wellbeing Survey 2015

For example, you are driving your car on the way home while listening to the radio. You may be thinking about the day at work or you may be anxious about the meeting scheduled for tomorrow. You are either in the past or the future, never in the present moment. All our actions are reduced to being just mechanical, in other words a stepping stone to the next moment. You are never truly Present. You reach home, using your limited intellect. This is the same intellect you use when you multitask. This is the intellect which we use almost automatically when we think we know what we are doing, like driving. When we don’t feel the need to give something our full attention, because we “know”. This is called being unmindful.

If you can approach every situation with “I don’t know”, it opens up the space for something else to enter, a higher intelligence, a profound knowing. In this space, you can bring your full attention to a situation and respond from that place of complete awareness, without reacting mechanically to thoughts and situations. The challenge for modern leaders is to master the art of being mindful. By being mindful, you can get more done without feeling the usual stress and anxiety. All creativity happens in that space of being or in that space of not being a slave to your thoughts. An artist who has created a masterpiece, will often say “it came through to me”. This is the result of thought activity which has come to a standstill, and a profound knowing or higher intelligence has taken charge. Something magical happens. To do this effectively requires a high level of self-awareness. It requires you to be aware of your thoughts, to be able to observe them without getting caught up in them. It is a skill which we need to master and like the mastery of any skill, it requires constant practice. You have to make the choice between being mechanical and mediocre or mindful and content.

There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living ~ Nelson Mandela

Me: It’s a daily and ongoing challenge to train the mind to be present. Just when you think you got it, off goes the mind on another tangent until you realise, you are in the past or future again. I asked Santosh, what’s the best place to start being mindful and what advise he would give.

Santosh: The society we live in compels us to live in the mind dominated world. We are swimming against the tide. Thoughts are hijacking our lives, taking us into the past or future. We have to make a choice. Are we going to live in the mind dominated world and live with fear & anxiety or are we going to become aware of our incessant thought activity and embrace a life which is full of joy and meaning?

When you are mindful the end result of whatever you do is much more creative, productive and meaningful. Joy, compassion, clarity of purpose and benevolence all arise from a state of being in this moment. When doing something repetitive, it’s a challenge to not do it mechanically. This is when you can use what I call “pointers” or techniques to become mindful. Focusing on the in and out breath when meditating is one such pointer. There are many others you can use. When you are doing something, give it your full attention, rather than wondering whether it will work or not, which is projecting your thoughts into the future.

Being mindful is our innate nature. We have acquired this habit of compulsive thinking during our upbringing. As we grow older, we start acquiring conditioning. Anger, fear, dislikes, opinions, dogmas all become a part of the conditioned mind. The good news is, if you acquired it, you can also get rid of it. It’s almost as if you have to shed all the layers that you have acquired.

The cause of all conditioning is thought. When you become aware of thoughts, your relationship with thought changes. Rather than thoughts leading you down the garden path and controlling you, you become the master of your thoughts.

To master your thoughts and constantly observe them, you may require some pointers or techniques initially. But with constant practice, it will come naturally. Keep in mind that you will relapse. This is normal as you are trying to break years of conditioning. Just keep observing and keep working. Approach it with the same determination and discipline you would use to master any skill.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------How Mindfulness Meditation Creates a Shift - The idea inherent in both distraction and decentering is that a shift is taking place. During the former, one’s ability to distract and redirect attention away from rumination and to sustain attention on the neutral breath is a literal shift in attention that cultivates regulatory processes intrinsic to psychological well-being. During the latter, one has the opportunity to figuratively shift attention from the content of a thought toward the process of having one. That vantage point allows for a more objective and less judgmental perspective. This perspective is more adaptive and reflected in greater psychological well-being. Ultimately, engaging in mindfulness meditation cultivates our ability to both focus and broaden our attention, which is a practical way to elicit psychological well-being ~ (October 2015)

The key is to start small says Santosh. Make your tea or coffee mindfully. Drive to work mindfully. Use any pointers to bring yourself to the present moment. Think of pointers as the leash you use to train your dog not to wonder off. Initially you will need to use the leash to train the dog. Once you’ve trained the dog, you no longer require the leash. The dog will learn not to wonder off. The mind is the same, it’s like the untrained dog who likes to wonder off.

In Life a Meditation, I have outlined many pointers which you can use. Pointers are unique to an individual. Use whatever works for you. After some practise, just like the dog who doesn’t require the leash, you won’t need these pointers to keep your mind in check.

Another technique is to frequently use the words ‘I don’t know’. Those words are powerful because it’s coming from a place of humility. A place of openness to new knowledge. This allows the higher intelligence to step in and help. You have allowed it to happen through you. A person who is actually living in the moment will never say “I know”.

The words “I know”, comes from the mechanical mind. The limited intellect or knowledge you have accumulated in the past. When you say “I know”. It’s coming from a place of arrogance or the ego which thinks it knows. Constantly be vigilant of thoughts. Catch the root. The more you are able to observe thoughts, without getting caught up in reactions, the more you are in the present. This is how you access the unlimited intelligence, which goes beyond the acquired knowledge we have stored in our memory or the intellect.


"When you practice mindfulness, you are working on three skill sets; concentration, clarity, and equanimity. Concentration means that you’re able to concentrate on whatever it is you wish to concentrate for as long as you wish. Clarity, essentially is being able to have good judgment, being able to put together different pieces of what’s going on and really seeing them for what they are instead of our own judgment clouding the situation. Equanimity, is the ability to just go with the flow" ~ Harvard Business Review Interview with Maria Gonzales, Author of Mindful Leadership

As such the choice is between using acquired knowledge from the past (intellect) vs using the unlimited intelligence. When we try to find solutions to challenges in our life using the limited intellect our actions are mechanical, mediocre and we struggle. Whereas as when we are in this moment and use the higher intelligence, we are in the flow and we thrive. The choice is yours.

The author would like to thank Santosh Nambiar for his time and for sharing his wisdom.

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