A Q&A with Michael Carroll
Mindfulness is our natural ability to remember that we are here, present fully in our life—alert, open and engaged. As importantly, mindfulness is also a meditative practice for training our mind to live in the present moment and appreciate our immediate experience. For the mindful leader, such training teaches us to stay in touch with the facts of life rather than pursuing wishful thinking or blind ambition. Through mindfulness meditation we learn to step beyond just thinking about what’s going on and be fully present with our experience, engaging life on its own, vivid, demanding and colorful terms, with a sense of openness and precision. Mindfulness is about confidently opening up to life as it is, rather than being frightened or impoverished by our circumstances. In my book I explore how mindfulness can help us bring such confidence to a workplace filled with stresses and chaos that can often make us feel anxious and hesitant.
YOU SPENT MORE THAN TWO DECADES AS A CORPORATE EXECUTIVE, FIRST ON WALL STREET AND THEN IN THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. HOW DID THESE EXPERIENCES SHAPE YOUR NEW BOOK?
While I was working in corporate settings I was also being trained in meditation, and I found that this was tremendously useful at work. For example, one of the defining elements of livelihood is working with conflict. Work involves all kinds of conflicts with colleagues, competitors, auditors; in a sense engaging conflict is unavoidable at work. From the perspective of mindfulness, we need not see conflict as an intrusion or a problem; nor is it something to be avoided or dismissed. Rather, mindfulness trains the mind to look right into the conflict without anger or resentment or fear, and to work skillfully with conflicts of all kinds in order to bring about wholesome results whenever possible. Mindful leadership is very much about working with conflict in a way that inspires the best in others rather than creating a mess of aggression and resentment.
READERS MAY BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT YOU’VE BEEN HIRED BY MAJOR CORPORATIONS —INCLUDING UNILEVER, PROCTOR & GAMBLE, AND COMCAST—TO TEACH MINDFULNESS MEDITATION TO THEIR EMPLOYEES. WHY ARE CORPORATIONS TURNING TO MEDITATION AS A RESOURCE?
Innovative leaders and managers of corporations are discovering a growing body of research on mindfulness meditation; these studies show how the practice leads to stress reduction, mental clarity, and better physical health. But more fundamentally, people are looking for a respite from the relentless pressures at work. When we practice mindfulness, we learn to relax and enjoy our lives rather than feeling increasingly overwhelmed and out of balance.
IN YOUR BOOK YOU TALK ABOUT THE RISE OF THE “TOXIC WORKPLACE.” WHAT IS THIS AND HOW CAN MINDFULNESS HELP?
Again, several studies have shown that the workplace has become an increasingly unhealthy place to be. Many people experience constant stress, verbal abuse, and information overload on the job which eventually inhibits both productivity and creativity. Such “toxicity” is at epidemic proportions. And, as we all know, our workplace is in a constant search for success: exceed the goal, beat the budget, out-maneuver the competition. We are always trying to get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, too often when we arrive at point B, our health and well-being is often in tatters. Through mindfulness-awareness we discover that we don’t have to sacrifice sanity and balance in our pursuit of livelihood. We needn’t sacrifice our happiness and authenticity on our way to becoming successful—we can be effective and create a respectful, healthy, even playful work environment while striving for results.
IN YOUR BOOK YOU DESCRIBE TEN PRINCIPLES OR “NATURAL TALENTS” OF THE MINDFUL LEADER, INCLUDING PATIENCE, ENTHUSIASM, CONFIDENCE, HUMILITY, AND COURAGE. IN YOUR VIEW, CAN ANYONE CULTIVATE THESE QUALITIES OR ARE THESE FOUND ONLY IN SO-CALLED “NATURAL LEADERS?”
We are all endowed with these basic qualities. But they’re like muscles that have to be exercised. For example, in the book I write about the importance of respect in the workplace. We all know how to respect others through gratitude and appreciation, and it’s easy to respect people when things are going well. But when things aren’t going our way (when we’re in conflict or when we are disappointed or discouraged) showing respect to our world and those who irritate us is a real leadership challenge. My book shows how we can exercise this muscle of respect through meditation and contemplation practices so we can extend respect to others in all circumstances, and actively nurture respect so that it will flourish in a lasting way.
YOU HAVE ALSO TAUGHT MEDITATION AT THE WHARTON BUSINESS SCHOOL?
Each time I’ve taught at Wharton there was great interest in meditation. Needless to say, the students there are high-achievers and they want quick results. So, at first the meditation practice for many has seemed alien or impractical. Since mindfulness meditation is about cultivating the effort of non-achievement, highachievers can easily come to the conclusion that mindfulness is a waste of time. So, we’ve had to work first on letting go of the conventional mentality of always trying to “get somewhere,” or always seeking goals. This is quite demanding for such ambitious people. But more and more, there is a growing interest in mindfulness-awareness in business education since such a practice has been shown to cultivate emotional and social intelligence, creative insight and leadership skill - all very much needed in the workplace.
ARE THERE ANY LEADERS OUT THERE TODAY, WHETHER IN BUSINESS, POLITICS, OR OTHER PROFESSIONS, THAT EXEMPLIFY MINDFUL LEADERSHIP?
We tend to think of leaders as powerful national figures—CEOs, politicians, and so forth. But we can see inspiring examples of mindful leadership in the way a waitress does her job or a teacher runs his classroom, as well. Having the courage and openness to inspire the best in others can happen anywhere at any time, and each of us has the capacity to lead. I once met a wonderful principal at a grade school in Manhattan; at every moment—whether with parents, children, raising money, working with teachers— in every single setting her authenticity was remarkable. She was consistently courageous, confident, respectful, and humble. It was inspiring to everyone around her. Mindful leadership is not just for those visibly sitting atop large organizations—it’s about our willingness to open from the inside out and wake up the highest potential in ourselves and others.